I’ve written about Comprehension in the last two posts. The problem the American Church faces today is how such a principle may apply given the theological and sociological divide within its midst. Nor is TEC (The Episcopal Church) alone in having to face such a predicament. As the Church of England staggers towards the appointment of women bishops it faces an equally severe crisis. Thus far the C of E, in permitting the ordination of women priests has tacitly acknowledged that in so doing it has abandoned the older principle of not legislating radical changes that alienate a significant portion of its constituency. It has therefore opted for a new variation on the older theme by creating a safe space for those who cannot in conscience accept that women may be ordained to the priesthood.
It has done so by appointing flying bishops, and creating thereby a new form of suffragan see annexed to the two Archbishops within their respective Provinces of Canterbury and York. The prospect of there being female diocesan bishops now faces a more difficult problem, one that so far seems intractable.
If Anglicanism, at least in the “West” is set to embark on radical change, the question posed is whether it is possible to allow for such change without losing part of its historic base. Perhaps a second question is whether those who are now enabled by Provincial synodical government really believe in Anglicanism’s broad based “coalition” or whether it espouses a new vocation to be a “prophetic” church, prepared to jettison its less adventurous constituency in the name of justice and a stream-lined model able to recruit that part of the population in tune with such a vocation.
In the United States the matter of creating a safe space has been made the more difficult by the polarization of its constituency -reflecting a similar polarization in society – and may one say a certain triumphalism on the part of those who hold sway in General Convention. Attempts to create flying bishops on the English model have met resistance from bishops who wrap themselves in the mantle of inviolable diocesan territorial jurisdiction. It is difficult to see how such a principle may logically be advanced given the collapse of its parochial territorial integrity. Indeed overseas, and particularly in Europe, TEC admits to the possibility of a form of diocese based on a personal episcopate afforded not on the basis of territory, but on the choice not only of expat. Americans but anyone who lives near an Episcopal community. Ironically the Presiding Bishop only claims “normal” jurisdiction in such a setting. If two or more “flavors” of Anglicanism may exist side by side in Europe it is difficult to see how that may not be considered within the United States based on the pastoral necessity of comprehending those who have a heritage of doctrine and practice dating back to Jamestown in 1607.
The only theological objection to such an accommodation would be that TEC enjoys the same form of territorial right enjoyed by the Church of England. The claim of the C of E is based on the theory that it is the historic “Catholic” Church of the nation dating back to Augustine of Canterbury. Yet TEC makes no such claim. Its ecumenical policy admits to the reality of it sharing territory with the ELCA. Indeed TEC has largely abandoned the idea of organic unity with other Christian bodies based on the notion that it is possible for episcopal churches embracing different traditions inhabiting the same territory. There was a time when TEC robustly claimed its identity as being the Catholic Church in America, reformed. Now in practice it embraces denominationalism.
If TEC now opts for a more homogeneous identity, it faces the pastoral problem of how it cares for those it alienates. Two possibilities are obvious. It can either create a safe space for traditionalists to remain in its midst, a space which creates security and a right to survive and grow, or it may envision the recognition of a discreet entity outside of itself and yet sharing the maximum measure of intercommunion possible.
I hasten to say that the latter model is not an obvious choice if TEC is to live into its obvious comprehensive history. It should not appear by a process of unilateral dissolution; the establishment of such a body without mutual agreement.
Either model may only be successfully accomplished if those in power adopt a genuinely sympathetic and pastoral approach to those whose consciences may not embrace radical and legislated change. If an internal structure is to be considered it must permit those embraced to honestly keep the oaths taken at ordination or reception. If the second model is considered it must permit and require a maximum expression of relationship in all areas where this is possible.
After forty years of alienation it would take an act of enormous grace for all parties to negotiate in good faith and trust. Yet both faith and trust are gifts of God. If the next meeting of General Convention is intent on adopting measures that may well alienate many of its faithful clergy and laity; if the breaches which have notably occurred during the past few years are to be healed, the sort of passion associated with the changes in process, “justice” concerns, should be balanced by an equally passionate concern for the alienated; a “mercy” concern.
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