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.


Kevin said...
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Kevin said...

You seem to be a lone voice in your analysis of the HoB meeting. You're certainly the most reserved actual analysis I've seen.

I think your take has some real merit to it. First because it does not make a prediction of the future (which only the Lord knows), but I also noted the rhetoric difference compared to the usual language.

I'm poor at guessing the motive behind changes, but out of character behavior is a sign something is up.

This is an usual document and I think your 'translation' is probably pretty accurate.

Ralph Webb said...

Well, I'm not going to pretend it's a full analysis; it takes one angle that I didn't see others hitting. I'll be writing another post when time permits, but I've got other deadlines to worry about. :)