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. . . .