Patient Endurance – On Living Faithfully in a Time of Troubles

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Thursday, January 1st, 2009

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance
(Rev. 2:2a)

When referring to the response given to the tumult within The Episcopal Church (TEC) by those with more traditional theological and moral commitments, it is at present a matter of common parlance to speak of an “inside” and an “outside” strategy.  At first glance, reference to an “inside strategy” and an “outside strategy” suggests two groups that have similar goals but employ different tactics to reach those goals. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this way of describing the two groups serves to distort rather than clarify the differences between them.  It is of signal importance that these differences be clarified and openly debated.  They in fact reveal fault lines in understanding the nature of the Christian witness itself that threaten to divide the entire Anglican Communion.

In a recent address, Bishop Duncan said of the proposed new province, “We need a unified body both to heal the divisions among ourselves and to give the broader Anglican Communion a unified and coherent partner with which to be in relationship.”  When taken in conjunction with other remarks he has made, it is clear that the goal of the “outside strategy” with which Bishop Duncan is associated is in fact not a new province but a replacement province–one that will take TEC’s place within the Anglican Communion.  Given the nature of this goal it seems initially plausible to seek a province that lies “outside” TEC’s jurisdiction.

Several things are said about the goal of those who hold to what is called by contrast the “inside strategy.”  One is that their goal is the “reform” of TEC from within.  Reform obviously requires an “inside strategy.”  In response to assertions by those who supposedly hold to an “inside strategy” that their goal is not “reform” it is then said that these insiders “lack the will to resist” and that their “plan seems to be to ‘die in place’.”  In short the “inside strategy” is no strategy at all according to its “outside” critics.  Upon examination it appears to them as merely a passive stance in the face of an inevitable collapse within TEC of effective resistance to the revisionist goals of the progressive forces that for years have held the levers of power.

As we have viewed this discussion over time, it has become increasingly clear that the distinction between inside and outside strategies is unhelpful. It in fact has become both incoherent and obfuscating.  To be sure, those who favor what we will from now on call a “replacement province” have strategic goals and tactical plans.  It does not seem to us, however, that “strategy” and “tactics” best illumine what those whose resistance remains within TEC are about.

At one time this way of speaking was indeed quite accurate.  There were strategies and tactics designed to use meetings of the House of Bishops and the General Convention to stop TEC’s progressive march toward liturgical and even doctrinal Unitarianism.  It is now the case that the people we know do not see any near possibility of reform and they no longer pursue such purposes.  They have recognized the futility for near term of politically realistic change.  However, they do hold certain convictions, and they do have certain commitments that give shape to their present actions—actions that hardly qualify as passive.  These convictions and commitments are reflected in patient and enduring witness rather than in strategies and tactics designed to bring about desired future states.  They grow from trust that God will use faithful witness in his own time and in his own way to bring about his purposes—purposes that do not stem from our imaginings or our desires but from God’s justice and God’s mercy.

Just what are these convictions and commitments?  Here we must summarize a host of conversations to which we have been party over the past several years.  The convictions revealed are these.

  1. The weakness and disarray of TEC (and indeed of the churches of the West) are best understood as the result of divine displeasure at pervasive misconstruals of Christian belief and practice coupled with a common life that blows neither “hot nor cold.”
  2. It is a form of delusion and disobedience to place oneself and ones friends outside the judgment God intends for the health of his church.  Rather, fidelity calls for acceptance of the judgment as both just and merciful.  It calls also for faithful Christians to live through that judgment to the end. This way is none other than the way Christ himself walked, believing not in a future state of his devising and constructing but in God’s power, through his death, to give life to the dry bones of his people.
  3. The pattern of Christ’s life suggests the necessity of a clear differentiation between a way faithful to his life and teaching and one that has simply assumed the form of the culture with which the leadership of TEC has identified.
  4. The obedient form of differentiation suggested by the pattern of Christ is not separation but faithful persistence along a different path within the fellowship of the church that has nurtured one as a Christian but has, nonetheless, gone astray.

The commitments required by differentiation within TEC are these.

  1. Commitment to the Windsor injunctions to eschew (a) the blessing of sexual unions between persons of the same gender; (b) the ordination to holy orders of people involved in such relations; and (c) the unlicensed crossing of diocesan or provincial boundaries to provide Episcopal oversight.
  2. Commitment to an Anglican Covenant of mutual subjection in the Body of Christ that contains clear consequences for Provinces that do not choose to ratify the Covenant or do not abide by its terms once they have committed to them.
  3. Commitment to the historically established Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the effective symbol of the unity of a worldwide Communion of Churches.
  4. Commitment to the developed Instruments of Communion as the effective means of ordering the common life of the Communion.
  5. Commitment to the evangelization and teaching of those who do not follow Christ as Lord and Savior, and service to those in need and distress.
  6. Commitment to effective Christian formation of a new generation of well equipped lay and clerical leadership through new forms of theological education within the parishes and dioceses of TEC.
  7. Commitment to partnership (κοινωνία) in these goals with the various provinces of the Anglican Communion.

These convictions and commitments are a form of specifically Christian witness rather than a strategy designed to bring about a desired future state.  The future state of TEC and the Anglican Communion rests in God’s hands.  Our work is not to take this kingdom by force of design and tactic, but to make a faithful witness, practice faithful endurance, and wait upon the Lord to see what he will make of what we do and say.

The present conflict within TEC has brought these convictions and commitments into the full light of day and set them off from the strategies and tactics of separation.  It is in no way helpful to cover over the differences, but it is also very unhelpful to misrepresent or misunderstand them.  These differences are real and they stem from very different understandings of the nature and calling of the church and of the present circumstances of its life.  These are differences that call for careful thought and thorough debate rather than ill will and precipitous action.

It seems that those who have formed the Anglican Church in North America have decisively entered the path toward a replacement province.  The time for debate about this choice has now past.  Time and time alone will tell what future lies in store for this venture.  We shall not attempt to predict an outcome.  If our theology is right, such an attempt would be at a minimum presumptuous.  What we can do, however, is point out the ways in which the notion of an inside and outside strategy distorts the nature of a serious difference in the understanding of our Christian vocation that demands careful discernment.  We can also do what we can to present the nature of this difference to the Communion with a prayer that these two ways can be assessed in a manner that leads to the peace of the church.

Philip  Turner
Christopher Seitz
Ephraim Radner

January 01 2009 09:42 am | Articles