The way the individual Orthodox churches have handled international disagreements between them is unfamiliar to Anglicans but well known to the Orthodox.7 The disagreements have often been concerned with rival jurisdictions, which might seem trivial compared with the doctrinal and ethical problems facing Anglicans. Nevertheless, the serious way the Orthodox have handled them is illuminating. Since the various Orthodox churches are independent of each other, irreconcilable disagreements between them have tended to result in excommunication, though this is not necessarily mutual. In 1870 Constantinople excommunicated the Church of Bulgaria for insisting on intruding a Bulgarian bishop into the territory of Constantinople, to minister to its own nationals. The two churches remained out of communion until 1945. Since the Oecumenical Patriarch is only a first among equals, however, his action did not exclude the Church of Bulgaria from the Orthodox Church, and the Church of Russia remained in communion with both contestants.8 In 1996-7 the Oecumenical Patriarch was himself excommunicated for a short time by Moscow for restoring the autocephalous Church of Estonia without Moscow’s consent. Obviously, excommunication is a very serious step to take, expressing not just difference of opinion but the gravest disapproval””a step which needs to be withdrawn as soon as it properly can be; but the experience of the Orthodox is that it does not destroy the church, and may sometimes bring about the necessary change of heart without a long delay.
If, therefore, after the latest Primates’ Meeting, following whatever time for reflection the Meeting has decided to allow, there has been no sign of repentance on the part of the Episcopal Church, and it seems that nothing short of excommunication can bring home to that Church the error of its ways, the individual Anglican churches should not hesitate to take this unprecedented step and the more of them that do so the better, as their action will not be irreversible. If there is disagreement within a province whether to take this step, some of its dioceses may want to take action individually, and
there does not seem to be any reason why they should not do so: in that case, the archbishop will be in the same position as any other diocesan bishop. Provision will obviously need to be made for those who are the victims rather than the culprits in the American tragedy, and determined efforts made to reunite all the scattered fragments of faithful American Anglicanism which exist outside as well as inside the Episcopal Church. It is a task which seems likely to require much patience and understanding, but in the changed situation might be achievable.