Things To Come

Several things will happen within the next eighteen months or so. (So far, I’m on safe ground.)

One seems increasingly likely: the Episcopal Church USA will find a polite and careful way of declining to accede to the Windsor Report. It will take this as a matter of justice, of the development of doctrine, of the Holy Spirit doing a new thing, of resistance to bullying. It seems moderately likely that the rest of the Anglican Communion will determine that the ECUSA has not adequately attended to its requests (with some resistance from parts of the UK, and I don’t know about Canada well enough to say). The decision-makers involved will decide that ECUSA has decided to “walk apart.”

Some body of US Anglicans will receive formal recognition from the remainder of the Anglican Communion. This presumably would not constitute a simple replacement of ECUSA, since I doubt anyone wants to annihilate the bridges that might in a beautiful world lead to a rapid reconciliation — but it will be clear that the on-going work of the Anglican Communion in the USA is being done by an agency other than ECUSA.

Some catholic-minded Anglicans may be blessed with Benedict XVI’s permission to join the Church of Rome while retaining Anglican patterns of life and worship (corrected, of course, to reflect the magisterium’s teaching). The extent of this inclusion could vary from simple encouraging the Anglican Use of liturgical forms, to establishing an Anglican Rite Roman Catholic Church, with an infrastructure that reflects typically Anglican ecclesiastical order (again, aligned toward Roman authority).

Of course, all of this may be rendered moot; ECUSA may meet the expectations of the Primates and Consultative Council and Lambeth bishops. The signs of the times, however, seem to be pointing otherwise; a significant proportion of voices I hear express a sense of possibly being well shut of communion partners who don’t share ECUSA’s current sensibilities.

Hence the prospect of my uneasy dilemma: although I take very seriously my vow of obedience to my bishop, yet I don’t understand my ministry as deriving its sacramental basis apart from a lived connection with an arguably catholic communion — and if ECUSA opts out of communion with other Anglican bodies, I’m in a fix. Here are some alternatives, none ideal.

  • I could just sit tight, with my bishop and diocese, in what will have become de facto another Protestant denomination. In that instance, I’d be dissenting from the notion that such a situation suffices for the sacramental life of the church and its people, even though I agreed with the policies and practices of this group at the surface level.
  • I could try to align myself with whatever supplementary or replacement body maintains its connection with the Anglican Communion. That would be awkward, since I’d be dissenting from the presenting basis of that group’s claim more truly to be sustaining the catholic faith in the Anglican tradition. Formally speaking, though, it would be no different from being a dissenting Episcopalian of ten or a dozen years ago; I could always have joined a Protestant denomination that recognized the theological legitimacy of same-sex relationships, but that would have entailed repudiating my allegiance to the church catholic. At the time, I was unwilling so to do, and the fact that the church(es) changes around me doesn’t necessarily alter my sense of priorities and obligations.
  • I could seek a canonical relationship with a non-ECUSA, non-American-substitute diocese. I know some English clergy and bishops who might conceivably be willing to enlist me as serving under them. (I don’t know about the canons at this point, but since plenty of clergy serve in situtations where they aren’t canonically resident, it seems possible so long as I’m not rector of a parish).(Or I could move to Britain, or somewhere else.) In that circumstance, I’d be dissenting from the overall theological position of the Anglican Communion, but doing so from within an unambiguously Anglican situation (again, as the pre-recent ECUSA).
  • I could look into the Anglican-Use/Rite Roman Catholic body. In that case, I’d be removing myself from the distinctly Anglican tradition altogether, which would make me feel queasy and upset my wife horribly (don’t worry, Margaret, I’m just talking through the alternatives), but would with a stroke resolve tons of problems about doctrine and polity. In that case, I’d be dissenting from a broad array of magisterial teachings disciplinary rubrics, but I’d be doing so in a context in which the ground rules for obedience and dissent were at least quite clear.

Whatever I do, the bonds of solidarity that weave my life with those of the saints to whom I’m answerable will be impaired; some will be cut off altogether, others frayed.

On especially vexing aspect of this mess lies in the peculiar polarization to which I’ve adverted before, whereby participants in this struggle occlude the extent to which “being the church” has always involved reasoned disagreements about what the church is and should be about. Instead, many all around me are dead set on winning, vindicating their sense that theirs is the exclusive tenable vision of which the church should be like. But the church has never been a place where a single vision of itself prevailed; the church has always dealt with internal dissent. The question is, which dissents are tolerable, on what terms, to whom? (The least likely, most outlandish possibility above — that of joining the Roman Catholic church on some terms — actually might entail the greatest latitude for intelligible dissent, under the peculiar circumstances; thoughtful contemporary Roman Catholic theologians espouse views very similar to those I advance, with the recognition that that’s not what the church itself teaches [yet].)

Whatever happens, I’ll end up something of an inexplicable oddity to people around me, whether as a bereft catholic spirit among those who have become comfortably Protestant, or as a “reassessing” committed Anglican among ascendant “reasserters,” or as an Anglican heart in a Roman world. I’ll be testifying to the theological soundness of catholic allegiance (with its attendant frustrations and injuries) to sisters and brothers who value their vision of justice over a commitment to bearing with predominant, disagreeing sisters and brothers — or testifying to the theological soundness of an understanding of human sexuality that affirms the sanctity of particular relationships that the church to which I’ve pledged fidelity and obedience itself rejects.

Good thing I didn’t get into this racket for the sheer fun of it. For the time being, I’ll pray that we remember that the church has strayed into very swampy terrain before, that God will guide us out, through, past, and even within the swamp if we open our hearts to the Spirit, and that on the whole, I’m a relatively insignificant part of a salvific purpose much greater and wiser and more encompassing than I can imagine. . . .

29 thoughts on “Things To Come

  1. The extent of this inclusion could vary from simple encouraging the Anglican Use of liturgical forms, to establishing an Anglican Rite Roman Catholic Church, with an infrastructure that reflects typically Anglican ecclesiastical order (again, aligned toward Roman authority).

    This has already happened- there are several Anglican Use Roman Catholic parishes, mostly in Texas, using an adaptation of the BCP called the Book of Divine Worship which uses essentially the Roman Canon, and is laid out like a missal with the ordinary in the center and the readings before and after.

  2. AKMA, my heart goes out to you and others who may have to face such a decision. I still pray it won’t come to that.

    I’ve read through this posting several times and still am having trouble grasping parts of the argument. IF ECUSA comes to be judged by decision-makers as having “walked apart”, how will that make ECUSA de facto another Protestant denomination? How is it any more (or even as much) “Protestant” as Henry’s break with Rome or the American colonial church’s break with England? If the bonds of catholicity withstood those ruptures, why would they not withstand (God forbid!) this one?

  3. I think your assessment’s pretty fair–it’s where I see myself. I don’t fully agree with any of the parties that either are in power or want to be in power. Personally, I blame the protestants for the notion that a church is a collection of people who agree on doctrine. I always thought one of the things that made us Anglican/Episcopalians more catholic is that our unity is based in what we do together — the BCP — rather than a confessional document that says what we agree to think. If unity is about thinking the same things, any exercise of thought is inherently schismatic. If unity is based in what we pray together — the Daily Office and the Eucharist — there’s quite a lot we can think and disagree on and the historic language of the Offices and the Mass will keep orienting us to the God who keeps us and leads us into his own Truth.

  4. I hope very much that someone will pay attention to what you’re saying here, and what to kinds of conflicts this whole situation has created for individuals, as well as for the factions. And I beg ECUSA to simply accede to the Windsor Report – I think all this has gone way over the line at this point, and that there are many more important things we ought to be doing. And I don’t think the Windsor Report is actually asking all that much.

    But I have to say that I suspect that it wouldn’t be enough for the “reasserters” anyway. Some have said as much.

    I hope, too, along with others, that I am wrong and that somehow this situation can calm down.

    There is one other possibility, though, isn’t there? If ECUSA seceded from the Communion, might not other Provinces also, for the same reasons? And might not other “liberal” groups – some of the Independent Catholic groups and others – want to be part of such a thing, too? (It would be almost unbearably silly to have these various Churches aligned simply on the basis of sexual issues, I have to say….)

  5. Derek,

    I’m puzzled by your intimation that the Church is not (among other things) a collection of people who agree on doctrine. The Church has been, from the beginning, the body of people who continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine; and surely the fathers of the council of Nicaea regarded it as important that Christians should agree on doctrine. It makes me wonder what Church it is that you are talking about.

    Agreement on doctrine does not mean what we agree to think. It means what we agree to believe, teach, and confess because those ideas are not the results of our thoughts, but instead have simply been given to us. These are not the ideas that we think, they are the ideas we think with, as E. F. Schumacher (of blessed memory) expressed it.

  6. Fr Adam,

    I too sympathise with you in the unwelcome choice you may well be forced to make. Whoever is right (if anyone) in the current Anglican unpleasantness, it is clear that the Anglicanism in which you have lived and worked, to whose holy ministry you are ordained, will no longer exist. So it was for me; I was raised in the Anglo-Catholicism of Dix, Mascall, Farrer, and Ramsey. It no longer exists, and I will always lament its loss.

    Like Holly, though, I am perplexed by your apparent opinion that the authenticity and catholicity of ECUSA depends on her continued communion with Canterbury. I fail to see why ECUSA would be any more or less a “Protestant denomination” than she is now. If you can regard your ordination as valid and your Church as authentic and catholic despite her being in schism from both Rome and Constantinople, why can you not continue to regard them as such if you find yourself in schism from Canterbury as well?

    Given the range of choices you have identified for yourself, it would appear that remaining authentically and identifiably “Anglican” is an important value for you. When I left ECUSA, this wasn’t as big a deal for me. Had it been such, I might have gone with one of the “Continuing” Churches. But for me, the issue was loyalty to the Catholic faith that I had received through the Anglican Communion, more than to the forms of Anglicanism itself. Perhaps being Anglican as such would have been more important to me if I, like you, had been a priest. But if I may be so bold as to offer a bit of advice, I think you would do well to make that your criterion for how to respond to this very unfortunate situation. Ask yourself not how one can best be an Anglican, but how one can best be a Catholic. I won’t presume to tell you how to answer the question (you’d likely find my personal response to it to be bizarre), but I honestly think it’s the right question.

  7. Thanks everyone, for your kind interest — but really, what happens with me is surely a lot less vital than that which is already impinging on so many of our sisters and brothers, who find even our current situation unbearable (for whichever reason).

    Holly, and Chris: What you point to is quite true as sober history. The Church of England unilaterally withdrew from communion with Rome (and historical truth be told, the self-understanding of most of the decisively important church leaders probably inclined toward the deliberately Reformed outlook). At the same time, through chance or Providence or Erastian convenience or sheer force of retrospective imagination, the Church of England wound up in a position of representing the Gospel in Britain in a way different from, say, one in Switzerland who repudiated catholic doctrine as part of her or his definition of the Church. Am I too far off base, here, Holly? I defer to your vastly more nuanced understanding of the Reformation.

    My sense is that when the Anglo-Catholics (as opposed to catholic-inclined Anglican [reformers]) “invented” the notion of the CoE as the English branch of the church, they took the undeniable facts of the circumstances and deployed them to fit this congenial vision of Anglican origins. Not make-believe, not rigorous historical interpretation, but an ad hoc construction, to be believed in and lived out as a sign of commitment to a catholic vision.

    Now, the difference to which I point — if it exists — would be that if I were to continue in a separated ECUSA, I would be more like (say) a Methodist or a Presbyterian than like a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Anglican. That’s the problem to which I point, though if you can convince me that the difference is slight or even illusory, you resolve one possible conflict for me.

    Chris, yes, I do have some degree of commitment to a distinctively Anglican identity, but as you point out that’s got at best a tenuous existence (if the possibility survives at all). Oh, well. . . .

  8. It just further confirms what so many of us believe that you are among the saints of bapto-catholics in the world seeking to remain steadfastly connected the church while still determined to hold on to a radical notion of dissent. That one article about Via in the publication of NABPR might have just called you to far. I know it is far to great a thing for you to recognize your baptististness (not a word, and poor prose) but we wait in hope.

    In all seriousness my heart aches with you my friend but I have no doubts about the scandolous providence of God in your ministry.

  9. I’m still a bit confused. ECUSA was undoubtedly small-c catholic from 1789 until the first Lambeth conference of 1867, which presumably is the de facto start of the Anglican Communion. Given that, if Lambath Palace or the Primates’ Meeting or whomever declares us out of the anglican Communion, are we still not small-c catholic? Is it *Anglican* catholic which is important? Do we not have a greater claim to Anglican diversity than those who seem to want to suppress all such diversity? I’d argue that, as long as we can follow the PB’s lead and seek to continue to include all sides as long as all sides want to be included, then we are both catholic and Anglican, regardless of what others may say.

    I would also not like to be relegated to one of the “continuing Anglican churches” (the result in fact if we are de-Communionated) but I’m not quite willing to look that eventuality squarely in the eye just yet.

  10. I wonder if there are even more messier options for the Anglican Communion to take. One might be a “two-speed” communion with the North Americans having observer status at Lambeth for example.
    This would be like the “eurozone” within the European Union: not every country has signed up to the common currency.
    Overtime this might evolve into overlapping networks (Liberal/Catholic and Evangelical) within a looser communion.
    This might make your dilemna more interesting and easier at the same time.