Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Anglican Railroad: Rumbling down the tracks, a train to somewhere (but where?)

There is considerable commentary in recent days on the latest conflicts in the Anglican Communion, which, at last notice, we are still a member in good standing. You may be excused if you find this topic tedious and not worth reading further.

Truthfully, I find this topic tedious, too, and much of it smacks of ecclesiastical inside baseball at its worst. You may rightly ask: What does any of this have to do with me, or my family, or my work, or even what does this really have to do with the life of my local church? All fair questions, and questions for which I have, at best, partial answers. I hope you will keep reading but I would not blame you if you stop here.

I want to start by saying I do not question the faith or sincerity of the advocates on any side of this. I leave that judgment to God alone. If everyone could subscribe that statement we might get somewhere. But not all do, and so into the swamp we go.

Before we get our ankles muddy, let’s take a few steps back. This conflict predates the election of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire. The fight 30 years ago was over the prayer book and the ordination of women; before that it was a fight over whether African Americans were included in a predominantly white upper class church. Now it is an argument over whether gays and lesbians are included. Yet it is Robinson’s election in 2003 that sparked the latest fire in the Anglican Communion, and that fire is not going out anytime soon.

I highly recommend reading the commentaries of recent days put forth by advocates of differing points of view (and thanks to several of you for bringing these to my attention). Among the best I’ve seen recently is by Jim Naughton in the U.K. Guardian; you can it read HERE. Another, by Frank M. Turner, on the Episcopal CafĂ© blog, is a good critique of the mythology of the Anglican Communion as an “imagined community.” You can read Turner's piece HERE.

On the conservative side, Fr. Dan Martins from Indiana offers thoughtful comments as he works through how he and his diocese attempt to remain in an Episcopal Church even though he and his diocese see themselves much at odds with the majority in the church. His questions are genuine and should engage all of us. You can read Martins' comments HERE.

On the extreme side, you can read David Anderson’s commentaries, though I hesitate to send you to his screeds. They are worth reading if for no other reason than he reveals much about the motives, tactics and divisions among his right-wing allies. You can read his website HERE.

Now that I have sent you there, fair warning: I want to express in the strongest possible terms my disagreement with Anderson, who heads up the American Anglican Council, a self-appointed schismatic organization aligned with those seeking to create a new Anglican communion based on an exclusionary view of the Gospel. He long ago claimed the mantle of being “orthodox” though he has acted as anything but. He received an ordination as a bishop that was, at best, irregular and outside of any Episcopal election or confirmation process.

Anderson's use of language is no small thing. Most disturbing, Anderson uses creepy rhetoric of war and warriors to make his case for purging the Episcopal Church of gays, liberals and other ilk he finds heretical. In a recent commentary he talked of the church needing “war chiefs” and “peace chiefs.” How that is scripturally based is beyond me. Note well the tone and content of his words in his Sept. 4 newsletter:
"As with a nation, so does the church require an appropriate leader for the time and the circumstance. What do these days in the Anglican World Communion call for, a Peace Chief or a War Chief? I would argue that this present time requires a War Chief for the defense of the Gospel and the Anglican Communion."
It should also be noted that Anderson and his allies are using same tone as the extremist “tea-bagger” anti-Obama forces so vocal this August in a supposedly secular debate over health care. Anderson and his allies stand for continued militaristic confrontation with the Islamic world; are against a two-state Israel-Palestine solution; and are stridently anti-gay and anti-abortion.

That is no coincidence – the same people who are underwriting the schism in The Episcopal Church are the same people underwriting the attacks on President Obama in Washington DC and in townhall meetings, including the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife (who underwrote the scurrilous film that accused the Clintons of murdering Vincent Foster). Make no mistake: these people have a larger political agenda beyond the Episcopal Church. As Naughton points out:
“[A]warding the Anglican brand in North America to the schismatics would reverse the trend by handing the American right the opportunity to wrap its agenda in the endorsement of a major mainstream religious organisation.”
All this leads to one basic fact: The conflict in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion remains an argument over power, and it is playing out in the arena of who gets ordained and who does not, who may be married and who may not. Various interests have attempted to dress this up as an argument over the authority of Scripture and the divinity of Christ, asserting that it is self-evident that there is only one interpretation of the Bible possible (their own).

Weaponizing the Bible, by the way, is as un-Anglican is it gets; one of the bedrock values of Anglicanism is the acknowledgment that it is just possible that there are competing interpretations of Scripture, so we best be humble when we throw our Bible verses at each other (see Article 20 in the Articles of Religion, p. 871 of the Book of Common Prayer).

Everyone in this conflict interprets the Bible, and none are abandoning their vow of discipleship of Jesus Christ as they see it. I do not doubt that David Anderson is a deeply devoted disciple of Jesus, though I wish he would acknowledge the same in Susan Russell and Louie Crew of Integrity.

In reality, there is precious little in the Bible to go on to guide us about who may be ordained and who may not, which is one reason everyone can claim to have the Bible on their side.

And while this sounds esoteric – and it is – and while this may not directly affect you if you have no intention of being ordained, it does boil down to this issue: Who holds power in the Church and how they get it. And that should concern you.

That brings us to where we are now: This past summer, the General Convention – the once-every-three years legislative meeting of elected Episcopal church leaders – approved two significant measures which roiled the waters further throughout the rest of the Anglican Communion. One resolution lifted a moratorium on ordaining new bishops who are openly gay, and the other resolution allows bishops to sanction same-sex blessings if they so wish.

And that brings us the Anglican Railroad.

After General Convention, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who is the titular head of the Anglican Communion (Note: he is the first among equals and not the Pope) stated that there ought to be two “tracks” in the Anglican Communion. He has no direct power to create such tracks, but his voice carries considerable weight throughout the Communion.

In Williams’ scheme, the first track would subscribe to his complicated proposal for an “Anglican Covenant” that would, in effect, declare that no province of the communion may do anything significant without consensus from the rest. Issues including the ordination of openly gay people and women would presumably remain on the backburner on the first track until everyone reaches a consensus.

How such a consensus would come about is not clear. The archbishop has pushed hard for the adoption of his covenant, and he appears to be proposing this “First Track” as an incentive for the provinces to sign up and fall into line.

The second track would be churches that don’t sign up for the covenant, but can remain within the communion at a lower status level. The consequences of being relegated to secondary status are not entirely clear.

There are a number of practical issues at stake, first and foremost which national province is running on which track and who gets to decide. The first track presumably would be those Anglican provinces subscribing to the more traditional structures of ordination (i.e., no gays and women), and those provinces it so happens coincide with the poorest countries in the
communion (Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan, etc).

To add a new layer of complexity, seven American Episcopal Church bishops met with Rowan Williams last week to explore whether they could bring their dioceses onto the first track while the rest of the Episcopal Church remained on the second track.

The seven American bishops signed a statement following General Convention stating that they have no intention of leaving the Episcopal Church but they are trying to find a way of co-existence without compromising their beliefs.

We shall see where this goes, but it begs the question: If individual dioceses can get onto the first track, what about single parishes, or individuals? This railroad could end up with many side spurs.

The second track is likely to be inhabited by the more liberal communion members who, it so happens, are mostly of the industrialized world – the U.S., Canada, Scotland, South Africa, and maybe even the Church of England itself.

The second track, it should be noted, is the track with the most money, begging the instant question about which track would, in reality, end up the first track. Even David Anderson sees that point and raised that issue in his Sept 4 newsletter:
"Opposing Dr. Williams is Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the pronouncer of heresy on the historic faith, the Presiding Bishop of the competing Anglican Communion, who will assume that if she is in a tier or track, it will be the favored and most blessed one."
The question of which track will end up the favored first track should give Rowan Williams pause about his two-track proposal. He is setting about to create a supposedly “separate but equal” system of church life. While at first glance that may seem of interest only to those bishops who crave invitations to Lambeth and tea with the Queen, there are real-life consequences to this for real people.

It is as basic as mosquito nets.

By creating two tracks, the archbishop would be sanctioning a great tragedy: the developed world could find an excuse to abdicate its responsibility to the poorest regions of the world; and the government-church power structures in the poorest regions could avoid enlisting assistance from the developed world.

Sanctioning two tracks will make it more difficult than it already is for church relief workers to operate in the undeveloped world. Lest you think this is theoretical objection, our Virginia diocesan missionary in Sudan last summer was ejected from that country at the behest of the Anglican bishops there because she had the temerity to suggest that the Sudanese people really do not care who marries whom in America. Her ejection was met with silence by Canterbury and the rest of the Anglican Communion. That is not a good sign.

I would also suggest the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal of two tracks further degrades his own position. His legitimacy rests entirely on the idea that he is an “instrument of unity.” In the name of unity, he is now proposing disunity. Unity cannot be won with a piece of paper called a “covenant,” nor can it be won by coercion from the top down based in a class system of multi-track communion members. I do not recall that Jesus had two tracks at his table, nor did he require signatures on a legalistic covenant to share at his table.

Sadly, Rowan Williams appears not to have learned the lessons of his own truly inspired leadership last summer at the Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops. He was at his best when he got the bishops to sit and listen to each other and their individual stories without ginning up reams of toothless resolutions. Rather than pounding on tables, the bishops discovered true unity in their shared discipleship of Jesus Christ. All of us share in that call as a people of faith, and we can discover this unity, one day, one prayer, one disciple at a time. Even bishops can find that unity, and they don't need a piece of paper or a railroad track to find it.

The photo of mosquito nets is from Oxfam, an amazing organization. For more information about Oxfam, please click HERE.

Cartoon by Dave Walker; apologies to the USC Trojans.


William said...


Outstanding summary of where we are and the perils that could lie ahead.

As for the Anglican Communion . . . Well, if being in favor of full inclusion of all people gets us ejected or put on a different track, all I can say is I have been thrown out of better bars that this one.

The bottom line on all these controversies is that calling yourself an Anglican does not make you one. If I am remain uncertain about God's will in this matter, I am fully confident that staking a claim to Biblical truth on a few selected verses and then calling everyone who does not agree with you apostates is about as far from the founding spirit of the Anglicanism as one can get.

Again, well done.


Peter Carey said...


Thank you for this, I think you have summarized things pretty well and I have shared it with some folks.

Do check out Mark Harris, who has some quibbles with Fr. Dan Martin's approach vis a vis The Episcopal Church, and its reliance, or not, upon Canterbury for its validity...



Peter Carey+