Windsor Report: A New Chapter In
"The Tale Of Two Religions"
By The Rev. Joseph F. Wilson
The Christian Challenge
October 18, 2004
YEARS AGO, a clever cartoon making the rounds (and appearing in, among other places, THE CHRISTIAN CHALLENGE) showed the interior of a church during a service. A couple were sitting in the front row, the man glaring angrily at the chancel where there had been set up a large, multi-breasted Polynesian goddess statue. Clouds of incense were rising as vested male and female priests danced around this idol; and the man turns and says to his wife, "That does it! If they change ONE MORE THING in the Episcopal Church, we're outta here!"
It is not a good sign that this cartoon surfaced in my memory as I read the latest document of the Anglican Church.
One reasonable initial reaction upon reading the newly released Windsor Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Commission is to agree with Frank Griswold, who writes, "The Report will be received and interpreted within the Provinces of the Communion in different ways, depending on our understanding of the nature and appropriate expression of sexuality."
Bishop Griswold is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (ECUSA), and in a real sense stands at the center of the current storm afflicting the worldwide Anglican Communion, for he was chief consecrator of the avowedly gay clergyman whose elevation to the office of bishop provoked the crisis. Griswold is undoubtedly correct in his prediction; there is something in this report to be seized upon and emphasized, and other things to be minimized, by all sides to the controversy. No one is likely to be happy with this report.
On the one hand, heavy criticism is directed towards both ECUSA and the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster. The Episcopal Church, in its triennial General Convention, ratified the decision of the Diocese of New Hampshire to elect V. Gene Robinson as their bishop, thus making the consecration of an openly active homosexual an act of the whole Church; the General Convention then went on to observe that church blessings of same-sex unions were occurring in places and were actions "within the life" of the Church. The Diocese of New Westminster comes under fire because, at the request of its convention, the bishop prepared and published a rite for blessing same-sex unions, and authorized its use.
The Windsor Report deplores what it considers to be the failure of both entities to take the time and the steps necessary to obtain a consensus in favor of these actions among the member churches of the Anglican Communion. Evidently regarding the matter of condoning homosexuality as a matter of opinion, both bodies went ahead with the disputed actions, ignoring the evident fact that huge portions of the Communion regard this question of homosexuality as a vital matter of Christian orthodoxy.
And the Report notes the "overwhelming response from other Christians both within and outside the Anglican family" holding the acts to be departures from genuine, apostolic Christian faith. The effects of this crisis have been catastrophic for Episcopalian relations with other bodies, particularly the Eastern Orthodox churches and Roman Catholicism.
"What did they think they were doing?" is the question Fr Richard Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine, reports as being repeatedly asked by observers in the wake of the Robinson consecration, as the full negative reaction from across the spectrum of churches became apparent. Indeed, it seems indisputable that the liberal elite governing ECUSA miscalculated badly, underestimating the depth of feeling on this issue and the seriousness with which this clear departure from Christian orthodoxy would be viewed. Over 20 provinces (member churches) of the Anglican Communion, or their primates speaking for them, have spoken up declaring these actions unacceptable.
On the other hand, the Lambeth Commission characterizes as "part of the problem we now face" some of the emphatic reactions to the disputed actions. While characterizing as understandable the frustrated reactions from provinces and dioceses that have declared themselves in "impaired communion" or "out of communion" with ECUSA, the Report indicates that a question mark exists in many minds regarding the legitimacy of these reactions (an "exercise in unilateralism counter to the communion principle of interdependence").
EVEN MORE SERIOUS, in the Commission's view, is the action of parishes and groups within ECUSA and New Westminster to distance themselves from the authority of their bishops and even place themselves under the jurisdiction of orthodox bishops from elsewhere; and moves by a number of Anglican bishops and even provinces to take embattled U.S. Anglican congregations under their wing.
Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, for example, has just announced plans to establish a convocation of congregations (which he describes as a 'diocese without boundaries') in America for expatriate Nigerians who will not worship in ECUSA churches because of their permissive views on sexuality. The provinces of Rwanda and Southeast Asia earlier established a new organization, the "Anglican Mission in America," for which they consecrated bishops, and which is planting congregations vigorously throughout the country. Bishops acceptable to conservatives have crossed diocesan boundaries to confirm or celebrate the sacraments for groups unwilling to accept the ministrations of their own diocesans, and reports are coming in from many places of dioceses experiencing serious financial shortfalls in the wake of the General Convention that ratified Gene Robinson's election.
It is unlikely that the Commission's approach here will commend its work to the orthodox and conservative Anglicans whose reactions to the disputed acts are characterized as "tit for tat" and part of the problem. For years, the "moving line in the sand," the reaction that "If they do one more thing, cross over one more line, we're going to… be very angry… and form a commission to study the problem and report back" have been bywords--stale jokes among conservatives as the relentless advance of revisionism through the life of the Church has continued unabated.
That, over the last several years, concrete actions of courageous archbishops, bishops, priests and congregations have actually given beleaguered orthodox and conservative Episcopalians possible options has been for them a long-overdue ray of hope. Characterizing these acts, undertaken in desperation after long decades of delay, as part of the problem, will almost certainly strike conservatives as incredible.
THE CONCLUSION seems inescapable: the Windsor Commission itself views canonical infractions, the crossing of diocesan and provincial boundaries to irregularly minister for whatever reason, as much more serious than heresy. While pointing out that neither the New Westminster diocese nor ECUSA had sufficiently appreciated the importance of this issue of homosexuality for many other Christians, the Commission itself seems to minimize the matter. In calling for ECUSA to muster its best arguments and put them before the whole Communion for discussion, the Commission seems to be saying that what for orthodox Christians is a settled matter of doctrine clearly taught in Scripture is actually just another Church position which might be changed at a future Lambeth Conference, or by some other consensus of the provinces.
The Windsor Commission thus seems concerned with something very different from the concerns of traditional, orthodox Anglicans, who see this dispute as a matter of Truth vs. error and sin, and respect for the revealed Word of God. The Commission is concerned about broken or impaired communion, about the consequences of maverick actions taken without consensus, about the damage done to the institutional Anglican Communion. It calls for a renewal of sensitivity, for apologies all 'round, pledges to observe moratoria on actions offensive to others, and - you knew it was coming - further discussion.
And what will certainly not be well taken is the Report's commendation (in paragraph 152) of the Episcopal House of Bishops' "Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight" (DEPO) plan, supposedly aimed at providing alternative episcopal oversight for disaffected churches, in line with a call from Anglican primates. The DEPO proposal landed with a resounding thud among conservatives. While it provided that a conservative congregation alienated from a liberal diocesan bishop might have the services of a more acceptable prelate, the implementation of the DEPO provisions and the choice of the visiting bishop is still in the hands of the diocesan bishop, and the provisions are temporary and revocable.The clear focus of the DEPO proposal is on maintaining at all costs, despite this provisional procedure, the canonical and legal relationship between the diocesan bishop and the parish.
Nor will conservatives like paragraph 155, in which the Commission calls on those bishops who have found it a matter of conscientious duty to intervene in other dioceses or provinces, crossing ecclesiastical boundaries to minister, to "express regret for the consequences of their actions," "to affirm their desire to remain in the Communion," and "to effect a moratorium on any further interventions."
One suspects that here there will be an sharp clash between the model of Episcopal ministry espoused by the Lambeth Commission and the views and hopes of conservative Anglicans. The Commission's Report promotes a view of the ministry of the diocesan bishop as monarch of his diocese, secure within his diocesan boundaries from the intervention of any other prelate save with his own consent. Conservatives are weary of this model, and of the frequent assertions, found in the Windsor Report as well, that there is a traditional, necessary Anglican principle found in reverence for ecclesiastical boundaries.
In contrast, many conservatives say that it is not only possible but desirable to provide for the new reality of a Church with deep ecclesiological divisions--pointing to such entities as ECUSA's Diocese of Navajoland, which functions quite nicely without boundaries and amid other dioceses; multiple overlapping Anglican jurisdictions in Europe; "flying bishops" provided for orthodox Anglican parishes in the Church of England, and to the growing call for a "third province" there as well as in the U.S.A., non-geographic and serving the orthodox.
"A Tale of Two Religions" will likely continue to be played out before our eyes in the wake of the Windsor Report--indeed, it is probable that the intensity will be far worse. Over the last couple of years, watching the interventions of the Rwandan, Southeast Asian and Nigerian primates, the formation of the Anglican Mission in America, the activities of Forward in Faith, the American Anglican Council and Lord knows how many other conservative organizations and individual clergy and laity, one never got the impression that any of them were striving that "Dialogue Might Continue." None of them were objecting to the blessing of gay unions because they wanted "gracious conversation," in the immortal words of Bishop Griswold, to occur instead. Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria travelled across the U.S. convening congregations in a province other than his own because he believes that we must stand firm on the revealed Word of God--not because he wants to chat about it.
But the revisionists are determined to press ahead with their agenda. They will talk while they have to wait--incessant, endless chatter--but their eye is on the prize. "Gracious conversation" is but a strategy.
One looks back at the almost forgotten words of Archbishop Temple of Canterbury, decades ago, the middle of the last century. Anglicanism, he said, neither has nor wishes to have any unique doctrines of its own. It seeks to be the Church of the fathers of the early councils, and as such offers itself in service to the rest of Christianity, as a bridge towards a future, reunited Church.
Here, we put our finger upon the heart of the problem. There are two different religions here, two competing visions of the Church. Revisionist Anglicanism has not the slightest interest in preserving the religion of the early fathers of the Church, and it is very interested, indeed, in proclaiming new doctrine. Even the Pope does not claim the authority Revisionist Anglicanism has vested in its synods. The Lambeth Commission apparently accepts the revisionist view that this should be the case.
It is not difficult to predict the reaction of the third-world primates to this latest invitation to continue "gracious conversation"--a nice, cozy chat.
But, no doubt, from many Episcopalians we will hear the antiphon, "If they change ONE MORE THING...."
A longtime observer of the Anglican scene, Fr. Joseph Wilson is a Roman Catholic priest based in New York
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