So it’s official; we are past the worst of the crisis in The Episcopal Church. The presiding Bishop has told us so. The remarkable thing was surely not that she predicted the imminent end of the crisis, but that she admitted that there was a crisis at all.
The eerie thing about TEC has been the ‘business as usual’ attitude of its proprietors as parishes and dioceses have abandoned ship, clergy have been jettisoned and litigation has grown. In the Church of England we have been nervously asking: what in the world is going on, and could it happen here?
An answer to those questions is pressing. And so I will try to give it.
What has been happening? The answer is simple but unpalatable. There has been a logical and inevitable outworking of the Doctrine of Provincial Autonomy.
The idea that provinces of the Communion are sovereign in matters of doctrine and order was invented in the late Sixties/ early Seventies to facilitate the ordination of women to the priesthood.
At the time it must have seemed convenient and unexceptionable. The Communion had always been made up of national churches with their own discrete codes of canon law; provincial autonomy (though it had never actually been exercised in the areas in which it now came into play) was merely a function of that reality.
But ‘untune that string and Hark! what discord follows’. Provincial autonomy, as understood in the United States, had at one leap rendered doctrine and orders subject to geography and democracy. The POLITY of The Episcopal Church (O fatal and oft-repeated word!) had come to mean that the General Convention, by majority voting, could with impunity reverse the Vincentian Canon. It could do what previously had been unknown to any, anywhere and at any time.
It is strange that Americans, with the glaring example of the Civil War in their own history, were not more circumspect about the consequences of democratic self-determination. Its ultimate result is secession. For who is to determine (except arbitrarily) at what level or in what forum finality resides? Is it the Union, or the States? Is it the National Church or the dioceses or the parishes? And since a democratic vote is merely the aggregation of individual consciences, what place does the individual have in this economy?
In recent times The Episcopal Church has placed a high value on individual autonomy, allowing, for example, the continuance in office of plainly heretical bishops from Pike to Spong. More recently the case of Dr Ann Redding has highlighted this issue. Redding claimed to be ‘following Jesus’ into Islam. Now her bishop, Geralyn Wolf, is disciplining her for ‘abandonment of communion’ (the very accusation against those who have left TEC for the Southern Cone).
I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy for Redding. Her only offence is to fail to take the creeds literally. ‘We Christians, in struggling to express the beauty and dignity of Jesus and the pattern of life he offers, describe him as the ‘only begotten son of God’. That’s how wonderful he is to us. But that is not literal.’ If this is an offence, then it is a very Episcopalian offence. And Bishop Wolf is being inexcusably picky.
In short, it is a strange Church which can tolerate Jack Spong, eject Ann Redding and depose Bob Duncan – in the same breath and for the same reasons. It is a very strange and wholly inconsistent Church which will not extend its tolerance of individuals to dioceses or parishes; and which acknowledges the plenary self-determination of its General Convention, but will not allow the secession of its constituent diocesan Conventions.
What is happening in The Episcopal Church is the gradual unfolding of the implications of Provincial Autonomy. What is remarkable is that no one seems to have noticed the fact.
And can it happen here?
Naturally, what is happening in the United States is taking a very American form. An ecclesial re-run of the War between the States is hardly likely in the United Kingdom – where ecclesial devolution preceded political devolution by decades or even centuries, and where the latter is unlikely to lead to bloodshed. But if the question is: ‘will the liberal tendency in the Church of England prove as rapacious as its North American counterparts?’ the answer is, most probably, yes.
The aim of Liberal Entryism is to steal the assets (and especially the intellectual property) of the previous occupants. It is important to them to present themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Christian centuries. And in order to do so they have both to re-invent Anglicanism as traditionally tolerant of almost any doctrinal deviation (which, needless to say, it has never been), and to persecute to extinction those who have the temerity to point out the deception.
People talk about ‘illiberal liberals’ as though it were a paradox and as though there were in fact another kind. But I beg to differ. If, as the proponents of women’s ordination and homosexual equality have done, you advance your case by fabricating evidence and rewriting history, you have no course, in the end, but to treat as enemies those who seek to nail the lie.
And if you base yourself on an ethical a priori proposition, you have nothing to stand on except assertion, which will consequently degenerate into violence, physical or intellectual. We can agree with Lady Bracknell that it ‘reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?’
What is already evident in some quarters – where revisionists are crying ‘We are the real Catholics’ whilst shying bricks at the Holy See – cannot, as I see it, fail to become the stance of the whole church, which, to justify its self-will, will wilfully sever itself from the root of which it is a branch.
Mrs Schori may well think (but she would think that, wouldn’t she?) that the crisis in The Episcopal Church is nearing its conclusion. But there can be no doubt that the manner in which she is seeking to end it is likely to store up further problems in the Communion as a whole. Bishop Bob Duncan, who is not famous for his jokes, has a good one up his sleeve: that more bishops of the Anglican Communion recognize him than recognize his former Primate.
He is probably right.
–This article appears in the November 2008 edition of New Directions