The essay below appeared as a Reader’s Viewpoint column in the June 11, 2006, issue of The Living Church (pp. 32–33 of vol. 232, no. 24). Like all such essays, the column carries the following disclaimer: “The Reader’s Viewpoint article does not necessarily represent the editorial opinion of The Living Church or its board of directors.” Regular readers of the magazine know that the opinions expressed in the Reader’s Viewpoint column are, in fact, quite diverse in outlook.
The author of this essay was a parish priest when this column was published. He is now (October 16, 2006) bishop-elect of the Diocese of South Carolina.
A Prognosis for this Body Episcopal
By Mark Lawrence
The Episcopal Church in the United States of America is dying—a comatose patient on life support. The insufficient apparatus of aging communicants, and the evaporating wealth of prior generations will not sustain the patient indefinitely. Keeping vigil at its bedside, Episcopalianism, by which I mean the ethos of that body of Anglicans in the U.S., waits, gripped by a culture of denial, which includes its inability to look at either the declining health or the ecclesiology of the dying institution to which its constitution and canons tie it. Moreover, it has lost its Anglican identity, even while it has failed to reach its own American culture in any significant way. The average Episcopalian, parish church and mission, bishop and priest, seem to prefer to sleep at the bedside of the patient, thoughtless of the impending trauma, than to prepare for the inevitable or take swift action to avert it.
Worse yet, Anglicanism is in a crisis from which it will not survive if its leaders do not act boldly to correct its fatal allegiance to provincialism. In a global age, remaining committed to an insular form of provincial governance will lead only to deeper fractures or an irrecoverable break. Anglicanism has been trying haphazardly to come to grips with the transformation brought about by its dramatic worldwide expansion during the last 150 years. For instance, of the four instruments of unity recognized in the recent Windsor Report, three of them are less than 150 years old and two less than 40—Lambeth Conference first met in 1867; the Anglican Consultative Council was created after the 1968 Lambeth Conference; and the primates’ meeting (the archbishops and presiding bishops of the various provinces) first convened in 1979. These three are clearly the instruments of a Communion seeking to adapt its practical life and ecclesiology to globalization.
What I have not heard acknowledged heretofore, though admittedly I am only an isolated parish priest, is that these instruments, as well as the fourth, the Archbishop of Canterbury, are insufficient sources of unity. They are the half-conscious attempts of a Communion to face and adapt to not only its global growth, but also a yet broader expansion. For during this same period Anglicanism has struggled with the ever-expanding theological boundaries and cultural mores of its many constituent members.
The actions of the Episcopal Church in the consecration of V. Gene Robinson in 2003, and the same-sex blessings in the Diocese of New Westminster (Canada), have revealed the Achilles heel of the Anglican Communion. While claiming to be a worldwide communion within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, it is actually only a loose confederation of provinces, each unduly autonomous, with profoundly different forms of governance, ethos, and doctrinal commitments.
That to which all seem at least able to give lip service is the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, a fairly recent historical document of self-definition, inadequate for arbitrating theological and moral debate. Consequently, our pretensions of unity have been revealed, and with it, our incompatible plurality. Perhaps the unilateral actions of the North American provinces (the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2003, and New Westminster) have done us a service. Or more correctly stated, perhaps their actions will be used by God to renew and reshape Anglicanism into a truly worldwide communion that, while allowing a latitude in things protestant and catholic, universal and local, provincial and cultural, will transform itself into a body which is proficient and faithful for a global era of world history.
As I see it at present, of the four instruments of unity, the only one capable of such inclusive yet negotiable action is the most recently established of the four, the primates. They alone have a sufficiently representative authority to set theological boundaries and perimeters for the individual provinces until the Communion can do the necessary constitutional work to realize the intercultural, inter-provincial unity we have claimed for ourselves over the past two centuries.
Such primatial authority in things doctrinal and moral will cause much distress, as will the separate matter of developing a unifying constitution. It will mean that Episcopal Church polity, as well as the polity of the other autonomously governed provinces, will be supplanted by a new, emerging form of Anglican governance sufficient for the age of globalism. The American church’s constitution and canons evolved in isolation, in an environment of strident nationalism. Its ethos is as much, if not more, the ethos of democracy rather than Anglicanism. It promotes the wrangling of political machinations and debates, not the seeking of theological consensus. I believe it no longer serves us well. Our very survival, let alone our growth, necessitates the surrender of our autonomy to the governance of the larger church—that is, the Anglican Communion.
Some may consider what I am suggesting as being “undemocratic,” “unduly hierarchical,” and, most damning of all, “un-Episcopalian.” But I believe our current crisis is rooted in, and has been brought about, at least partially, by an inadequate understanding of the church and its model of self-governance. We need to redress radically what has led to this current crisis. Surrender of the Episcopal Church’s autonomy is an admittedly radical suggestion, but we are in need of lifesaving action. I believe it may be our spiritual rebirth—a surgery that frees us from the “heresy” of a national church or, more accurately stated, from an ecclesiastical nationalism and the provincialism that has led to the deepening fracture within our Church.
Redressing our ecclesiology may at first lead to more questions than answers. For example, how would we carry out our corporate life while the primates establish temporary perimeters for belief (doctrine) and behavior (morals)? What do we do with bishops and priests whose current practice and belief is beyond what the primates understand as within the boundaries of Anglicanism?
The first responsibility of an attending doctor is to gather those facts that enable a proper diagnosis to be made. Only then can effective prognosis and treatment follow. Our situation is desperate. It may not look like it from where you sit, but from where I stand at the bedside—taking a pulse, reading the blood pressure, watching the monitors—to take no action will be fatal. Frankly, I don’t put much hope in my prognosis of faulty ecclesiology being heard when the voices around “rights” and “sex” are so vociferous. This is tragic, when surrendering to corrective surgery might bring restoration and health.
The Rev. Mark Lawrence is the rector of St. Paul’s Church, Bakersfield, Calif.