It’s Time To Get Real

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Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Paul Bagshaw has published an essay entitled “End Game” that requires a response. Citing a report by George Conger, he agrees that we are at the “end of the Communion we once thought we knew;” and he has provided a very credible sketch of what Anglicanism will look like going forward. What he has not done is point out what a disaster this ending and this future are. Indeed, there is something almost surreal about his failure to make clear the true import of the likely course of events he presents. Hence the title of this response “It’s Time to Get Real.” The purpose behind this title is to present the full extent of the disaster and the bleak prospects for the future signaled by this end.

First, however, in what sense are we, as Bagshaw rightly says, at an end? Among other signs of the end Bagshaw lists these changes that follow from the Dublin meeting.

1. The Primates Meeting is to be a consultative body with no powers either of instruction or direction. In short, the Primates, in contradistinction to the request of the Lambeth Conference, are now powerful and influential in their own provinces but have no reach outside the locale in which they function.

2. According to Bagshaw, in the new arrangement extraordinary power has been concentrated in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The standing committee of the Primates is a “consultative council” to the Archbishop but has no “veto” over what he might decide to do. Indeed, neither the meeting of the Primates nor their standing committee has veto powers over the rulings of what appears of be an emergent monarchical Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop is now Primus but no longer inter pares.

These changes are substantial and highly questionable. Within the Anglican Communion, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops has been accorded moral authority throughout the Communion. Lambeth has no power to legislate but it does have power to state its mind on behalf of the communion and to make requests that place the burden of proof on those provinces or dioceses that might demur. It has this authority because it consists of Bishops in council, but under the present Archbishop it has become merely a forum for sharing information and opinion. Nevertheless, as a conciliar fellowship with moral authority, the fellowship of Anglican Bishops asked the Primates Meeting to assume an enhanced responsibility. Was this request withdrawn? It was not! Nevertheless, as ACI has pointed out, the actions taken at the Dublin meeting made no reference either to the “enhanced responsibility” Lambeth requested the Primates assume nor to subsequent actions by the Primates intended to exercise that responsibility.

It would appear that precedent now means nothing. Yet, Anglican polity has functioned for years because of deference to precedent. Now, however, the Communion is confronted with a meeting of the Primates called by the Archbishop of Canterbury at which the Primates, ignoring precedent altogether, hand over enhanced authority to the Archbishop. When added to the following factors, the actions of the Dublin meeting leave the Anglican Communion with no means to sustain communion across provincial borders:

(1) the unwillingness of the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow either The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada to suffer any consequences for their disregard of the requests of all four of the Instruments of Communion and so ignore his own statements by appointing TEC members to ecumenical commissions as well as a Canadian bishop who has been instrumental in formally authorizing same-sex blessings in her diocese
(2) the failure of the last Lambeth Conference either to represent the episcopal voice of the communion or offer it any instruction and
(3) the debacle of the last meeting of the ACC in Jamaica and the ACC’s controversial new constitution.

What was a communion is no longer a communion. It is now something else on top of which sits an Archbishop of Canterbury who claims novel authority yet does not enjoy the confidence of those provinces in which the majority of Anglicans reside.

What shape then is Anglicanism likely to assume going forward? Among others, Bagshaw makes the following astute observations about our likely future after Dublin.

  1. Each Province is autonomous.
  2. There is no longer pressure to harmonize the actions of the various provinces.
  3. The metaphor of “family” (rather than communion) is used to describe relations between the provinces. Though members of the family may disagree, they continue together.
  4. Togetherness will, however, apply only to those members who are prepared actually to stay together.
  5. Within the “family,” there will be a renewed emphasis on “regionalism.” Genuine togetherness, however, will be difficult to achieve, faced as the provinces will be by a centralizing agenda pulling things toward Canterbury on the one hand and the centrifugal forces of autonomy on the other
  6. Still, regional grouping might supply “an intermediate layer of debate and discussion” that might enable better “coordination” within a “looser communion.”
  7. In these circumstances power will flow to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and leadership of global deliberation will flow to the ACO and the Lambeth staff.
  8. The ACC will be marginalized
  9. The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion “will become a rubber stamp to endorse decisions made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Secretary of the Communion, the ACO and the Lambeth Palace staff.”
  10. The Covenant, if still around, will likely be marginalized and become a document of little consequence.

I do not agree with Bagshaw on all the points he makes, but I do believe most of them will prove accurate. What troubles me is not that he foresees these things. I do as well. What troubles me is the benign, sanguine way in which he sketches the future of Anglicanism. Clearly a bureaucratically structured federation of autonomous churches meets with his approval. However, as I look into this future I am frankly horrified because there is another way of describing this future that sees it as far from benign.

Bagshaw envisions regional groupings of autonomous provinces committed to ongoing conversation and where possible cooperation. These groupings need not, however, be committed to mutually recognized forms of belief and practice. In his future, there need no longer be “eagerness to maintain unity in the bond of peace.” There need be only occasional meetings that might prove mutually advantageous or serve to further regional and local self-interest. What Bagshaw sketches as the future of Anglicanism more closely resembles the British Commonwealth of Nations than the body of Christ. In Bagshaw’s world adjustments to division are perfectly acceptable. As in all free trade zones, divisions simply become opportunities for regional cooperation and mutual benefit on the one hand or self-assertion on the other

I am profoundly troubled by all this first because Bagshaw’s view of an Anglican future gives the lie to all that God is up to; namely, to unite all peoples in Christ so that all people worship the one true God as God truly is. I am also troubled because the free trade zone of autonomous churches that may well lie in our future is to be ordered by centers of bureaucratic or local power rather than by Bishops whose particular charism is to maintain unity of faith, holiness of life, and peace within the church. If one thing the recent meeting in Dublin makes clear, it is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates there assembled have abdicated the responsibility of Bishops to maintain catholic belief and practice not only within but also beyond the borders of their particular dioceses or provinces. I am troubled, in short, because Dublin spells the end of catholic order within the Anglican future he foresees. Bagshaw is quite comfortable with this eventuality. Indeed, in one place he makes the amazing statement that the discussion of the Primates present in Dublin about the differences in their roles in their various provinces was not about theology but how “to work better in the new Anglican Communion.” Just imagine a communion where theology and polity have nothing to do one with another! Bagshaw can do so with no difficulty at all. I can only say, I have a great deal of difficulty!

Indeed, I am more than troubled. I am horrified by the future Bagshaw foresees because in it he appears to find no meaningful place for those who absented themselves from the Dublin meeting. At best, these Primates, who come from the most populous provinces of the former communion, are people who, in his opinion, have left the family. The only reference made to those absent concerns those he calls (in a disparaging manner) “GAFCONites.” These are but a “minor irritant.” A brother or sister in the Lord from whom you have become separated is now a “minor irritant?”

Does this mean that those absentees who are not GAFCONites are also minor irritants? Are the Primates of South East Asia, Jerusalem and the Middle East along with the Indian Ocean no more than “minor irritants?” Are the Primates of Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria also “minor irritants?” They appear to be; and I can only wonder how this can be so. As my colleague Ephraim Radner has with considerable eloquence pointed out these Primates come from locations where the poor of the earth are concentrated. To refer to them as a minor irritant is, by implication, to refer also to their witness, suffering and martyrdom as a part of that irritant. The Primates who stayed away from Dublin did not do so because they had left the family. They did so because part of the family will not hear what they have to say, and the only way they have left to protest is to refuse to attend this particular meal. Their prayer is that the family will soon again dine together and share one cup. They seem to understand better than those who met in Dublin just how terrible this division is.

My guess also is that they understand better than those who were there in Dublin how much all suffer from this terrible divide. The absentees will lose much needed support from the rich and the rich will deafen themselves to the witness of the poor who used to sit with them at table. What a terrible thing!

February 09 2011 04:02 pm | Articles