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.