Monday, September 10, 2007

Watching the Episcopalians

I remember during the heady days of ecumenism that one of the top Lutheran bishops was happy for the prospect of full communion with the Episcopalians because it took them one step closer to Rome. Well, the next step will have to be like Neil Armstrong’s, because right now the Episcopalians are even in trouble with Canterbury.

As I write this, Bishop Gene New Hampshire (that would be Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson) has been uninvited to the next Lambeth Conference, which is a big deal for Anglicans. Is the Archbishop of Canterbury not in full communion with the Bishop of New Hampshire? Shall the rest of the Episcopal Church accept this half of an excommunication of one of their own?

Did Rowan Williams expect this when he became Archbishop? I wonder if he looks back with longing on his quiet days in the see of St. David and the primacy of Wales. All this Anglican Communion politics, when what he’s best at is encouraging the church in a secular England and winsomely representing the gospel there. Canterbury is the head of the Communion, but he’s only the first among equals, and he has little clout compared to Rome and even Constantinople.

We grieve for the Anglican Communion right now. I don’t see how they can work this out, considering the parties and positions. The Nigerians versus the Americans. The Americans are the Nigerians of the Western hemisphere and the Nigerians are the Americans of Africa. Or some would say, the Germans, but Germans are not Anglicans.

From a Reformed perspective, you have to ask, why is Bishop Robinson such an issue when Bishop Spong never threatened the Anglican Communion? I have met Bishop Robinson and heard him speak. He loves the Lord Jesus. He worships the Trinity. He confesses the faith once delivered and he testifies to the gospel. He believes in the Resurrection and the Atonement and the Exodus from Egypt, for Heaven’s sake.

Bishop Spong is still called a Christian only because he calls himself that. He’s an impressive man, especially to himself. Bishop Robinson exhibits repentance, humor, and self-deprecation.
But the Anglicans don’t think from a Reformed perspective. When you finally come down to it, apparently the cliche is true, that for Anglicans it doesn’t matter what you believe. Well, it does, of course, but not enough to pose a threat.

What matters is your ritual. What you celebrate and how you celebrate. This has its virtues. If you attend any Anglican church, the sermon might be thin, but the liturgy will give you a Creed, the Trinity, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and his coming again, some repentance from sins, some real prayers, some real blessings, and some real miracles — the sacraments. During the sermon you can read the Thirty-Nine Articles in the back of the Prayerbook and thank God for the Belgic Confession.

Anglicans found it problematic when some Canadians and Americans began celebrating gay weddings, or holy unions, or whatever, but even this was tolerable. It used to be the case that all Anglicans, worldwide, were united by the Book of Common Prayer. But since the ’60’s the various provinces have developed their own Prayerbooks, and the New Zealand book is now very different from the British ASB. Liturgical disunity may distress Anglicans, but they’ve been living with divergence for some decades now, and it hasn’t threatened their Communion’s unity.

But a gay bishop! Anglicans are fundamentalists about one thing, and one thing only, and that is the hierarchical episcopacy. In the Seventeenth Century their motivation was political — "No bishop, no king." What their motivation is nowadays is open to question. But as we saw in the process of full communion with the Lutherans, everything is negotiable, except episcopacy.
And when an out gay man is elevated to the episcopacy, then Anglicans are threatened.

What matters is not what he believes but what he is, because a bishop is. The symbol of an hierarchical bishop is not his pulpit but his chair. When he’s just sitting there, holding his staff, he’s at the center of his job. Celebrating Eucharist and baptizing and preaching can be done by mere priests. Only bishops can confirm, but since a Prayer Book Study in the ’60’s it’s agreed that this is not essential but political. It gives the bishop something special to do when he or she visits a parish. Otherwise a bishop has nothing distinctive to do.

A bishop just is. The chief role of a bishop is to represent the church, and, with such Incarnational theology, to represent Christ himself. Well!

The Anglican Communion is at heart a communion of bishops. This communion is objective and linear, like a family tree. They may or may not take the Bible literally, but they are literal about their hierarchical network.

Your ordinary American and Canadian laity are not really in communion with each other. They are in communion with their respective bishops, who are in communion with each other, provided their communion is guaranteed by being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The crisis shows us what Anglicans are fundamentalist and literalist about!

This past July I attended three different Anglican churches in Canada. The first week I went to the tiny parish near our cottage, where we have prayed for eighteen years. Our lay reader preached on the gospel, and he was good; he preached the text. The next Sunday I had to be in Kingston so I attended the cathedral. An archdeacon preached on the gospel, and he was excellent; he preached the text. The third week our little parish had a union service with the parish in the next town, so with four other locals I went there. I heard another archdeacon preach on the gospel, and he was very good; he preached the text.

Not once did I hear a peep about the troubles of the Anglican Communion. I heard about the Lord Jesus, and his death, resurrection, and coming again, and we confessed our sins, and we praised the Trinity, and we repeated the Creed, and we gave thanks and ate his precious body and blood. I was quite satisfied each time.


James Brumm said...

Amen and Amen!

I sometimes wonder (both about our Anglican brothers and sisters and ourselves in the RCA) whether the arguments over sexuality and the clergy are really about the sexuality, or if we are just looking for an excuse to argue. I think back to when you and I were both in New Brunswick Classis, and cannot imagine us having such discussions over ministers' sex lives (when I do imagine it, given the crowd that was in that Classis back then, I begin to giggle).

Just as some congregations seem to have perpetual financial crises because it is easier to worry about money than answer God's call to ministry, so it is, I think, with some of the diocesan and denominational fretting about sexuality. It's easier for us to argue about this than to be barefaced in the presence of God, living as the Church. When we actually dare to do that, as with the preachers you heard up north, all the other nonsense falls away.

Old First said...

Yes, James, I think you make a good point.


Paul Miller said...

Dan, as you know from endless discussions at Bob's Lake, my denomination (United Church of Canada) is way ahead of the Anglicans. In fact, we've scarcely been able to talk about anything else for the last thirty years except the sex lives of our clergy. Those who think of themselves as orthodox guardians of Christian tradition within the UCC have contributed to this by simply not being able to shut up about it. I'm wondering if Augustine might teach us something here through his steadfast opposition to the Donatists. Unlike you, I haven't met Gene Robinson, but like you I think that Spong's urbane unbelief is a far greater danger to the church because it is rooted in such a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. Augustine knew that the church was in deep do-do if it made the character and morals of the pastor the determining factor in the efficacy of the church's ministry. Those old, old controversies might still shed some light on what we are going through today.