“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.

One Response

  1. Fr. Clavier,

    I wrote something similar just the other day. Thank you.

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