Monday, October 22, 2007

More of Rowan's (New?) Anglican Ecclesiology?

While he was making this defence, Festus exclaimed, ‘You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane! (Acts 26:24)

There are many today who want to make that response to the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. A letter from him to John Howe, Bishop of Central Florida, is causing consternation and confusion. You can read the letter here. You can read commentary on the letter at all the usual suspects, and across the Anglican blogosphere.

The letter from Archbishop Williams came in response to a letter from Bishop Howe describing the concerns of a number of parishes that are considering leaving that diocese so as to definitively separate themselves from the Episcopal Church. As one might expect, Archbishop Williams expressed his hope that congregations might not need to separate from Bishop Howe and Central Florida, noted as being “Windsor compliant” and on the more conservative side in American disagreements. In the process of making his case, Archbishop Williams wrote this:

However, 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.

That might have been well enough had he left it there. However, he went on to say,

Those who are rushing into separatist solutions are, I think, weakening that basic conviction of Catholic theology and in a sense treating the provincial structure of The Episcopal Church as if it were the most important thing - which is why I continue to hope and pray for the strengthening of the bonds of mutual support among those Episcopal Church Bishops who want to be clearly loyal to Windsor. Action that fragments their Dioceses will not help the consolidation of that all-important critical mass of ordinary faithful Anglicans in The Episcopal Church for whose nurture I am so much concerned.

He went on to say,

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'. I think that if more thought in these terms there might be more understanding of why priests in a diocese such as yours ought to maintain their loyalty to their sacramental communion with you as Bishop.

Those statements make sense in “understanding of why priests in a diocese such as yours ought to maintain their loyalty to their sacramental communion with you as Bishop;” but they surely make difficulties regarding “[t]hose who are rushing into separatist solutions.... Breaking this [vision of the Church] up in favour of taking refuge in foreign jurisdictions complicates and embitters the future for this vision.” For, after all, does this not literally suggest that dissenting bishops can do with their dioceses what dissenting clergy and their parishes cannot?

I have noted before parallels between Rowan Williams’ vision of an Anglican Communion more closely integrated, and statements from the Pope Benedict XVI when, before his election, he issued Dominus Iesus. This letter to Bishop Howe would seem right in line with that vision: more of a centralized “church” and less a “communion of provinces,” with individual dioceses in some sense relating to the office of Canterbury directly. It certainly seems to discount provincial structures, and accountability of dioceses to their respective provincial structures.

On the other hand, in the press conference at the recent House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans, he had the following questions and responses,

Mary Ailes: one thing we have heard often is that we are free to go but we have to leave the buildings behind. Some hear that as: We have no need of you but we need your buildings. What would you say to those who want to be Anglican but cannot in good conscience remain Episcopalian?

ABC: Start by looking for arrangements and situations within what is there because grace is given through even hopeless places. Isn’t God’s grace still given sacramentally in the Episcopal Church? I would be slow to look for solutions elsewhere.

It is distressing to see the levels of litigation. I would hope and pray that there is a possibility of stopping this from being dragged through the courts interminably.

ENS: There have been interventions throughout the Episcopal Church Does this trouble you?

ABC: yes, there is a long history of unease about this in the Church. I would really, really prefer and hope to work for a local solution. My predecessor would not recognize illicit bishops I find myself in the same difficulty. More interventions make it difficult to find viable solutions.

How are dioceses to seek “a local solution,” one that doesn’t “take refuge in foreign jurisdictions,” without respect for provincial structures? Without provincial structures, what could “local” possibly mean with respect to a diocese?

Indeed, he has responded in this letter “without [intending to forestall] what the primates might say.” He is certainly consulting primates, an act that has raised for many a more curial vision that Archbishop Williams has repeatedly denied. According to one report, the primates were asked to report "your view as to how far your province is able to access the Joint Standing Committee Report assessment that the House of Bishops have responded positively to the requests of Windsor and of the Dar-es-Salaam message of the Primates." That is perhaps less “curial” in intent than some might fear, although some primates may well project their own vision of the Joint Standing Committee’s Report without further consultation within their provinces. At the same time, without provincial structures, what is the ministry of, or even the need for a primate? Moreover, what primate in any province of the Communion would be happy with such a discounting of provincial structures? What diocese in some province other than the Episcopal Church might see in this license to seek a direct relationship with Canterbury that bypasses provincial structures?

It seems as likely as not that what has happened here is that Archbishop Williams has responded to a specific question about a specific concern, and has made his best argument for those in that specific concern to seek the most “local” solution, especially when that keeps very conservative clergy and congregations in communion with a conservative bishop and diocese. Like Paul perhaps, he responded so specifically as to miss how this would reflect in the larger Communion. It is certainly consistent with his earlier statements (and for that matter elements of the Windsor Report) that emphasize resolution of these issues within existing provincial structures. (After all, once again, what meaning is there to Designated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, or, for that matter, similar Canadian and English provisions, except within the respective provincial structures?) So, perhaps it is his continued emphasis on seeking the most local solution: for parishes, the diocese; for dioceses, the province.

Still, how shall we respond to this? Well, not reflexively, certainly. I stand by what I have written elsewhere that sometimes truth, like onions, takes low, slow, steady heat to become clear and sweet. At the same time, it also takes close attention: onions can burn and truth can become extreme without constant, careful work. Perhaps we need to work harder toward an agreement – call it a concordat perhaps instead of a covenant – that recognizes that dioceses represent the unity of the Communion but function meaningfully within the context of provinces. Perhaps we need to see responses from Anglican bishops within and beyond the Episcopal Church to this vision. We need to see with just how much glee dissenting bishops actually receive this comment, and how Archbishop Williams might respond to that. It is perhaps serendipity (or grace) that this arises just before the Feast of James of Jerusalem, whom we turn to so often these days for his gift of maintaining unity by separating essentials from distractions within the faith. What voice(s) will rise to help us understand more clearly how we might continue to live and work together within what some see as irreconcilable divisions?

But we certainly need to be watching. Untended, onions and truth will not clarify but will rather darken. This is no time to turn away from the stove.

Updated 10/23:

There has now been a response from Lambeth Palace to clarify. You can read it here. It helps; although perhaps it doesn't help enough. We'll see....


Christopher said...

Fr. Marshall,

Folks are noticing Williams' dependence on Ratzinger and Zizioulas for ecclesiology. I recommend Miroslav Volf's "After Our Likeness" as an antidote. Volf critiques both ecclesiologies, which carry with them some heavily unAnglican assumptions about subsuming the Church into bishops or papacy.

Marshall Scott said...


Thanks for the suggestion; and I'm certainly a fan of Volf, although I haven't read After Our Likeness.

I think we have perhaps slacked off on emphasizing the ecclesiological value of provincial structures. Establishing the Church of England as a "national church," accountable to its own people and its own leaders (setting aside for the moment how those leaders are established) rather than to foreign powers. Cranmer clearly wanted to distinguish an English church from the Roman church. Both Hooker and Jewell, I think, had something to say on the subject. We need to hear about that.

We've been concerned, here in these United States, and elsewhere where religious organizations are really, truly voluntary associations, to distinguish episcopal polity from congregational polity, a model all too powerfully embraced in the American scene. We have felt the need to emphasize the importance of the connection of congregations to the diocese. We have failed to emphasize the connection of dioceses as dioceses and of bishops to the "provincial structures" of General Convention and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society dba the Episcopal Church. We don't argue that in some meaningful sense the diocese is the basic unit of the Church. We haven't emphasized as well that a diocese alone is no more effective in the world than a liver or a kidney divorced from the body, much less a single cell of either organ.