Thursday, March 22, 2007

Passing the Blame Once Again

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the House of Bishops' March 20 statement is its exaggerated portrait of both the Episcopal Church and the primates of the Anglican Communion. In its sheer one-sidedness in blaming the primates for current troubles in the Anglican Communion, it bears some similarities to—but goes far beyond—Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's criticisms concerning the primates from a sermon she gave several years ago.

The Episcopal Church, from the bishops' point of view, apparently has committed no wrongs in its prior responses to the primates. We are told that the Episcopal Church has "responded in good faith" and expressed "love and respect" for the primates. They supposedly have complied with the primates' requests "happily" and "with joy."

The primates do not fare so well in the bishops' account. The bishops employ a repeated refrain: whatever they did to meet the primates' requests "was not accepted by the primates." This phrase—or its plural variant—appears three times in one paragraph. And in the next paragraph, the reader is told that the primates repeatedly have acted against their own stated principles by turning a blind eye to primates' and other bishops' border crossings.

So the bishops imply that the primates have been obstinate and unfaithful; the primates supposedly are not people of their word. The smaller group of primates and other bishops who have labored to help orthodox Anglicans within and without the Episcopal Church are critiqued more harshly: they have "caused great suffering and contributed immeasurably to [the bishops'] difficulties in solving our problems."

The bishops apparently believe that the Episcopal Church deserves our pity, or at least our sympathy, for their supposedly virtuous attempts to satisfy primates who evidently cannot be satisfied. Have these one-sided characterizations now finished? Not by a long shot, although they now become more subtle. The severity of their language is best seen by comparing it with the terminology it uses to describe the Anglican Communion: twice in the statement, the bishops call the Communion a "family of Churches."

In discussing the primates' "pastoral scheme," which the communiqué described as necessary to "facilitate and encourage healing and reconciliation" within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the bishops say that it "would be injurious to the Episcopal Church." Family members will not heal the Episcopal Church; they will harm it. It's instructive here that while the primates see the "patient" as being the entire Anglican Communion, the bishops are concerned primarily with the Episcopal Church.

More: The family members' (i.e., primates') action would "violate" the one member's (i.e., the Episcopal Church's) standards, including its "founding principles." The pastoral scheme would also "abandon" the family's traditions ("the generous orthodoxy of our Prayer Book tradition") and keep many family members (i.e., provinces) from fully participating in decision-making.

Still more: The pastoral scheme would enslave (“[sacrifice] the emancipation of”) the laity of the Episcopal Church, somehow keeping them from leadership positions. If that’s not bad enough, the bishops sound an alarm that the Anglican Communion might make become subject to “a distant and unaccountable group of prelates.” Since the whole movement within the Anglican Communion is toward greater accountability and interdependence among member provinces, the bishops apparently are thinking of accountability to the Episcopal Church. This stance would fit with their upholding “the local governance of the Church by its own people.” They are so concerned about losing autonomy that they raise the specter of the papacy as a warning of what the Anglican Communion could become—even though the Anglican Communion is light years away from Roman Catholicism in its structures.

Even more? You bet. The pastoral scheme encourages “one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult.” Far from encouraging unity in the church, the primates apparently fear that it will encourage more people to leave the Episcopal Church and could cause the denomination’s “permanent division.” The denial here is overwhelming. If the bishops think that the pastoral scheme itself will be the cause of many defections from the Episcopal Church, they’re seriously deceived.

And perhaps the biggest insult—even if it is implied rather than stated—comes from the last sentence of the statement. The bishops declare that they "now determinedly turn" to Christ's mission. Given the entire previous context, the unmistakable implication is that the primates have not been about God's business—or, at minimum, that preoccupation with the primates’ concerns has kept the Episcopal Church from following Christ’s mission.

Is this too much to take away from one sentence? Not if you look at other sections of the statement. The gospel, to the bishops, has as a central component a progressive take on human rights. They single out women, gays, and lesbians for special attention as "full and equal participants in the life of Christ's Church." These are all groups with which the Episcopal Church has taken stands that are more progressive than corresponding stands taken by the majority of the other Anglican Communion provinces.

The charges are overblown, relentless, and reckless—even though they certainly testify to the true feelings of many bishops. And the importance of the statement goes far beyond the more obvious conclusions that the reader can draw. Yes, the bishops are calling for an autonomy that outweighs any interdependence with the rest of the Anglican Communion. Yes, the statement is dismissive of the primates, so much so that the bishops’ attempted reassurances that they want to remain in the Anglican Communion come across as insincere. But it's so much more as well.

It is, according to the bishops, an "affirmation both of our identity as a Church and our affection and commitment to the Anglican Communion." The bishops are not just speaking for themselves, but of the Episcopal Church’s very "identity." It's understandable if the reader concludes that there is very little affection or commitment here, save on the Episcopal Church’s own terms—and much less a sense of “identity” as part of either the Anglican Communion or the worldwide body of Christ. As such, this is possibly the saddest development to date in the ongoing Anglican Communion saga of the last several years, no matter how much “clarity” it provides.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The House of Bishops Pulls Out the Mission Card

The House of Bishops issued a statement late on Tuesday, March 20, regarding their spring 2007 meeting. It's remarkable for many reasons, including the fact that it not once but twice states the mission of the Episcopal Church in relation to the larger Anglican Communion. Here are the two statements:

· "[M]embership [in the Anglican Communion] … gives us the great privilege and unique opportunity of sharing in the family’s work of alleviating suffering in all parts of the world.”

· “We would … meet any decision to exclude us from gatherings of all Anglican Churches with great sorrow, but our commitment to our membership in the Anglican Communion as a way to participate in the alleviation of suffering and restoration of God’s creation would remain constant.”

There are two major points to note here. First, the language here is not the significant-but-standard terminology usually seen in such statements. “Reconciliation,” the most common shorthand term that the Episcopal Church uses in describing its mission, is not mentioned in these two instances—even though it certainly is implied here and appears once later in the statement. Instead, the bishops use language that ties into the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (“the alleviation of suffering”) using the framework provided by new Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (“restoration of God’s creation”).

Second, the Episcopal Church’s mission is contrasted with potential “exclu[sion] … from gatherings of all Anglican Churches.” The bishops, speaking "of our identity as a Church," essentially are claiming, “You may shun the Episcopal Church, but we won’t desert our work with you unless we have to do so.”

But there’s a catch here. The bishops are not committed to any Communion-wide standard of teaching—on human sexuality or any other issue. They are not committed to any semblance of theological unity; instead, they praise “free and open theological debate as a way of seeking God’s truth.” They are not committed to a covenant. They are not committed to the primates’ “pastoral scheme.”

No, the bishops instead commit the Episcopal Church to “the alleviation of suffering and restoration of God’s creation.” It’s on that one point that they claim that the Episcopal Church will not forsake the Anglican Communion.

And while it dovetails nicely with the current raision d'etre of the Episcopal Church as a whole, that point is also a very political one. It reminds the Anglican Communion of the money that the Episcopal Church pours into the worldwide body—particularly through relief and development work. The New York Times published a front-page article on the Episcopal Church's funding of the Anglican Communion on the same day as the bishops issued their statement. The article contained this statement: "Episcopalians give tens of millions ... each year to support aid and development programs in the Communion's poorer provinces."

In other words, the one point on which the bishops claim to commit to the Anglican Communion is also the one through which the Episcopal Church could have the most influence on other provinces. It's a progressive social justice mission that the bishops believe constitutes “the essence of Christ’s own mission in the world.” Elsewhere in the document, they define the Gospel in human-rights-type terminology. Singled out for special mention as "full and equal participants in the life of Christ's church" are women, gays, and lesbians.

So once again, mission—and a particularly progressive social justice mission at that—is proposed as a (and the only) unifying factor among Anglicans. Once again, however, that card comes up short.

The primates of the Anglican Communion made several requests of the House of Bishops in their February 19 communique. None of them involved a commitment to "alleviating suffering"—as praiseworthy of a goal as that may be. Instead, the primates called the Episcopal Church to an "unequivocal," wholehearted repentance of its actions that have so "damaged" the Anglican Communion. The House of Bishops says that it "now determinedly turn[s]" to the Episcopal Church's mission, but only a "[determined] turn" in the sense of repentance will heal the Anglican Communion.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Mission (Alone) Won't Keep Us Together

At the March 2007 Executive Council meeting in Portland, OR, there was no lack of meetings, as you might expect. The Saturday plenary session featured an address by the Rev. James B. ("Jim") Lemler, the Director of Mission for the national church and former dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, on the new mission funding initiative for the Episcopal Church.

I thought Rev. Lemler gave a decent pitch for an ambitious program. (I'll write more about the actual program another time.) One statement he made particularly stood out to me: an assertion that only common mission would hold together the Episcopal Church.

This is not a new perspective. It’s been reiterated time and time again by many people throughout this time of trial in the Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican Communion. And, personally, I'd love to agree with Rev. Lemler and the others who are so convicted. I really would. If there's one thing, though, that I've seen time and time again, it's that mission alone is not a source of unity—not in the Episcopal Church, and not at all in the churches (period).

Don't get me wrong. Anglicans of all theological stripes may value and support the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They're the vehicle that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has described as the way that the Episcopal Church will meet God's vision of shalom. Neither orthodox Anglicans nor progressive ones own a monopoly on the desire to reduce poverty (much less extreme poverty), see education expanded, and combat life-threatening diseases!

But when the Episcopal Church holds its primary mission as reconciliation in the sense of healing the world through the MDGs, as Bishop Jefferts Schori told the press after the departure of the Virginia parishes in December—then any “unity” is a very fragile one that inevitably will shatter. Evangelicals and other orthodox Anglicans simply have a different sense of the primary mission of the church.

Bishop Jefferts Schori herself is well aware of this fact. She mentioned it at the Episcopal Urban Caucus annual meeting held in Raleigh, NC, this February. There, she said that some Episcopalians look to the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31–46 for the major mission of the church, while others look to the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18–20.

She’s right, although many progressives cite Matthew 22:34–40, with the two great commandments, as their mission statement. Progressives and other Anglicans believe that the church primarily is called to love people by responding to their needs through social witness (e.g., feeding the hungry, alleviating the needs of the poor). Orthodox Anglicans, on the other hand, take their cues from Jesus’ call to make disciples and see the Church as needing to call people to repentance and faith in Christ.

Is there a middle ground here? “I don’t believe God has any patience with arguments over which is more important—evangelism or social justice,” Bishop Jefferts Schori told the Episcopal Urban Caucus. She emphasized that evangelism involves both words and deeds, and orthodox Anglicans would agree. Nevertheless, she clearly leads the denomination in the direction of, and places her main emphasis upon, a progressive social witness; she has talked comparatively little of evangelism, and when she has, she has spoken primarily of “deed-based evangelism.”

But even if Episcopalians and Anglicans united around the Great Commission found in Matthew 28 as the primary mission of the church, it would not be enough. Why? Because it’s not mission that binds the church together, but worship.

“No problem,” might be the response. “We are united in worship thanks to the Book of Common Prayer” (BCP). Indeed, the BCP is a wonderful gift. Still, even it is not enough when unaccompanied by a common conviction regarding what constitutes the gospel that the Church is to spread. Bishop Jefferts Schori alluded to this difference in a February interview with USA Today. There, she spoke of two strands of Christianity that could be found in Anglicanism: one that focuses on the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the need for human beings to repent of their sins, and one that in her mind is “more gracious” and affirms life. While she did not elaborate further, the “more gracious” strand must be the “ministry of global peace-making that makes a place and affirms a welcome for all God’s creatures” that she described in her investiture sermon. The first strand emphasizes humanity’s rebellion against God; the second one calls for the inclusion and affirmation of each individual. As the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, memorably said, “We have moved from sinners in the hands of an angry God to clients in the palms of a satisfied therapist.”

The BCP also is not enough when many Episcopalians take the truths of the gospel in a metaphorical, as opposed to a literal, sense. For example, many (not all) progressive Episcopalians uphold Jesus not as the “Son of God” in the orthodox sense of being “the only begotten Son of the Father” who has existed from eternity past. Instead, they take the previous terms metaphorically and view him as the greatest human example of what a life with God should look like. Is Jesus literally deity made flesh, or is he instead the greatest human being in the history of the world? If he literally is God and not just a human being, then the otherwise (from a human standpoint) outrageous claim recorded in the gospels that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18) and subsequent call to go into the world that everyone might believe in him and receive the forgiveness of sins makes sense. It has force and leads directly to the orthodox understanding of the primary mission of the church. But if Jesus is only the best possible example for Christians of what a life that reflects God’s character and heart looks like, then the Great Commission may well have less weight and his works of mercy, healing, and other forms of social witness may well take center stage—as they have in the Episcopal Church. And the social witness espoused by the Episcopal Church is almost uniformly a politically and socially liberal, as opposed to conservative, one.

Over 70 years ago, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, saw that mission alone could not unite Anglicans. In his famous work The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1990), originally published in 1936, he wrote:

There are many … within the Church who believe that its relevance must be found in its ability to take a lead in social and international policies, and who would meet the situation by attempts to make the Church “up to date” and “broad-minded” and “progressive” … [but] the relevance of the Church of the Apostles consisted not in the provision of outward peace for the nations, nor in the direct removal of social distress, nor yet in any outward beauty of the Church itself, but in pointing to the death of Jesus the Messiah, and to the deeper issues of sin and judgement (3–4).

Make no mistake: Sharing a common mission in the Episcopal Church and/or the larger Anglican Communion can be a great and powerful force for good. The MDGs on the whole are praiseworthy even though they certainly are not the only way to tackle the problems that they address. Furthermore, Anglicans can differ in non-essential elements of the faith and work in different ways to fulfill the various facets of the gospel. But mission alone will not create unity within a deeply divided part of the body of Christ. Unity in an understanding of and commitment to the gospel out of which mission flows is essential.


To everyone visiting this site,

May God richly bless you! The current tensions within the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church, are often and in many ways heart-wrenching. At the same time, there is a strong hope for the future of the Church that is grounded in trust and expectancy in the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, and a confidence in the gospel.

Anglican Action: The Blog Site aims to be a discussion forum on some of the issues that hopefully can spur us into action for a compelling, clear, Scripturally-based social witness. This witness should be grounded in what some call the "Great Tradition" of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

The "doors" to this site are open. Comments from every end of the Anglican spectrum -- from orthodox to progressive and everything inbetween -- are welcome.

A word about terminology: Any terms that we use to describe different groups of Anglicans all fall short. The Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon has set a good example by seeking to use neutral terms to describe the two broad camps within Anglicanism today, but even his terms of "reasserter" and "reappraiser" bother some Anglicans. I mostly will use the terms "orthodox" and "progressive," despite their limitations (which I recognize), as the terms that seem to be most approved by the groups in question.

A word about comments: All comments should be made with the "golden rule" firmly in mind and with respect for every poster as someone created in the image of God. If you're tempted to write anything uncivil, lewd, obscene, or insulting, consider walking away from the computer for a while before posting. Even if we have good ends in mind, if our means to those ends are bad, we've defeated our purpose. Let us all bear in mind that we will have to account for our words one day before the Lord Jesus Christ -- and may he give us the grace to repent whenever we fall.

May the peace of the Lord always be with you.