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The Spiritual Exercise of “Saving Anglicanism”
by Christopher Wells
6/9/2006

t must be apparent to any reader of Lionel Deimel’s essay, “Saving Anglicanism: An Historical Perspective on Decisions Facing the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church,” that he is no stranger to the fractiousness of current, intra-Episcopalian debates; not least on account of his context in the diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has had a front row seat to observe the rise of what he terms an “insurgent” movement of “militant traditionalism,” bent on “a wholesale rejection of the Episcopal Church” (p. 2). Nearby Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, for instance (in Ambridge, PA), “has trained ... many of the most troubled conservative clergy in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere” (p. 3); and the Anglican Communion Network, led by the bishop of Pittsburgh, should be identified, according to Deimel, as “a fifth column within the Episcopal Church” because it “urges congregations to abandon the Episcopal Church and to put themselves under the protection of ‘orthodox’ Anglican bishops” (p. 10; cf. p. 11). In this way, one may see that the Network dioceses and bishops, and other leading conservative groups (the Institute for Religion and Democracy and the American Anglican Council are singled out especially), have conspired to undo “the theological toleration that is most characteristic of Anglicanism” (p. 2; cf. p. 3). Thus in the video Choose This Day, featured at the Network’s November 2005 conference in Pittsburgh, it is claimed “that the Episcopal Church, in consenting to the election of Gene Robinson, ‘deliberately repudiated Scripture and tradition and embraced a pagan religion,’ that ‘Holy Scripture was deliberately altered,’ and that the church presented a ‘counterfeit’ Gospel to the Communion” (p. 10).

Deimel’s indignance bears a family resemblance to interpretations of current Episcopalian ecclesio-politics by Mark Harris (in various venues), by Jim Naughton in his recent, widely-cited exposé, and by writers for Integrity and various Via Media groups, inter alia. Of course, one need not be a conservative—temperamentally, canonically, theologically—to worry that such critiques, usually journalistic in style, are often read (if not written) as though the Church were just a perpetually fraught community of power plays by the ambitious and the coercive, without remainder; church history, effectively, through the suspicious and cynical lens of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, with little or no adversion to grace or providence, including in the form of the Church’s order: her catholic and apostolic substance.

Still, presuming that we—all of us—care about truth, and that we also may be able to agree that our present polarization, joined to an antecedent anti-intellectualism in our culture and church (sometimes defended on putatively pastoral grounds, with reference to “relevance” and contemporary “needs”), has weakened us terribly, conspiring against a proper hearing for the best arguments, whether “liberal” or “conservative”: presuming all of this, what should thoughtful conservatives take away from Dr. Deimel’s own, passionate exposé?

Conservatives can and should see in his piece a useful catalogue of recent hurts (esp. from p. 6ff.) as suffered by one who stands in a particular place in our midst, the ecclesial “left.” Simply on pragmatic grounds, if we wish to try to stay together, such catalogues—and the same would hold for those from the “right”—must be embraced, however painfully, as a preamble to conversation and reconciliation, given the culture of profound mistrust and mutual insult that has become our daily bread, “a kind of lisp” as Ephraim Radner has said.1 And they must likewise be embraced on spiritual-theological grounds because we all have sins to repent of—including, in our present context, those times when we have adopted a most unchristian rhetoric of disdain and dismissal.

Penitential conservatives will thus share, for instance, Deimel’s apparent sadness about the “hostile” treatment meted out to our delegation to the ACC “by some participants” in June 2005 (p. 9); will join him in lamenting the “scathing press release” of the AAC following the recent episcopal election in California—seeming confirmation that “the AAC cannot take ‘yes’ for an answer” (pp. 11-12); and will wish to question the usefulness and accuracy of referring to those with whom we disagree as having “deliberately” repudiated or altered Scripture, so as to present something “counterfeit” (again, p. 10), even as we by contrast are simply “orthodox” (p. 2). Perhaps above all, conservatives who are penitents will join with our progressive sisters and brothers in insisting that Episcopalians and Anglicans have long since discerned from God a vocation to welcome gays and lesbians and to listen to their experience, with patience and in love—as an intrinsic piece of the pattern of interdependence that we are being called into.

It may be useful to note that there have been examples in the last several years of the kind of conservative humility, publicly expressed, that I am here commending—though I grant Deimel that the virtues of “goodwill and faithful reserve” (p. 2), after which we all must strive, have been conspicuously less common that we should wish. In particular, the general tenor and the concrete labors of the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI)—theologically principled and pastorally animated, scriptural and ecclesiological, evangelical and catholic, scholarly—have been a great gift and a labor of love, tendered by otherwise gainfully employed priests in their spare time, as it were. To the point of Deimel’s articulated worries, two instances of intra-conservative self-criticism by Senior Fellow Ephraim Radner may be mentioned.

1. In a recent explanation of why he is “still a member of the Anglican Communion Network,” Radner admitted that

there has been a drift apart over the past couple of years in the Network’s vision and my own. For instance, I do not believe that cross-jurisdictional episcopal arrangements, such as the Network has facilitated in many instances with departed or separated congregations and non-ECUSA provinces, are helpful in the long-run or even, in many cases, in the short-run, and this is a serious matter. I have never been convinced that the strategy of “Common Cause” with the motley groupings of non-Episcopalians in North America—AMiA, Continuing Churches, etc.—has made much theological or strategic sense. I wish there could be more intra-Episcopal and intra-Anglican (and not just Global South Anglican) engagement than there has been on the part of the Network’s leadership. There is a slippage towards separation ... that is both intrinsic to the present struggle, and probably at times exacerbated by actions and statements by many, including the Network. If the Network ends up by forming a “separate” province or proto-province within a fractured Communion, I will not be joining with them. A fractured Communion is not better than no Communion at all; it is simply not a Communion at all, and there’s enough of that already within the oddly titled “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”2

Radner here usefully enumerates four, substantive concerns about the Network; even as he goes on, in the same piece, to praise them for their “courage” in the present agon, and dismisses what he takes to be exaggerated criticisms of the Network’s very right to exist.3

2. The very fact of the so-called “Anglican Mission in America” (AMiA)—a group included in Deimel’s list of “pressure groups” (p. 3)—may be understood to dramatize precisely what not to do, namely, “embrace some alternative autonomy and ... add to the overturning of structures that hold us answerable to each other as a communion, however tottering they may now seem.”4 Rather, Radner concludes, we would do well to “strive for a greater and deeper and broader basis for our discernment, decision, and discipline—as broad as our Communion and broader still!”—if we wish to avoid “disintegrating the bonds of our shared life” and the ordering of our faith “towards the common good.”5

 


1 In Why I am Still a Member of the Anglican Communion Network” (22 April, 2006): “To be sure, these are the kinds of insults that have been liberally flung about from all sides these days, and it has perhaps simply become second nature to the whole of Anglicanism to speak in this fashion. A kind of lisp.”
2 Radner, Why I am Still a Member of the Anglican Communion Network.”
3 Following the line of his earlier, most colorful engagement with Mark Harris: “Concerning Anglican Fascism.”
4 Radner, The Call to Accountability: The Parable of the AMiA.” Two primates of the Communion, Emmanuel Kolini and Datuk Yong Ping Chung, replied to Radner (on 28 January, 2004), to which Radner replied the next day.
5 Quoting from his reply to Kolini and Yong (see previous note).

 

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