The Bishop of Central Florida, John Howe, is working at the knots on the fringes of the Anglican / Episcopal shawl. There are two knotty items that have caught my attention:
On Wednesday Bishop Howe wrote,
"Tonight I have just come from a meeting of seven of the "Global South" Primates, several of the British Bishops, and 14 of our American Bishops, some involved in "Common Cause" and some in "Communion Partners." The point was again made that CP is an "inside" strategy, and CC an "outside" one, but that both are needed; and we want to do the best we can to support each other. The Primates were very clear in repeating several times their promise of solidarity with both efforts."
The Communion Partners is a group of Episcopal Church bishops committed to being part of the Anglican Communion and part of the Episcopal Church both. They include at least Bishops William H. Love, Albany; John W. Howe, Central Florida; James M. Stanton, Dallas; Russell E. Jacobus, Fond Du Lac; Michael G. Smith, North Dakota; Edward S. Little, Northern Indiana; Geralyn Wolf, Rhode Island; Mark J. Lawrence, South Carolina; John C. Bauerschmidt, Tennessee; Don A. Wimberly, Texas; Gary E. Lillibridge, West Texas; James M. Adams, Western Kansas; D. Bruce MacPherson, Western Louisiana.
Some of these bishops were part of the group called the "Windsor Bishops" in whom the Archbishop of Canterbury was placing considerable hope. Others are or were at one time part of the Anglican Communion Network. THe ACN is now defunct, being for all intents and purposes replaced by the Common Cause Partnership (CCP).
Bishop Howe has separated from ACN, joined the Anglican Communion Institiute - a theological think tank - and has begun with others this new conversation among those who want to stay in the Episcopal Church but be full fledged members of the Anglican Communion.
The Communion Partners are for all intents and purposes the Anglican Communion Network for people not set on forming a new North American Province related to whatever configuration of Primates.
Bishop Howe is working the fringe of the shawl and along with others knitting together a community of concerned "insiders." That is entirely appropriate and I can applaud him for the effort, particularly since he maintains that this is a "relational fellowship" within the Episcopal Church. I hope we hear from them in General Convention and that they raise their concerns. That's the way we work it out.
I am concerned, however, that the old argument for the Anglican Communion Network was that it was the "inside" the Episcopal Church opposition and the American Anglican Council was the "outside" effort, or more lately that CCP was the "outside."
If The Communion Partner Bishops are an "inside" fellowship then let them prosper as they can. I don't think they will prevail, but some of their theological cautions and concerns might grow in value. For example I believe Bishop Howe has done a remarkable job in working out settlements with congregations and clergy wishing to leave the Episcopal Church. It may be that he has a great deal to tell us about how that might be done elsewhere in the church.
Hopefully the CP will begin to be a voice for conservative or traditionalist bishops and clergy willing to keep on keeping on with the Episcopal Church. Having been part of the loyal opposition from the other side for many years I know the it is a long haul and sometimes not an easy one. But it is an important and legitimate function of a church that is broad in base and solid in common life. If it wanders off in the same way that the ACN did and ends up being part of a realignment that quits the Episcopal Church it will fail to be such a voice and simply become one more splinter group.
Then on Friday, Bishop How asked, remarking on his small group's work, "The question was: is it possible for someone who says, "Jesus is 'my way' [or, perhaps, 'our way']," but who cannot say, "Jesus is 'the way'" - to be a real Christian?"
Readers may remember that the Presiding Bishop has been continually slammed for her response to the question as to whether or not Jesus is THE Way. The most recent example of this is in the innuendos in the video produced by the Diocese of Pittsburgh for the congregations as they consider the resolutions of the diocese that would attempt to remove it from the Episcopal Church. That video begins with a slide that asks "who do you say that I am," it goes on to quote Peter: "You are the Christ the Son of the Living God." The next slide asks the same question and quotes The Presiding Bishop, "A carpenter from Nazareth or Bethlehem...shows us what a "godly human being' looks like," and a further slide quotes her again, "To say no one comes to the Father except through me' tends to eliminate other possibilities."
Bishop Howe's question in the email to his clergy (whether or not he posed it) does not occur in a vacuum. The question is asked and everyone knows it is directed at the Presiding Bishop. The realignment crowd has repeated over and over again that Presiding Bishop Katharine is a heretic. Bishop Pierre Whalon took the trouble to ask the question of her being a heretic directly on his blog. (His response was no, she is not a heretic.) One of the talking points of the radical right is that the Episcopal Church, its Presiding Bishop and the leadership of the church have gone astray, not in terms of their stance on homosexuality but on the basic tenants of the faith.
Again Bishop Howe is playing the fringes. This time he is letting it be known that the question is alive and well as to whether or not the leadership of the Episcopal Church is acting outside the norms of understanding about the unique character of Jesus Christ.
This time, however, he is playing into the hands of the realignment crowd in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. He at no point suggests that the question raised is either a red herring or a slight to the Christian character of leaders in the Episcopal Church or the Communion. Perhaps it is because he too believes the Presiding Bishop not to be a "real" Christian.
The real problem with the question raised is of course that it becomes a litmus test question. If the only "right: answer is that Jesus Christ is the Way and only he and no one else is, could be or might be for someone in particular, the Way then it has become the question on the rack. It becomes the Inquisitioner's question. And if, by the Way one means the only means of salvation, or the only way to heaven, or the only way to the Truth, then the matter is made all the more complex.
And of course if one reaches out further and determines that what this really means is that "no one comes to the Father except through me," then the door narrows and all that is left is to explore what it might mean to say "except through me."
Bishop Howe seems to think the question of Jesus as the only Way, and all its implied expanded meaning, is a right question, and that those who don't say "yes" are not real Christians. If so he has simply given the context in which he would stop working from the "inside" and start working for the "outside" - from working with the Communion Partners and start working with the Common Cause Partners. And because he makes no protest about this being the right question, it raises the possibility that Bishop Howe is working the fringes still thinking he might have to cross over into the world of the GAFCON Primates Council and their North American Province.
All it would take is a nod from the Archbishop of Canterbury, for that is where the Communion Partners are joined - not in being part of the Episcopal Church, but in being part of a Province itself part of the Anglican Communion.
I find much that I like about Bishop Howe. He is strong and of good courage. But he is working the fringes, and I am sorry to say I do not trust him very much. It is likely reciprocated, but of course there is little reason why he needs to take much interest in what I think. He is a bishop and I am a villager.