There has been a great deal said about the Archbishop of Canterbury's most remarkable letter to Bishop John Howe of October 14th. A fine list of the various rants can be found at Thinking Anglicans. The letter can be read HERE. It is hard to know just what to make of the letter, except to say that whatever idea may be had as to what constitutes the Anglican Communion just became less sharp and more muddy.
Ten years ago I wrote, "There are times, of course, when the (Anglican) Communion has seemed to be a very thin and wispy reality. A good friend, Fred Howard, once returning tired from a meeting about an Anglican Communion electronic network, told me that he sometimes wondered if there was any such thing as the Anglican Communion. He was fairly sure he had not seen or experienced it on that trip! Sometimes the notion of the Anglican Communion seems a shadow, not a reality at all. Indeed, there are times when the notion of the communion seems irrelevant, particularly when held up against the local experience of church." (The Challenge of Change: The Anglican Communion in the Post Modern Era, Church Publishing 1998.)
The Archbishop's comments to Bishop Howe, however pastoral they might have been, increase the thin and wispy, and perhaps irrelevant, character of the Communion.
The two comments that have provoked the most interest are these:
"…without forestalling what the Primates might say, I would repeat what I've said several times before - that any Diocese compliant with Windsor remains clearly in communion with Canterbury and the mainstream of the Communion, whatever may be the longer-term result for others in The Episcopal Church. The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the Diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such."
"I should feel a great deal happier, I must say, if those who are most eloquent for a traditionalist view in the United States showed a fuller understanding of the need to regard the Bishop and the Diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the 'national church'."
There has been a great deal made in the past of the "four instruments of unity" or the "focus of unity and the three instruments of communion" or the "instruments of communion." Whatever they are called they are: The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), and the Primates Meeting. One of these, the Lambeth Conference, actually involves all the bishops in communion with Canterbury.
I suppose that when the Archbishop of Canterbury says "The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the Diocese" he is referring to the bishop / diocese role in Lambeth. All well and good. It turns out that IN RELATION TO LAMBETH the "organ of union with the Archbishop of Canterbury" is the bishop. Those who he invites get to commune with him, those who are not invited do not. But the bishop is not the organ (gads that is a terrible suggestion), but rather the bishop is a real person in relation to the ABC. There is no high minded idea in all this. He is perhaps only saying that bishops are the "local" focus of church and so they are invited individually, not as members of Provinces.
At the same time it might be good to remind the Archbishop that several Provinces (Nigeria among them) have pointed out that not to invite one of their member bishops is viewed as a lessening of the invitation to all of them. There are various threats at provincial gatherings for no one to go if any one of them is not invited. (I mostly think that is a great idea… for TEC included.)
I have suggested on several occasions that the Archbishop would serve us all well by inviting all the bishops and letting those who are snotty enough refuse to do accept. The final criteria would be that the bishop is on some provincial list as a bishop of that province. There would be messes, of course: Bishop Minns and other usurper bishops; Bishop Gene Robinson; The false bishop of Recife; the bad bishop of Harare. (By the way, by making this list I don't suggest that Bishop Robinson is in anyway a scoundrel as is, say the usurper bishop of Recifie or others... I am only making the list that the ABC seems to have made.) They would all come, saints and sinners alike. So what? Whatever mess they might present is certainly no greater than the mess provided by misbehaving bishops from Provinces at the last Lambeth who accosted gay people and hit them up aside the head with attempted exorcism, or who pinched ass or otherwise physically or mentally mistreated various workers in and around the conference. Invite everyone who has a credential as a sitting bishop and work it out there. Those who don't come…let it be upon their heads.
But the Archbishop, to the contrary, makes the bishop an "organ" of unity. That is just ridiculous. The bishop is an invited person to a meeting where the celebration of the Lord's Supper, also known as the Holy Communion or the Mass takes place. They are not the locus of unity in that context. They are guests and ought to have some manners.
What in the world was he thinking?
While this first comment was puzzling, it is the second of the Archbishop's comments that moves beyond puzzling to dumbfounding.
He spoke "of the need to regard the Bishop and the Diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the 'national church'." Now, understanding that "national church" is language mostly of The Episcopal Church, he is suggesting that TEC is an abstract reality. Well this abstract reality puts up the money for much of what the Anglican Communion does. Has he any idea of the reality of people's giving that makes that possible?
One wonders how he proposes to sell the parallel idea at home. Is he really willing to say that "the Bishop and the Diocese (are) the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of 'THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND.'" In a church system where bishops are entirely the product of the "national church" (the CofE) it might be hard to maintain that ecclesial identity resides in the bishop and diocese. More, it is not ecclesial identity that is found in the bishop and diocese, it is the sacramental community that is found in the context of the clergy and parishes with their bishop. But their bishop is in turn identified as bishop of that diocese by an ecclesial community that is larger and out of which the bishop and diocese are understood to hold license and charge.
The "abstract reality" of the "national church" is in The Episcopal Church not so abstract at all. Rather it is a specific community of people (which changes each time we meet) from the many dioceses of the Church who constitute the General Convention of this Church. It is this very real community from which all bishops in this church derive their just powers by commission, and the bishops in turn pledge to abide by the governance of the Church provided by constitution and canon.
Certainly for many people in the church the General Convention, its officers and work are considered an "abstract reality" but that reality gets pretty concrete when missionaries are sent from this church or bishops are ordered or large church wide efforts to lend aid and comfort are engaged. That "abstract reality" gets pretty real when the priest under inhibition is held under such inhibition across the whole of the church.
All of this, of course, is in some ways secondary to the real danger in the Archbishop's stress on the bishop and diocese rather than the province. The whole pack of cards that has to do with the provinces of the Anglican Communion comes close to crashing down, as does any need to refer to the Primates, the ACC or any other gathering save Lambeth.
Lambeth is, as the ABC suggests, an invitational event and there the bishop and diocese are indeed the entities in play. But all the rest of the so called instruments of unity or communion or whatever simply become shadows, mists, forgotten dreams. After all, they are not "the primary locus of ecclesial identity," so who cares what they think. (Actually there is something to be said for that.) But I would be most surprised if the ABC believed that no one needed to take him seriously in England, what with his being the Primate of All England, etc., since he was not the primary locus of ecclesial identity.
No, the Archbishop has written a bit of a mess that will take considerable time to unwind and toss. I hope that he did not write it but rather that one of his assistants, who ought to be fired, did.
Meanwhile many of us will be justly angry to discover that we, who spend considerable time trying to respect the questions being raised by Primates, Joint Standing Committees, Lambeth resolutions, Windsor Reports, various communiqués, etc, that all come from national and supra-national ecclesial locations, are dealing with "abstract realities."
I know we could have all stayed home and simply tried to be in relation with our bishop. Actually, that's what I do, and it works. But I also try to be of some help to our bishop and diocese, and indeed to the Episcopal Church, and even from the banks of the Delaware Bay to the Communion and the Archbishop himself. It starts in prayer and continues in study and conversation, in giving for the needs of the church and the world, and beyond that to educating for mission in the world and receiving people and sending them out.
The Archbishop is wrong: The locus of the ecclesial identity is not in the diocese, the bishop, the local church, the national church, the Anglican Communion or whatever. It is in the body of Christ, whose locus is anywhere and everywhere. That is why we identify with Christ, not thank God this or that parish or diocese. All church is local. All church is one. And the body is one. That's why we work at finding a way to be one with each other, even if that too is local in history and place in the Anglican Communion.
At least that's what I learned in Sunday School, Bible School (aka Seminary) and in actual life in the church. What did you learn?