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Rethinking “Saving Anglicanism”
by Lionel Deimel
6/10/2006

y basic thesis in “Saving Anglicanism” was that Anglicanism is threatened by the current crisis and that Anglicanism, as a particular approach to the Christian Gospel, is not an assured feature of the fellowship of churches that bears its name. Because of what it can contribute to Christian thought and practice, we must, I argued, save Anglicanism at all costs, while preserving the Anglican Communion if we can. A secondary theme of my narrative was that the “militant traditionalists” within and outside the Episcopal Church—the term was intended to be descriptive, not disparaging—are trying, not always by fair means, to rid our church of “error,” which includes the very notion of theological diversity many consider essential to its identity.  I raised the possibility, without necessarily advocating it, that resisting the demands of the Anglican Communion—increasingly, the “requests” of the Windsor Report seem to be turning into demands—might be a helpful strategy. Doing so, of course, would surely not be a short-term fix.

“Wounded in Common Mission” has not caused me to reject any part of this thesis, but it has given me greater perspective regarding both our present circumstances and how we might proceed. Let me offer some observations.

Christopher Wells' ecumenical vision is, in this season of religious strife, an attractive one. Although, on first reading, I found the narration of his mission trip to Mexico a confusing digression, upon reflection, it seems more a useful exemplar of a proper response to Christ’s call to us as his followers. Would that we were spending more time on mission trips and less time on global fights for ecclesiastical supremacy. At the same time that Wells is focusing our attention on relations with other provinces and other churches, certain deputies to General Convention are announcing that they are in impaired communion with other deputies and will therefore not share the communion cup or Bible study with them. How sad that, within the Episcopal Church, we cannot even get along with one another.

“Wounded” reminded me that the diversity in Anglicanism is indeed great and that certain viewpoints often go unheeded because they are expressed in a small voice or because those holding them are thoughtlessly grouped, in the minds of those of one party, with the partisans of another. It is common human failing to do this, but our perception, imagination, and reasoning are human, and our plans, even for the Church, even the Church led by the Holy Spirit, are necessarily faltering and unsure. I do believe that there is such a thing as human progress, even in the shepherding of Christ's Church, but the way is often shrouded in fog, and the path is not always straight.

Wells’ perspective presents a challenge to me, both because it is less familiar and because it is advanced in a manner to which I cannot object. It is but one position easily lost sight of. Too often, those on opposite sides of fault lines within the Episcopal Church have concerns for the noncombatants—surely a majority of our members—that are primarily about whether the silent ones will “defect” to “the other side” or simply leave the church because it seems to them not to be spirit-filled or because it simply fails to meet their spiritual needs. How many have we excluded from our conversation? How many simply want to be left alone?

Although I have complained about the angry rhetoric of the militant traditionalists, I find myself being held responsible for allegedly similar discourse, and the present dialog with Christopher Wells challenges me to meditate upon this state of affairs. Whereas I consider much of “Saving Anglicanism” to be history, it is surely not dispassionate history, and, though I tried to avoid name-calling, those about whom I wrote have surely been stung by my words. Engaging Wells here has been personally therapeutic—and, I hope, somehow useful to others—although Wells is not among those I have called militant. Nonetheless, I would welcome dispassionate discussion with those most associated with “the other side” in the current disputes.

It may be that most of what needs to be said has been said, and it is merely for the Episcopalians about to assemble in Columbus to decide where they want to go from here. Wells’ discussion may offer us some help, however. For example, he has identified some of the fears of the parties now in conflict.  Fears on one’s own side are talked about less than perceived injustices and injuries visited upon one’s friends by others  And yet, those fears may represent important issues that must be addressed in any effective reconciliation. For example, I do indeed fear “the putatively Romanizing tilt of The Windsor Report” that could “undo the advances of progressive causes.” Recognizing such a fact may suggest ways of addressing it without simply resorting to intransigence when compromise or sacrifice is asked. In particular, the feared outcome can be addressed explicitly and separately from the action whose consequence, it is thought, might ultimately cause that fear to be realized.

My view of the nature of Anglicanism was a given in “Saving Anglicanism,” and I assumed that most readers—not including the militant traditionalists, surely—would share that view. One of the candidates for Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Stacey F. Sauls, of Lexington, recently wrote a helpful essay to his diocese, “What’s really at stake (and it certainly isn’t sex).” Bishop Sauls puts it this way:

There you have it. The first vision of Anglicanism sees our character as having continuing validity and perhaps being uniquely suited for our times. The second sees our character as severely deficient and constitutionally weak. How the two can coexist with so fundamental a difference is not clear. The difficulty is this. The second vision intends to replace the first, not coexist with it (New Yorker, p. 65). At the same time, if the first does not make room for the second to be heard, the traditional Anglican approach of comprehensiveness will be no less endangered. Anglicanism cannot be legitimately defended by stifling dissent any more than the American constitutional principle of freedom of speech can. It is quite possible that the traditional Anglican approach to spirituality, theology, and seeking God’s truth may well vanish from the earth. If we Episcopalians allow that to happen, what I always believed was our most important characteristic will have become our tragic flaw.

Bishop Sauls’ view may be unnecessarily gloomy, but he has put succinctly what is perhaps the central dilemma facing General Convention. It is a predicament being faced only obliquely, however. We are being called upon to act with a view of preserving the Anglican Communion, yet I think that Wells and Sauls and I could all agree that we must consider what that means because not everyone has the same outcome in mind. What are the opinions that have to be considered in this matter, and how is that consideration to be played out?

The experience of the Lambeth Commission on Communion offers a cautionary tale here. Its job, in retrospect, was to settle down what was seen to have become an unruly Communion. In failing to address the problem of homosexuality, it failed to address the underlying problem posed by Bishop Sauls: what is (or is to be) the ethos of the Anglican Communion? If we continue to follow the path set out by the Windsor Report, we will, no doubt, find ourselves developing a covenant that, in a fashion similar to that pursued by the Lambeth Commission, will be developed with an eye toward preserving “unity” without examining the underlying theologies competing, sometimes under the cover of darkness, for supremacy.

In “What Should General Convention 2006 Do?” I suggested, perhaps with a bit of mischievousness, that the Episcopal Church might want to express its regret for “its failure to mend divisions within it, which has resulted in the export of those divisions to the wider Communion.” Upon reflection, this idea seems less frivolous than it did at the time. As Episcopalians and as members of the Anglican Communion, what is needed is for everyone to step back from the brink, for us to take a look at ourselves and our sisters and brothers in Christ, and to ask what kind of church we mean to be offering to a broken world. Are we really ready to go about “fixing” the Anglican Communion while our own church has serious divisions that we have clearly handled badly?

 

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