As I watch the sad saga of our bishops’ legalistic and punitive response to “traditionalist” bishops, dioceses, and parishes who are attempting to leave the Episcopal Church in order to form a new North American Anglican province, I am reminded of the defensive and dismissive response of the Church of England bishops to the Methodist Movement in the eighteenth century. The result of course was the founding and development of a separate Methodist Church, which is now much larger than the “Anglican” Church (at least as we are now constituted) on this continent. Imagine the strength and witness of Anglicanism today if the Methodists were welcomed as a preaching order within the Church of England. Surely, they would be more “orthodox” and we would be more “vibrant,” and together we would be much larger and much more effective for the Gospel in the world than we are divided. This, by the way, is exactly what Innocent III achieved when he embraced St. Francis and welcomed his friars into the ministry of the Catholic Church at the beginning of the thirteenth century, despite the fact that they were preaching such a dangerous “new” doctrine.
Now what I wonder is this: what would happen if the Presiding Bishop with the support of the House of Bishops were to welcome the formation of a new province for “traditionalists” within the Episcopal Church, allowing every diocese, parish, and church institution to join this province with a two-thirds vote by the appropriate parish meeting, convention, or governing body? She could even stipulate an acceptable window of a year during which this vote would be required to happen.
In this way, both “sides” of our church could continue in dialogue from protected positions of mutual respect without the present feelings of distrust and fear. Both would also be encouraged to grow by teaching the doctrines and practicing the liturgies they believe in, which they could proceed to do with conviction and enthusiasm. We could, for instance, continue to share the Church Pension Fund and Episcopal Relief and Development, and our primates and bishops could continue to meet on an annual basis to look for areas of agreement, common witness, shared costs and joint projects, but in a way which is more representative, more conducive to collegiality, and more focused on results than our present General Convention. I also wonder if it would not be appropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Consul to ask us to do this in one final attempt at unity and civility before they are forced by our actions to actively establish or passively recognize a permanent state of schism between us.
I would hope that the traditionalists would find such an arrangement better than what is now proposed as it would allow clergy, parishes and dioceses to reorganize without the loss of their properties and the cost of legal action. The risk for the Presiding Bishop, of course, is that too many will want to leave, but at least they will not be completely leaving and no one will remain because they have been bullied and threatened into submission. There is also the obvious advantage pointed out by others who have written to this magazine before me that such an action on her part and on the part of the rest of the House of Bishops would show true Christian humility and a more genuine openness to the power of the Holy Spirit to build the Church and thus to lead the Church in His, if not necessarily our own, direction.
–The Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan is Headmaster of Saint James School in Maryland; this article appears as a Guest Column in the February 8, 2009 Living Church on page 10 and is used with the author’s kind permission