By Jordan Hylden, First Things
“There will always be an England,” as the saying goes. That may well be true, but the eternal perseverance of its Church, unfortunately, is somewhat more in doubt. As nearly all interested observers know, the Anglican Communion has been tottering on the brink of implosion for quite some time now, and recent events have not necessarily been in its favor. Three meetings this month, however, will almost certainly lend clarity, and perhaps even hope, to a situation that heretofore has often been murkier than the London fog.
The first meeting is set for this week, September 11–13, here in New York, and was called at the behest of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. He will not attend in person, but Kenneth Kearon, his representative, will. The meeting will comprise twelve leading Episcopal bishops, running the gamut from the liberal establishment to the Network conservatives, with a number of Windsor Report–affirming moderates in between. On its face, the meeting is an attempt by Canterbury to make some sense of the recent request of seven bishops for something called “alternative primatial oversight.” At its root, the meeting is an effort, at long last, to do something about the increasingly sharp divisions that have riven the Episcopal Church. Given the magnitude of what has been asked, Canterbury has little other choice.
Alternative primatial oversight means, in effect, that seven dioceses do not in good conscience think they can be represented any longer by denominational leadership and, in some form, need representation of their own. It is quite difficult, and probably impossible, to see how their request for an alternate primate as such could be granted without a complete separation from the Episcopal Church. Hence, the meeting, and the hope that some compromise can be reached.
A week from now (September 19–22), the action will move to Camp Allen, Texas, to a meeting of diocesan bishops hosted by the Windsor-affirming moderate Don Wimberley. Here we have the beginnings of a substantive movement. Up to this point, the Anglican Communion Network (led by Bp. Robert Duncan) has been the most visible traditionalist group within ECUSA, but several otherwise conservative bishops have so far steered clear. The Camp Allen meeting, in contrast, appears to have a more widespread appeal, inclusive of the Network but reaching beyond it. There are reports that somewhere in the neighborhood of forty diocesan bishops will be in attendance, perhaps more. The meeting has Canterbury’s blessing and will be attended by two English bishops: Michael Scott-Joynt and the widely respected N.T. Wright, one of the authors of the Windsor Report. Influential theologians over at the Anglican Communion Institute, like Ephraim Radner, Philip Turner, and Christopher Seitz, are throwing their weight behind it as well. All in all, it is probably the last best hope of those who want to remain full members of the Anglican Communion while also (in one form or another) remaining part of the Episcopal Church.
The interesting thing about the Camp Allen meeting is that, while it is gaining the support of a large portion of the church, it cannot be attended by the current and future presiding bishops. In order to attend, bishops must first affirm their commitment to Lambeth 1.10 as the official teaching of the Communion (meaning, no homosexual ordination or blessing of same-sex unions), agree on the Windsor Report as the way forward, and acknowledge that the General Convention was an inadequate response to these goals. It is highly unlikely that either Frank Griswold or Katharine Jefferts Schori (or those who elected them) will commit to these points, and so in effect the die is cast. The division of the Episcopal Church, so long in coming, is finally beginning to take shape. The only real question left is: Will it be an amicable separation or an outright divorce?
It is by no means a sure thing that the proceedings, grim as they may seem, will end in recrimination, schism, and chaos. Although, to be sure, that is a distinct possibility. Very many Episcopalians do not want to leave their denomination but at the same time fully intend to remain in unimpeded communion with Canterbury. Their hand has been forced, or soon will be: In all likelihood, compliance with Windsor will be made requisite for fully Anglican status, as defined by the global primates. The Episcopal Church has not chosen this path, and consequently those dioceses and congregations who desire to remain with Canterbury must find some way to do so. The best-case scenario, from nearly all perspectives, would be for the New York and Camp Allen meetings to begin to set out an alternative structure within the Episcopal Church, allowing for such dioceses and congregations as they wish to remain with Canterbury and receive pastoral care by Windsor bishops at their request. Included in this would have to be allowance for formal representation at Lambeth and the Primates’ Meetings, as well as enough structural heft to provide for common action. This, indeed, is on the agenda at the Camp Allen meeting, and there is at least some hope that it will become a reality. One might describe this scenario as the “amicable separation,” wherein both parties recognize that, to a certain extent, they must go their separate ways but agree to live in the same neighborhood, keep the family name, and see each other frequently for the sake of the children—in hope that, one day, reconciliation may yet come.
Still, the chaos of divorce looms over the time ahead, especially in the responses of the national ECUSA leadership and Global South primates to the upcoming Camp Allen proposal. There are some in the Episcopal Church who seem rather determined to insist, like the Wizard of Oz, that the man behind the curtain should be ignored and that things will (of course!) go on just as they always have. At this point, that is either delusion or willful deception, and it will no longer wash. If continued, it will lead to further division, angry disputation, and hurtfully prolonged confusion.
An equally disastrous result may follow from the third Anglican meeting this month (September 18–22), of the Global South primates in Kigali, Rwanda. Rumblings there urge complete separation from the “cancerous lump” of the so-called liberals, which for some includes even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the entire Lambeth process. This fissiparousness, in the name of “orthodoxy,” will not simply lead to the division of global Anglicans into two camps, conservative and liberal. No, the logic is of atomization instead of division, and will eventually result in an alphabet soup of warring Anglican bodies, each one “orthodox” in its own judgment. That is not a necessary outcome, and there are many good and prayerful Anglicans worldwide who do not wish to see it happen. We may yet hope, and pray, that it will not.
“We must all hang together,” as the good Mr. Franklin once said, “or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” It cannot be emphasized enough that the decisions of the next few weeks and months are crucial, and are all interlocking. If the Episcopal Church does not allow the formation of an adequate alternative structure for Windsor-affirming dioceses and parishes, things will become very messy very quickly in this country, and the already-impatient Global South may well decide that a “new expression” of Anglicanism is required. The chaos of divorce hangs over the Anglican Communion, dark and thick like storm clouds. It seems almost cruel to counsel patience to those who, for years, have painfully watched their church turn into something they no longer recognize. But it is precisely now that patience is most required, and it is finally at this moment when that long-suffering patience may give way to hope. Admittedly, just now it is very dark, but it may be that this is the final and darkest moment before the dawn. Pushed to the brink of chaos, Anglicans may emerge from it for the first time truly as Communion and find their vocation as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church they have claimed to be all along.