Friday, September 22, 2006

Catholic Order, Impaired Communion, and Anglican Boundaries

I was reading Fr. Jake Stops the World, specifically his post on the provincial boundary violations of Bishop Frank Lyons of the diocese of Bolivia in the Province of the Southern Cone. I responded, and, among my comments, linked back to my post, “The Church, the Whole Church, and Nothing but the Church.” There I received this comment from obadiahslope, who frequently comments on blogs I read frequently. obadiahslope and I have some points of disagreement, but I always find his comments thoughtful and civil, and usually I find them helpful. He wrote,

When you speak of churches in the anglican communion no longer recognising each other's orders it is a measure of what we have lost. If we accept that TEC or any other province no longer makes a bishop for the "whole" church, then we are acknowledging that we are in some form of impaired communion, surely? One of the stronger liberal arguments has been an appeal to catholic order in my view.


And here is my response:

obadiah, thanks for your comment.

I had been working on a well-thought out response. However, it seems events have superseded the question. The communique from the Global South Primates, meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, and the letter from the meeting in Texas of self-defined “Windsor-compliant” bishops reflect something about “catholic order.”

Let me begin by answering your post specifically in one respect: certainly, we are in some sense in “impaired communion” between various elements of the church catholic. However, this hardly began with the discussions of the last generation within the Anglican Communion (that is, including issues regarding GLBT persons, but beginning with issues regarding women). This sort of “impaired communion” dates to the 11th Century, when the Roman West excommunicated the Byzantine East. It dates earlier to when the orthodox catholic church of the Roman Empire excommunicated the Oriental Orthodox churches; and they proceeded to excommunicate the ancient Church of the East (called Nestorian). All those bodies recognized that the folks excommunicated had, in some sense, the historic episcopate; and even some language that reflected the Creeds (the content of which was received and accepted by the Church of the East in the 6th Century); but couldn’t agree on the interpretation of the content of the faith. We can speculate what it might have meant if the Roman West and Byzantine East had been able to agree to creedal language of the Spirit that “proceeds from the Father through the Son.” There are scholars who suggest that might have been possible. But these churches, each with imperial structure and imperial perspective, if not always connected with an actual empire, couldn’t find that middle ground; and remain divided over the filioque clause to this day.

I don't know that the arguments about catholic order have, in the end, been all that helpful.

  1. I think they support some expectations that themselves ignore our current
    fallenness; for example, that we have some responsibility beyond our own
    choosing to members of the Body that don't recognize us at all (Rome or Moscow, for example) or that we have almost forgotten exist (notwithstanding some recent valuable ecumenical discussions at the Communion level, I doubt most Anglicans/Episcopalians think at all about the Oriental Orthodox churches).
  2. It allows the creation of a hierarchy of one set of ecumenical relations (Rome and Moscow, again) over others that have been recognized has also reflecting catholic order (Utrecht, and Lutheran agreements that are functionally now virtually Communion-wide).
  3. Finally, it makes the issue of "what affects all should be decided by all" seem very one-sided; for example, what should be the appropriate response to the recent agreed paper on Mary? Should the argument for catholic order suggest moving closer to Rome (as the Traditional Anglican Communion seems to desire) and thus accept their definitions? Or, should it move us to argue that by accepting as dogma statements not explicitly grounded in Scripture the Romans have left catholic order? More immediately, if the need for a “listening process” not only affects all but has been decided by all (as the frequently forgotten clause of Lambeth 1998 1.10), what is Nigeria’s responsibility to the communion for the church’s articulated support for laws to deny civil rights not only to GLBT folks, but also to anyone who wishes to discuss their concerns.
  4. Most important, it quickly gets bogged down into the chicken-and-egg argument about who's responsible for breaking catholic order. If churches walk apart, who actually made a turn and when? I will acknowledge I have an opinion on that; but my point here is that we do argue about the question, without really addressing one another.


The Kigali statement has no respect for catholic order, or respects only as a secondary value. Its intent, expressed in the paragraph on an Anglican Covenant and in the paragraph on theological education and shared catechisms, is a communion built around a common confession, with no particular concern for historic episcopate per se. The Texas statement is ambiguous on catholic order. While being “committed to the conciliar character of our Communion,” they distance themselves from actions of their own council, the General Convention. They state, “We recognize the need of some among us for an alternative primatial relationship. This recognition does not weaken our fundamental theological and ecclesial commitments,” without clarifying at all what those fundamental theological and ecclesial commitments might be, much less how those commitments can sustain blurring provincial responsibilities. One denies explicitly and another questions whether an Episcopal bishop can be respected by the whole church, based solely on catholic order or the historic episcopate.

We can find arguments for catholic order attractive; but they presume a level of mutual respect that hasn’t been enforceable by law since the empires fell, and haven’t been respected in 1,000 years. Where churches were tied to cohesive, homogeneous national or cultural groups, it was easy to rely on catholic order. Where those groups overlapped or came into conflict, that respect broke down. Consider, for example, the history of Poland, and the struggles between Rome and Moscow; or of the Balkans, and the struggles between Rome and Constantinople.

Arguments based on catholic order and respect for the historic episcopate as the sign of unity are attractive, but only useful as long as all parties respect catholic order and the historic episcopate. When that respect fails, and especially when it fails among primatial and metropolitan bishops, discussions fail for lack of common terms. That is communion at least impaired, and functionally broken. In one sense, at least in America, and, really, throughout the English-speaking world, we’re long used to that. What Anglican diocese doesn’t overlap with a corresponding Roman diocese, or “continuing “Anglican” diocese? With the first, and even largely with the second, we don’t argue about historic episcopate and catholic order (although we will argue about what is specific to Anglican orders). Communion between Anglicans and Baptists, those children of the Separatist movement, has been broken for generations. Remember that the 17th Century Puritans and Separatists were Anglicans. They also wanted to establish in the new colonies a better church in the Anglican tradition. The biggest difference between the Separatists of the 17th Century and those of the 21st is some continuing commitment among the latter to the historic episcopate. In the loss of respect for catholic order, regarding those with whom they disagree they are largely the same.

So, no, I don’t know that arguments from catholic order are all that helpful. These new developments will only highlight that. The unity of the Body of Christ, which we believe we will know when we see the Kingdom in fullness, is traced with myriad cracks and crevices. Where we fail to see our unity will be found in Christ, and not in shared structures or agreed interpretations of the faith, communion fails; and appeals to catholic order will not prevail.

5 comments:

J.C. Fisher said...

The Texas statement is ambiguous on catholic order. While being “committed to the conciliar character of our Communion,” they distance themselves from actions of their own council, the General Convention.

Touche', Marshall! ;-/

An outstanding entry.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog.
Greetings from Montreal, Canada....my name is Wren.
I have a discussion forum here...
http://z6.invisionfree.com/denominations
Please know that you are very welcome to register and participate anytime.

obadiahslope said...

Marshall,
sorry for a tardy reply, but your blog defies my normal safari software and I have to come to Internet Explorer land to read it.

Even as you reluctantly say the last rites for "catholic order" I note that progressive bloggers on other sites still vigorously push the arhument. Its advanced for example as a reason to oppose the Kigali statements suggestion of a seperate structure for the North american conservatives. one bishop per geographical area is an appeal to traditional catholic order, and the catholic impulse to, well, be catholic and not split the church.
Catholic order has at its heart a conviction that bishops are necessary.
as an evangelical I lean towards the point of view that they may be useful but they are not necessaryt. With Hooker I say that they are of the "bonum esse" of the church rather than the "esse" of the church.
However the appeal to remaining with those with whom we disagree, in Cantuars "solidarities not of our choosing" remains a strong argument in my view.
It seesm to me that your post forms p[art of a recent pattern among the Episcopalian left of reassessing their views on realignment. Jim Naughton appears to be now in favour of a negotiated split in the US church.
I am surprised that it has taken the left so long to catch on.
Both the left and the right may in fact flourish seperate from each other. It is the people in the middle who will be distressed I suspect.
However I don't expect a US split will be exported. the rest of us don't live with your culture wsars, and probably do not want to.

Marshall said...

obadiah:

Thanks again for this. Once again you've asked a really interesting question; and once again I think a full answer is big enough to move from a comment to a new post.

Marshall said...

By the way, obadiah, I also share your difficulty with Safari. I'm also a Mac user; and Safari doesn't work as well with Blogger as I would like. I've moved to Foxfire, where it seems to work better; but there are many things for which I still use Safari as more facile on my Mac.