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I hesitate to write this column because it is really inviting disaster! So far there has been no official or unofficial statement from the “Windsor Bishops” who met at Camp Allen in Texas a few days ago. In case, dear reader, you do not know what a “Windsor” bishop is, I must explain that they are bishops of the Episcopal Church who publicly endorse the thrust of the “Windsor Report” in which our church has been asked by the rest of the Anglican Communion to cease and desist from what has become a habit. The habit is to take actions on issues which determine a course of action, a doctrine or a practice about which the Communion has no common mind, the result of which may well be division and disunity. In short Americans and Canadians are being reminded that actions have consequences and that we are our brothers and sisters keepers.

Windsor bishops are not to be confused with bishops who for one reason or another keep their heads down and hope things will go away or with Network bishops although some Network bishops are also Windsor bishops. Confused? If there’s one thing to learn about the “conservative” scene in America, in church as well as state, it is that there will be divisions within, factions and an alphabet soup of organizations, each with leadership and turf and a good deal of mutual animosity.

Network bishops and their supporters, at a recent meeting, also in Texas, demonstrated a lack of trust in, and patience for, the process outlined by Windsor and subsequent meetings of the Anglican primates. (When Network people speak of primates, they tend to forget that all Anglican primates are not members of the Global South group, all are not “conservative” or “traditionalist” although it is fairly safe to say that all are exasperated that we have arrived at this moment of division largely because we have neither the skills nor the patience to “discern” in organized conversation for any length of time at all.) If there’s one thing in common between Episcopalian liberals and conservatives, and there are many, it is that everything must be done immediately, now and in the form of legislation or political strategy. Control is definitely the “in” thing. Such habits are not obtained through prayer and fasting but rather by a studied observation of the manner in which political parties, lobbies and candidates do business in the modern state.

I digress. The Network bishops, having lost patience, want to create an alternative Episcopal Church in the United States now. Windsor bishops want to wait to see how the Episcopal Church responds to the Primates at the end of September, after the House of Bishops meets with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Windsor bishops want to allow the primates to respond and want the response of the various Instruments of Unity, the catch phrase for the major elements created to give coherence and unity to the Anglican Communion. They are, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council (made up of bishops, other clergy and laity from the constituent provinces), the Primates’ Committee -all the “first among equal” chief bishops of the Communion provinces, and the Lambeth Conference, a meeting of those bishops invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet to discuss, pray and speak to and for the whole Communion. The Lambeth Conference is scheduled to meet next year. Preliminary invitations have been sent to most diocesan bishops.

I am delighted that the “Windsor Bishops” haven’t issued a statement. I hope they won’t. I hope they possess their souls in patience until they have met in the House of Bishops, listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury and taken a full part in framing the response of the House of Bishops to the Communique issued by the Primates at the end of their meeting in Tanzania. There has been entirely too much talk, too much posturing, too many position statements.

Now if our bishops fail to give an adequate response to the Primates, then will be the time for the Windsor bishops to speak to the church and speak clearly for the church. What would failure to give an adequate response look like? It is being argued that the bishops cannot, according to our polity, speak for the church. I believe that opinion to be wrong headed. Certainly the House of Bishops, on its own, cannot legislate for the church. There’s a good deal of difference between speaking for the church and legislating for the church. The bishops, together, preferably by consensus, after prayer and fasting, may speak on those matters which pertain to the spiritual and practical functions of bishops. They may make decisions about worship, as long as they do not prohibit liturgical texts and practices authorized or authorize liturgies which conflict with the formularies now in place in our church. In short they may not approve of rites and ceremonies which take us further than current provisions authorize.

Bishops also have the final say in the matter of who is or is not ordained and collectively a collective “say” with the standing committees on the matter of who is or is not ordained or consecrated to the episcopate. For bishops to determine that they will not authorize that which has not been authorized is, one presumes, well within their scope of collective authority! For bishops to authorize that which is not authorized, even by committing themselves to turn a blind eye would be a “legislative” action and beyond the competence of the House of Bishops unless performed during General Convention and with the consent of the House of Deputies. One hopes that the Windsor bishops will counsel their sisters and brothers to act strictly within their powers. If they so do, and all of the bishops concur, or most of them, the primates should be satisfied.

The Communion could then go ahead on the matter of a Covenant or some other instrument or “process” to ensure that Provinces live into interdependence as autonomous units within the wholeness of Communion. The Lambeth Conference might then be able to devote time and space to a healthy discussion of the subjects which seem to divide us, the issue of authority, of biblical authority, of scripture, tradition and reason, of the nature of communion and autonomy, all subjects which are involved in describing and limiting a fellowship or society in which prayerful, theological and pastoral discussion about human nature and the human condition may be contemplated and the will of God discerned. Without a mutual understanding about who we are and how we function, it is impossible to debate or consider much at all. Structure isn’t an optional extra. The Gospel and the Catholic Church are not two subjects, but a single principle. Scripture, tradition and reason are not three subjects, from among which we may pick our favorite. They constitute a wholeness, a unity which points to the unity-in-community which is God in Trinity.

If the view triumphs that constituent Provinces are totally and completely free to do as they please, if that is what autonomy means -then I doubt there’s much Christian to salvage. Who among us is so autonomous that she or he may do exactly as one pleases? Even God doesn’t claim such an autonomy! If the view triumphs that individual provinces or groups of them are free to determine the ecclesial status of another Province without some mutual agreement that in a specific area they are free to determine the limits of communion, then what we mean by Communion is rendered nonsense. If provinces are free to set up shop in another jurisdiction unless mutual consent or at least an authoritative consent by the instruments of unity has been forthcoming, then what we mean by Communion is merely anarchy.

I have said elsewhere they I don’t approve of deadlines. Well we have one coming up. I hope our bishops won’t take umbrage about the deadline imposed by the primates, won’t let pride assert itself, resist a “Bushish” response, don’t wrap themselves in a Cause which assumes the mantle of total Gospel at the expense of that which is affirmed in our baptis
ms. I hope they will be humble in asserting that which they believe they are called to say and that say that clearly and will be equally clear in striving to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Jesus prayed that “They may be one.” Please Lord, make that our prayer. It would be tragically odd if Twenty-first Century bishops by action or inaction embrace Sixteenth Century means and methods and rend the church for the sake of whatever. Do I believe that schism, who ever is responsible or who ever walks apart is worse than heresy? I think I now believe that schism is heresy and heresy is schism for both tear apart that very fabric designed to enable us to learn from God and from one another in God.

6 Responses

  1. Tony, I am grateful for this essay. I find much that is inspiring and even the directions you take that would normally rankle me are clothed with such grace and generosity that I listen and ponder rather than mark for a response.

    Maybe I missed the pictures earlier, but I want to tell you how moving it is to see major elements of your life shared visually. Words are important but they are never detached from the humans who craft the sentences, sentiments and arguments using them.

    Great work, friend.

  2. I’m really wondering why Canada and the United States are being taken to task here for “actions that have consequences” – and yet there is absolutely nothing said about the treatment of gay people in certain Anglican Provinces. Not a peep from anybody.

    Don’t those “actions have consequences” – and far worse ones, like social and spiritual ostracism, and even prison? What in the world is so all-fired important about “Communion” when people’s lives are being ruined? Why isn’t this priority #1? And why the free pass for those who continue to violate other rules?

    The values of the Christian Church often leave a lot to be desired, I must say.

  3. My guess is that the ABC will ask each individual bishop to sign onto an agreement (a) not to authorize rites for SSB and (b) reaffirm their intention not to vote to approve a non-celibate gay candidate for bishop. I believe that those who do not sign on may find their invitations to the Lambeth Conference revoked. I suspect that a small minority of bishops will give up their invitations rather than sign on. My guess is 10 or so.

  4. You say the Episcopal Church has a bad habit: “ …to take actions on issues which determine a course of action, a doctrine or a practice about which the Communion has no common mind, the result of which may well be division and disunity.”

    Wouldn’t that bring the Communion to grinding halt? There’s no “common mind” on ANYTHING in the Anglican Communion. Your diocese ordains women, right? Which Prayer Book do you use? I bet I can find some “division and disunity” somewhere in the world over those decisions. Oh, that stuff is no big deal? How did you draw that line?

    Until we can all agree where to draw that line (and good luck with that), the only options are to allow no deviation of thought at all (how is THAT Anglican?) or simply let people be.

    If a province does something that disturbs you, you can express your displeasure. But to actually expect them to change simply to suit you and to be indignant what they don’t is unrealistic and uncharitable.

    The “we all have to agree” argument is a red herring. Why is it so important all of a sudden? Circumstantial evidence sure seems to point more toward power and control than theology.

    Maybe I’m odd, but if a province down under wants to let lay people celebrate Eucharist, is doesn’t shake my faith in God. And no one has ever, to my satisfaction, explained to this poor, dumb lay person how a gay bishop in New Hampshire has ruined my life in Florida.

    Your blog site claims to celebrate “the glorious untidiness” of Anglicanism. I don’t expect people in Nigeria to behave or think or worship like I do. If I went to Lagos, I wouldn’t expect nor want it to look like Cleveland. I’ll take diversity over a McChurch any time.

  5. I certainly agree that I hope there will be no public statement from the “Windsor Bishops.” I also hope there will be no hard and fast, “now or never” statements from the House of Bishops in September, nor from their dissidents and detractors after.

    I agree, too, that this is a very broad question: what do we mean when we call ourselves “Anglican?” All the other questions are informative of determining that indentity.

    At the same time, I think we should resist posing this problem as only the response of our American adventurous nature. We may well have stepped out; but much of the reactivity of the minority of Global South primates wasn’t an automatic or necessary response. Contrast the responses of the Central American provinces with a few African provinces, and think of the differences in light of balancing autonomy and independence.

    I have suggested in the past (and, admittedly, been roundly hooted for the image) that the rest of the Communion consider the Episcopal Church the “research and development” arena for the Communion. The Windsor Report in its (historically flawed but useful) review of reception of the ordination of women seems to take something of that approach. We would, I think, feel very differently in the United States if we had heard, “We don’t think this is a good idea. We’re not about to take that step. We’ll watch. Our expectation is that this will prove not good for you, much less for us;” rather than, “No! No! Never! Over my dead body! Not for me, and not for you!”

    But then (and for all parties involved), the humility involved in willingness to watch, risking learning something, is hard for all us fallen creatures.

  6. Tony,

    While I appreciate your essay, I would assert that the General Convention has, for the most part, acted rather cautiously on the question of the blessing of same-sex unions – we don’t have any official rite, nor is one in the works. If you look NW to our sisters and brothers in New Westminster, you will see a similar caution – it took three succesive synods before the diocesan would consent to provisions which are, themselves, fairly conservative, requiring that a parish’s clergy and lay leadership must come to consensus on asking for Episcopal permission to use the blessing rite.

    While one might argue that the General Convention acted in haste in consenting to the NH election, there was no way to avoid a decision and I believe deputies and bishops voted their convictions – and I would not want it otherwise.

    I hope that we can learn patience in these difficult times and bear with the discomfort of serious disagreements within the Communion. There is quick fix for the Communion, no matter how much some might wish there were.

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