The Archbishop makes a mess.

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 communiqu├ęs, 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?


  1. "Hitting gay people upside the head in an attempt at exorcism"? If this is a reference to Bishop Chukwama's attempt to exorcise Ritchie Kirker, I was watching and I don't think anyone was hit by anybody. I'm open to correction, but my clear impression is that both parties were happy to play this out for the cameras, convinced that the wider audience must be on their side. A hand may have been reached out, but it wasn't a blow. I'm not saying this to defend Chukwama; just in the interests of accuracy.

  2. There are also a number of links to Episcopal opinions and reflections here at Episcopal Cafe.

  3. I am fairly certain the ABC intended to communicate to "traditionalists" something along the lines of "don't give up and leave just because you perceive a misdirection in your national church." In the end, however, the well-meant appeal clearly raised many more questions than it answered.

    I agree strongly with Mark that this (and, I would add, every) ABC should, in good faith, invite all bishops in good standing in their respective provinces to Lambeth for dialogue and fellowship. Having the singular Focus of Unity in office at the time effectively decide by invitation who is Anglican enough to take part in the workings of one "Instrument of Communion" - regardless of the on-the-ground realities in the provinces - is odd at best.

    And then there is this: The Schedule of Membership in the Anglican Consultative Council - another "Instrument of Communion" - is itself entirely based on the "abstract reality" of national churches and provinces:


    Too, the ACC's constitution requires - rather concretely - the participation of not only bishops, but also priests and - notably - laypeople. Clearly, then, there is more to this business of visible unity amongst Anglicans than the bishop in his or her diocese agreeing (and getting along with) "peers." And thanks be to God for that!

  4. I am increasingly convinced the AB will say or write almost anything, on the basis that he can always, 'clarify' it away. Here he is writing to a single bishop who has the amazing idea that he and his diocese are 'Windsor compliant.' What in the world does that mean? But whatever it is, +++Williams is in favor of it -- I think.

    This is a man who carries the betrayal of Fr. J. John as his legacy to the church. This is a man who is always willing to sacrifice others to appease the bullydox, and yet for some reason, we continue to act and the PB in particular continues to act as though his opinions matter.

    It is time to say clearly who we are and let the ABC deal with the factions he has encouraged without either our help or cash. Now that should be an edifying sight! We may need a rather revolutionary GC to get to it, but none-the-less it is a worthy goal.


  5. It's a poorly written letter to be sure, but I think progressives shouldn't underestimate the current crisis within the conservative ranks, as the schismatics amongst them set about to over turn the apple cart despite the ramifications it will have for not just the progressives but for themselves.

    Here is Bishop Howe, a Windsor Compliant bishop, devoted to maintaining communion with Canterbury fighting to keep conservatives from leaving his dioceses. I'm sure Rowan and others are both astonished and appalled.

    No one is forcing SSBs on them or gay clergy, much less a gay bishop, yet they can not bear to be apart of the apostate TEC.

    The ABC and Howe are trying to dampen down the flames of schism that are consuming the conservatives at their own peril. Poorly worded yes, but completely understandable.

  6. andrew...of course there was no actual hitting upside the head... that was a stretch. But I do not believe it was asked for, even if it was played out for a wider audience. But such matters as exorcism and slaying in the spirit are best done because requested. When they are not they become intrusions and a source of spiritual and sometimes physical assault. So...no there was no actual hitting, but what is exorcism if not a spiritual punch?

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. To no one's surprise, I hope, Lambeth has issued a 'clarification' that says something rather a bit different than what the archbishop wrote. It suggests that he was saying that the connection of a priest to the whole church is through the bishop and that 'leaving' is not a good idea. Amazing.

    I had no idea Welsh was so different from English! "Words mean what I want them too!" The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland and ABp Williams any time he gets caught.


  8. On October 23, Williams' press officer, the Rev. Jonathan Jennings, issued a clarification.

    "It should be understood that the Archbishop's response to Bishop Howe was neither a new policy statement nor a roadmap for the future but a plain response to a very urgent and particular question about clergy in traditionalist dioceses in TEC who want to leave TEC for other jurisdictions, a response reiterating a basic presupposition of what the Archbishop believes to be the theology of the Church," Jennings told Episcopal News Service.

    "The primary point was that -- theologically and sacramentally speaking -- a priest is related in the first place to his/her bishop directly, not through the structure of the national church; that structure serves the dioceses," he added. "The diocese is more than a 'local branch' of a national organization. Dr. Williams is clear that, whatever the frustration with the national church, priests should think very carefully about leaving the fellowship of a diocese. The provincial structure is significant, not least for the administration of a uniform canon law and a range of practical functions; Dr. Williams is not encouraging anyone to ignore this, simply to understand the theological priorities which have been articulated in a number of ecumenical agreements, and in the light of this not to increase the level of confusion and fragmentation in the church."


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.