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ANOTHER DIOCESE SPEAKS

Yesterday the Diocese of Northern Indiana’s Standing Committee issued a statement about the recent actions of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops in deposing two recalcitrant bishops. I commend this statement for its contents and tone and above all for its grounding in the faith of the church.

We live in a legalistic society and in a society which tolerates a high degree of freedom to indulge in character assassination. To politicians and media pundits the sort of nastiness abhorred by young people at school has become a way of life exalted in the name of free speech and constitutional rights. People may as easily be destroyed by oft-repeated slander and legal fees as easily as they may be by medical costs and lack of competent health-care attention. Sometimes one is as impotent in confronting slander as one is in getting adequate attention for cancer. We seem less and less able to address issues objectively and without personal affront. We seem more and more willing to circumvent due process if we convince ourselves that someone is guilty or even wrong-headed.

It was once said of us, “See how these Christians love one another.” The history of ecclesiastical censure and the trials of bishops in our church has been rarely edifying. For instance it is said to this day that the trial and deposition of the Rt Rev. Benjamin T. Onderdonk, Bishop of New York, in the 19th. century was deeply flawed. “Whether the trial was an appropriate act to punish a Bishop for improper behavior or a conspiracy to silence a proponent of the Oxford Movement may be ultimately unknowable.” Whatever the truth of the matter the struggle between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in the mid Victorian period on both sides of the Atlantic and the clumsy and flawed legal and canonical attempts to settle the matter, far from protecting the church, produced defections to Rome, a schism which weakened and unbalanced the Episcopal Church for a century, or perhaps to this day and the unsavory drama of Christians in mortal combat. There were no winners.

One would think that such precedents would give pause for us to consider the grave dangers which attend our “unhappy divisions.” Yet I suspect few have recently read the accounts of the bitter exchanges between “Catholic” and “Evangelical” bishops and other clergy, the story of the trials and imprisonment of clergy, fumbled attempts at “Ritualist” Canons, the repeated refusal of bishops and standing committees to consent to the consecration of James de Koven and the tragedy of the Reformed Episcopal schism. If history doesn’t repeat itself it does a remarkable imitation.

It is in the context of this preface that I would commend to you all the Statement of Northern Indiana’s Standing Committee one may access at http://www.ednin.org/ednin/. I would particularly commend to study, reflection and prayer the concluding paragraphs of the Statement:

<this statement was written shortly after Trinity Sunday. The Trinitarian faith we profess in our worship is no mere exercise in divine arithmetic. The Trinity helps us know God’s true character within whose being exists a community of divine self-abasement. Thus understood, the Trinity is the foundation upon which truly human relationships are built. Everything the New Testament has to say about Christian relationships flows from this essential understanding of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nowhere is this clearer than in Philippians 2:1-11.

We believe that when we let the same mind be in us that was in Jesus, other ways of responding to division come into view. Those Bishops (or other clergy) who, for sake of conscience, can no longer minister as part of The Episcopal Church can be transferred at their request, or permitted to renounce their vows and join with other Anglican Provinces without vindictiveness or punitive measures. Confrontation in the Church is an opportunity to show the world how Christians conduct themselves in the midst of serious disagreements. It is an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. >

SERMON FOR TODAY

May I point my readers to http://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work_96800_ENG_HTM.htm for a transcript of my thoughts on today’s Gospel?

DEMOCRACY

At a recent press conference, discussing the format of the upcoming Lambeth Conference, our Presiding Bishop was quoted as saying:

“The parliamentary system as it is generally practiced in the West produces legislative winners and losers,” Bishop Jefferts Schori said. She added that she was hopeful for the conference because of its emphasis on a traditional understanding of conversation. “Conversation entered into deeply and fully leads to conversion and hope,” she noted.

As I read this my heart was “strangely warmed.” I wanted to shout “yes, yes”. And then I thought of next year and General Convention. Surely we have been saying loudly and sometimes rudely to the rest of the Anglican world that we are a democratic church in distinction to their polities. Some rather august officials have even suggested that when our laity and clergy -bishops are clergy – assemble the Holy Spirit tells the church what’s new and exciting! Surely the Pope will be jealous. It is estimated that pope’s have only spoken “infallibly” four times in history. Of course we don’t believe in papal infallibility. Do we now believe in synodical infallibility?

Some may be thinking at this point that TEC has been democratic from its creation, has always decided things in a parliamentary manner, and indeed we tell the world that our bishops are better and our way of functioning more excellent because of our democratic structures and procedures. (Whether our bishops are more holy, more intelligent, better pastors, theologians and administrators than other Anglican bishops is another matter.) Yet in the past few decades surely the Presiding Bishop is right. We have produced “winners and losers” in our own church and now throw Canon Law at those losers who are fed up with always losing and seek other homes. We kill our wounded in the name of law and democracy and our more excellent way.

I rather think that the Presiding Bishop was thinking of the world-wide Communion rather than the Province she serves when she commended conversation over legislation as a model for the upcoming Lambeth Conference. Yet the TEC gander, at least to my way of thinking, desperately needs the goose’s sauce. In a few months our House of Bishops, perhaps this time in due form, will be asked to legislate the equivalent of the death sentence for another bishop. Other democratic systems have long abandoned Impeachment trials and Courts of Attainder. Why? Because of the corruption of human beings who use such methods to settle scores or tidy up their own houses by excluding prickly people.

As we have no effective “Supreme Court” in TEC, majority votes win, whether justice and mercy are served or not. Next year General Convention meets again. Because we have trashed the old Anglican compact, a self-denying ordinance by which we eschewed legislating that which alienates the consciences of groups within our comprehensive church, we are in danger of creating more “losers” and dividing our dwindling church the more.

Mind you, our former “conversational” way of doing things, voting on budgets and funds for mission and practical things, turning a blind eye to new movements or the revival of old ideas as space, time and patience, and yes, God’s Spirit working through what I term the common sense of the laity, required much civility and a good dose of toleration. Neither virtues are much prized today. Under the guise of “justice” often devoid of mercy, believing we have the truth, we would rather conquer and take no prisoners.

Anglicanism emerged in late Elizabethan days as a church willing to live in contradiction, tolerance, perhaps quarreling robustly, but determined to preserve the unity and mission of the church which existed for the world and not as a holy huddle of true believers. When we have forsaken our heritage, denied our DNA by insisting that the winners write the story, we have become something other than Anglican, however much we appeal to liberalism on the one hand or “classical Anglicanism” on the other.

I heartily endorse the PB’s position and hope and pray it will manifest itself when we meet in conversation and Convention in 2009.

LAMBETH AND ORIGINS

We’ve been asked to pray for the upcoming Lambeth Conference, which perhaps nowadays should be called the Canterbury Conference. It is many years since the bishops attending a decadal conference could fit into the library of Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

With enormous irony those in our church most suspicious of the Conference, or at least those on the left wing of TEC, are also keen to assert that the emergence of the Episcopal Church as an organized “national” body at the end of the 18th Century signalled the creation of the Anglican Communion. This theory ignores the Scottish Episcopal Church which pre-existed TEC. Granted this “continuing Anglican” body was formally recognized by the Church of England at that time but at least a passing nod should be made to the church which provided America with its first official bishop. Yet even if our Scottish brethren are disqualified there remains the Church in Ireland, complete with its separate succession of bishops going back to St Patrick.

In a review in the “Church Times” of a recent book on Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, the wonderful post-reformation scholar and historian Dr Judith Maltby writes:

“We usually think of the origins of the Anglican Communion as lying in the emergence of the Atlantic colonies, but the roots are much closer to home. Archbishop Laud conducted a determined campaign to impose his brand of orthodoxy not only on the Church of England, but on the Scottish and Irish Churches as well. I most admire Ussher for his dogged persistence in maintaining that he was Laud’s peer and equal (he even suggested to the English Primate that they were not so much brother metropolitans, as brother patriarchs!) in the face of a determined, at times ruthless, campaign to subject the Irish Church to the English. As Ford puts Ussher’s vision, “the Church of England and the Church of Ireland were engaged, not in a parent-child, but in a more equal, sisterly relationship, which entitled them to defend their own rather different version of ecclesiastical orthodoxy.”

Ussher is perhaps notoriously remembered for his attempt to date Creation. Despite this now seemingly odd adventure, he is better remembered for his seminal rehabilitation of the works of Ignatius of Antioch against Puritan attempts to discredit the authenticity of that earliest Father of the Church, whose views on episcopacy and the sacraments did not commend themselves to radical evangelicals who sought to reform the Church of England “root and branch”.

Dr Maltby also commends Ussher – the only bishop to attend the Westminster Assembly which produced the famous “Westminster Confession” – for his irenic attempts to forge a way between Laudianism and Puritanism. Ussher failed. Whether Ussher’s example provides a goodly example for others to follow in seeking to comprehend the “prophetic” utterances of contemporary TEC establishmentarianism and classical Anglicanism perhaps is open to question. It might be noted that if “Laudianism” is viewed not so much as a High Church revival as an example of an intolerant ascendant “party” determined to enforce its agenda on the rest of the church, if necessary by the force of law, then perhaps in that limited sense the official TEC position is “Laudian”.

Certainly pre-1662 the Irish Church represented a more unified example of Reformed Anglicanism than its troubled and divided sister church in England. “Laudian” bishops such as Bramhall and Jeremy Taylor, both Englishmen, would represent a change in all that after the Restoration but that was then the future.

The Church of Ireland does have a claim to be a part of the original “Anglican Communion” pre-dating TEC by centuries. Of course that doesn’t really matter very much. That its “character” was comprehended by the Elizabethan and Jacobean Anglican family of churches, despite its differences, is also true.

I must also admit that although I appreciate the legacy of “Laudianism” and the heroic witness of those we later described as the Caroline Divines, I must also admit that I deplore the means used to force reforms on church people who were moderate Anglicans and not anti-church Puritans, forcing many of them to embrace schismatics rather than conform.

When Charles II returned from his journeys in 1660 it was hoped that the Laudians had learnt their lessons. They had contributed to the very destruction of the church they wished to reform because they were so sure of the virtue of their cause and brooked no opposition. Yet instead of learning from their mistakes, in a fit of revenge and righteous indignation, in 1662 and thereafter they used the force of law to eject from the church even moderate Puritans like the saintly Richard Baxter.

Nowadays the 1662 Prayer Book is viewed by many as a living memory of comprehensive classical Anglicanism. In 1662, to many, it was a symbol of resurrected oppression on the part of the High Church party bent on securing its place and accomplishing its agenda. Yet the victory of Laudianism in the Restoration Church came at a great price. Those ejected formed permanent Nonconformity, depriving the Church of England, at least in practical terms of its claim to be the comprehensive church of the English people. Was smaller better? Perhaps those in our church intent on establishing their agenda may wish to think about this lesson?

ISOLATIONISM

One of the sure signs that a dominant group in the church is suffering from hardening of the arteries is when it gets defensive and perhaps isolationist. A movement which was full of vigor, freshness and hope, breaking out of the proverbial box, and stretching minds and hearts gradually becomes narrow, legalistic and defensive of its turf.

Such a development is as much a part of our Anglican history as the “golden ages” some love to re-visit for strength and solace. One of the tasks of a historian is to dig into golden ages to reveal, as best one may, that they were perhaps not as golden as they seemed, as well as to examine so called “dead” periods to see just how lifeless they really were. When I was much younger the popular historical view was that the 18th Century church was as dead as the proverbial Dodo until the Evangelicals came along and woke it up. Today a perhaps more measured description is available.

Yet one only has to see just how cross, defensive and miserable, for instance, many Evangelicals became as they faced a triumphant Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th Century or note just how “precious” the heirs of the Tractarians became in the mid 20th Century when faced by the earlier Liberals, that is until the Roman Catholic Church pulled the rug from under Anglican Catholics with the reforms of Vatican 2. It is daunting to spent decades introducing rites and ceremonies only to see them undermined by one’s heroes. Take a look at some of the writings of the Evangelical Bishop Ryle and the Anglo-Catholic Vernon Staley to see just how defensive church people can get when threatened by other views.

The 1979 American Prayer Book is often derided by conservatives. Its irony remains that in a sense it was the last great triumph of American Anglo-Catholicism at a time when that party was being marginalized by converts to Liberalism in the 60’s and 70s. Ascendant parties in Anglicanism often “win” too late!

One only has to read some of the blog sites and list-serves of contemporary establishment Liberalism in our church to see just how institutionalized and defensive its aging adherents have become. Where once they broke the rules in the name of justice they now cling to the Canons and church structure to preserve their achievements. Hope and confidence are now replaced by fear and retrenchment. Perhaps it is not too naughty to detect a similar dynamic at work in our House of Bishops.

Indeed many now espouse an isolationism as stark as its political equivalent in the 1920s. The Anglican Communion, which after World War 2, thanks to great bishops like Stephen Bayne (the first secretary-general of a growing Anglican Communion, whose nurse-maid was the autocrat and conservative Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury who fostered Provincial autonomy in the “colonies” before independence was granted by Great Britain) the American Church took to the ideal of a world Communion and became its largest financial contributor. Now, threatened by the very Provinces which copied American ideas of self-government and autonomy, some American establishmentarians dream of breaking away from pesky foreigners who have the audacity to question Yankee theology and practice. “Who needs a Communion?”

Few are more isolationist, particularly in an attitude to ecumenism, than vocal converts from Roman Catholicism or Fundamentalism who retain their fear of that which they rebelled against and interpret Anglicanism in the light of their personal reaction. Their interpretation of the tradition they have now espoused is often dreadfully flawed and destructive. They see our tradition in almost as lurid terms as late -Reformation Anglicans viewed Rome or Restoration Anglicans viewed Puritanism. Prejudice may often assume the mantle of righteousness and even “justice”.

At home the structures of TEC creak and groan under the weight of modern life and opportunity. Tiny dioceses created in the missionary era of our church, strain to support a bishop, diocesan staff and the minimum of program and project necessary for viable diocesan life. The ancient theology which demanded that a diocese have not only a valid bishop in communion with others but also minimal viability is forgotten while a questionable European 16th Century doctrine of a territorial, unitary national church is espoused with great passion. Henry VIII call home! Such a love affair with structure is not the product of vigor and growth. Rather it is espoused because it works for those in power. It preserves our present governing oligarchy. It may not work at parish, diocesan or “provincial” level. It may not even work in the structure of our national church. The problem is that it is “broke” and it needs fixing for the life of the church.

I am not suggesting that the same sort of isolationism and protectionism “writ large” isn’t manifest in the not-so loyal opposition to 60s Liberalism and establishmentarianism among us. In fact it is. The solution offered by those “traditionalists” marginalized by an ascendant party which cheerfully broke many essential doctrinal standards and disciplinary practices in the name of “progress” is to break all the rules by wandering off into a hinterland of rival groups which daily grow into themselves as they occupy “safe-ground”. In reaction those in authority who speak of inclusion and freedom now cling to church law with fervor. Their job is to protect the church. One remembers a High Priest who said something on those lines.

Yet the real threat to TEC, whatever the causes of a dwindling “membership” is not Africa or the Southern Cone, and certainly not the tiny rump of “traditionalism” within the church, but rather internal collapse through the weight of obsolete institutions. It is certainly true that this is a problem we’ve faced before. The Baptists got to the frontier first. They walked and were self-creating. Episcopalians and some Presbyterians waited until they could replicate establishment structure, although, thank God, there were enough creative people, full of missionary zeal, to extend the church from the eastern seaboard across the mountains. My own parish here was one of four original parishes planted by Bishop Jackson Kemper. He covered an enormous territory on horseback. Of course he had to create borders, standing committees and vestries, but these were unaccompanied by the weight of regulation and structure which abounds as our parishes and dioceses dwindle. We’ve possibly created more ecclesiastical law and regulation in the past thirty years than TEC did in the entire 19th Century. Indeed where there seems to be revival it is often because of a core of “extroverted: Christians in place to build and expand despite the system rather than because of the system.

Despite the decline obvious to anyone with an eye to the facts and to anecdotal experience, voices still tell us that “smaller is better” particularly if what results is more homogeneous, more unified, and more on message. Some products can be successful sold to a discreet and upscale market. If we are to confine ourselves to those like ourselves we shall succumb ironically to the sin of many first Christians secure in their heritage, who didn’t want or need those pesky Gentiles. Who needs the poor, or the “conservative” or those who lack good taste? Of course we do as a “cause”. But how about as a constituency?