Owning one’s own actions with grace: Presiding Bishop Schori and the Archbishop of Canterbury

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Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Over the past few weeks, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), Katharine Jefferts Schori, has responded pointedly to the removal of TEC’s members from Anglican Communion commissions dealing with ecumenical relations and matters of the Communion’s “faith and order”.  The removal itself was announced at the end of May in a letter to the Communion by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  It was later explicated by the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Canon Kenneth Kearon, during visits to the Canadian church’s General Synod, and TEC’s Executive Council.   At issue, of course, is TEC’s decision earlier this year, to go forward with the consecration of a partnered lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as a bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles.  And this decision, according to Achbishop Williams and Canon Kearon, is one that goes counter to a consistently articulated position by Communion councils.  These councils have, over and over, insisted that church affirmations of same-sex partnerships are, on the basis of Scriptural teaching, contrary to the “mind of the Communion”, and therefore that e.g. the consecration of partnered homosexual bishops and church-administered same-sex blessings should cease among member churches.

Presiding Bishop Schori’s response has criticized Archbishop Williams’ decision on several grounds.  Here, let me address just three of her objections: first, that the Archbishop’s actions represent a move towards “centralization” within the Communion, viewed especially in terms of the application of “sanctions” against member churches;  second, that in removing TEC members from the Communion commissions in question, the Archbishop has somehow acted as if the proposed Anglican Covenant now before the Communion’s churches were already in effect when it is not;  third, that a proper understanding of the Communion’s life would entail the maintenance of diversity among Anglican churches, rather than the (punitive) pursuit of “uniformity”.

A common framework for ecclesial relationship?

These are all substantive issues, which I shall address one by one in a moment.  But to do so requires some larger common framework by which to understand the kinds of terms in use.  In this case, let me suggest a category for ecclesial relationships that is now known as the “Lund Principle”, named after the 1952 Third Conference of Faith and Order held in Lund (Sweden) where the “principle” was first enunciated.  The principle is this:   Christian churches should do together all things that can be done together, and do separately only that which must be done separately.  This appeal was made, in the Lund Report, not as a normative rule, but as a descriptive one that must be understood in terms of the greater Christian vocation to unity in all things, and “separation” in as little as possible.  Indeed, Lund was challenging the churches to a concrete unitive life, not the acceptance of the status quo of division:  “a faith in the one church of Christ that is not implemented by acts of obedience is dead”, the Conference wrote.

So, for Lund, the issues here had to do with the fullness of Christian life, not just compartments of it; and thus, “acting together” was a matter of faith and order – ministerial order and discipline – and vice versa.   Furthermore, “acting separately” was viewed as something that, for whatever granted convictions, stood as a barrier to unity.  (The division within the early ecumenical movement between “Life and Work” and “Faith and Order” is, in this light, deemed obviously artificial and ultimately misleading.)  Indeed, Lund over and over challenged the churches to self-criticism over these matters:  the “compulsion” to “act separately” was often one that grew out of sin, rather than a pure conscience. So the Lund Principle is as much (or, even more)  a negative judgment on the churches as it is a permissive direction.

I bring up the Lund Principle for a simple reason: TEC formally accepted it (as did the Lambeth Conference), and agreed to its application to all facets of its life.  Hence, its terms and meanings, at least in theory, represent a shared framework for assessing ecclesial relationships.  At the General Convention of 1976 (A034), TEC resolved the following:

And in the spirit of the “Lund Principle” approved by our church’s delegates and others attending the World Conference on Faith and Order in 1952 and affirmed by the 1968 Lambeth Conference, that the Episcopal Church at every level of its life be urged to act together and in concert with other churches of Jesus Christ in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction or church order compel us to act separately; and be it further

Resolved, That in all future presentations of budget and program to this General Convention, consideration be given to what efforts have been expended to secure data ecumenically and to plan ecumenically; and be it further

Resolved, That the dioceses be urged to establish a similar policy of ecumenical review and planning.

(I note that the final two “resolves” direct both the national office and diocesan churches to frame their lives – “budget and program” – in terms of ecumenical consultation and planning, precisely a matter at issue in the last 10 years of TEC’s life.)

In her June 2 Pastoral Letter to TEC, Presiding Bishop Schori noted the following:

The Episcopal Church recognizes that [its] decisions [regarding Glasspool’s consecration] are problematic to a number of other Anglicans. We have not made these decisions lightly. We recognize that the Spirit has not been widely heard in the same way in other parts of the Communion. In all humility, we recognize that we may be wrong, yet we have proceeded in the belief that the Spirit permeates our decisions.

Using the Lund Principle framework, we can see that TEC’s Presiding Bishop has now made it clear that TEC feels “compelled to act separately”.  The significance of this declaration cannot be overstated.

In itself, this declaration need not involve a “value judgment”, for it is but a description of a church’s actions vis a vis other churches.  More than that, however, such a description entails the ordering of an altered relationship with these other churches.  Recognizing this helps us see that Presiding Bishop Schori does not seem to grasp that such separate actions may not be coherent with continued unity in its fullness, but that, for whatever justified local “compulsions”, they must affect the kind of unity that will be enjoyed with others. Add to this, however, that Communion leaders have in fact judged TEC’s actions to be unacceptable Scripturally and doctrinally, and TEC’s desire to “go ahead” anyway makes the “separateness” of their decisions unavoidably compromising of unity, whatever TEC’s own judgments of the matter may be.

This is not a matter of evaluating in advance what is “essential” and what is “non-essential” to ecclesial unity  – that, after all, is a matter that only the whole church can decide.  It is rather a matter of stating the obvious:  insisted separateness must imply embodied separateness of a kind, and such separateness is not the same as unity. That is the Lund Principle at work!  One might even go further, as Archbishop Williams wrote in his Pentecost Letter: “To maintain outward unity at a formal level while we are convinced that the divisions are not only deep but damaging to our local mission is not a good thing.”

Ecumenical discussions, of course, presuppose that such separations exist – if they did not, there would be no discussions in the first place.  But as Lund itself stressed, no church can escape responsibility for such separations, however conscientiously pursued or maintained.  Ecumenical engagement demands such sobering honesty, as well as every effort to resolve the challenges posed by those actions about which honesty is required.

But it is also clear that the parallel between ecumenical relations and relations within the Anglican Communion can be misleading:  the Communion’s churches, so the very notion of “communion” entails, exist in a real “oneness” in an ecclesial sense;  while ecumenical relations derive from an acknowledged imperfection within and obstacle to such oneness.  Still, the line of difference between the two is historically ever shifting, as we see today.  And in both cases – within ecumenical relationships and within Anglicanism as a “Communion” — the ecclesiological standards of communion are understood as being the same.  If they were not, the difference between a communion on the one hand, and an ecumenical relationship that is challenged to go further, on the other, could never be made.

Thus, one confusion in the current debate within Anglicanism is that the Communion is often treated (as by the Presiding Bishop) as an ecumenical partnership; another, is that the principles that govern “communion” and “ecumenical partnership” are not properly identified.  This has led, on the part of Presiding Bishop Schori for instance, to a fundamental misunderstanding, it seems to me, of the ecclesiological reality of communion:  contra Schori, in a “communion it is not up to one member to declare that their actions are without meaning to another or to the majority or to the whole.  Such a member can only say that it “must do” what it does, and thereby accept the fact that it has acted separately, with all the consequences of such separation. Within the civil sphere, this is called “civil disobedience”: citizens who share a commonwealth, yet disagree in conscience with some fact of its ordering, “disobey” an aspect of that ordering; at the same time, they accept the responses of the state made to their disobedience,  precisely because they acknowledge and submit to the civil society’s common embrace of their lives.  In the Church, such conscientious separation entails the acceptance of developing degrees of disunity as embodied in one’s own relationships with others.

Yet the Presiding Bishop’s letter, and subsequent statements, seems to ignore these ecclesiological meanings, in favor of another theology of the church, which one might call a theology of “pneumatic diversity” that has little bearing on questions and realities of unity.  This may indeed be a theology that has coherence in the long run – although I do not see how it can, on both Scriptural and historical grounds –but it certainly is not a theology that undergirds the ecumenical understandings of communion that TEC has, in the past, upheld and undertaken to uphold within the Anglican Communion.

And it is important to grasp this novel notion the Presiding Bishop has put forward, of diversity as unity, rather than “separated action as disunity”, because its novelty explains the otherwise incoherent arguments Schori makes regarding TEC’s drift away from representative standing within the Communion.

In this light, let us look at Schori’s objections to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decisions regarding the removal of TEC members from ecumenical and faith and order commissions.

Centralization and sanctions

The Presiding Bishops accuses Williams of seeking some kind of “centralized” authority, and exercising it in an “unanglican” manner.  This objection ignores a host of historical and ecclesial realities.  Most importantly, the particular issues dealt with have to do with TEC’s representative character within the Communion; but Schori has herself admitted that there is nothing representative about TEC’s views on these matters at hand:  TEC has chosen to act “separately”, which is by definition to act “on its own”.

That the Communion has always understood its character as a gathered body to be one based on some kind of fundamental common face to the world is historically uncontroversial.  It finds its expressed origin in the beginnings of TEC itself, as it sought to order its life, newly independent of the Church of England.  The need for recognition of shared doctrinal and moral standards, without “stumbling blocks”, goes back to the 1786 letter from Canterbury and the English bishops to the new Episcopal Church, a letter that affirmed such shared standards as necessary for e.g. providing ministerial testimonials, and thus for the sake of continued “communion” (“spiritual” in this case).  The American Prayer Book’s Preface reiterated this general understanding of related identity (using the term “discipline” in the way that “order” is used today),  and the church passed, in 1786, an “Act of General Convention” “declaring [TEC’s] steadfast resolution to maintain the same essential Articles of Faith and discipline with the Church of England.”  Soon after, these kinds of matters were ensconced canonically, in something like the 1789 canon (IX) on the matters of recognition of orders and of episcopal “authority” of a [foreign] bishop, upon whose “testimonial” to the mutually understood doctrinal integrity and “moral” character of clergy depended “communion” with TEC.  Successive Lambeth Conferences (beginning with Lambeth 1867, Resolution 8 ) reiterated in different ways the fact that to be a member of the “Anglican Communion” embodied shared doctrinal and practical commitments, bound genetically to the Church of England’s original bequest.  And just on this basis, TEC itself affirmed, at its General Convention  in 1868, the first Lambeth Conference’s Encyclical regarding that common bequest.  It defined the bequest in terms of an “acknowledgment” of “one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, […] connected by common Formularies,” and expressed in the Scriptures, Creeds, commitments of the “primitive church” and agreements of the first four General Councils. (These elements have informed the some of the Covenant’s substance.)

Indeed, TEC at the time joined in the kind of “sanctions” Presiding Bishop Schori now decries as “unanglican”, by “reminding” observers of its common repudiation of the South African bishop, John William Colenso’s, erroneous views regarding Scripture:  “this Church accepts the full spiritual validity of the deposition and excommunication of Dr. Colenso, pronounced by the Metropolitan and Bishops of the South African Church ; and we will regard him as deposed and excommunicate accordingly, until he shall so turn from his errors, and be restored to full communion by the Church of South Africa, which God of His infinite mercy grant” (1868, 20th day).  In doing this, TEC’s House of Bishops was announcing what they had already effectively done as a gathered body of “communion” bishops at the Lambeth Conference of the preceding year: upholding the actions of the Canterbury Convocation with respect to South Africa on a world-wide Anglican basis of shared episcopal discernment and decision.  The interplay of unity, recognizability and separateness is here clearly at work.

By 1868, then, the Rev. William Lamson, who headed the new American Episcopal congregation in Paris, could report to the General Convention on the gathering of American and English bishops and priests at his church the previous year:  this was a symbol, he announced, “of the essential oneness and complete intercommunion of these two branches of the Church. By an alteration of services in both uses, and by the conjoint ministrations of the Bishops and Clergy of both Churches, this unity was completely declared”.  That Lamson was describing this “Church” in terms of the Communion itself is likely.  But in any case, it was recognized and interchangeable ministries that marked this “essential” oneness, a oneness that expressed itself in the earlier Lambeth Conference’s gathered life in action.

TEC’s own understanding of her identity in this regard has been consistent with this, until very recently, as the 1967 Preamble to the Constitution (drawn from the language of the 1930 Lambeth Conference) makes clear:  the Preamble defines TEC primarily, not as an American denomination at all, but in terms of her membership in the Communion, and in relation to an “historical faith and order” that it shares with other members of this “fellowship”, bound to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

And so, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has, after more than 7 years of consultation with various groups and commissions and “instruments of unity” within the Communion, merely stated a consistent judgment regarding TEC’s actions:  they are actions that, in contrast to a given identity from the past, have now been taken “separately” from the Communion’s common self-presentations.  In removing TEC representatives from ecumenical and faith-and-order groups within the Communion, he has hardly pressed towards a “centralization” of control over the Communion.  Rather, he has thus articulated a fact that is well-known and admitted by Schori herself:  TEC has acted, in conscience, separately from others.   And in doing this, the “unity” of the Communion’s life has been altered at least in this regard.  It makes perfectly good sense for TEC to engage in any discussions it may desire with other Christians, as they in turn are willing to engage;  but it no longer makes any logical sense for TEC to speak out of the unity of the Communion’s views, such as they are.  Canon Kearon’s own remarks regarding such discussions in light of TEC’s actions – that “they are at the point of collapse” — indicate that the larger Communion’s ecumenical partners understood this the same way.

Is the Archbishop preempting the Covenant’s adoption?

It should be clear that the Covenant, in this regard, does not represent the invention of a new set of dynamics.  Rather, as has been the claim from the beginning of the Covenant’s formulation, it seeks to express the character of the Communion already in place, if not always defined explicitly.  To describe the actions Archbishop Williams’ decisions, let alone of the Covenant’s proposed common accountability, as based on a “punitive” model of the Church seems, again, historically in error, as noted above:  the “bonds” of “communion” among what became the Anglican churches, were those of “acting in unity”;  their solidity has been measured inversely to concrete actions made in “separation”.  And such “separation”, when it is accomplished through deliberate action, is a term of description, not of punishment.

Do the churches of the Anglican Communion need to wait for a Covenant to know this?  Hardly.  For how could we thereby make sense of e.g. TEC’s 19th-century affirmation of the Church of England’s and South Africa’s excommunication of Bp. Colenso, and its engagement at the Lambeth Conference in these matters?  Indeed, it is important to realize that the Anglican Communion’s emergence as an entity – referred to for the first time, it seems (and by Americans first of all?) only in the 1850’s – gathers decisional substance only bit by bit, with discussion but without rancor or dispute, because the character of unity in doctrine and discipline was a presupposition, rather than an invention, to the members of the growing Communion.  And, as a presupposition, the conditions of its meaning demanded ongoing fashioning of methods for its formal sustenance and definition, i.e. “standards” and structures.

But the standards and structures were expressive of, not creative of, a prior ordering of life. There were no constitutionally organized Communion legislatures that set up the Lambeth Conferences, or the ACC or the Primates’ Meeting, let alone consistent means by which Anglican representatives were chosen to head the Faith and Order movement (as Anglicans like Charles Henry Brent and William Temple did) and other bodies in an astonishing succession of world ecumenical leadership. Invitations were offered;  ad hoc suggestions were made and channels of decision-making proposed and followed.  No one questioned these gatherings, emerging structures, and representative choices as being without legislative foundation, largely because their articulation came out of an already acknowledged “unity”.   It was only as decisions in separation were made by Communion churches (and here we do need to note that other churches besides TEC are representing the Lund Principle at work1), not once but in consistent repetition, that the question of “legitimation” was self-consciously posed, posed mostly, however, by those like TEC whose actions no longer engaged the coherent self-identity of other Anglican churches.   But, as with Colenso’s appeal to the civil powers of England proved, such questions are raised in demonstration of the distance apart that churches had already moved, one from another.

It is not the case, therefore,  that the proposed Covenant has somehow been prematurely implemented “against TEC”;  the dynamics of unity and separation have been well-known within the Communion for some time.  Rather, the ongoing character of Communion decision-making continues, without yet the regularized features a Covenant may provide.  But when these features are provided, they will organize something already given.

The character of communion and diversity

Is all “diversity” of viewpoint the same thing as “separation”?  The Presiding Bishop is right to bring up the question of appropriate “diversity” within the Communion.  But it is also a question that Archbishop Williams has long grappled with as well. Only recently, he spoke in Durham (January 2009) on the ways that Anglicans have, from the early 16th-century, always sought ways of discovering and employing a shared language of consensus, that could properly place diverse particulars of religious commitment in a more universally recognizable framework.  This has been an Anglican commitment and tradition, so that “while no external authority can be invoked to coerce the local church in the realm of England, this does not imply that that church’s doctrine and discipline are no-one’s business but its own”.  In his November 2009 Willebrands Lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome, he challenged Roman Catholics to take more seriously such shared consensus about central ecclesial claims, not allowing a “diversity” in understandings of ordained leadership to undermine the deeper agreements Anglicans and Catholics have reached regarding the character of communion as a common means of “filial holiness” in Christ and with one another.  This argument demonstrates a far subtler approach to the question than Schori acknowledges, for it realizes that there are diversities that do not undercut certain recognizable agreed-upon commonalities;  by the same token, however, such distorting diversities do exist.  The point is to take the trouble together to make these distinctions, which cannot be assumed and require the work of consultation.   And thus, in the recent Pentecost letter to which Schori objects, Archbishop Williams sought to emphasize how diversity and “recognizability” within the Communion are not always, as now, mutually supportive characteristics, and that such consensually “acceptable” recognizability of shared faith and order must inform the Communion’s representatives as they seek common understandings with other Christians.

But the whole question of diversity and communion more broadly has been a consistent Anglican concern, at least since the late 18th-century English bishops required of the nascent Episcopal Church that she reorder her Prayer Book (e.g. replacing those parts stricken from the Americans’ proposed version of the Apostles’ Creed), if she wished to have her ministers and bishops “recognized” through a process of continuous succession with the English Church.   It was still a question when the first Lambeth Conference met and resolved that “it is necessary that [newer Anglican churches] receive and maintain without alteration the standards of faith and doctrine as now in use in [the Church of England]”, echoing in this instance TEC’s initial commitments from 1786.  The bishops then explained that, nevertheless, “each province should have the right to make such adaptations and additions to the services of the Church as its peculiar circumstances may require”.   Immediately, however, the bishops noted a proviso, “that no change or addition be made inconsistent with the spirit and principles of the Book of Common Prayer”, a standard that, if rather loose, at least pointed to a text.  Further, the bishops insisted more concretely, “that all such changes be liable to revision by any synod of the Anglican Communion in which the said province shall be represented”.   And here, obviously, “representation” is not viewed as a veto power for one’s own interests, but rather as a participatory role bounded by unitive action.

One can argue whether this Lambeth resolution was consistently followed through in a strict sense.  And so, with respect to the broader diversity-unity question, the Communion has tended to address difficult issues on this score as they have arisen, rather than through a strict censorial mechanism, whether constitutional or confessional.  But does this lack of a defined template that can measure when diversity becomes “too much”, or when the “recognizable becomes unrecognizable” indicate that in fact there is no means of discernment at all?  Certainly not, since the dynamic of recognition – unity and separation — has performed this task quite adequately:  when one church is no longer recognized as representing other Anglicans before the world, diversity has exceeded the measure of unity.

And, indeed, if the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, based on whatever means by which he has made this determination (in this case, years of consultation) no longer recognizes TEC as representative of the Communion that – for TEC and many other Anglican churches – is substantively defined by their bonds with him, then it is a simple descriptive fact that TEC’s particular convictions have undercut common Communion commitments.  There is not some other mechanism that awaits application to reveal this fact.   Indeed, the claim made by the Presiding Bishop that a Covenant is needed first before this can be done, — and therefore it cannot be done now — only underscores TEC’s choice to move to the side of previously acknowledged means of discernment regarding appropriate Christian diversity with the Communion, and to claim a kind of Communion chaos on this matter that even more desperately seeks some kind of covenantal resolution.

Finally, what are we to make of the fact that the Presiding Bishop and other leaders of TEC have long sought to undercut the strength of local diversity within the American Church – there are vast swaths of no-go zones in TEC for traditional and conservative Episcopal clergy and scholars, imposed quite consciously by bishops and the committees they lead?  Or that they have now put in place disciplinary canons (the revised Title IV rules) that would give the Presiding Bishop the arguably unconstitutional power to inhibit fellow bishops without prior consultative permission?  None of this suggests a stable understanding of the relationship between diversity and Christian unity, despite claims to the contrary in her Pastoral Letter.   While the diversity-unity question deserves (and has received) significant Scriptural and theological scrutiny, its practical import is nonetheless contained within these kinds of “actions”, as Lund put it:  one judges the character of a tree of unity by its fruit, if always somewhat retrospectively.

Owning one’s own actions with grace

In a real sense, both Archbishop Williams and Presiding Bishop Schori agree on how TEC’s actions relate to the Communion’s common life:  they are actions taken separately from that life. What they disagree on is whether these actions thereby alter the degree of unity TEC now inhabits in relation to the Communion.   Yet, as I have tried to illustrate, that alteration is an inevitable ecclesiological consequence that is bound up with acting separately, at least as such action is understood within the framework of ecclesial relationship that most churches have long accepted.   That consequence is not one of punishment or juridical coercion.  It is simply an essential aspect to separated actions.  Nor are such actions as such “wrong”, although in this case the stated consensus of the Communion is that they are Scripturally illegitimate, which makes their insisted performance something that deliberately challenges the oneness of Anglican witness.  Thus, considered by all sides, even by TEC,  they are a mark of disunity.  It is that mark, and that mark alone, that is being acknowledged now by the Archbishop.  It would be another mark, the mark of graciousness, if the Presiding Bishop could, in this instance at least, agree with him on this point and accept the meaning of this reality.

June 29 2010 07:53 pm | Articles