First Things on Anglican Summer Time Blues

Jordan Hylden has a commentary on the state of things in the Anglican Communion of the First things "On the Square" blog. Here are highlights:
Now that summer at last has arrived, most sensible people have turned their thoughts to beaches, baseball, and the fine art of grilling bratwurst.

Unfortunately for Anglicans, it is their lot to have church politics on their minds. There are dark rumors of schism afoot, hints of plots both liberal and conservative, and more statements issued and meetings held than anyone can possibly keep track of. None of it is enjoyable, and all of it serves as a distraction from baseball (or cricket, depending on how Anglican one is). Be that as it may, any Anglican who cares about his church ought to understand that a great deal depends on what happens in the coming months. If orthodox Anglicans do not hold together, there is a good chance that everything will come apart—and there appears to be a good chance that orthodox Anglicans will not hold together.

. . .

Of first importance is this: Lambeth will be the principal forum for discussion about the all-important Anglican Covenant, and consequently the shape of the Anglican Communion for years to come will largely be determined by who shows up. Much of the current crisis in the Anglican world stems from the relatively undefined character of Anglican governance—so that when the Americans decided to consecrate Gene Robinson as a bishop, no one quite knew what would happen next, except (as the primates had warned) that it would “tear the fabric of the Communion.” That it did, and events since have been confused in large part because no agreed-upon road map exists for disagreements of such large proportion.

In 2004, the Windsor Report proposed to deal with the problem by creating an Anglican Covenant—in brief, a basic outline of Anglican essentials joined to a process by which international disputes could be settled in a fair and Christian manner. Since that time, the process of drawing up and ratifying a covenant has moved inexorably onward, and although to the average Anglican in the pew it can look frustratingly drawn-out and difficult to understand, getting a sense of it is absolutely necessary if one wants to decipher what’s reported in the newspapers.

At their regular meeting in 2005, the Anglican primates (that is, the heads of the thirty-eight Anglican provinces worldwide) met and decided to move forward with the covenant; and in January 2007 the Covenant Design Group, chaired by Archbishop Drexel Gomez (a leading Anglican conservative), produced an initial draft. It was discussed favorably at this spring’s primates’ meeting in Tanzania, at which definite plans were made for further discussion at Lambeth in 2008. After Lambeth, the plan is that the covenant will be forwarded to the Anglican Consultative Council (a regular meeting of international Anglican delegates), which then will adopt a final version. After that, the covenant will be sent back to the thirty-eight Anglican provinces for ratification. (See especially paragraphs 15 and 16 of the Tanzania communiqué.)

Of course, it may be that not all of them will ratify. Rowan Williams himself contemplated this possibility in his June 2006 letter to the primates, in which he spoke of the covenant leading to “constituent” provinces signed on as full members of the communion, and “associate” provinces, which are not. All along, the subtext has been quite clear: If the Episcopal Church decides to maintain the course it chose by consecrating Gene Robinson as bishop, it may do so. But if the covenant is set up so that such unilateral innovations are not allowed—and so it will be as long as the Global South remains in the game—then the Episcopal Church as it stands will be demoted to “associate” status, and replaced in the United States by a new “constituent” Anglican province.

Obviously, none of this is smiled upon by Anglican liberals, particularly those who are currently ascendant within the Episcopal Church. They can count, and so they know well that such a covenant would mean handing over their power to the global Anglican majority—most of whom (as Philip Jenkins has convincingly outlined) reside in the Global South and thus are conservative on issues of sexual morality and biblical authority. As a consequence, most liberals have actively tried to downplay the need for a covenant, or to render it vague and ineffectual.

But in contrast to the vision of many Anglican liberals, Archbishop Williams, in his letter of invitation, made clear that the covenant will indeed be a major topic of discussion at Lambeth. One of the principal goals of the conference, he wrote, is to “try and get more clarity about the limits of our diversity.” And by that, Williams left no doubt that he meant “thinking about the proposals for an Anglican Covenant, and about other ways in which we can deepen our sense of a common calling for us as interdependent members of the body of Christ.” Such words stand in sharp contrast to the recent vision of absolute provincial autonomy and independence laid out by the Episcopal Church’s bishops.

In light of all this, one might think that orthodox Anglicans would by now have embraced the covenant process the way a drowning man grasps a life preserver—and indeed, many prominent conservatives, represented most ably by Archbishop Gomez and the theologians of the Anglican Communion Institute, have done so. But not everyone has. In fact, it may turn out to be the case that many Anglican conservatives will soon decide to abandon the Lambeth Conference and the covenant process altogether, tipping the vote count leftward and thereby allowing the liberals, quite improbably, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The problem, as some conservatives see it, is that while Archbishop Williams may have left Gene Robinson off the guest list, he made a point of leaving Martyn Minns off as well, along with other conservative bishops recently consecrated by the churches of Nigeria and Rwanda for American parishes that have broken off from the Episcopal Church. And not only that, the criticism runs, Williams sent invitations to the rest of the Episcopal Church’s bishops, many of whom had participated in Gene Robinson’s consecration. So long as all that stands, the archbishops of Nigeria and Uganda have objected—who represent twenty-four million Anglicans between them, nearly a third of the world’s total—then they will not be showing up at Lambeth and neither will their bishops.

Added to this, there have been reports for several weeks now that a certain number of conservative Episcopal dioceses plan to break from the American church this summer, despite the fact that they would likely be forfeiting their Lambeth invitations by doing so. The number varies, but it is thought to be as many as five, with Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, Springfield, and San Joaquin as the likeliest to go.

. . .

To many Anglican conservatives, this is a worrying scenario. Christopher Seitz, president of the Anglican Communion Institute, has argued that it relies in part on an overly monochrome American view of Anglicanism in the non-Western world, in which the Global South as a whole would in one fell swoop unite around such a strategy and stand firm against a united liberal Global North. But that does not seem likely. Global South provinces themselves are a diverse group, ranging from very conservative to moderately liberal, and differing significantly in the value they attach to retaining their membership in a Canterbury-based communion. (Compare, for instance, the differing Global South responses to the strongly conservative “Road to Lambeth” document, which was recently reaffirmed by Nigeria and Uganda but not by others such as Kenya, Southeast Asia, and the West Indies, and never actually adopted by last year’s Global South conference at Kigali.)

Additionally, such a strategy seems to rely on a unity among Western conservatives that does not exist. Only half of Bishop Duncan’s network has shown much interest, and on conservative Anglican blogs such as StandFirm and TitusOneNine, feelings seem to be mixed. Many prominent conservatives are likely to be, or already are, opposed to such a plan, such as the theologians of the Anglican Communion Institute and leading bishops George Carey, Drexel Gomez, James Stanton, Jeffery Steenson and N.T. Wright.

Considered altogether, it would seem likely that such a plan would create more division than unity, exposing long-standing divisions on doctrine and ecclesiology not only between various provinces but within them as well. Such at least is the worry, and hence the hope of many Anglican conservatives that it will not come to fruition.

And that hope, of course, takes us back to the proposed Anglican Covenant. If the path away from it for conservatives is so filled with peril—and so it certainly seems to be—nevertheless it is also the case that many concerns expressed by those skeptical of its success appear well-founded.

. . .

Sadly, things will probably get worse before they get better, if they are to get better at all. The level of tension in the Anglican world has so far risen along with the summer heat, and the sweltering atmosphere has filled up with misinformation, distrust, and confusion. It is all very distressing, and the average Anglican might be excused for engaging in wild conspiracy theories, slightly deranged plots and schemes, and mild bouts of despair. But, hopefully, not too much despair. There is a great deal riding on what happens in the coming months. And if orthodox Anglicans this summer cannot manage to keep their heads without losing their cool, an old maxim from G.K. Chesterton (modified slightly) may well turn out to be grimly apropos: “The Anglican Communion ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

It would be most ironic if that wry old English Catholic prophet were proved right—and it would likely mean the end of Anglicanism if he were.

Read it all. While written form a decidedly orthodox point of view (for example, i do not think that it is at all clear that Lambeth will vote on the proposed Covenant), it does confirm the view of Father Greg Jones that recent moves by the Global South Primates have greatly benefited the position of the Episcopal Church.


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