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The events of the past day or so vividly illustrate the confusion of tongues which seem to beset contemporary Anglicanism in the “West”. Indeed such confusion only mirrors the babelish nature of the secular world around us. As the same people, or some of them, who attend church also engage in political discourse, such a situation is to be expected.

In reaction to the election of a female Presiding Bishop and a perceived failure on the part of General Convention to reply adequately to the Windsor Report, four dioceses have petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant “alternative” oversight. It seems that the officials of these dioceses envision the creation of an autonomous tenth province within the Episcopal Church. This “province” would be Episcopalian but not Episcopalian or as they say in Norfolk (England) “the same but different.”

A Virginian rector, who is English, has been appointed as a roving bishop by the Church of Nigeria. He is to pastor Nigerian congregations in the United States, made up of expatriates who, for one reason or another, haven’t joined the Episcopal Church. At present most of them are part of one or other of the Continuing Churches.

The Diocese of Newark follows another development in political action. It may well defy Canon Law, and the recent resolutions adopted by General Convention and attempt to elect a man living in a relationship with another man. This way of doing things seems to have worked so far. Before the ordination of women was authorized, there were illegal ordinations. Before amending or changing the church’s teaching on Holy Matrimony or moral conduct, General Convention consented to the consecration of a gay man living in a same-sex relationship. It works.

On the other hand the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a reflective essay calling on Anglicans all over the world to think and pray about the nature of Anglicanism and how Anglicanism may exercise mission in contemporary societies across the world. He muses that our divisions may be so deep that at some stage forms of creative disassociation may emerge, maintaining some level of relationship or communion while permitting those Provinces which feel unable to accept the restraints of communal life, to exercise independence.

The contrast is striking. American dioceses instinctively seek an immediate and structural –political – solution and, oddly enough, Nigerian Anglicans follow suit, while Archbishop Rowan proposes a way forward based on prayerful study, conversation, leading eventually to some form of structural reform based on the evangelical imperatives of the Gospel. The Archbishop seems to be living in the age of Chesterton or Ramsey, where reflection and reasonable discussion had its honored place. The American dioceses live in the here and now, in the push and shove of political activism and instant action and reaction.

African Anglicans seem to have caught on to contemporary American methodology. The statements and actions of the CAPA bishops and particularly of the Nigerians and Ugandans hardly reflect the cultures represented in and by their Provinces. One detects the spoor left by the American elephant. One suspects that the African bishops have caught on to the moans of Episcopalians left and right who regard +Rowan as “too clever by half”.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury is not the first to bemoan the influence of politics on the American Church. Years ago Archbishop Ramsey attended a General Convention in Seattle. His biographer, Owen Chadwick writes:

The General Convention at Seattle he did not like…”The vastness of it, the separate sitting of the houses which meant that the clergy and the laity did not hear the bishops discussing matters, nor did the bishops hear the clergy and laity discussing them, the concentration of power in this body meeting every few years, without fuller synodical discussions in the provinces themselves”…left “an appalling impression.”

It is true that some traditionalist scholars who belong to the “Anglican Communion Institute” have urged conservatives to follow the Archbishop’s suggestions. Some conservatives have attacked them for this stand. Many who have reacted against +Rowan’s thesis, from the left and the right, object that his style is too obscure and academic. There you have it. The language of instant communication and action isn’t the language of either theological or spiritual reflection. It’s the shrill language of the hustings, of political parties and legislative bodies, of lobbies and pressure groups. In learning the language of contemporary political action we have forgotten the language of Zion.

Perhaps I favor the Archbishop’s call for us to reflect on the nature and mission of Anglicanism with patience because I am less disturbed than many about what happened at General Convention. Most Episcopalians, I would guess, have only the dimmest recollection of what occurred in Columbus, Ohio a couple of weeks ago. Few could recite or even attempt to recite the catalog of resolutions and revisions printed out on enough paper to re-forest hundreds of square miles. Few understand the jargon -815 Mandarin – or the acronyms employed. Episcopalians love their parish, distrust their diocese, and dislike the national church and thus re-enact their attitude to politicians and parties, presidents and Congress.

So when American dioceses and groups pull a new trick Episcopalians on the whole say “there they go again”. When African Anglicans copy their American co-religionists, all one can mutter is “The elephant’s spoor.”


“It may be tempting to say, ‘let each local church go its own way’; but once you’ve lost the idea that you need to try to remain together in order to find the fullest possible truth, what do you appeal to in the local situation when serious division threatens?”

So says the Archbishop of Canterbury and from deep experience I echo the Amen. For over twenty-five years I served a Christian body which originated in controversy over the limits a bishop, James Pike, may be expected to observe in expressing his or her doubts about Credal faith and on just how far the Prayer Book might be revised and still remain consistently Anglican. From 1967 onwards Episcopalians began to drift away from their church. Some joined other denominations. Some swapped altar for golf course. Some made common cause in what some call “splinter” churches and others the “continuing churches.”

I joined and served a “continuing church.” Unfortunately it was not even then the only continuing church and subsequent years witnessed the creation of an almost bewildering array of such bodies, as new controversies hit General Convention. Many squabbled and split. Others made common cause with this or that group in an almost bewildering dance of “changes your partners.” The “American Episcopal Church” or as it is now known, “The Anglican Province of America” was somewhat more broad in its composition than others. Because it was, it avoided at least partially the tendency for such groups to attempt to create a church in the image of its most powerful members.

Yet the question posed by the Archbishop above remained a fundamental problem. Having once separated, how does one then identify what is worth working out and what is worth separating over again and again? I attempted to keep the church I served anchored in Anglicanism and in touch with other Anglicans within the Episcopal Church and overseas. Indeed for some years we worked with the Episcopal Church in an attempt to solve the very problem which now looms large. How does one manage to create the largest and widest communion while agreeing to disagree, perhaps even institutionally, about important areas of doctrine, discipline and worship?

In those days I was constantly bothered by well-meaning and not so well-meaning Episcopalians who charged us with being non-Anglican because we were in schism and because we were not in communion with Canterbury. We were reminded that for Anglicans, unity was much more important than truth. I won’t name names, but there are some now advocating separation who ten years ago were among those who taunted us for not being real Anglicans. We had broken communion instead of staying in and fighting.

Truth be told we stayed out and fought. We fought about the validity of Orders, liturgical usage and most of all about personalities. There was little to keep us together. Gradually, as parishes built churches and paid clergy – all without diocesan funding – and years went by, a degree of internal loyalty developed. My former diocese is small, but it has as many members as the Diocese of Nevada.

My older son, who is a priest in my former “continuing” diocese, rang me up yesterday to report that Synod had been quiet and peaceful. I certainly couldn’t say the same about General Convention!

Archbishop Rowan’s comments to the Primates are a masterly overview of where and who we are. We are one family. That is an historical fact. Four hundred years ago Anglicanism was planted in Virginia. After the Revolution we didn’t start from scratch or eschew what came before when we became an autonomous part of the Anglican family. We didn’t separate. Rather we organized ourselves locally. Just look at the text books used to train clergy. True the syllabus expanded as new works were written. But the fundamental texts didn’t change after the Revolution. Pearson’s “Exposition on the Creeds” was still in use in 1914 in some seminaries.

Again we are one family for we have one baptism, one ministry ordained and lay, we observe the same sacraments, recite the same Creeds, commemorate the same Christian Year, attempt Common Prayer and all this whether we live in Washington DC, Quincy, Brisbane, Kampala, Delhi, Moreton on the Marsh, or Singapore.

I by no means want to underestimate the power and force of our divisions. But they are “temporary”. By that I mean they are time specific. What will last, what will be amended, what will be jettisoned we know not, except for that the process will continue. In the end, at least for Anglicans, such things are not finally settled in synods and conventions, by majority votes. There has always been something I term “the common sense of ordinary people at work.” If I’m looking for evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit, it is there I look. In our parish churches, Sunday by Sunday, the “prophetic” and the mundane are submitted to Word and Sacrament, to the annual re-telling of the Story, to the means of grace, as together the people of God are renewed and re-made. New and old ideas are submitted to the tolerance and good sense or ordinary women and men.

Unlike more centralized churches, where some form of force imposes the party line, Anglicanism submits party lines to corporate worship celebrated in “places”. All the Canons and resolutions in the world cannot replace or overcome the extraordinary work of God which goes on week by week, year by year. I suggest that the center of our familiar unity is there to be found, as we who are trapped in the passions of the moment are drawn into the reality of the eternal. The eternal triumphs and the gates of hell cannot prevail.


Well, it’s a rum bit of English but, at least to my mind it says a great deal. General Convention finally made a promise to itself and the Anglican Communion. It said:

“..this Convention therefore call upon Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”

Simply put, General Convention is asking the two groups of people who are entrusted with consenting to and confirming the election of bishops to “exercise restraint” how?
By not consenting to or confirming the election of any person who’s personal habitual and present manner of life, dare we use the term ‘morals’ might offend the wider church. This looks to me to be a conscious or unconscious invocation of the Communion Rubric which asks parish priests to fence the altar against parishioners whose life styles offend the parish.

The oddness of the resolution seems to be the timing. Nominating committees may nominate persons for election without regard to “manner of life”. Diocesan Conventions may proceed to elect persons without regard to their “manner of life”, and having done all this, at no little expense, it rests with Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdictions to call a halt to the whole thing and send everybody home to try again.

I’m rather glad what was once termed the unmentionable sin isn’t mentioned. The term “manner of life” embraces a good deal. It might get nominating committees to take a look at priests in the context of their daily life and work. Is a priest terribly introverted, a loner, stingy, bad-tempered, an attention-seeker, a dictator, a follower or someone whose conduct is likely to frighten the horses? I haven’t included eccentric. We need more eccentric bishops to brighten up our presently dull House of Bishops.

A great deal is being said at the moment about the possible virtue of schism. It is suggested that our church has become two mutually exclusive churches. As this has happened, some liberals and conservatives suggest an amicable termination of relationship. This shows just how much we have forgotten or never learnt our own story, and how little we regard the Church as a Divine Institution.

If we are now two mutually incompatible bodies or groups uncomfortably joined together-and I doubt that we are-this would look like progress. For centuries we were three mutually exclusive bodies in one. When history cast us adrift as a church we were made up of church evangelicals, church catholics and a group in the middle that kept on keeping on. While most of the noise came from evangelicals and catholics, who hated each other, the “keep-on” party did just that.

They worshipped in the parish church, had their children baptized and confirmed, celebrated family marriages and funerals and had not a few of their offspring ordained and even consecrated. Such people were described by the late John Betjeman as being

Broad of church and broad of mind;
Broad in front and broad behind.

Have you noticed that while some suggest that it is time to permit the two extremes to go their merry or doleful way, others suggest that the middle way, the keep-ons, at the last minute, rescued General Convention from an act of enormous folly? They were once the party of the good-mannered Whigs, who eschewed enthusiasm, doctrine and liturgical embellishments and sought rational discussion and behavior. Our first Presiding Bishop was a keep-on chap. He managed to get Northern Anglicans, conservatives and High Church people, and Low Church Southerners, who believed that what was needed was an American church, full of enthusiasm for Revolution and separation to, we would now say in our latest jargon, to come to the same table together. White even opposed the liturgical commemoration of July 4 because he noted that many clergy had supported the Crown and might have difficulty with the assigned collect.

What we seem to fail to note is that the Church is One, is intended to be one. How on earth may we ask Methodists to join us at the table, if we think it would be good to leave the table and buy a new-improved model? We have an office of ecumenists whose task is to further the visible unity of Christ’s Church. If we believe in ecclesiastical binary-fission, then surely we should sack Bishop Epting? What on earth are we doing busily talking with other Christian bodies if we do not believe in the Church in the first place?

As new jargon is the in-thing at the moment, I would suggest that those who cheerfully advocate separation, whether left or right, be termed “No –Churchers.” I do realize that these people are genuinely passionate about the vision set before them. However, if their message to the poor, the weak, the orthodox, the starving, the excluded is: “If you can’t get on, break up” I would suggest that they have nothing Gospel-centered to say at all. The major crime of those who laud separation is that they live in distrust as if this moment is definitive and is the future.

No, I don’t believe that the Gospel is simply one of inclusion or togetherness. I do believe that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. But the oddness of the Church is that none of us are called to make ultimate decisions about the rightness or wrongness of those who make up the Body of Christ and with whom we have fellowship. We are called to exercise loving discipline, in the context of restoring fellowship, not ending it. But Christ is King and in his new kingdom, he reserves judgment – you are so wrong that I must shun you – to the Father. The Church to the Father is that rather odd company of homeless green-carders, who here have no long-lasting place to stay, but who journey on in a procession that would make a sergeant-major faint. This procession wanders around, gets out of step, and breaks up from time to time. When it pauses and sets up tables, it is Christ who re-unites them. But the Father sees the Church as it will be, as it enters the New Jerusalem in perfect formation, in unity, singing the songs of Zion.

The present political church we all seem to believe in is not worth the trouble. Yet underneath and above all this nonsense is the true and abiding Church, our Mother dear. What ever we do, we can’t escape her embrace, for we are born of her in the waters of baptism and she feeds us with the living presence of God.

Moratoria? If we can’t be the Church, lets have a moratorium on passing the peace.


As I write today General Convention is preparing to go into a joint session of both Houses – Bishops and Deputies – seeking to rescue the church from refusing to do that which has been asked of it by the rest of the Communion. The issue is straightforward. We have been asked not to authorize same-sex blessings for the time being and not to nominate or ordain to the episcopate persons living in a same-sex relationship outside of marriage.

Most of those who defeated the motion placed before the House of Deputies yesterday did so on the grounds that the Episcopal Church would be sacrificing its gay and lesbian parishioners for the sake of temporary unity. Others thought the resolution’s language to be such fudge that it did not represent the views of “orthodox” Episcopalians.

Talk of sacrifice and even crucifixion sound highly dramatic and dreadfully sentimental. Therein lies one of our problems. It seems impossible nowadays to indulge in reasonable discourse without resorting to the sort of hyperbole and rhetoric common to politicians.

A creaky, antiquated form of church government, founded in the Age of Reason for cerebral people has been taken over by practitioners of contemporary political activism.
Thus being asked for a period of three years to observe our own Canons and policies has been blown up to sound as if gay and lesbian people were being told to leave the church.

Let’s be clear here. The Episcopal Church hasn’t introduced same-sex blessings or marriages or adopted liturgical rites to effect such unions. Thus to promise not to do for three years something that the church has not enabled anyone to do would seem to be a non-issue.

To ask nominating committees, standing committees, diocesan conventions and bishops not to ordain and consecrate persons living in a same-sex relationship during the next three years surely would affect very few people indeed. To describe such a self-denying ordinance as a betrayal or even crucifixion seems to stretch the bounds of reason to an extraordinary extent.

One can only pray that the two Houses of General Convention will come to their senses this morning. Far from enabling the new Presiding Bishop to do her job, failure to respond adequately to the rest of the Anglican Communion would make her job far more difficult. Although the rather odd way deputies are elected produces a legislative body weighted towards more “liberal” Episcopalians, the vast majority of parishioners are middle of the road people, and half of them worshipping in small congregations.

If our relationship with the Anglican Communion is ruptured through parliamentary devices – at a time when politics are in bad odor – the confidence of the ordinary man and woman in the pew in our governing bodies will decline even further.

I found it very odd that on the eve of the four hundredth anniversary of the first Anglican settlement in the new world little was made of it at General Convention. Rather than rejoicing in our heritage as heirs to those Church of England folk who staggered ashore near Jamestown, set up an awning, made a table, so that their chaplain, Robert Hunt, might celebrate the Eucharist, and thus blessing their work, many would rather indulge in a plainly xenophobic interpretation of the events which caused the emergence of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. There would have been no Episcopal Church without Jamestown. Perhaps there will be no real Episcopal Church without Canterbury.


I attended my first General Convention in 1970. It met in Houston. That Convention was a curious mixture of old-time Episcopalian religion and the new time liberation Gospel. We sang hymns from the 1940 Hymnal. The Presiding Bishop wore a black chimere with his rochet and scarf. I think there was a bit of experimental liturgy, but not much.

The American Church Union, from which now stems Forward in Faith and Affirming Catholicism, put on a High Mass in a local church, using the Anglican Missal. The Bishop of Texas, looking bemused, presided, dressed in choir habit, while smoke billowed around him. There were no women priests, let alone bishops.

For Presiding BishopJohn Hines so much had been accomplished. A generation of priests, ordinands and lay people had emerged through the baptismal waters of the Civil Rights Movement renewed and converted. They came from all strands of church party affiliation and yet the old factions suddenly became meaningless. They had seen the Promised Land.

Before them lay a vision of the kingdom established here on earth through political and social activism. Blacks were being liberated. Women would soon be freed. Trial liturgies shifted the emphasis from Cranmerian teachings about Justification by Faith to more joyful, community affirming rites. Not much was said about gay rights, for that movement –soon to be the most powerful of all lobbies – was in its infancy.

What was not so clear was that numerically the Episcopal Church had peaked in membership and was even then beginning to decline. All sorts of factors contributed to this decline, one shared by most main line churches. America was changing. The drift of populations to the sun had begun, in which thousands uprooted themselves from community and familiar and church ties, many of whom changed church allegiance once in Florida, California or Arizona, or gave up on the church altogether.

Mixed marriages more and more drew people to mega-churches which began to cater to the present desires and demands of a searching population. Meanwhile the country began to be politically and socially polarized in a manner not witnessed since the Civil War.

In the next ten years the image of the Episcopal Church went through an enormous transformation, perhaps as significant as the Reformation period. Altars were transformed into free-standing Tables. The Liturgy was revised. Bishops began to wear Anglo-Catholic garb, or at least red chimeres and stoles. The laity, female and male assumed what were once priestly liturgical functions. Soon, by the narrowest of votes, women were admitted to all ordained Orders. At first sight most of the changes seemed very Catholic. The Eucharist replaced sung Morning Prayer. Confession to a priest was given liturgical sanction. The reservation of the sacrament became normal.

What did not seem obvious was that a post-millennial theology, in many ways in tune with the politics of the Democratic Party, became the obsession of a large majority of bishops and clergy and of activist laity. More to the point this vision, born in the Civil Rights Movement, became the passion of an entrenched majority of bishops and deputies in General Convention.

And who could doubt that many of the causes espoused were righteous? Racial discrimination had long been the lie to America’s proclaimed ambition to be the land of freedom for all its citizens. The plight of the poor remained a scandal. Legal and social barriers against the equality of the sexes could not be defended. Obviously there was compelling biblical evidence to support a vigorous campaign to outlaw discrimination in all forms. Yet what was not noticed was the simple fact that changing laws does not automatically change people. A just society and the Kingdom is not the same thing.

Liberation and transformation seemed to become synonyms in the Episcopalian vocabulary. The new Gospel seemed to imply that political and social transformation were the equivalent of Baptism. There’s little wonder that some Episcopalians began to believe that anyone might receive holy communion, whether baptized or not. Is there any wonder that the baptismal covenant became, in the thoughts of many to be an egalitarian concept, rather than the outward sign of God’s covenant with his new race, a chosen people? Forgotten was the simple Credal announcement that baptism is for the remission of sins.

Thus on Sunday the election of the first woman Presiding Bishop was hailed by 90% of our Deputies as a moment of liberation for women rather than merely the logical and theological outcome of a determination that women may be called to Holy Orders or that the Bishop of Nevada may have been an obvious choice to make.

What is lost in all this is a firm and Anglican doctrine of the Church and its nature and purpose and a doctrine of salvation. Economic and social change does not imply “moral” change. Those liberated by social action may not be any more or less envious, cruel, selfish, any less transformed than they were when they were slaves of one sort or another. Sin –living as if God isn’t – is as much if not more a reality among the well-fed as among the starving.

Most of all, to attribute to the Holy Spirit actions which divide and fracture the Church, drive from it faithful people, and obscure the biblical vision of the newly restored people of God is nothing short of blasphemy. It may be that many of the issues our church raises are true and just, but to assume that our timetable is God’s purpose at this moment, is both arrogant and bemused. The kingdom is not within us and about us through our own legislative activity, but because “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” We further pray, “In the fullness of time, bring all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where with all your saints, we may enter into the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.” True the words “that heavenly country” may obscure God purpose to issue in a new heaven and a new earth, to reverse Eden and that we are the first-born of this new creation in Christ.

If the Church in America is merely the Democratic Party at prayer, why not merely attend local party meetings and do good to others? Surely the church is the embassy and presence of God’s kingdom, of his new people, of the country which is and is to be, where, through the renewal of our minds and beings we show forth Christ’s death and passion until he comes again. From these outposts of Christ’s Empire, we are called to embrace the world, its peoples and all creation and to call them into a new and vital relationship with God, as, in Christ we care for them and liberate them holistically, healing them in the name of Christ, feeding them in the name of Christ and changing them in the name of Christ. We belong not to one of the varied American cultures, but to the culture of God’s people, the organs and limbs of Christ’s Presence. Until we recapture such a vision, we will have nothing abiding to offer to the watching world.


Greetings from General Convention! At a forum on Reconciliation last night John Danford reminded the audience that our church used to be one where all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas were able to meet together at the altar. What happened?

That older Anglican virtue wasn’t contrived. Its roots are in the days when the church was undivided or less divided and villagers met in the church porch to discuss and argue community affairs and arrive at a common mind. The first “vestries” dealt not only with church fabric, but with the condition of the roads and who should receive poor relief. It was also a forum to settle feuds between individuals and factions.

The church porch perhaps still may serve as a compelling metaphor describing what Anglicanism is all about. Yet for some reason the issue of gay and lesbian inclusion has driven us from the porch to a wider arena where, in the glare of publicity and sensation seekers we do battle. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that those who admire and emulate the political divisions and passions to be found in our divided society, having baptized the methods of political debate, battle away for the soul of the church before an audience which includes a great number of fellow Anglicans.

The tragedy is that most of us are in the audience. For if those of us who believe that the tactics employed by lobbyists, factions and spreaders of false reports and who indulge in character assassination are of the devil would only get off our polite bottoms and say so loud and clear we might witness change. Those of us who believe that the issue is not about human sexuality or civil rights but about the nature of the church and its mission and our duty ought to do our theology and teach our theology. As such subjects as limited communion sharing with the Methodists, budget priorities, baptism versus confirmation, the Windsor Report are debated one is struck by the inability of most participants to even attempt a theological conversation which measures proposals at the standard of our mission to be the Church. Over and over again in the House of Bishops I have heard the claim that we are a “denomination.” Given enough votes, a party in a denomination may do as it pleases. In the Church that is not possible, for as Church people we are bound to a fellowship greater than our local presence. As I have noted before there is no such thing as “Episcopalianism.” Our great curse at the moment is denominationalism or as it should be termed, sectarianism.

At the Eucharist yesterday I sat at a table with a young lady who said that she arrived at General Convention determined to share her passion for gay inclusion but had come to the conclusion that she should be there to honor and love all, whatever their opinions or attitudes. That seemed to me to be a remarkable step in the right direction.

Village disputes often ended when one party or another said “sorry”. Those of us who are married know the necessity of such a step. In reality one often says sorry while believing at some level that one was at least partially “right”. Nowadays this dreadfully puritan idea that one must be utterly “sincere” before saying anything important gets in the way of Christian contrition. One has to feel in love to say “I love you”. It’s not sincere to pray from a book because one may not really be invested in the prayers offered. In reality one is much more likely to stay in love if one says “I love you” often and habitually. One is much more likely to pray the liturgy sincerely if one prays the liturgy habitually.

We have been asked as a church to humble ourselves and say sorry. We have not been asked as individuals to express contrition, although this may follow. We have been asked as the local church, meeting in the “church porch” here in Columbus, Ohio, to express contrition that we failed to speak for the whole village locally, or for the whole collection of villages world-wide. We have been asked to say that we are sorry that we have failed to recognize the truth of that which we profess in the Creeds, when we collectively proclaim our belief that the Church is one and that we are, by baptism, one in the Church. We are asked to say sorry for our factionalism, our fanaticism, our willingness to promote one self-described tribe against another and thus destroy the very oneness and inclusion we proclaim we desire.

Why can’t we merely frame a resolution which includes as its major text the form of confession to be found in the Eucharistic liturgy. If we can’t say “I’m sorry” in those terms, why on earth are we muttering those words together each Sunday?


There’s been a great deal of chatter about “provincial autonomy” of late. As is now common in public discourse some are now mixing their historical knowledge, American political theory of the late 18th Century, opinions about the Constitution and Canons and the powers of General Convention with dire warnings about a future in which the Archbishop of Canterbury meddles in our internal affairs. One can almost hear the cry: “The Archbishop of Canterbury hath no jurisdiction in this land of America.”

In this last respect lies an irony. TEC’s history as an autonomous province began with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York meddling in the affairs of the infant church by obliging its General Convention to reinstate portions of the Prayer Book omitted to satisfy a segment of American Episcopalian opinion. Certainly no archbishop has openly exercised such an authority since, at least in the North American context, although there have been instances elsewhere in the Communion.

I thoroughly agree that the issue before our General Convention next week and before the Anglican Communion is not the matter of human sexuality. Those who fear the strengthening of our “bonds of affection” and some slight diminution of provincial authority are on target. The question before us all is not new. Indeed it has been with us since the newly formed Episcopal Church joined the Irish, Scottish and English provinces in what would become an Anglican Communion. Just how autonomous is an autonomous church?

While the wording of various constitutional documents is important, in our tradition our doctrine, anchored in Scripture, has a more important role. We look also at “tradition” which is the experience of the Church through the centuries, and we look at both through sanctified reason.

In the Episcopal Church perhaps a good place to start would be with the doctrine of the baptismal covenant. No Province makes so much of this doctrine, now enshrined in the catechism and the baptism rite contained in the Book of Common Prayer, which is a “constitutional document”. At the heart of this emphasis lies the notion that we are all baptized into the Universal Church and not a denomination. The empowerment of the people of God through baptism into the Royal Priestly body is not primarily local but universal. There’s no such thing as Episcopalian baptism. The blessed company of all faithful people is not a description of devout, tithing Episcopalians but of the whole Church Catholic throughout time and space, the Body of Christ.

Similarly there is no such thing as Anglican or Episcopal Orders, except to establish provenance! Those ordained as deacons, priests and bishops are so set aside and qualified because they are in the community of the baptized through baptism. We believe that the sacraments, including the Eucharist are of the Church and not of any part of it. In this belief we part company with Christian denominations which “fence” the altar. These issues of fundamental communion are not minimal, somehow less important than theories of jurisdiction or autonomy, both of which are “accidentals’ in the life of the Church. They should illuminate our living into communion with all Christians and particularly with those who share a family history and origin.

The Scriptural authority for such a vision of the Church and the churches is splendidly set forth in the Windsor Report and needs no further comment except to say that once again the accident of how the churches have developed and how their jurisdictional theories have evolved must also be seen through the meta-narrative of what the Church is, and that fundamentally is anchored in our doctrine of Baptism.

As far back in our own history as St. Augustine of Canterbury, the idea that the local church has competency in the business of having a language and customs best fitted to local circumstances has been a feature of who we are. In a modern multi-cultural society there’s room enough here for robust conversation! Be that as it may, universality is a primary, credal theological description of the Church and the churches and not something to be minimized or blown away by defining “universal” either as something that once was and is to be hoped for in the future or in such fuzzy terms as to be meaningless.

The very worst objection to ecclesial universality is the fear that it might lead to a loss of local identity or of policies achieved through great struggle, but which have not met the test of reception. Reception doesn’t mean, surely, that something is finally ratified by the synods of a majority of provinces – a thoroughly secular idea – but rather that it takes hold of the consciences of believers as being one of the ways in which the changeless Gospel is applied at a particular moment in time.

Anglicans have something to say about universality or Catholicism. It offers an alternative to forms of universality based on the politics and polity of the Roman Empire, theories of universal jurisdiction by pope or some form of denominational super-assembly. It anchors its theories of dispersed authority in worship, a worship which is scriptural, traditional and reasonable, which not only enables the churches to be the Church in prayer and sacrament, biblical reflection and the Christian Year, but which also defines and limits all the most important aspects of Christian corporate life and responsibility. Worship tells us about the laity, the clergy, the Bible, the tradition, synods, councils, the Gospel and the Church. By so doing it views all doctrine, discipline and worship as prayer and all prayer as doctrine, discipline and worship.

It is difficult, may I say impossible? to structure a doctrine of the Church and the churches based on local theories of autonomy, however venerable and how ever close to historical cultural norms past or present. If it is so difficult so to do, and as we base what we believe and do on the so-called Hookerian triad, why are quarrelling about the Windsor Report? There’s plenty of room to discuss what interdependence looks like. Surely there’s no room to quarrel about its truth. “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”