Saturday, April 21, 2007

Gaining Historical Perspective

As sometimes happens, it never rains but it pours. This time it’s rained pennies from heaven. I continued my search for scholarly responses to current issues in the Church, and discoveries began to multiply.

Specifically, I discovered the web site for The Whole Message Conference: Inclusiveness in the Anglican Church of Canada. The conference was held last week (April 13-14) and, significantly, just before the Retreat of the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada. That event gained more attention for the attendance of the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, I think we might well note this earlier conference as well. (Audio and/or texts of most presentations at the conference are available here.)

I discovered this when I found this paper, "The Episcopal Church: A Half Century of Turbulence and Transformation," by the Rt. Rev. Arthur Walmsley, retired Bishop of Connecticut, and Chaplain to the Diocese of New Hampshire. I encourage you to take the time to read it all.

The real value and power of Bishop Walmsley’s paper for me is the review of the past half century in the Episcopal Church by one who witnessed it all. Indeed, he goes back more than 50 years to the end of World War II, recounting the events and charting the trends that established within the Episcopal Church the sense of God’s call to pursue justice.

Important to his witness to events is his ability to provide the facts that place in context some things we’ve assumed. He references the significant decrease in church attendance in Europe and the significant increase in the United States after the Second World War. He incorporates the tensions around formation of the World Council of Churches, and the efforts, largely led by Americans, to resurrect meetings of a Pan-Anglican Congress, one that would include all orders of ministry including the laity. He describes the series of civil rights issues (racial, gender, and sexual) and related ecclesial issues (African-American participation in the Church, ordination of women, Prayer Book Revision, acceptance of GLBT Christians) that have shaped the current context in the United States, and in the Episcopal Church. In that sense, he notes,

It goes without saying that as the US enters the fifth year of a disastrous war in Iraq, our government's justification of torture and rendition (including a notable case which has divided the US and Canada), the frequent incursions of the US militarily in Latin America throughout the twentieth century, our rejection of the Kyoto treaty and other international agreements have increased US isolation in the global picture. The Episcopal Church and other main-stream Protestant bodies have moved from being establishment elites to politically-marginalized critics of the government. (Emphasis mine)

Bishop Walmsley has a clear sense of the real issues in the Anglican Communion.

The question before the Communion is Which vision and implementing structures of Anglican community will prevail?. Will they be based on the work of an Anglican Consultative Council with its inclusiveness of all orders with the Church? Will the evident commitment among provinces north and south be to work together on the global realities embodied in response to the Millennium Development Goals or the more limited agenda of human sexuality? Or will the next chapter be limited to initiatives by the other three instruments of unity -- the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, and the Primates' Meeting -- all of which consist of bishops alone? And which vision will inform further developments of the Windsor Report and the Covenant process?

His historical review is, I think, quite helpful in understanding just how we got here. I hope you’ll take the time to read it all.

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