I’ve found it fascinating to read the varied responses to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent Letter to the Primates. Thus far I’ve only seen our own Presiding Bishop’s measured comment, which I thought to be entirely appropriate. For the rest, I’m reminded of the old adage, “If the cap fits, wear it.” Self-defense abounds. Few seek to step backwards, giving them self space to say something like, “Well I hadn’t thought of it that way. Perhaps I should do my theology, say my prayers, and give myself time before responding.”

One of my constant gripes since I wrote the essay entitled “The General Convention Church” for Anglicans Online, just over a year after I was received into TEC, has been about the politicizing of our church. If Dr. Williams is on to something when he wonders how the House of Bishops can say one thing now, but envision saying something else at a future meeting of the General Convention, is it sufficient to trumpet blither about his not understanding TEC polity? Certainly when American Anglicans organized themselves into an autonomous Province they sought to restore “primitive episcopacy”. Indeed that term was one of the slogans of the day. What is not always noticed is that the concessions made to the New England followers of Bishop Seabury in the creation of a House of Bishops with veto power (yes the Deputies were given similar power in that compromise) were very High Church indeed for that pre-Tractarian period. These concessions were justified by reference to the Early Church, and particularly to the role of bishops as teachers and centers of unity.

It is therefore passing odd to find contemporary Episcopalians seeking to overthrow that compromise by reducing the collective bishops to a legislative role within a governing body to which all functions other than sacramental roles are ceded.

During the last part of Bishop Griswold’s primacy there were those who seriously contemplated introducing amendments to the Constitution aimed at stripping the office of Presiding Bishop of its remaining primatial authority. These proposals were expedient. Those for whom the issue of human sexuality had become the unique raison de’etre for the church feared that Dr. Griswold would cave in to foreign primates rather than to the majority within General Convention. In the end he did both to the utter confusion of both.

Now many of this same constituency contemplates stripping the collective episcopate of its unique role within the baptismal community and for exactly the same reason. It is therefore not odd for the Archbishop of Canterbury to question whether those who advocate a merely political role for the collective episcopate -some of them like Archbishop Ussher making common cause with those who would abolish episcopacy as Anglicanism has known it -are not setting forth an ecclesiology which differs fundamentally from that espoused by most of the Anglican Communion.

In attempting to restore “primitive episcopacy” the organizers of autonomous American Anglicanism exported to the rest of the Communion a concept of episcopacy far removed from the Erastian model common in late 18th Century Anglicanism. A case may be made which suggests that the American Church in its concessions to Seabury High Churchism paved the way for the Tractarians from whose largely American and Canadian minds sprung the vision of an Anglican Communion.

The early history of the Episcopal Church was troubled by Methodism. American Methodism found the inherited diocesan and parochial structure of PECUSA impeded the spread of the Gospel. The Gospel was all important. What mattered was that people heard the good news and were saved. If ecclesiastical structure stood in the way of that gracious work, then it had to be either used or ignored.

It is passing strange to find a coalition of American Episcopalian Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical activists proposing the very same rationale for their program of disaffiliating parishes and dioceses from TEC and allying them to overseas Evangelical Anglican Provinces. Many of these overseas Provinces, particularly the African ones are heart-broken by what they perceive to be TEC’s betrayal of them. After the Second World War the American Church, with its riches, seemed to step into the shoes of the English Church. TEC not only demonstrated enormous generosity in providing money and manpower but also a pattern of self-government attractive to those ready to assume responsibility for their own destiny.

Yet today this generous American Church seems to African Anglicans to espouse an approach to the Bible, to the essence of the Gospel and to Christian living dreadfully at odds with that which they inherited from the missionaries who brought them the faith. If American Anglicans were much good at self-evaluation and perhaps less sensitive to criticism, they might concede that the Africans have a case. One does not have to abandon one’s views that God is saying something new about human sexuality to manage to understand the shock and bewilderment experienced by African and Asian Christians.

Some of those American Episcopalians who agree with these overseas Anglican Provinces, in pursuit of their own internal agenda -one that looks a lot like a necessary self-preservation – now say, “It is the Gospel that matters, and not the structural constraints of provinces, dioceses and parishes. TEC is rotten to the core. Come in and rescue us. Create with us a new missionary field.” Asbury call home.

By “necessary self-preservation” I mean that for many Episcopalians, after decades of losing every battle for orthodoxy in a deeply politicized American Province, the only way forward seems to be to make shift for them self. If TEC won’t give them space, they must make space for them self. If Canterbury won’t recognize them they must persuade overseas Anglican Provinces to create an alternative Anglican Communion for them.

Why, it is asked, is everyone so hard on TEC? The Episcopal Church isn’t much like the caricature of itself one reads about in the blogs or the Media. The extraordinary fact is that the radical causes espoused by successive General Conventions have had such little affect upon the Episcopal Church at parish level except in wealthy ghettos of liberalism in urban America. The reason is that the American Church has gone forward by itself without much self-conscious examination of consequences. It has exported its own internal problems in a manner the Church of England may no longer do, simply because TEC is the American Church and America is tops, its culture, politics and religion dominate all else. One may find the same radicalism in the Church of England true, but she is no longer the top church in a top nation.

Gentle Archbishop Rowan asks the “progressive” party in TEC what it now means by episcopacy and of what value the findings of its collective episcopate are at least as far as the Anglican Communion has come to understand episcopacy and that understanding was in great part pioneered by American Episcopalians.

Gentle Archbishop Rowan asks the orthodox” party what it now means by episcopacy in terms of the basic structure of the Church as Anglicanism has received the same. The American Church has been a leader in teaching how it is possible to be an “episcopal” church without being either Roman Catholic or Established. Now leading orthodox American Episcopalians seem to be saying that all that matters is the Gospel and that structure is adiaphora, to be undone if it seems to impede the preservation of the faith and the spread of the Gospel.

Gentle Archbishop Rowan not only asks these questions of Americans but of all the Primates. If bishops in their collective responsibility no longer have a unique teaching responsibility under the Scriptures, as demonstrated in the Tradition by sanctified Reason, and if the structure of the Church is no longer of the Gospel, what remains of Anglicanism and in what sense may we be a Communion? So he invit
es those bishops who believe they have a particular although not monopolistic responsibility for the unity of the church, for the faith and for the Gospel to join him next year at a Lambeth Conference. In so doing I believe he is true to his office and calling.

4 Responses

  1. Very good, Tony, you remind us of our roots as Episcopalians. I try to do the same by calling us back to consider the views of people like Bishop John Henry Hobart. We are our past.

    In all the talk about bishops, two issues are missing. One is that we bishops have taken vows, for which we were elected to make and to which we freely consented, that are peculiar to the office of bishop. Are we bishops ableto keep the vows to defend the faith and guard the unity of the Church through the vehicle of our polity?

    One thing to remember about the role of bishops at General Convention: we act on legislation concerning doctrine, liturgy, consecrations, etc., first, just as the Deputies see other matters first. This means that in fact, the House of Bishops does exercise episcopal ministry as Archbishop Rowan defines it, when we choose to do so.

    The other missing piece is the teaching office of the House of Bishops, and the role as teacher that each bishop is to exercise. Have we bishops collectively been teachers? Individually? In all the talk about the teaching of this Church, it must be remembered that on the subject of same-sex blessings, etc., we have no such teaching. The House of Bishops has never considered “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” for example.

    Glad you’re back in the saddle, Tony.

  2. Dear Tony.
    I always enjoy your comments and certainly would love the TEC bishops to rediscover episcopacy as you have written. What I fear is that because their dominant cause requires it they have decided (most of them) to abandon the apostolic role for the one that gives them the political result they want. Having so decided they cannot in all likely-hood return to the former position. Since I have been re-reading “to mend the net,” I am struck by their analysis of the Virginia report as inadequate because it is based on political categories of thought and very little upon theological thinking. The same is true here as TEC is being subsumed by the secular – bishops will lose their apostolic foundations and become part simply of a political system, espousing political and secular crap.

    Anyway let me disagree with a point you make – I quote: “The extraordinary fact is that the radical causes espoused by successive General Conventions have had such little affect upon the Episcopal Church at parish level.”

    This local church that I serve has been devastated and several others severely affected by the actions of the TEC leadership and General Convention. There has been significant migration between churches locally as we are as a denomination rejected as the “Gay Church.” The effects are a disaster on our local level.

    Ian Montgomery +

  3. Tony: I make much the same point in my blog entry covering the same topic. However, I extend it also to priests and deacons. I’m seeing a distressing trend in people seeing bishops as CEOs, priests as caretakers, and deacons as social workers. What do we mean when we lay hands on folks and ask God to “make him/her a bishop/priest/deacon in your church”? It seems like it is taken as a quaint bit of liturgical show rather than a genuine belief that God does in fact call and empower people to ordained ministry.

  4. Dear Ian:

    Yes I’ll grant you that many parishes have lost members. What I was trying to say is that many parishes seem to take little or no interest in the controversy, perhaps don’t always understand the jargon and unless the priest or some parishioners are activists, that which isn’t heard doesn’t matter.


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