(I wrote this essay in November 2000. It was first published on Louie Crew's Anglican Pages. Louie, as usual, was most kind in letting me publish there. I have updated it this week (July 19, 2006) following reading Bill Coats's "Manifesto." It seemed to me that much of what I said in my essay, written just after the General Convention 2000, still holds and fits well with Bill's statement.)
On the Anglican Communion as an Ecumenical Fellowship
In recent days several options have been spelled out for the future of The Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion. Three stand out: to allow for different classes of dioceses under some scheme of full and adjunct members of the Communion; creation of a domestic province for Episcopal church dioceses that have disassociated from the actions of General Convention; or move toward the creation of a second Anglican Province competing for the position as the authentic Anglican voice in the United States. The “class” system idea, which came up in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflection piece following General Convention, the request by the Diocese of Pittsburgh for release from Province III of The Episcopal Church and inclusion in a new internal province and the Network driven development of the Common Cause Covenant are examples of these efforts.
These options are put forward as ways to move beyond the purported crisis. They are all pretty dismal sounding. They are that way because they begin with dismal premises - that the Episcopal Church is grievously ill, that grim decisions must be made and that people who have the power to do so must take drastic actions. I have previously suggested in an essay “Courage and the Plow” that the diagnoses concerning the supposed grave illness within the Episcopal Church miss the point, supposing that that this or that ailment of structure, polity, theology or practice is the cause of the problem. They are not. The problem, I suggested then and now concerns a failure of nerve.
I believe there is a fourth way to respond to the supposed crises, one that has to do with recovery of courage in the Episcopal Church, with the regaining of nerve.
THE FOURTH WAY: NO ILLNESS ACQUIRED, NO POWER RELINQUISHED.
The Episcopal Church as a compact among dioceses:
This “fourth way” begins with the proposition that for most Episcopalians, most of the time, the church larger than the local parish or diocese is adequately represented by a national entity, the Episcopal Church and its corporate mirror The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the product of a formal compact of dioceses who abide by the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. It begins with the reality that, for a large majority of Episcopal Church people there is no illness of a remarkable sort (all the usual family squabbles aside) for which drastic steps are necessary for cure.
The Anglican Communion as an ecumenical fellowship:
It begins also by observing that the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of churches – not an international ecclesiastical corporation. The Preface to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church speaks of the Anglican Communion as “a fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of those duly constituted dioceses, Provinces, and regional churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.” The Anglican Communion is a fellowship.
A fellowship is not at all the same as a church; it is a koinonia, not an ekklesia. Certainly in our day no one would confuse the Anglican Communion for a world wide single organic whole. The Anglican Communion is in no wise to be understood as a parallel to the Roman Catholic Church, or even the Orthodox Church. Nor should it be. It is inherently ecumenical, building as it does on the premise of self-ruling autonomous churches. As the Anglican Communion we are churches in koinonia, connected by distinct acts of companionship and fellowship – sharing communion (eating a sacred meal) and stories of mission origins (family history). We are peoples who sit at common table with relatives.
The Anglican Communion as an attempt to model Ecumenical Hospitality:
Being at table fellowship with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other representatives of Anglican provinces is to be desired because all such koinonia echoes some aspect of the heavenly banquet. Koinonia is always a gift of hospitality to be received as a gift and not to be grasped as a matter of right or property. There is great authority in hospitality, for those who offer hospitality speak for the household from which they come. But the only power in that hospitality is that of invitation. All other powers ascribed to the host derive from the desire of those who wish to be invited to table. And ascribed power is idolatry, not fellowship. There is no place for coercive power in fellowship and no fear should accompany a break in fellowship.
If invitation to that fellowship is threatened or if it is withdrawn there will be sadness, but certainly not the end of the world and much less the end of the Episcopal Church. For the Episcopal Church is not a branch of something called the Anglican Communion such that if we were not in organic union with that entity we would wither and die. Communities of faith in which people are gathered and ordered with a bishop as chief pastor and missionary are much more central to Anglican sensibilities than the nature of the structures of the several national or regional churches, and certainly more central than any structural approval from persons or bodies outside the national or regional churches themselves.
Contrary to the implications of the three scenarios presented, I would (in good company) contend that (i) for most Episcopalians there is nothing about the Episcopal Church that requires fixing (outside our normal processes of perfecting our life together) and that (ii) there is no power in the Anglican Communion to fix it anyway, for the Anglican Community is a glorious example of Ecumenical Hospitality, not an example of patriarchal ecclesiology.
The Fourth Way recognizes our strengths as a reasonably democratic Episcopal Church bound by friendship and hospitality to other Churches throughout the world who share with us a family history and common table fellowship and the hope for the great ecumenical vision that we all might be one. There is in those bonds no power to destroy what the Episcopal Church is as a church, unless we allow it to do so. The full joy in our bonds with other Anglican churches derives from our sense that our common life as Anglicans is a product of hospitality and friendship, not power or coercion.
In this Fourth Way, the internal and external critics bent on “saving” the Episcopal Church are to be listened to with an open mind and heart. They are, after all, carriers of the Good News as God has given them light. Perhaps great good might come of those efforts. Those critics within our Church who finally cannot work within the framework of our Church are of course free to leave and those outside our Church who wish to raise up other visions of faithful community within the geographical boundaries of our Church are free to do so. But such goings and comings are not to be construed as acquiescence to diagnoses that we are ill or to remedies involving corporate takeover.
We need not apologize for being the Church we are or for the path that God has set before us. Nor should we take on the illness or guilt ascribed to us and leave our own members with the impression that this Church is ill to the point of death. We are not bound to surrender our strength or vision as dioceses bound together in this Episcopal Church simply because critics have told us they are in disagreement with the decisions this Church has made or the way this Church understands its vocation within the Body of Christ.
And we should be clear that the ecumenical fellowship we have had with other churches in the Anglican Communion does not blind us to the possibility that good ecumenical relations (even the very best, as represented in the Anglican Communion) can at times go sour. As concerns unity, the Church universal has a terrible track record, and we would be naive to think that we can more easily hold everyone than were able our forbearers in the faith. What we can do is work at the matter realistically understanding that the Anglican Communion is a rather unique modeling of ecumenical relationships, one that requires special “instruments of unity.” Most recently four such instruments have been identified as central: The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Primates, The Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council. When these “instruments” work to establish a greater sense of hospitality and mutual respect they best serve the unity sought. Those who wish to use these instruments in a punitive way mistake the authority of hospitality for the power of rule.
This Fourth Way is in actuality the way we do work as an Episcopal Church. Dioceses of this Church continue to wrestle with issues, concerns and one another within the context of our polity. They do so using the tools of unity found in the compact growing from the Constitution and Canons of this Church, our being ordered as a missionary society, and in The Book of Common Prayer, and ministry focused by dioceses, being Bishop and people together as they seek to discern God’s will for them in mission.
Those who claim the Episcopal Church is dieing and are beginning to circle the supposed corpse will discover that they are rather near sighted to think that we have no life in us. We do have life, life that does not need to give way to scenarios of illness ascribed or assignment of cure proscribed. We will have life, and I believe abundantly, if we take courage and fill our vocation as the Episcopal Church.