Thoughts about the Anglican Communion in Crisis
Thanks to Larry, a member of Christ Church, I recently read "A Church Asunder" in The New Yorker by Peter J. Boyer, among the most thorough-going secular news pieces I have yet read on the current controversy in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church over human sexuality. It works its way convincingly through the minefield of theological differences as well as paints lucid, reasonably full pictures of people at the center of the debate: like Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, and Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh.
It got me thinking about the Anglican Communion and what has been seen for years at the heart of the Anglican tradition: compromise. It did indeed begin with the Elizabethan Settlement, a political-ecclesiastical solution to the bloody aftermath of Henry VIII's break with Rome, the rising power of Protestant Reformers, and Queen Mary's brutal attempt at restoring the Catholic order in England. It was expressed in this country as we were one of the only Protestant denominations able to hold things together during the Civil War -- mainly because our leadership decided not to come down firmly on one side or the other regarding slavery and the Confederacy. And it's a way we tried to keep out of big, sticky societal issues up and until the Civil Rights era.
And that's where the Episcopal Church, at least, began to diverge from its patient, sometimes painfully contradictory compromising.
Meanwhile, in Africa, Southeast Asia, South America and other parts of what is now commonly known as the Global South, missionary activities of the nineteenth century began to take root, planting rapidly growing and, now, burgeoning evangelical churches with a central commitment to traditional biblical teachings over and against native cultural traditions and the Western enlightenment. Lest we forget, substantial portions of the Anglican Communion were planted as part of a greater colonial movement coming out of the British Empire and, later, the United States. Compromise was a question within the colonial powers of the Northern hemisphere, not in the colonized parts of the Communion. Later, most of these colonized nations gained independence. . .but many remained heavily affected by their colonial past. In short, the Anglican Communion grew up dominated by a power structure rooted in England and North America. The Episcopal Church and the Church of England were largely looked to as the mother churches of the Communion, providing substantial support -- monetary and ecclesiastical -- to the other Provinces.
All of this began to change radically in the latter half of the twentieth century. With the Episcopal Church finally coming down in favor of Civil Rights in the 1960's, causing widespread dissension, the age of compromise began to come to an end. The Episcopal Church was no longer the church of the social status quo. Conservatives see this as the era the liberals took over, along with their sometimes radical "revisionist" teachings about core doctrines of faith and an insatiable thirst for social justice.
It was also during this period that so-called mainstream denominations like the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches began losing membership. Conservatives cite the turning away from orthodoxy for this decline. I'm more inclined to believe it was changing social trends in the American context away from churches as community centers. Probably, it was both. (Now, there's an old-fasioned Episcopalian both-and for you!)
In the seventies, two things happened -- the Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops began issuing statements to the Communion -- nonbinding though they were. And the Episcopal Church began ordaining women, a change in the traditions of Holy Orders that began to highlight our growing rift with large portions of the Communion, still committed to the traditions they had received from the missionaries and many of them still churches based in patriarchal cultures.
The trend continued from there, as the bishops of the Global South began to clamor for attention and influence at Lambeth, the gathering of all the Anglican bishops. The bishops and archbishops of the Global South were shedding their colonial shackles. And then the Episcopal Church in the United States began to question as a body the long-held views of human sexuality and gender that marginalized gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and the trans-gendered.
Episcopal seminaries in the United States were becoming hotbeds of pluralism. The radical theologies of the 1960's had taken root; interfaith movements were now aplenty; critical readings of Scripture were now widespread; and evangelicals were largely lumped into the camp of "fundamentalists," confined to their own seminaries or so offended by the new theological perspectives that they were effectively self-selecting out of the ordination process or the Episcopal Church altogether. A handful of Dioceses in the Episcopal Church became safe havens for clergy opposed to the ordination of women, avowedly orthodox evanglicals, and the harshest critics of the new directions the Episcopal Church was taking.
In 1998, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops crafted and passed, thanks in large part to the growing number of evangelical bishops from the Global South, a resolution reaffirming the traditional teachings about human sexuality, condemning homosexual expression (while acknowledging the pastoral needs of homosexuals in the Church). To many of the bishops of the Global South, it was a done deal. The Anglican Communion had spoken.
But Lambeth Resolutions, a relatively recent phenomenon of the Communion, are nonbinding in any and all Provinces, and through that loophole the Episcopal Church exerted its ecclesiastical freedom, consenting to the election of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Communion, in New Hampshire in 2003. To many evangelicals, this was a profound affront -- it claimed that openly gay, committed relationships were not morally suspect, apparently abandoning centuries of Christian tradition, dismissing what the missionaries had taught, and raising questions in many of the cultures that make up the Communion. For many in the Episcopal Church who had been advocating for decades for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the Church, it was a victory, following decades of theological and ecclesiastical struggle.
A Few Conclusions from History
Based on this very cursory treatment of our Communion's history, it seems to me the current rift in the Communion has been a long time coming. It has roots back in the nineteenth century and before, when colonialism brought evangelical Christianity to so-called "heathen" lands. It has roots in the incredible theological changes that swept the Episcopal Church (and much of Western Christianity) in the 1950's and 1960's. It has roots in contemporary science and psychology, whose advent has transformed our entire civilization. It has roots in the now emergent struggle of the twenty-first century between secular modernism on the one hand, and more traditional orthodox worldviews, particularly found in Christianity and Islam and, even more broadly, in traditionally patriarchal societies.
Human sexuality was only the last straw in a long-simmering conflict. I have to take Peter Akinola at his word: that homosexual expression in Nigeria really is largely seen as lower than the behavior of animals. It was recently criminalized there. I also have to take Akinola at his word that militant Islam in Nigeria sees any compromise on the sexuality issue as another reason to perpetrate violence against Christian communities. For this reason, he and others have taken a stance of breaking communion with the Episcopal Church. . .and blaming us for forcing them to make a fateful decision.
It is no overstatement to say, then, that the Anglican Communion is already broken, caught in a tangled web of cultural, ecclesiastical, theological, and power conflicts that have deep connections in our common past. The hurts are real. The anger is palpable. The struggles are as tangible as the people living with them.
But the harder pain to me is how the current conflict impairs our ability to proclaim the Gospel. How it funnels resources away from our witness here in a rapidly changing, post-Christian culture. And how it saps energy from much-needed ministries in places like Africa, where the blight of disease, hunger, and devastating poverty continues with alarming severity.
Critical reading of Scripture comes almost like second nature to me. Partially as a result of my seminary training, but even more out of my cultural context, I work to view Scripture in its originally intended light. I always question, almost without thinking, what authority a particular text or interpretation has in our distinctive place in history and our unique cultural and spiritual landscape. Above all, I continually ask what is the relevance of the Scriptural witness in our present relationship as individuals and communities with God?
That's heresy in many parts of the Anglican Communion right now. I can understand why. For a few years, I spent time in a Campus Crusade movement where the Bible was considered infallible, and wherever its "plain reading" contradicted the world's ways, it demonstrated the world's sinfulness. These were sources for comfort for me during crises of faith when I was an undergraduate student.
What I regard as intellectual honesty and struggles with real-life experiences drew me away from this view. . . and into conflict with biblical orthodoxy and many of her proponents.
Biblical authority means to me now, and many in the Episcopal Church, too, much more than a plain reading of Scripture. Instead, we engage Scripture in an open, heartfelt, and sometimes contentious engagement between the text, conscience, reason, and the prayerful discernment of the faith community. The Bible to me does indeed have profound authority, but an authority only properly worked out in conversation, inquiry, and prayer. I cannot, out of respect for the text and my own relationship with Jesus Christ, view the Bible simply as an instruction book that God handed us -- something that contemporary biblical orthodoxy sometimes suggests.
The Bible is a wildly broad, sometimes self-contradictory set of texts. It speaks with multiple voices about all kinds of ethical, moral, and spiritual issues -- and that includes sexual ethics. No one Church has ever even come close to fully following "biblical principles," because it would be impossible -- I say that not as a statement of our need for God's grace, but because of the Bible's inherent pluralism. Hence, claiming to be a "Bible-believing Church" often sounds to me slightly disingenuous. It would be more honest to say we are churches seeking God's Word in the deep themes of the Scriptural tradition and in the struggles, joys, stories and revelations we share with the biblical authors. God's law isn't in black-and-white on the printed page, but in our hearts as we reckon with the impact of our traditions on our real lives and our very real relationships with God. And that process doesn't boil down easily to soundbytes or church advertisements.
It may be revisionist to write this, but I see the Church as doing this throughout history. There have always been arguments over the nature of biblical authority and what is orthodox. Churches at different times and in different places have reached different conclusions about what certain texts mean for faithful people.
Yet this conflict over the nature of biblical authority is a key part of the current dispute in the Anglican Communion, and how we defend -- using Scripture -- our particular understandings of the nature of human sexuality, Church, and, perhaps most importantly, power.
Talking about Power. . .
A good friend recently said to me that he very much desires a "strong Anglican Communion." I asked him: in what sense, strong? Some desire a magisterium-like doctrinal body with power to discipline entire Provinces. In this way, the Communion can finally arbitrate and settle disputes like the one we're currently experiencing. Some believe a broader, more intentional conversation might at least help us to understand each other over the growing rift, and, perhaps begin to shrink the chasm between us. That might strengthen our bonds so we can retain the formal relations that have facilitated mutual support, the flow of resources to places and persons in need, and the solidarity of tens of millions of Christians in ministry and prayer. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be pointing in this direction.
I would like to think that Rowan Williams is correct. But I also ask if it is a realistic possibility.
In the discourse about the current conflict in the Anglican Communion, one critical element seems too often dismissed or overlooked, and it complicates matters considerably. That is the issue of power.
For decades, if not centuries, the Anglican Communion in the Global South has been largely under the economic, military, religious, and governmental collective thumb of the colonial powers: namely England, America, and other great powers of the Northern Hemisphere.
With the slow demise (praise God) of colonialism and (watch out) the rise of post-Christian cultures in the West, bishops of the Global South, with their wildly successful evangelical churches, are vying for power at Lambeth and in the Communion as a whole. They do not mince words as they see themselves as the new missionaries. . .now seriously considering ways of replanting what they see as "true" Christianity in the Northern Hemisphere.
Compromise is often based on the assumption that both sides operate from a position of strength -- most ideally from positions of relatively equal power. With just over 2 million Episcopalians in this country and tens of millions in Nigeria alone, perceiving each other as equals is difficult. Compound that with the fact that the Episcopal Church and other currently declining Western churches hold most of the wealth of the Communion, reaching substantive compromise on anything, let alone human sexuality, seems improbable at best.
It also behooves us in the West to remember that compromise has largely been our language: the language and ways of the (post?) imperial North. To begin to understand this controversy, we will have to begin to truly understand the power dynamics at work in the legacy of our history with the Global South. . .how accusations of imperialism leveled against the Episcopal Church in the present debate are not as baseless as we would like to think them. If nothing else, our assumption of our own freedom as a Province in the Communion is at least somewhat contingent on our nation's recent economic and, yes, military hegemony.
We can scarcely expect churches in the countries in the throws of abject poverty, the AIDS pandemic, or unparalleled social upheaval to understand our comfortable, and sometimes blithe articulation of our freedom. It gains us no credibility with those who rightly ask why we, as a nation, are still not sending the aid we could to help alleviate the long-standing challenges that continue to crush the lives of millions.
Our freedom, we still have to learn, comes with enormous moral responsibility and moving out of our longstanding tradition of noblesse oblige into real engagement with a world in need. I say this without any intention of dismissing our important work of bringing justice to gay and lesbian leadership in the Episcopal Church. The sexuality issue is only the latest question in an ongoing and often unarticulated controversy about power: power of nations over other nations, power between churches, power of one culture over another, power in sexual relationships, the power of men in relationship with women, the power of bishops, and the lack of power of the marginalized and the oppressed that Jesus, standing squarely in the tradition of the prophets, saw as an affront to God's grace.
In short, the cultural gaps over power in the Communion are far wider and much more complex that we had previously imagined. Shouting past each other in parliamentary proceedings (i.e. Lambeth), the media, or through highly convoluted documents (i.e. the Windsor Report) simply will not do. Nor will the meddling of political groups like the IRD in this country. The real road ahead is not legalistic compromise or settlement, but heartfelt, extensive, and genuine engagement as the Body of Christ far beyond the meetings of Primates and the legislation (binding or non-binding) of bishops.
What this would look like still remains difficult to imagine at every level of the Communion. We are, most certainly, at a crossroads. Parting ways may indeed be easier in the near term than anything else. But that says nothing about God's grace, and even less about our being the Body of Christ.
Hope for the Future: Moving beyond mere Compromise
As a child of an English immigrant, I have immediate kinship with two Provinces of the Communion: the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. Living in an international marriage, I have a stake in yet a third Province, the Nippon Sei Ko Kai. And I have good friends in ministry in the Anglican Communion, however broken it is, on five continents. We share a few things in common: faith in Jesus Christ and God's power through the Body of Christ to transform and heal broken lives, and all the relationship that flows from that -- including a love for the sacramental traditions of baptism and Eucharist, a deep engagement with our traditional texts, including our creeds and Scripture. . .and, yes, we do all have bishops who ideally connect us with the apostolic tradition of the Church. These commonalities are rooted in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the understanding at the foundation of the Anglican Communion (see the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 877-878). To me, that is enough.
But for some in the Anglican Communion right now, it is not. They seem to want to more precisely describe how Christ changes lives, and from what kind of life to what kind of life. Their worldview seems much clearer, more distinguishing between good and evil, and -- frankly -- much more polemical. Heaven and hell are clearer constructs. The way forward seems clearer and the benchmarks much more cut and dried.
I still believe in good and evil, but, remembering the parable of the weeds and the wheat, they often coexist too deeply to be so quickly and decisively rooted out, even in our individual hearts. Contemporary evangelicalism seems to me too easy at times. . .too facile. . .too dismissive of the complexities of this life. . .and too unwilling to embrace the infinite power of God's grace in our very real freedom to seek the Way of Christ in our unique lives. Most of all, casting the world in caricatures can demonize and readily scapegoat those whom Jesus called in the gospels the "least of these." And that, I am convinced, is indeed a heresy.
I deplore what has been done to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the name of Christ over the centuries. I also deplore neocolonialism, and our tendency to overprotect American military hegemony and Western economic interests without regard for the consequences in the lives of millions. The tragic effects of our profound neglect in relationship with our Anglican sisters and brothers and all the People of God in the Global South are indeed sinful and demand justice.
Moreover, while I have no appreciable impact on the decisions that will be made at General Convention this summer, I seriously wonder about the present state of the Episcopal Church in our pretty selfish collective desire to have our cake and eat it too. The real mistake in 2003 was thinking our decisions as an autonomous Province would not have the impact they did on the Anglican Communion. We took a stand. Now we have to live with the consequences, including the enmity we bear.
The Good News is that we may have inadvertently begun the process that has been a long needed: a process in which the Anglican Communion will be re-invented from a Commonwealth based on old colonial models into a truly vital church for the 21st century. (I have yet to read Ian Douglas' take on this, but it seems where he and other important voices in the Communion might be thinking.)
At present, General Convention, given our polity, cannot go back on its decision and "un-consecrate" Gene Robinson. Nor can we simply treat him as an aberration without being disingenuous to the openly gay and lesbian leaders who are now very much a part of this church. Nor can we continue to kid, in the name of compromise, evangelicals and other conservatives who have already declared us apostate based on emerging Christian understandings of human sexuality. Nor do I think we should do any of these things.
Sometimes, when insults are being hurled, there comes a time to leave the table. . .with the hope of returning when tempers have cooled. And, in our darkest moments, sometimes divorce is more desirable than remaining in an abusive relationship. Part of me asks, with the rising power of bishops agreeing with Peter Akinola's perspective, why should we stay where we are not welcome?
At the same time, departing is not a decision I would at all relish. I resent most the possibility of our letting breakaway congregations and Dioceses start their own new Anglican province on American soil -- another innovation that ironically breaks with tradition. I also struggle with allowing (arch)bishops outside this Province their expressed wish to begin missionary activities in our backyards. But, then, that is an articulation in me more of fear about turf than faith.
The real stake I have in this: the Anglican Communion has something to me much more valuable than merely preserving a legacy of history - a legacy that groans from its colonial past. The Anglican Communion of the future says something about what it means to be indeed seeking Christ together. To me and to many members of the Communion, the machinations of a few bishops notwithstanding, that speaks volumes about shared ministries, resources, ideas, and the enrichment of engaging each other across cultural, ideological, and even theological boundaries. Our unity in Christ matters to us more than thinking or even walking together in lock-step. And we do indeed have much to learn from one another about ministry and God in Christ.
Moreover, we, at least ideally, present an alternative vision of a world united with a commitment to peace, justice, and compassion. To me, that seems like something worth holding together. And it's worth faithfully seeking God's guidance in holding it together even in the face of the current disagreement about human sexuality and the complex undercurrents of an ongoing power struggle. But it will certainly take more than compromise to see us through this.
It will take determination on all sides to continue being the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ stays at table. The Body of Christ does not allow disagreement, however heated, to undermine the community of the People of God. There are signs of this recognition already taking hold across the ideological and theological divides in the House of Bishops. May it also happen with Nigeria and other churches in the Anglican Communion.
Mere compromise must give way to a thoroughgoing and faith-filled ecclesiology -- defining us not first and foremost as conservatives, evangelicals, liberals, heretics, orthodox, progressives or even Dioceses or national Provinces. Rather we must see ourselves foundationally as the Body of Christ. It's biblical and profoundly Christian. It's also profoundly Anglican, reformations and schisms aside. This call is the saving grace of the Windsor Report, and it may be the saving grace for a Communion in turmoil.
General Convention, with the blessing of the Spirit, will be mining for this kind of grace, too, in June, beginning with the recently released Report of the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
With my strong desire that we fully support our gay and lesbian leadership in the Church and my devotion to real relationships in a Communion called to witness to the unity of the People of God in Christ, I remain as unsettled about these matters as ever. I do not envy our bishops and delegates who quest for unity with these two Gospel imperatives in tension: a call for justice for the oppressed and a call for unity.
But I do believe one thing pretty much for certain: in the end, our faith is best expressed when we place our disagreements not in the hands of compromise, but with determination as the Body of Christ, into the hands and heart of a God who promises to lead us always into greater life. In my own small way, I will pray for that and work for that. Please join me!