So what happened? How did it all fall apart? Clearly, Gene Robinson was a watershed, and with it went a lot of other matters building up and associated, often in profound and logical ways, with the seemingly radical change in sexual discipline that General Convention 2003 represented. But “doctrine” alone doesn’t explain the tidal shift in relationships.
The central problem, I believe ”“ one noted by both Windsor and Primates — is the loss of “trust”: trust among Anglican churches was broken, and by and large, the initiative for this breaking (although not wholly) has come from one direction. In sum, TEC and her leaders broke trust with the Communion, and Global South leaders and conservatives within and outside TEC lost “trust” in the American church and her leaders. This is related to TEC’s changed doctrine and discipline; but, as I said, only partly. One can navigate doctrinal difference and dispute, even of the most essential kind, if there is a trusted means of doing so. The real issue has been the sense that TEC is no longer what she was, that her word is not worth anything, that she cannot keep promises, that she is no longer trustworthy and therefore she that cannot be dealt with consistently and openly in terms of discussions and common counsel. The doctrinal and disciplinary dispute of the present is “irreconcilable” not only because the divergences at issue are vast, but because there is no commonly coherent means of resolving them. The difference between 1970’s and the 2000’s is that in 1970, for all the suspicions and even dislike and outright worries about its liberalism, ECUSA was still “trusted”; now she is not.
And why was ECUSA trusted then, and TEC is no longer trusted now? In brief, because TEC has lost her bearings within a coherent history others once recognized; because she no longer evidences a consistent character others once encountered; and because she is no longer engaged in a committed Christian discussion of critical matters in a Christian way with her Anglican sisters and brothers she once pursued. This claim is now worth unpacking.
One major debate today ”“ and it has emerged only now, but necessarily and essentially ”“ is over the identity of the Episcopal Church’s history, and thereby the church’s historical character. The debate has been attached to a new argument that has been promoted of late by, e.g. the House of Bishops, and that has also been taken up by the House’s allies and apologists. The argument is that TEC has an exceptional character vis a vis the rest of the Communion: she is a “democratic” church. And this “democratic” character means that the church is governed by a comprehensive set of representatives well-beyond the episcopal order, committed to “liberative praxis”, to breaking the shackles of colonialist imperialism, to upholding the needs and aspirations of oppressed and marginalized peoples, and to working to fulfill the inclusivist project (or “mission”) of God to bring all people, whatever their condition and social status, into a reconciled and egalitarian participation within the Church’s authoritative order. This articulated self-identity has been used to justify the direction taken by TEC’s General Convention on matters of sexual morals and discipline (not to mention other elements like “open communion”), even when this direction has gone counter to previously stated hopes, claims and promises.
Now, this newly argued Episcopalian identity may indeed be a hope for some or even for many. But it in no way represents the historical character of TEC in a purely factual or sociologically tethered fashion. The new progressive liberative identity is a constructed or invented history that is being foisted on the church by its proponents through the mechanisms of political rhetoric and strategic procedure. But it does not reflect what TEC has in fact been, or even is today (leaving aside the question of whether it is faithful to the Gospel of the Scriptures itself, which, in many crucial respects, I believe it is not).