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The Mind and Mission of Anglican Archbishop Robert Duncan

The Mind and Mission of Anglican Archbishop Robert Duncan


By David W. Virtue

By any historical reckoning, what Archbishop Robert Duncan, the architect of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), has accomplished is nothing short of monumental. If there was the equivalent of a Nobel Peace Prize for ecclesiastical figures, he would win it hands down.

There isn't of course, so only the odd article like this, and perhaps a few chapters in a book on the history of North American Anglicanism, written by a scholar decades from now, will recall his efforts and enshrine him in the annals of Anglicanism on this continent.

That he achieved it in a relatively short space of time can only be described as miraculous, bearing in mind the theological and ecclesiastical differences and potential for disaster that awaited a wrong move, a wrong word, a wrong appointment a slight of one person or another. But none of that happened.

He did what many believed was impossible, bearing in mind the track record of North American Anglicans following the 1977 St. Louis Convention that saw a plethora (some 58) variety of Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) jurisdictions, separated by far less than what unites the AC-NA today.

The Anglican Church of North America is a reality that the Episcopal Church cannot ignore. It is something TEC's Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori will have to reckon with even as this new North American Anglican jurisdiction grows and her church continues its gadarene slide.

Several things characterize Robert Duncan. The first is restraint. Those of us in the media, looking for a bold headline, or an off the cuff remark that would grab attention, have been sorely disappointed. He has watched his words with all the care of St. Paul writing his letter to the Ephesians.

He is politically astute, careful not to offend anyone, praising any and all attempts by people to guard both the unity of the church and the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

He drew a wide circle, so wide that it and he became the ground for strident criticisms and personal attacks. Foremost of which is his belief in the ordination of women, a sticking point with Anglo-Catholics and not a few Evangelicals.

But he brilliantly and deftly drew into the circle perhaps the most rigorous disbeliever in women's ordination in North American Anglicanism, the Bishop of Ft. Worth, The Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker.

While this has not silenced Duncan's critics, Iker has stood by his friend and argued that the church is going through a period of reception on that issue and he would hang his miter in with the new jurisdiction for as long as it takes. Other supporters of Duncan include the former bishop of Eau Claire, the Rt. Rev. William Wantland, the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield and the retired Bishop of Quincy, Keith Ackerman, all high churchmen.

The delicate issue of whether or not AC-NA is a new province (the 39th) remains a sticking point as it has not been recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Anglican Consultative Council, but here again no one seems to mind when Duncan calls it a province. It is, well, a province. So be it.

When questioned by this reporter precisely on this point, Duncan says he speaks regularly with Dr. Rowan Williams at Lambeth Palace. He dodges the bullet.

When he officially launched AC-NA, he shrewdly drew in the two most extreme polarities of North American orthodoxy - the mega-evangelical pastor Rick Warren and the head of the Orthodox Church in America, His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah.

Conservative blogs went ballistic, but Duncan stood his ground. Whatever pain they were about to dump on him would only serve to remind him of the pain he had already experienced at being deposed by a once "brotherly" House of Bishops.

In Warren, all the evangelical fervor that could be drawn from the successor to Billy Graham was focused on this one man. Dr. Warren is a Baptist, about as non- liturgical and, non- traditional a figure as you could find, a brilliant speaker, purpose-driven, and fully conversant with saving souls that you could find on the planet. It was a bold move by Duncan.

On the other had hand, he had to draw in someone liturgically like unto himself (sans the filioque clause), a leader who stood for the ancient traditions of the church, a man who would lend gravitas to the occasion and impress Dr. Williams who is an authority on Russian orthodoxy.

Again, this was a brilliant move. Duncan could not invite a Roman Catholic leader as Rome would not nor could not recognize AC-NA, (even though they might be sympathetic to it), but the Orthodox could. That Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America is an Episcopal convert to Orthodoxy when he was in college just ground it in the face of The Episcopal Church and Mrs. Jefferts Schori one more time. Irony was everywhere.

(You will may recall that grand moment when Cardinal Ratzinger sent greetings to the Plano One gathering of orthodox Episcopalians in Texas in 2003, the biggest single slap in the face to PB Frank Griswold in his tenure).

But AC-NA is of a different order. This new movement was fraught with danger. The broken glass of Anglican disunity Duncan walked across to make a new orthodox province a reality would have ripped the feet of a lesser man. Duncan pulled it off.

But still the Anglican blogs blamed him for selling out the Reformed Faith. Neither Warren nor Jonah represents their views.

Enter the Reformed Episcopal Church, a major player in AC-NA. By drawing them in, Duncan is hoping to calm the fears of the followers of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, but it won't be without pain. The REC has entered a concordat with the Anglican Province of America, bringing an ecumenical (Anglo-Catholic) twist to their desire for a broader understanding of the faith in our time. The Covenant Union of Anglican Churches Concordat also included includes The Anglican Church of Nigeria making AC-NA even more globally connected. In time, AC-NA would will be recognized by the GAFCON primates.

Again, this has brought out violent reactions from purist Reformers who see any linkage with an Anglo-Catholic jurisdiction as a deep betrayal of the Reformed understanding of the faith which they hold dear. One cannot help but be moved by their call for evangelical purity, but there is an edge to it all that is troubling for many who believe the Big Tent can incorporate a vision closer to that of C.S. Lewis's "mere Christianity".

Through it all, Duncan has maintained a humility not normally associated with contemporary triumphalist evangelicalism. His has been a measured, not a strident voice. His bushy eyebrows and demeanor are more in keeping with an archbishop like Michael Ramsey than George Carey. He is probably closer to Carey theologically though one should not be dogmatic.

In an odd sort of way, Duncan's Evangelical Catholicism has made him a perfect fit for the job. In common parlance, he can swing both ways. And he has done so.

He has weathered his critics on the right who believe his stand on women's ordination will ultimately bring AC-NA down (it might, but that seems unlikely) as forward Forward in Faith NA is now a constituent member of ACNA, apparently willing to see the bigger picture now with their own recently consecrated bishop.

On the left, the inclusive pansexual crowd of the Episcopal Church dismisses his efforts and mocks his attempts at bringing unity out of what they perceive to be a group of ecclesiastical wild-west Anglican desperados. History may well prove them wrong.

There would certainly be a lot to lose if this movement were to fail. The gloating would be heard all the way to Lambeth Palace and beyond to Constantinople, with the Vatican sighing, hoping the smarter ones will cross the Tiber as bishops Steenson, Herzog and others have done.

But the story is not over. Not by a long shot. Just this week, the Dean and President of Nashotah House announced unity talks with St. Vladimir's seminary, Metropolitan Jonah's home, solidifying relationships there. Speaking to an international audience, Archbishop Duncan stated that signing the conference's inter-seminary covenant, committing Nashotah House and St. Vladimir's seminaries to mutual prayer and fellowship, "lays the groundwork of something very much larger", namely "serious dialogue" with the OCA and "the resumption of ecumenical discussion between two separated parts of the Church."

Despite this common ground, Duncan believes that there are still obstacles to overcome along the road to full communion of the two Churches. He listed three areas: The "filioque" clause, which was added to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church, stating the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son; the ordination of women, which is strenuously objected to by Orthodoxy and permitted in parts of the ACNA; and lastly, the Archbishop's reference to the Calvinism of some of ACNA's membership, prohibited by Orthodoxy and condemned as heresy.

Score another success for Duncan along the ecumenical Appian way.

Ambridge-based Trinity School for Ministry is training priests for the next generation of AC-NA leaders. The new Anglican train will not soon be derailed. It also has several cars filled with Canadian Anglicans hitched to it.

Only time will tell if it all holds together. With each passing week, however, ties seem to grow stronger, even as the grip on Episcopalians by TEC grows weaker. Latest figures reveal that almost every Episcopal diocese lost members in 2008, while almost every one of the 28 dioceses in AC-NA grew.

There isn't a peace prize for Archbishop Robert Duncan, and perhaps there ought not to be one, it might go to his head. But it would be very odd if he did not hear "in that day" the ultimate accolade from the Almighty himself with the words, "well done thou good and faithful servant."


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