The Beached Whale
An Empathetic Lament
by Patrick Henry Reardon
The August edition of The Episcopalian, the semi-official paper of the Episcopal Church, U.S., was largely news concerning the General Convention in Detroit and the Lambeth Synod. To many a devout Episcopalian it was awfully depressing stuff about the ordination of sodomites, the alteration of Trinitarian doctrine, AIDS in the Church, a new Committee on the Status of Women to “maintain advocacy for women’s ministries and monitor women’s participation in the Church,” and, perhaps saddest of all, the publicized willingness of Anglo-Catholic bishops to celebrate Eucharistic and other sorts of fellowship with notorious heretics. News of this kind has long been standard fare in The Episcopalian.
In the two central pages of that paper the new bishop of Venezuela, Onell A. Soto, devotes an article to the old theme “The Anglican Communion: What binds us together?” Meekly, of course, and with a charming sense of reserve, the bishop argues that Anglican unity has something to do with being “inheritors of the apostolic Church and bearers of the catholic faith.”
Oh really, Your Grace, spare us. A little respect for reality, please. Anglicans themselves know better. The folks in the pews have heard too many of their bishops and priests question or deny the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the historicity of the Resurrection, the virginal conception and miracles of our Lord, and the permanent validity of this or that component of the Decalogue. Dissenting groups like Episcopalians United, the Evangelical Catholic Mission, and the Prayerbook Society have been fairly bellowing their anxiety about even the survival of the catholic faith within Anglicanism.
The question posed is not, however, “Do Anglicans generally profess the catholic faith?” but “Is it the catholic faith that is holding the Anglican communion together?” Now that is a different matter.
Whatever glue deserves the credit for effecting the present and perhaps uncertain cohesion of Anglicanism, one would be very hard pressed to exhibit that it is anything so massive, so solid and definite as the catholic and apostolic faith. Awesome adjectives are these, appealing to the patrimony of the New Testament and the Ecumenical Councils. Whatever the achievements of contemporary Anglicanism at its official levels, an enhanced reverence of the authority for Holy Scripture and a devoted maintenance of Nicene and Chalcedonian doctrines seem not to be conspicuous among them.
One needs to remember that the Anglican communion is really a modest enterprise, an unambitious and free confederation of national and regional provinces, each enjoying absolute autonomy and acknowledging no central or general authority. Its health requires genuinely polite behavior and a sense of deference. Its survival exacts from all constituent parties a mutual respect and mammoth reserve, a stable adherence to shared assumptions, and the energetic reluctance to rush things.
Quite other were the arm-twisting and power plays at Detroit and Lambeth this past summer. At the latter, for example, over forty American bishops refused to offer the Holy Eucharist, by way of protest that England has no female priests. The Body and Blood of our Lord was made a political football.
Without a unified idea of the theological nature of its ordained ministry, lacking a clear and final authority for its teaching, incapable of closing the simplest doctrinal or ethical question, powerless to warn the erring or to discipline the recalcitrant, a quarry to every preying fad, the victim of whatever exegetical sleight of hand happens to be in vogue, and now for over a decade unable to recognize the validity of its sacraments across national borders, or even from parish to parish, the Anglican communion seems to many observers a sort of beached whale, a lost creature much to be pitied but terribly hard to help. To bewildered but compassionate non-Anglicans staring at this wreckage the only compelling Bible verse may be: “Despise not the Edomite, for he is thy brother.”
Few Christians, outside of the rather unique little world of The Episcopalian, are likely to salute Anglicanism today as the obvious heir to that Church which produced the New Testament and the Creeds. The morning after Archbishop Runcie’s major speech at Lambeth, an eminent Orthodox scholar, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamos, responded that “a church which is not able to speak with one mouth is not a true image of the Body of Christ.” In more insouciant tones, but pretty much to the same effect, the Anglican bishop of Colorado, William Frey, quipped several times recently that Anglicanism has become so vague and undefined that no person could be really sure that he was not, by inadvertence, an Anglican.
Yet one has the feeling that Bishop Soto of Venezuela may, after all, be looking in the right direction when he speaks of Anglicanism and the catholic faith in the same breath. The primitive roots of the English church are indeed apostolic and catholic, and the conservative nature of the Anglican Reform managed to preserve rather more of that reality than was the case among Protestants generally. Even today there are vestiges of a rarefied catholicism discernible in the Anglican system, some rapidly dimming recollections and waning suspicions of a substance that once was. Anglicanism still keeps a lot of the old words, the old forms, the venerable customs. The vessel yet carries a lingering bouquet of the grand vintage. That faint, attenuated catholicism, more languid now than even a decade ago, may be exactly what is, by custom and habit, binding Anglicans together.
Such seems to be the heartbroken thinking of the eminent Anglo-Catholic theologian, Father William Oddie. Writing in the Daily Telegraph on the day that the Lambeth Synod began, this devout scholar and highly respected priest lamented: “The Anglican Communion, which used to be held together by a common liturgy and a common doctrinal tradition, is today held together by little more than habit. . . . It may, of course, be too late already; it is possible that it has already disintegrated.” By the end of his article Father Oddie’s intimation becomes a despairing certainty: “The Anglican Communion as we have known it is dead.”
This melancholy diagnosis should not suggest, however, that the Anglican communion will disappear. The evidence coming from Lambeth indicates just the opposite. Most significant at that gathering was the proposal which would, in principle, allow each nation or province to decide for itself whether or not to consecrate female bishops. The motion passed overwhelmingly. Of the more than 500 bishops present, only 28 voted in the negative, with 19 abstentions. Such miniscule opposition worldwide argues forcefully that the Anglican communion will go on functioning pretty much as it has until now, the nay-sayers gradually dying out or, in a few cases perhaps, leaving to form new ecclesial bodies.
On the other hand, the Anglican communion should have no doubts about its resultant future insignificance in the realm of ecumenical relations. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are already beginning to treat the Anglicans about as seriously as they treat the Methodists. A church with female bishops is simply too far outside of the recognizable pattern of the historic church to merit more than polite dialogue.
The Episcopal Church of the United States had already taken a step to neutralize dissenters before it elected its first lady bishop. According to the Episcopal Visitation Provision, enacted into law at the summer’s Detroit convention, a congregation that cannot conscientiously accept the sacramental ministrations of a female bishop may request some other bishop, more congenial to its theology, to be appointed to handle the parish’s confirmations. Nevertheless, that same congregation would remain under the jurisdiction of the aforesaid lady bishop and subject to her canonical visitations. This legal provision is scheduled to be re-examined in six years.
Unfortunately, many Episcopal theologians rejected miracles some while ago, but now would be the time to bring them back, because the success of the Episcopal Visitation Provision would require a divine miraculous intervention of Red Sea proportions. Instead of this we have a very blue sea of unknown horizons. Without miracles some people must rely on fantasy.
In private you will find that no one really expects the Episcopal Visitation Provision to work, a fact suggesting some hidden remnant of common sense in Anglicanism. There are those who regard it as a gesture of desperation, a sort of last bend in flexible ecclesiology. Others see it as a “pastoral” arrangement, which signifies something along the lines of: “Listen up, you guys. We’ve decided to go easy on you diehards and make some concession to your weakness. As of now you have six years to get over this silly hang up against women in the episcopate, so shape up!” What should be positively amazing, but apparently is not, is that the few remaining Anglo-Catholic bishops in America, the leaders of the Evangelical Catholic Mission, talk and act as though some great favor had been conferred—as though we should all believe that the Episcopal Visitation Provision will be the instrument whereby the catholic faith will be preserved within the Episcopal Church for the generations yet unborn.
These Anglo-Catholic bishops must be a very harassed group right now. Not big sharers of power among Anglican bishops, neither are they always understood and trusted by Anglo-Catholic priests and laity. Even among themselves they are often enough at odds on how to proceed in these trying times. During the past decade or so it has been the misfortune of these men to be weighted with Elijah’s burden without clear evidence of the power and unction of Elijah’s mantle.
So, under these circumstances, who can dispute Father William Oddie’s assessment that “the Anglican Communion as we have known it is dead.” What is now called by that name would not be recognized by either friend or foe from the past. An era is over. When Arthur Michael Ramsey, the 100th archbishop of Canterbury, died several months ago, a number of commentators remarked that he was the last of a giant and classic breed, and it was commonly opined that he was our final living link with authentic Anglicanism.
If, as I believe, we are now witnessing the closing of a chapter in church history, let me suggest that church historians take a look at two particular aspects of this closing.
First, it is the end of the Oxford Movement. For a long time we have been told that the Oxford Movement breathed a catholic spirit deep into Anglicanism, instructing Anglicans to build their life and theology, especially their doctrine of the Church and sacraments, on the sound foundation of the Church Fathers. The influence of this movement was supposed to have been enormous. Well, consider. That only 28 bishops at Lambeth voted against the freedom of national churches to consecrate women to the episcopate is a startling, neck-jerking proof of how little Anglican ecclesiology has come under the influence of patristic thought and practice. Hardly at all, I would say.
Second, the traditional Anglican Compromise is finished. For centuries Anglicans have been held together, not only by a common faith, but by a gentlemen’s agreement not to push certain points perceived to be divisive. In particular one thinks of the nature of the Eucharist and the Priesthood. Historically Anglicans all said the same things, knowing full well that they meant different things. (The idea that faith has to do with words rather than substances, by the way, indicates how far nominalism separated Anglicanism from its catholic roots.) This bottled question of the Eucharist and the Priesthood, about which Anglicans decided that it was better not to look nor to inquire too closely, has finally emerged from its long confinement like an infuriated genie and seized the Anglican communion by the lapels to rattle its every last bone. The matter of women’s ordination is what opened the bottle and brought the genie out. A “catholic” church that could not, for four centuries, agree about the reality of the Holy Eucharist as Transformation, Presence and Sacrifice, and hence could not agree about an iconographic priesthood defined by the Eucharist, simply could not go on forever—at least not as a “catholic” church. And it is the deep sadness of this generation to be watching, helplessly, the church’s plight in these recent years.
And, oh, it is sad. A sort of beached whale, I suggested. Decent people like whales, even love them. No one makes fun of a beached whale. If, on occasion, there are people laughing at what the Anglican communion is doing, it is very probable that such laughter is only disguising broken hearts, because this has been among the most noble and loveable of the great whales. The tragedy under discussion is happening to the church of John Donne and Samuel Johnson and George Herbert. This is the church of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. It is a church of saints and martyrs. Who has no soft place in the heart for the church of Ken, Taylor, Keble, Wilberforce, Benson, Lightfoot and Dix? So the spectacle displayed before the world this year is sad beyond words, and, as far as I know, an adequate lamentation has not yet been written.
This article is one of six conservative views in this issue on the state of affairs after the Lambeth XII conference for Anglican bishops.
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“The Beached Whale” first appeared in the Summer-Fall 1988 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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