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A Cautionary Example & a Cautious Hope for the Anglican Communion
by Louis R. Tarsitano
What makes a group of churches a “communion,” a sacramental fellowship in Jesus Christ, rather than just a club or a managerial network? Many Christian groups are struggling with this question, and it does not seem to matter much what church polity they follow or whether they use the language of “denominations,” “national churches,” “jurisdictions,” or “conferences” to describe their higher levels of organization.
Vast numbers of the laity, meanwhile, are appalled to experience a greater degree of discipline in their fast food than in their religion. A Big Mac is a Big Mac any place at all, whereas being an Episcopalian, a Methodist, or even a Roman Catholic can mean very different things in different congregations in the same city or town.
Keeping the Brand Name
Some bodies, like the international Anglican Communion, the collection of national and regional churches (known as “provinces”) that developed from the Church of England and its missionary efforts, have been limping along for years on the basis of institutional inertia and a desire to hang on to a recognizable “brand name.”
The trouble has been that certain provinces, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States, have been among the most vocal in claiming the “brand name” for themselves, even as they have done their best to evacuate the word “Anglican” of any objective meaning. It is as if the Anglican Tradition of historic doctrines and disciplines were one of those parlor games where individual pieces are removed from a teetering stack until it falls.
There are not many pieces left, especially in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, or anywhere else where a materialistic Western culture has captured the local Anglican churches. The churches in Africa, Asia, and South America are, however, in a rather better state. A number of them, indeed, are quite orthodox and continue to teach biblical doctrine and morality in the traditional Anglican way.
As one might expect, the gospel being true, the most orthodox churches are the only growing churches in the Anglican Communion. Anglicanism is becoming an African and Asian phenomenon, so that traditionalists “left behind the lines” in the revisionist and subtractive churches of the West are looking to African and Asian bishops for relief.
That relief began in the summer of 1998 at a Lambeth Conference, a meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops held once every ten years and hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. For the first time at a major Anglican gathering, the bishops of the “Two-Thirds World” (Africa, Asia, and South America) asserted themselves against the follies of their First World counterparts.
In the face of strident appeals for “diversity,” the usual calls to live in “tension” while a committee studies the matter, and accusations of “homophobia,” they led their brother bishops by a margin of seven to one in the passage of a resolution reaffirming the scriptural norms of Holy Matrimony (one man and one woman, for life) and sexual morality (chastity within marriage and celibacy outside of the marriage bond). They did this despite considerable manipulation of the reporting and voting procedures by the bureaucrats and their allies among the bishops.
The counterattack came immediately. Revisionist bishops lamented the resolution to the press in terms of the “hurt” it would cause their homosexual parishioners and denied that it bound them in any way.
As a friend put it, reporting the reaction, “Our liberals have usually spoken of their pastoral concern, for which they will ignore the decisions they [do] not like, Lambeth being only an advisory body and one in which (they say) most members do not understand Western culture and problems. (Had it gone the way they wanted it to, many [of the same liberals] would have demanded obedience to its rulings, as in that case it would have spoken for the entire Anglican Communion.)”
The African bishops were held up to scorn, especially by the most extreme Americans, for their “fundamentalism” and their “lack of a modern education,” even though a greater percentage of the Africans hold advanced degrees in theology than the members of the American House of Bishops. Bishops who were in all other matters ardent multiculturalists suddenly found that there were some cultures of which they did not approve.
When those same American bishops returned home, many of them led their dioceses in a formal repudiation of the Lambeth Conference’s teaching. Most of these dioceses also claimed for themselves the right of exercising their “local option” in ordaining practicing homosexuals and in performing same-sex “marriages.”
Frank Griswold, the Presiding Bishop of the American Church, simply shrugged and smiled, claiming that it was “the Anglican way” not to interfere with the actions of the dioceses. He agreed with them, after all, and was not bothered by the irony that the same Episcopal Church also denies the existence of any local option in the “ordination” of women, requiring its acceptance by every one of its dioceses.
Frustrated by the Americans’ airy dismissal of the conscience of the majority of the Anglican Communion, a group of Anglican primates (chief bishops of the various provinces) began to meet and to correspond privately to address “the American question.” In part, they wished to find a way to offer pastoral care to those Americans who share the traditional faith of their own national churches. At least as important, however, was their recognition that the mere invocation of the name “Anglican” cannot sustain a true communion of churches, no matter how charitably the word “communion” is applied.
As the traditional primates marshaled their arguments and made their plans for the regular biennial meeting of the thirty-eight primates of the Anglican Communion to be held in Oporto, Portugal, at the end of March 2000, yet another complication arose. Two of their number, Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda and Archbishop Moses Tay of Southeast Asia, acted on their own authority to consecrate two conservative American priests as missionary bishops to care for displaced and disenfranchised Anglicans in the United States.
These ordinations, which the Archbishop of Canterbury quickly declared uncanonical and contrary to the traditional method of appointing bishops, offered the revisionists a means of diverting the Primates’ Meeting from the “American question” and the related spiritual matters that, if, as the Western revisionists wished, were left unaddressed, might lead to the dissolution of the Anglican Communion itself.
The Primates Meet
I had attended the 1998 Lambeth Conference as a reporter for Touchstone and the Prayer Book Society (a group dedicated to preserving the traditional Anglican liturgy).
When the Prayer Book Society invited me to join its delegation in Oporto, I eagerly accepted. As an Anglican priest I wanted to see the next chapter unroll for myself, especially since I had written background books for both the Lambeth and Oporto meetings with my fellow Touchstone editor Peter Toon, who also serves as president of the Prayer Book Society.
Unlike a Lambeth Conference, which is intrinsically a large public event, the meetings of the primates are intended to be more private and more intimate. According to the usual rules, only the primates and those that they invite to address them are allowed to speak at their meetings. It is customary for the primates, however, to be allowed to consult with friends and supporters, or to meet with journalists, in their free time between formal sessions.
This was not the case at Oporto. Reporters, personal friends of the bishops, and the representatives of various conservative groups that had assembled there could not say that they had attended the Primates’ Meeting. At best they might say that they had observed it at the end of the ten-foot pole that the functionaries of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)—the international body, based in London, that administers the Anglican Communion—had placed between the outside world and the primates that they supposedly serve.
Consulting the Experts
As one might expect, given the modern way of naming things according to what they are not, the “Consultative Council” did its best to provide the primates as little opportunity as possible to consult with anybody but themselves.
They were the “experts,” after all, full of the confidence that comes from having run hundreds of meetings and convinced of their moral right to manage the primates for their own good and the good of the Church. They knew what God wanted and how the world worked, and they could make sure the primates did not embarrass themselves by acting as if they were certain of either. The bishops followed their instructions with surprising docility and kept to themselves.
But observation at a distance can be a useful thing, offering a perspective that cannot be managed even by experts. Oporto (“the port” in Portuguese, from the not-very-imaginative name that the occupying Roman legions gave the place) is a beautiful city of steep hills and cobbled streets, perfect for aerobic exercise. If a reporter chose not to sulk in his hotel over being kept away from the bishops, embraced the strenuous life, and had plenty of time (as the Consultative Council had made certain), he could invest a couple of hours marching up and down the city streets to get a panoramic view of the Roman Catholic diocesan house and seminary where the primates’ meeting was held.
The building was one of those ghastly poured-concrete affairs that displayed its backside to a deep gorge. The front walkout level was somewhat more congenial, although the placement of the structure on a cliff meant that many of its rooms were actually underground. It gave the impression of an American minimum-security prison.
Not that most American prisoners are as regimented as the bishops were. Their schedule was jam-packed with meetings, presentations, and group discussions from the first thing in the morning until late in the evening. Even if some of the bishops were tempted to play hooky, they had no transportation of their own, and he who walks down the hill must also contemplate the effort of walking back up.
The Consultative Council did provide some organized bus tours, of course, as well as a bus trip to the Sunday service hosted by the Lusitanian Church (the Portuguese Anglicans). The primates came off the bus looking very subdued, like a liturgical chain gang, herded along by busy-looking people armed with schedules instead of shotguns.
The Bishops’ Apathy
There are many genuinely intelligent men among the primates and many profoundly faithful men, especially from Asia, Africa, and South America, who spend their days in their own dioceses cheerfully facing dangers and overcoming obstacles in their service of Christ. It was hard to understand, then, what rendered them so apparently apathetic about being ordered around in Oporto or so accepting of the transformation of their meeting as the heads of the Anglican churches into a pageant run by the permanent bureaucracy from a concrete bunker.
The age of many of the primates and the fatigue of travel may have been factors. Another influence, based on accounts from various bishops after they had returned to their homes from the meeting, may have been the emotional wear and tear of being told so often of the “terrible pain” that the advocacy of traditional doctrine and discipline causes to others.
In one notable demonstration of that “pain,” Phoebe Griswold (the wife of the American Presiding Bishop) burst into a session of the bishops and, despite the rules against “outsiders” addressing their meetings, recounted the harrowing tale of how she had been insulted and reviled by members of an American conservative group after the Sunday service at the Lusitanian church. While no one has been able to corroborate her story, and although she has since backed away from it herself, her performance reportedly had the desired effect of embarrassing the conservative bishops by depicting their allies as thugs.
The primates may also have been inhibited by their agreement to appoint a single spokesman to present their summary communiqué. Although the Communion bureaucrats had promised reporters a press conference with that spokesman, they added to the faintly ridiculous air of the proceedings by just not bothering to hold it. They faxed the communiqué to selected journalists, packed their bags, and went home.
A Victory or a Defeat?
The first reaction of many Anglican traditionalists after the Oporto meeting was that it had been a disaster. No definitive action had been taken to deal with the “American problem.”
The primates’ communiqué was anything but a stirring call to action and reform. The bishops had not been allowed to meet with their traditionalist friends to offer them words of encouragement. They had followed the agenda set for them by the ACC, even calling for the new missionary bishops sent by Rwanda and Southeast Asia to the United States to be reconciled with the revisionist bishops of the Episcopal Church.
There is another, more positive possibility, however, worth considering by Anglicans and their fellow Christians in general, that has nothing to do with the supposed failure of the traditionalist primates or the apparent success of the Communion operatives in containing them. What was needed from the primates in Oporto was not a political victory that could be used as a platform for reformation-minded political movements in the various national churches of the Anglican Communion.
What was needed was a starting point for the consideration of “communion” itself, and this the primates provided. By not giving in to the “political temptation,” by humbly bearing the bureaucratic yoke, and by treating partisan success as a matter of indifference or distaste, the traditionalist primates had demonstrated that they will no longer accept secular-style power politics as a makeshift replacement for spiritual communion in Christ.
The conservative and traditional primates outnumbered the primates whose national churches are at the forefront of the effort to replace the authority of Scripture and Tradition with a man-made authority of their own, as in the blessing of sexual practices condemned in the Bible and by twenty centuries of Christian discipline. In theory, they could have seized power at any time in Oporto, except that the seizure of power by political means has been the main instrument of the Church’s self-destruction.
Most of the world’s Anglicans no longer live in the countries of the radical and revisionist primates or belong to their decaying national churches. Nor do those churches actively engaged in preaching the gospel feel any compelling loyalty to the Communion’s bureaucratic structure.
In much of the rest of the world, the so-called Two-Thirds World, where the historic traditions of the Church are maintained, the national churches are attracting new members. The sheer moral weight of millions of souls loyal to Jesus Christ is shifting the balance of authority in the Anglican Communion, and the revisionists with their shrinking churches and the bureaucrats with their stunted understanding of the nature of the Church can do little to stop it from happening.
It was pointless, then, for the traditional primates to play the same old political game with them.
It was also a mistake for the traditionalists being oppressed in liberal churches to expect the Anglicans of the Two-Thirds World to stage a neat and dramatic political coup, complete with thrilling manifestoes and crucial votes winning the day to bring in the new (actually the old) order. If communion is in Jesus Christ the Lord and made manifest by a scriptural faith and order, no one should expect the traditional Anglican primates, or their equivalent in any other Christian tradition, to reform the Church through a political or institutional process when the main work to be accomplished is a spiritual submission to heavenly things.
Rather than having been defeated or contained at Oporto, the faithful primates of the faithful churches may well have initiated the abandonment of the political-managerial model of the Church so cherished by revisionists and functionaries alike as an obvious dead end. After all, those who would govern the Church by means of the techniques and doctrines of secular politics have almost managed the Anglican Communion and its Western provinces into extinction.
If the traditionalist primates are given credit for their accomplishments in their own nations and the growth rates of their churches are taken into consideration, the bureaucrats and the revisionist primates at Oporto appear by comparison to be the fleas arguing about who owns the dog. The modern ecclesiastical emphasis on political process in the Church, rather than on truth, has allowed small numbers of activists to impose strange doctrines and practices upon the faithful, even as it has forced the faithful to become activists to defend themselves, diverting their energy from more important pursuits such as evangelism or prayer.
When the faithful accept the premises of their opponents and continue to play according to their rules, all they achieve is the further distortion of the life of the Church, taking her ever farther from her true nature as a divinely ordered spiritual communion in Jesus Christ. What the orthodox primates at Oporto seem to have accepted is that the political game cannot be won.
Paradoxically, voting does not matter as long as the political game is in place, since political activists only respond with more politics and more ballots when they lose a vote. The traditional primates had every reason to appreciate this paradox, given the liberals’ reaction to the resolution adopted by the 1998 Lambeth Conference in support of historic sexual morality. Seven-eighths of the Anglican bishops had voted for the Word of God and for the traditions of the Church, and all the revisionists wanted was a “do-over.”
The vote at Lambeth did not matter because the current political structure of the Anglican Communion did not permit it to matter. At that point, not only voting, but also the structure itself became irrelevant, except as a leftover from an era of managerial confidence that had passed. Power politics cannot make a communion, and it is now apparent that it cannot sustain a communion.
Congenial but Influential
The orthodox primates were congenial and collegial at Oporto. They attended symposia and did the sorts of things that were expected of them, just as they would have done at any other club meeting they were obliged to attend as a part of their duties. These facts tell us little, since these are the “garden party skills” that any Anglican clergyman learns in his first or second year on the job.
There is, moreover, actual evidence that the orthodox primates did not capitulate at Oporto. The final communiqué of the assembled primates demonstrates their influence and their efforts to renew the Anglican Communion according to a spiritual and sacramental model, rather than to prop up the political model that is destroying the provinces that adhere to it most exactly.
It was certainly not the revisionists who chose to say, “We recognise that one Province’s adoption of certain policies may result in severely impaired communion with some other Provinces or dioceses (as has already happened in relation to the ordination of women).” It is not a political sanction to exact the cost of continued immoral or faithless behavior through exclusion from the altar or the nonrecognition of ministers.
The communiqué also asserts, “We believe that the unity of the Communion as a whole still rests on the Lambeth Quadrilateral: the Holy Scriptures as the rule and standard of faith; the creeds of the undivided Church; the two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself and the historic episcopate.” The invocation of the Lambeth Quadrilateral (adopted by the Lambeth Conference of 1888 as a standard for unity with other communions) allows the primates to be generous in proposing a sort of “internal ecumenism” in dealing with revisionist Anglican provinces and strict in denying any other basis for sacramental communion than the historic faith and practice of the Christian Church.
The communiqué is also explicit enough about the consequences if revisionist bishops follow through on their threats to ignore the resolution reaffirming biblical sexual morality adopted by the bishops at Lambeth 1998: “Such clear and public repudiation of those sections of the Resolution related to the public blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of declared noncelibate homosexuals, and the declared intention of some dioceses to proceed with such actions, have come to threaten the unity of the communion in a profound way.” If bad intentions can threaten communion, then bad actions can end it.
These words are not the declaration of a new, alternative political movement within the Anglican Communion. The Asian and African primates are not known for producing politically compelling or even politically useful statements.
By and large, they are just not interested in them. But as the first attempt to redefine the Anglican Communion in the traditional terms of sacramental fellowship, the faithful primates have laid down two essential prices that must be paid by all who wish to participate in the next phase of Anglican life, since these are the prices of genuine communion.
The Two Prices
The first is Biblical orthodoxy, in the revealed terms of the Holy Scriptures themselves, and according to the witness of the historic teaching and practice of the Church. The second is humility and patience with those who are in error.
The errors themselves cannot be tolerated, and persistence in them must lead to a breaking of communion. But the goal of discipline must be more than the punishment of those who offend against the faith and order of the Church, but rather their restoration with the help of God’s grace to the orthodoxy that will make them fit for full spiritual and sacramental communion in Christ.
Setting the Anglican Communion right will be an immense work of years, but the clock has started to run. Since the primates insisted on meeting again in one year, rather than in the usual two, the clear message, however subtly given, is that the minority revisionists and the Communion functionaries had better begin to accommodate the faith and aspirations of the majority of Anglicans in the world, or that majority will be forced to move without their cooperation or even to leave them behind.
The orthodox primates were not making threats in the communiqué, but offering the revisionists a year of grace in which to contemplate repentance. By their example at Oporto, they were also telling Anglican traditionalists around the world that long-suffering is a virtue, not a vice, in the kingdom of God.
It should also be said that the Anglican Communion can survive without the Western Anglican Churches—even without the Church of England—and that the Church Catholic can survive without the Anglican Communion, which she will if that is God’s decision. Nevertheless, the Christians of other traditions have reason to watch the Anglicans, since it is often the case that they, too, have become the victims of a political model of church life that ends in no Church and no life at all.
If any of us can free ourselves of this oppression, all will be the better for it. It would also be worth discovering to what extent our man-made political apparatuses have separated us where our God-given faith does not.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).