Sunday, June 20, 2010

It began by crossing out the King from the Prayer Book; Our Anglican divisions and where we go from here

In his day, Jacob Duche´ was the rector of the most important church in America – Christ Church, Philadelphia, located across the square from what became known as Independence Hall. On the afternoon of Thursday July 4, 1776, Duche´ watched as the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain. Then Duche´ walked across the square to his church, and convened a special meeting of his Vestry.

With the Vestry’s concurrence, Duche´ opened his parish’s large Book of Common Prayer, and he began crossing out all references to the King of England. He replaced those references with the “United States of America.”

The American Episcopal Church was, in effect, born that day with his act of independence from the mother country and the mother church.

As author Bruce Feiler explains in his superb book, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Society, Duche´ understood well that his editing of the Book of Common Prayer was an insurrectionary act. When the British seized Philadelphia, Duche´ was arrested and imprisoned. As the war dragged on, and the Americans lost battle after battle, Duche´ became despondent. He wrote a letter to George Washington urging him to give up the war. Washington termed the letter “ridiculous” and released it to Congress.

Duche´ was forced into exile in Britain, a man with no country; he returned to Philadelphia after the war, and he was a broken man. Jacob Duche´ who had been the most important cleric in America died forgotten, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

The experience of Duche´ is perhaps a metaphor for The Episcopal Church’s tense relationship with the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. In his book, Feiler quotes The Rev. Tim Safford, rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, about the dilemma faced by his predecessor of two centuries ago: “[T]he life of a pastor is trying to hold very distant poles in some sort of tension with each other.” (p. 59)

Sometimes the center holds. Sometimes it doesn’t. We are living in one of those times when the center is not holding.

The root of our tension stems from the events of the American Revolution and our ambiguous relationship with the mother church. We claimed our independence from England long ago, and yet, for better or worse, we view our catholicity as somehow channeled through the historic see of Canterbury.

Our American relationship with the Church of England is usually just part of the wallpaper, and on any given Sunday, most of the time it doesn’t enter into our collective church conscience. So it is particularly jarring when the tensions of that relationship do burst into the open, as it did last week when the American Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was asked to remove her mitre so as not to offend a contingent of the Church of England who will not accept women bishops (or, we suspect, women priests).

The slight has enraged many American Episcopalians who note that Archbishop of
Canterbury Rowan Williams and other British bishops are not asked to remove their emblems of ecclesiastical office when visiting the United States. Lambeth Palace, the headquarters of Rowan Williams, last week exhibited nothing but the airs of old-school British colonialism and the odor did not set well on this side of the Atlantic.

It has also been noted in recent days that Bishop Katharine was required to give proof of her ordinations before being allowed to preach and celebrate at Southwark Cathedral, London. Considering that she hosted Rowan Williams at last summer’s Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim, and did not ask him to produce seminary certificates or an ID card, the request to her came off as petty harassment.

More ominously, she was also asked to resign from an elected Anglican body, and she refused to resign. Other American Episcopalians were removed from various ecumenical commissions by the archbishop; all this in response to the Diocese of Los Angeles having the temerity to elect an openly lesbian assisting bishop, Mary Glasspool. As The Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, the general secretary of the Anglican Communion explained at a meeting of the Episcopal Executive Council last Friday, Archbishop Williams felt he had to do something.

On one level, all of this is rather silly – it is about a hat and a few petty insults. But the incidents last week go to the deeper rift between the two branches of Anglicanism – branches, after all, that at times have been rivals over the last two centuries. A number of excellent commentaries have been published on-line in recent days, among the best by Diana Butler Bass in the Huffington Post. You can read her commentary by clicking HERE.

Another frequent blogger, Father Jake Stops the World, suggests that Williams’ latest moves are designed to force The Episcopal Church to tie itself more closely to the English Church as part of an intricate legal strategy to regain church property in Virginia. You need to read Jake’s legal theory to understand what he is getting at by clicking HERE. I tend to think the Brits aren’t quite that strategic and are making this up as they go along.

Our tensions and knee-jerk responses on both sides, let me suggest, stem from a deeper cultural and historical divide. We are, after all, two peoples divided by a common language.

The Episcopal Church was, indeed, born in the crucible of the war for independence from Britain in 1776. Yet the Episcopal Church has never quite found a way to live completely independent from the mother church or the mother country. Other churches – Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans – went their separate ways from churches that birthed them, but not The Episcopal Church in the United States.

In the colonial era, no bishop lived in America. The Bishop of London was the bishop of colonial America. After the Revolution, the newly organized Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America sent Samuel Seabury across the Atlantic to be consecrated a bishop. The English bishops refused, and so he went to Scotland where the bishops there ordained him a bishop. The Americans never forgot the snub, and the American Episcopal Church remains close to this day to the Episcopal Church of Scotland. Bishop Katharine was welcomed enthusiastically there -- no ordination certificates required -- when she appeared there late last week.

Relations with English church counterparts remained sour for nearly 100 years after the American Revolution. The Episcopal Church developed within a vibrant American religious marketplace and a culture that respected the separation of church and state. The English church remained the established church of Britain, impervious to change, and its bishops appointed by the monarch and sitting in the House of Lords.

The modern Anglican Communion was born in the late 19th century after a series of meetings in Chicago and Lambeth that resulted in a succinct statement of what binds us, not what divides us. You can find it on pages 876-878 of the Book of Common Prayer. In a nutshell, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 sets four common points of communion:
1. Holy Scriptures are the ultimate standard of faith.
2. The Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed, though brief, are sufficient statements of Christianity.
3. Baptism and Eucharist are the two primary sacraments (the others being optional).
4. We are knit together by bishops through the long history of Christianity.
That is it. No lengthy covenant, no long “confession,” no tricky language with loopholes, no declaration of a “magesterium” like the Pope (or Archbishop of Canterbury), no dictation on
how church governance will be structured. Latitude is wide for how we live into those four points in our own local context.

The Anglican Communion began as an alliance (or peace treaty) between the American and English churches; it expanded to include other national Anglican churches as the British Empire contracted, much as the British Commonwealth of Nations filled the English psychic space left when the sun finally set on the Empire. Yet colonial attitudes die hard amongst the Brits.

In our own time, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and his Lambeth advisers consistently misunderstand and badly underestimate our differences in polity – and how those very different ideas of church governance and secular democracy influence our respective approaches to decision-making in the life of our respective branches of Anglicanism.

Williams and his entourage display little understanding or respect for American polity; their tone-deafness smacks of British colonialism, pure and simple. And Americans, for the most part, are unaware that Williams was chosen by a monarch upon the recommendation of a prime minister. It would be like having our Episcopal Presiding Bishop chosen by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and confirmed by President Obama and then seating her in the U.S. Senate.

Over the last century, the Anglican Communion has grown in size and complexity with ecumenical commissions, missionary boards, consultative bodies, observers at the United Nations and national primate meetings. Most of that structure involves primarily bishops, and while not exactly Roman Catholic, it is not surprising that this structure is viewed as parallel to the Roman Catholic world. The current Archbishop of Canterbury seems to edge in that direction, and he has attempted to use such structures as a weapon to punish the Episcopal Church for ordaining openly gay bishops.

“Everywhere I go,” Kearon said on Friday, “everyone wants him to act as a sort of an Anglican pope as long as he does what [they] want him to do."


Some Americans welcome the archbishop’s action. But do they really want an Anglican pope? Or to put it another way, do they really want to give up their American independence? And does Williams really want to be a pope?

It also seems a contradiction-in-terms to withdraw membership on an ecumenical commission as a means for enforcing a particular formulation of orthodoxy. Ecumenism by definition requires dialogue and soft boundaries around doctrine. Why bother talking about someone else’s faith if you don’t want to listen to what they have to say?

What then should our response be to all of this? Where do we go from here as Episcopalians living in a post-colonial world but with structures born out of British colonialism? Williams has proposed a complicated “Anglican Covenant” that places power with the national presiding bishops from the various national Anglican churches. His actions this week give us a glimpse of what life would be like under such a covenant with the Archbishop acting as a “magisterium.” The American Episcopal Church, along with the Canadians, Brazilians, South Africans and New Zealanders, are not likely to go along. In the name of unity, Williams is essentially threatening to split up the Anglican Communion. That well could be his legacy.

Or maybe after the pettiness and snubs of this past week, another course will be chosen by the clerics of Lambeth Palace. Perhaps Williams and his advisers will draw back from acting like the Vatican; perhaps this will be the low point of relations, and it will be uphill from here. Perhaps they will look again at the “indaba” listening process that Williams so brilliantly promoted at the Lambeth conference of bishops two summers ago. Perhaps. Lambeth Palace, with its British flair for obfuscation, is anything but transparent. We are left only to guess.

And what should we do in The Episcopal Church? I am inclined to agree with Diana Butler Bass: let us do as Jesus would do, walk the extra mile with those who would persecute us, carry their cloak – carry our hat in our hand – and listen for how the Holy Spirit is guiding us. Let the slights go. Walk the walk as disciples. As Bishop Katharine said in her sermon at St. Paul’s in January: “Be bold.”

Today's Collect for Sunday provides a perfect prayerful direction for all of us:
O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your
holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom
you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
We are called to serve as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, and we have much work to do. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus proclaims, is about inclusion and radical welcome of the outcast and the lowly, the sick and the lonely, prisoners and sinners, and those considered unworthy by the religious purists. Today’s epistle goes to the heart of the matter, and it is there where we should dwell:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 3:23-29


LKT said...

Very nice.

Hound Dog's Daddy said...

What next? the spirit of '76 reaching the Episcopalians?

John Leech said...

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral does come to mind as a reasonable statement of common ground. Other than that how about working together on mission?

Anonymous said...

As I recall, before he became ABC Rowan Cantaur's positions on women, LGBT, etc., were much more progressive (I hate that word). Thus he could be seen as bending to be acceptable to the much larger conservative branches of the Anglican Communion!/pages/ST-PAULS-ESQUIMALT-FRESH-EXPRESSIONS-CANADA/10150091724030294 said...

Like so many others of the Anglican Communion we are more asking questions that BCP provides. However the issues of leading people to faith as practicing Anglican's mean they practice, yet seldom engage ministry at the personal level. Please understand through baptism and eucharist we are required to go out int the community, not sit in the pews and pay, pray and obey. Share the rich gospel with bold faith and sound belief, in Christ. We are all then able to call ourselves active anglicans, whereever we live.

RON M Weeks
St Paul's Esquimalt
Victoria BC Canada
Come and share our faith in heritage.