No Governing Legal Authority?
What to Make of the Primates’ Meeting
by Louis R. Tarsitano
If these are not “the times that try men’s souls,” they are certainly such as try the patience of traditional Anglicans. The Primates (the chief bishops of the regional and national churches) of the Anglican Communion, after meeting for eight days at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina, issued a joint communiqué on March 8 and began to disperse to the four corners of the world. The communiqué disappointed many faithful Americans, and not a few members of other national churches, who had been looking for the Primates to follow up on last year’s meeting of the Primates in Oporto, Portugal. The Primates then had appeared ready to address moral and theological revisionism within the communion—especially in the Episcopal Church in the United States. (See “Primates in Portugal” by Louis Tarsitano, Touchstone, July/August 2000, pp. 17–21.)
The Episcopal Church had done its best to poke a finger into every eye, foreign or domestic. Despite the reaffirmation of traditional Christian sexual morality as the standard of the Anglican Communion by over two-thirds of the 800 Anglican bishops at the worldwide Lambeth Conference in 1998, the Americans at their 2000 General Convention voted to recognize sexual relationships outside of marriage. Ignoring the warning from the Primates at their Oporto meeting that there would be “consequences” to violating traditional morality, the same General Convention, when it could not scrape up sufficient votes for the “blessing” of homosexual unions, told the dioceses to do whatever they want and to experiment however they wish.
What, then, were the promised consequences of American departures from historic Anglican doctrine, discipline, and worship to be? What recourse would be offered to the innocent victims of the arrogant and persecuting bureaucracy of the present-day Episcopal Church? What efforts would be made to give the faithful in America a place to stand in the Anglican Communion? Or what steps would be taken to reintegrate those 50,000 to 75,000 refugees (a larger number than the membership of some Anglican provinces) repelled by the institution of the Episcopal Church but staunchly loyal to the old faith and the temperate ethos of the Anglican Way? The answers to these questions, as far as Kanuga went, were none, none, none, and none.
The expressed wisdom of the Primates, based on their communiqué, was that bad things are bad, unity is good, and that both can be studied almost endlessly. To those who expected the red meat of the Gospel from their chief pastors, the message was as motivating as the “right-minded” resolutions of a high-school student council against war, racism, and poverty. A decent person recognizes that these are evils, but having acknowledged that, what is to be done about them? At least the student council is understood to be powerless, but if the spiritual heads of the Anglican churches are powerless to protect the innocent people of their church (or worse yet, make themselves powerless), to whom can the people turn?
It should be said that many of the Primates from Africa and Asia serve in real poverty, in genuine physical danger, and in the midst of terrible epidemics. They could use, and certainly deserve, the support of the rest of the communion. What troubles the mind, however, is the nagging question of what use a collection of bishops who will not order their own ecclesiastical household can be in alleviating such real needs.
A passage from the Primates’ communiqué, “A Pastoral Letter and Call to Prayer,” tells most of the story:
If it is only one “alienated” belief among many that homosexual practices are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then the Primates have shown no responsibility to God or man. They have no credibility as Christian pastors, and their only mission would appear to be the issuing of bland political documents.
To be fair, it is hard to see how the Primates could have done much more, given the way that their meeting was organized by the usual suspects among their American hosts and the Anglican Consultative Council (the liberal bureaucracy of the Anglican Communion). By comparison, a student council has far greater freedom to act in a much less structured environment. The members of the student council do not usually have to pass muster at a guardhouse to gain entrance to a cloistered facility, as the Primates did at Kanuga. Nor are they provided with a fixed agenda prepared in advance by the principal.
Free to Do God’s Will
God, however, does not fail, and I would suggest that something important, real, and concrete happened in Kanuga.
The highest authority, the highest law for Anglicans always remains the inspired Holy Scriptures, God’s Word Written, as understood by the historic Church indwelt by the Holy Ghost. This is the chief principle and the basis of any Christian polity, and it cannot be amended by man. Holy Scripture gives direction for the resolution of conflict between Christians. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord himself lays out the terms for resolution (see Matt. 18:15–20; note the context of the chapter).
The faithful in the United States now have gone twice (to Oporto and Kanuga) to the chief pastors of the Anglican Communion to seek their aid in preserving their religious lives. By not acting, and by allowing the Episcopal Church to go its own way in depriving the faithful of a spiritual home, the Primates have acted. They have set the American faithful free to rebuild a home for themselves. The Primates have absolved American Anglicans of any moral duty to the Episcopal Church. They have cleared the way for them to exercise the same duties and rights of spiritual and moral self-preservation that were exercised by the Church of England at the Reformation or by the old Protestant Episcopal Church (for different reasons) after the American Revolution.
The guardians of ecclesiastical institutions viewed as an end in themselves will protest that the Americans are bound by the ever-shifting, constantly manipulated “rules” of the communion, but they have overreached. By insisting, as they did at Kanuga, that discipline within the communion is only possible when the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference (a meeting of all Anglican bishops, held every ten years), the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates all agree, they have said that godly discipline is not possible under the present circumstances. A child could be born, baptized, raised in the church, and go a lifetime without pastoral protection from wolves in shepherds’ clothing under such an arrangement.
What the revisionists and their institutionally besotted allies are insisting on is a church where there is law, but no order—a church where law is used as a tool to prevent good order and the right care of Christ’s people. In effect, the revisionists and institutionalists have said “the law” prohibits pastoral discipline or the exercise of just judgment in conscience, while permitting at the same time almost any moral or theological innovation to be forced on the people of a national church against their will and without recourse.
Crisis & Reorganization
Immediately after the Primates’ Meeting, the bishops of the Episcopal Church met at Kanuga, and in their own “Pastoral Letter” (dated April 1, without any apparent sense of irony), they announced their own version of law without order and of unity without faith: “We who are called as bishops to be a sign of unity speak to you with minds and hearts being united and transformed by the love of God. Our unity does not mean we are in agreement about all of the difficult and complex questions before us. It means we have claimed our oneness in Christ.” The bishops also declared in a crude exhibition of false piety, “The Primates have also called upon us to provide pastoral care for all in our Communion, as we grow in Christ’s wisdom. We mean to respond faithfully to that call.”
They issued this statement knowing that one of their number, Jane Dixon, Acting Bishop of Washington, D.C., had, on the very day of the Primates’ adjournment, taken steps to block the lawful election of a rector for the 303-year-old Christ Church-St. John’s Parish, in Accokeek, Maryland. Her main target was the rector-elect, the Reverend Samuel Edwards, a well-known orthodox priest and writer. His sole offense was his orthodoxy, and he and his new congregation remain in limbo as Dixon attempts—with the public support of Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold—to bend them to her will.
This state of affairs must brutalize the consciences of the faithful Primates, who know and believe better. There is, however, a potential movement to come to their aid, if in a peculiarly American manner.
Increasing numbers of American Anglicans, both within and outside the Episcopal Church, are exploring ways to take responsibility for their own household in the church and to work together to make that household everything that it ought to be according to the Anglican Way. To take on such a responsibility would mean building, from the ground up, a national communion of Anglican churches, complete with formularies (including a constitution and canon law) and all things necessary to Christian order and faithful doctrine, discipline, and worship. The model for such an enterprise would be the reorganization of the former colonial churches after the American Revolution into a single national church, which began as much as a grass roots movement on the part of the faithful as it did from the initiative of senior clerics.
The consensus is growing that it will not strengthen the faithful Primates’ hand to recriminate with them now or to mount yet another protest to the Anglican Communion. Those who hold this opinion point to the Primates’ Meeting at Kanuga as the perfect demonstration of how useless and unnecessary such a protest would be. But a decent, godly, functioning American church, with the full support of its laity, would become an indigestible lump, an unavoidable fact, that could assist the Anglican faithful anywhere and in any office in pursuing the reclamation of the entire communion.
This is an ambitious plan, but the success of such plans in the United States and in other troubled provinces of the Anglican Communion will determine whether the Primates’ meeting at Kanuga was the beginning or the end of the Anglican future.
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“No Governing Legal Authority?” first appeared in the June 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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