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THE ELEPHANT’S SPOOR

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.”

4 Responses

  1. As usual, you say a great deal that’s timely, thought-provoking, and helpful here, and I’m grateful for your voice. I wonder, though, whether the line you draw between language of “action” and language of “reflection” might be artificial and not so consistently helpful. Most of St. Paul’s letters sounds more like the former than the latter to me, and I’d say that Jesus’ praxis — particularly his journey to the Cross, and his forgiving even as he was dying — says more about who God is and how we are called to respond to God’s love than volumes of academic theology.

  2. The “alternative primatial oversight” request is a real puzzler. In our polity, can the Presiding Bishop be said to exercise any “primatial” authority? Our PB is not an archbishop. She or he has no canonical authority over diocesan bishops. He or she just punds a gavel and perhaps leads eucharist at HoB meetings (eucharists in which the bishops in question have already declined to participate).

    The PB is also ordinarially the chief consecrator at episcopal consecrations. Butt his role is icreasingly been delegated to the heads of the various provinces.

    What would these dioceses be getting in an “alternative primatial oversight” arrangement?

  3. i think you meant “spoor”

    spoor Pronunciation (spr)
    n.
    The track or trail of an animal, especially a wild animal.
    v. spoored, spoor·ing, spoors
    tr. & intr.v.
    To track (an animal) by following its spoor or to engage in such tracking.

  4. “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” – Amen, Fr Tony: me too. Amen, and thanks!

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