Once More, Clearly and Charitably:
Deimel and Wells on the Issues before Us

by Christopher Wells
6/8/2006 – 6/10/2006

Introduction to the Dialog

Igrew up in the Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI, and attended the Christian schools of that denomination through high-school. My father and mother, however, were low church Episcopalian and Lutheran by background, without a drop of Dutch blood between them, who furthermore had courted at Church of the Advent in Boston and become anglophiles over the course of years living in and around London. To complicate matters, we joined a progressive CRC congregation in the late 1970s, replete with weekly celebrations of Holy Communion and liturgical dance. In turn, I fell away from the Church while being radicalized in a year of community service in Boston after high-school, but subsequently made my way back to the Episcopal Church at college in the teeth of an intellectual conversion to the faith (Luther, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Eliot), plus nudges—theological and spiritual—from my ex-fundamentalist-but-still-evangelical Roman Catholic buddy. Somewhere along the way my idea of being a community organizer morphed into a possible vocation to study theology at the graduate level; and I resolved the possible tension between the two at divinity school when I realized that the ecclesiological turn of MacIntyre and Hauerwas could be completed by the ecumenical movement in both its parts—Faith & Order, Life & Work. The former urgency of Protestant ethics thus shifted for me, Lindbeck-like, to a pressing need to understand St. Thomas on the Trinity and the Eucharist; and a regular habit of prayer even helped me to begin making sense of St. Paul!—thence the Old Testament, thence St. Matthew’s gospel ... .

 

The Spiritual Exercise of “Saving Anglicanism”

It 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).

 

“Communion,” Once More with Feeling

It will not surprise Lionel Deimel that, granting any number of conservative sins in the recent agony of our common life, I am not persuaded by his constructive vision for the way ahead—albeit his essay offers nothing like a full-blown ecclesiology, and perhaps we would agree about much concerning the Church’s proper worship and life. For Deimel believes that “Anglican diversity” must at least exclude would-be purgings of “falsehood” or “error” from the church (an odd suggestion that would render all ecclesial discipline otiose), and that current conservative promotion of the Anglican Communion “was a brilliant move designed to bring reactionary pressures to bear on the Episcopal Church from the outside” (pp. 4-5). Again, there is doubtless some truth in the latter bit of socio-political speculation; but since the Church is always already more than a joining of parties in battle, one longs for a statement of the point that would “place” our church theologically—a matter of scriptural and sacramental, historical and devotional exegesis, that very generally forbids hasty conclusions sans argument; for instance, that the Anglican Communion is simply “outside” of our provincial borders. For who, after all, are “we” trying to be? The question is relentlessly complicated, as I tried to show in my essay; and quick checklists of favorite, ostensibly Episcopalian or Anglican attributes—Deimel adduces at one point: (i) autonomy, (ii) ceremonial head without formal authority, (iii) no curia (p. 5)—superficially neglect the most difficult and interesting, legal and theological question posed by Windsor: Is the Episcopal Church committed to “interdependence as a member of the Anglican Communion to which its own Constitution and Canons make reference” (para. 129)? 

I remain convinced, therefore, that our hope must remain that of a renewed and ever-deepening embrace of visible “communion,” the promise of which was increasingly articulated and lived into by Anglicans in the last century, to great evangelistic, social-political, and ecumenical effect—not least via Lambeth Conference resolutions which were especially influential, already in the 19th Century, and again in 1920 and 1930, in the nascent movement of Christian unity (against Deimel’s odd claim that the Conference “has always been more about fighting the losing battles of the past than about articulating a meaningful Christian vision of the future” [p. 5]). We have much work to do, however; and we may look back on these painful days as the end of the Anglican Communion’s adolescence.

I would add here one point to the thesis of my essay, the truth of which I presumed (and “performed” by quotation), but did not render explicit: that the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular seems to hold a great promise of centrist reason for our common life, in such a way that might properly take the edge off the better part of Deimel’s worries—which, taken together, evolve around a fear that hostile, crusading conservatives are even now molding a fateful “communion” of coercion and repression with which, willy nilly, to beat into submission those with whom they disagree and for whom no love is lost (see, e.g., p. 5 for one hypothetical scenario). If this were true, however, and if we nonetheless wished to continue to try our hand at communion-as-Anglicans—incorporating a sacramental and doctrinal richness that are intrinsic to the Church’s catholicity and apostolicity—then it is hard to see how inter-ecclesial chaos and pugnacity could be challenged short of some common, bridge-building, moderating authority.

Just here, for instance, one notes gratefully the witness to truth by the present Archbishop in his balanced—catholic and evangelical—exhortation to follow Christ at the Third Global South-to-South Encounter in Egypt last fall;1 an address, progressives might recall, that was met with some unease by an ambiguous number of primates,2 who wrote a confrontational, open letter to Abp. Rowan that received a usefully succinct reply, concluding with these sentences: “If this letter is a contribution to [the] process of debate [to which all the primates committed themselves and their provinces in the Primates’ response to the Windsor Report], then it is to be welcomed, however robust. If it is an attempt to foreclose that debate, it would seem to serve very little purpose indeed.”3 And one recalls as well the ambiguous excision of references to communion with the See of Canterbury from the Church of Nigeria’s Constitution4—apparently in the face of Windsor’s advice (itself borne of decades of inter-Anglican consultations and recommendations), and also ACC-13’s “approval” last summer of Windsor’s suggestion that “the Archbishop of Canterbury be regarded as the focus for unity” (resolution #2).

In every case—facing tense argument, inter-Anglican suspicion of motives, and recrimination—Abp. Rowan has advocated and practiced patient, persistent conversation, ordered by the spiritual discipline of forbearance in love; and it is here that he has repeatedly insisted on the urgency of repentance by all. As he put it in his June 2005 address at the ACC, for instance:

When we call on others to repent, can we hear God calling us to recognise our own rebellion, whatever it is? If not, have we understood faith? We are always in danger of the easiest religious technique of all, the search for the scapegoat; Paul insists without any shadow of compromise upon our solidarity in rebellion against God, and so tells us that we shall not achieve peace and virtue by creating a community we believe to be pure. And these words are spoken both to the Jew and the Gentile, both to the prophetic radical and the loyal traditionalist. The prophet, says Barth, “knows the catastrophe of the Church to be inevitable” and he knows also that there is no friendly lifeboat into which he can clamber and row clear of the imminent disaster. [From sec. III.]

And again, further on:

The deepest spiritual problem is not resolved by separating ourselves from the sinner, whatever has to be done in the short term (and Paul of course exercises discipline robustly); God’s word to us remains the challenge of Romans 2.5 And what grieves me about so much of our current debate is that I see few signs of awareness of this deeper level, and a good deal of the effort to “distinguish ourselves” from each other, in [Karl] Barth’s terms, whether we call ourselves radicals or traditionalists. Even for me to say this in these terms opens me to the same charge—I am “grieved” by the failings of others. I too have to accept that I am part of this failing or “catastrophic” church. [From sec. III.]

Here is an example of Christian humility, joined to a conviction about the coherence of the church as an ordered community, that American Episcopalians might find exhilarating because it is life giving—patterned after our self-emptying Lord.


1 One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (28 October, 2005).
2 Since several ostensible “signers” immediately disassociated from the letter upon its arrival in the blogosphere (and subsequently on Abp. Rowan’s doorstep).
3 Press release from Lambeth Palace, 17 November, 2005.
4 For commentary, see Ephraim Radner, “Two Notes on the Church of Nigeria’s Constitutional Revisions” (12 October, 2005).
5 Quoted in the report of the Special Commission, para. 38 note 64.

 

Resolutions for What Sort of Communion?
or Against Craftiness!

Of course, Deimel may not be interested in this kind of a Communion. One senses, for instance, his relief as he writes of Anglicanism as presently constituted: “Despite what anyone says, it remains, at least for now, a fellowship of autonomous churches, having a ceremonial head with no formal authority, and without a curia empowered to make binding decisions for its members” (p. 5). Does this mean, however, that a teaching Communion of a catholic-visibilist sort is ruled out or otherwise to be avoided? Perhaps because, as Deimel believes, “Anglicanism’s reluctance to codify dogma ultimately freed it from an ancient worldview and left it more susceptible to the leading of the Holy Spirit” (p. 4)? In any case, this is the fundamental choice before us, and all else is detail by comparison: What sort of Communion are American Episcopalians interested in?

With this question in view, Deimel’s reading of the Special Commission’s resolutions (in his piece “What Should General Convention 2006 Do?”) is useful as a goad to greater clarity—a virtue that we agree is indispensable for our moment, for the good of all of us and in the interest of truth. Granted, our divisions, not least inter-denominationally, must cloud somewhat our judgment regarding the will of God for our moment. But this is why, all the more, it is fitting to proceed both honestly and charitably, avoiding what Deimel aptly terms “craftiness,” as well as “wordiness, ambiguity, and cleverness” (p. 2). This is properly a spiritual matter.

I will treat here only the first four resolutions as these form the heart of the Episcopal Church’s response to “the terms” of Windsor, as the primates said in their Communiqué of February 2005.

1. Resolution A159: Interdependence
The Special Commission began here because we saw that a robust affirmation of interdependent life in the Anglican Communion is a non-negotiable basic for moving forward together; and Deimel happily seems more or less happy to concede this resolution as written. That he feels the need to flag, however, his hope “that the Episcopal Church will never be forced to choose between its ability to pursue its understanding of its mission and unity with the wider Communion” (p. 4) looks to be pressing in a different direction, just insofar as an opposition between our own “understanding of mission” and “unity” is imaginable. The Special Commission, by contrast, agreed with the upshot of the Windsor Report: “that the Church’s unity and God’s mission are inextricable” (
§25); and this must extend, albeit uncomfortably, into the realm of “contentious issues” as well, since “the divine foundation of communion should oblige each church to avoid unilateral action ... which may result in broken communion” (§27, quoting Windsor). That is, because mission and unity are wholly intertwined—for a theological reason: recall that “communion” and “fellowship” alike translate St. Paul’s “koinonia”—it follows that broken communion severely hinders “the effectiveness of our common mission” (§27, quoting the primates).

2. Resolution A160: Regret
Deimel’s take on this resolution is again welcome in its sober realism about (at least part of) what is needed from us by the Communion: “The church would be severely criticized were we to weaken the statement made by the bishops, so this resolution or a resolution expressing the same sentiment should, no doubt, be passed” (p. 5). One hopes, of course, that cynicism has not here returned, which is a spiritual vice that would serve no party to our disputes. For weak resignation could lead Convention’s resolutions to evince a grudging tone, that might properly lead our partners and the Archbishop of Canterbury to wonder whether we mean what we have said. But then, will not “craftiness” and “ambiguity” of the wrong sort have returned?

3. Resolution A161: Election of Bishops
This resolution is of course widely understood to be the principal, concrete challenge posed to the Episcopal Church by Windsor and by Windsor-as-received-by-the-Communion (primates, Abp. of Canterbury, ACC). Again, Deimel’s comments are helpful in clarifying the choices to be made, on two counts.

            First, does it make sense to admit that we “caused deep offense,” as the Special Commission resolution says, by consenting to consecrate a bishop living openly in a same-gender union? Windsor does not use the word caused at the crucial §134, but the implication of the first and third bullets is clear enough when read together: that because the Episcopal Church breached “the proper constraints of the bonds of affection” by electing and consecrating Gene Robinson, the proposed moratorium seems requisite. One should note, however, that the Special Commission’s resolution is craftily ambiguous in a phrase not addressed by Deimel: “the extent to which we have ... .” The better part of clarity and charity here, therefore, would counsel some decision, one way or the other; recalling, perhaps, Abp. Rowan’s useful challenge in his Advent Pastoral Letter of 2004, quoted in the Special Commission’s report (at §36): that when

an action by one part of the Communion genuinely causes offence, causes others to stumble, there is need to ask, “How has what we have done got in the way of God making himself heard and seen among us? ... Have we been eager to dismiss others before we have listened?” We owe it to one another to let such questions sink in slowly and prayerfully. But these are the important questions for our spiritual health, rather than arguing only over the terms and wording of apologies.

Second, shall we “effect a moratorium” (as Windsor said) on the election, etc., of same-sex-partnered bishops? Deimel says no, because Windsor effectively has asked us to try “to buy peace in the Communion by weakening [our] commitment to our gay sisters and brothers” (p. 6). By contrast, I would suggest that Windsor should not be understood as an attempt to “buy peace,” nor need it mean a weakening of our commitment to our gay sisters and brothers, though there are some in our church and Communion who wish this were true. Rather, Windsor’s path should be understood as our best chance to protect peace in the interest of a patient forbearance-in-unity—given that the majority of our fellow Anglicans and fellow Christians remain unconvinced by the various arguments by some American Episcopalians and others in favor of matrimony and holy orders for gays and lesbians; and given that same-sex blessings and ordination for non-celibate gays and lesbians have never been typical practices in the Church, and so are genuinely “new” things that are now coming before us. In this light, many of us who are not otherwise illiberal find that the better part of wisdom is to wait and pray; and we believe, as the Special Commission’s report put it, that the tool of moratoria may be a useful “means of opening a space in which the development of a community of repentance might be reestablished, or perhaps initiated for the first time” (§38). And again, in the words of Abp. Eames to the primates in Feb. 2005: “if true reconciliation is to be produced in our current situation a moratorium is an important part of that process. Healing of wounds takes time. A moratorium is to be viewed as much in relation to reconciliation as to reflection.”1 In this way, the Windsor moratoria may provide some much-needed cover for our common discernment; common work that, if we are serious about it, will stretch us all to grow more nearly into the full stature of Christ.

At the same time, it should be clear to readers of the Windsor Report that it presumes the longstanding commitment of our Communion (confirmed by successive Lambeth conferences, and by the ACC, primates, and Archbishops of Canterbury) to pastoral care for gay and lesbian Christians in our churches, who are members in full standing, entirely a part of our common life and worship, and deserving of the utmost respect and charity. For this reason irrational hatred or persecution of them is anathema to the gospel of Jesus, a point made in the Special Commission’s resolution A168 via a quotation of Windsor: that “any demonizing of homosexual persons, or their ill treatment, is totally against Christian charity and basic principles of pastoral care.”

In all events, Deimel is right again to note that the Special Commission resolution proposes a compromise—“very considerable caution”—that amounts to “no, but” to Windsor’s request; a compromise, however, that Deimel appears to be willing (grudgingly?) to live with. I think, however, that such a reply brooks—again—craftiness and ambiguity of an unwelcome and unprincipled sort, effectively answering the Communion’s invitation to play ball by saying that “we very probably should like to play and may well do, all other things being equal, which of course remains to be seen.” Our Communion partners deserve more, if we wish to be both accountable to and lovingly direct—clear and charitable—with them.

4. Resolution A162: Public Rites of Blessing for Same-Sex Unions
Again, Deimel’s candor is useful here in response to the second resolve: “If we must wait for ‘some broader consensus’ among the provinces, we may have to wait a very long time indeed. In the meantime, we will be arguing about how broad the consensus needs to be ... . Partnered gay Episcopalians may rightly feel like pawns in a Communion-wide power struggle” (pp. 7-8); and likewise in response to the third resolve: what is meant by “public diocesan rites
” vis-à-vis the claim in the Commission’s report that “the Episcopal Church has authorized no ... rites” for “celebrating and blessing same-sex unions” (§53)? “There is some confusion here that should be clarified,” suggests Deimel (p. 8).

What, however, of the proposed moratorium itself? Deimel does not say directly that we should turn it down, nor does he comment on the Special Commission’s remarkable, flat statement in its explanation that “the second resolve concurs with the Windsor Report’s call for a moratorium on authorizing public Rites of Blessings.” He does suggest, however, that “greater clarity from the 75th General Convention would be welcome” to ease the “cognitive dissonance” of having accepted (in resolution C051 in 2003) “experimental use of liturgies for blessing same-sex unions in the absence of a clear teaching on matters relating to homosexuality” (p. 8). I agree. And I hope, thereby, that the Convention will avoid, once more, a culpable craftiness if it decides also to “concur with Windsor’s call for a moratorium.”


1 Conveniently quoted in the Anglican Communion Institute’s document, “What It will take,” under point #7.

 

Conclusion

It was not clear to me whether Lionel Deimel was serious when he mused in his paper, “Saving Anglicanism,” that “perhaps the salvation of the Anglican Communion lies in less communication, less consultation, and less caring for one another” (p. 13). Since Christian love begins at home, it is hard to see how we could follow this suggestion and at the same time be true to Deimel’s useful précis of Anglicanism as “an approach to Christianity that fosters unity while encouraging advances in Christian understanding” (p. 6).

Perhaps the bottom line, therefore, in terms of reasonable response to Deimel would simply say: granting that some conservatives have regularly asked for more than Windsor, this does not mean that all conservatives “will not be satisfied irrespective of what General Convention does” (p. 11). For many of us—along with most Episcopalians?—hold a much more modest hope that a minimum offering of conciliation and restraint, in the reasonable terms of Windsor, is what is needed, and is easily graspable by General Convention. In this case, of course, Deimel’s either/or between proper progressives and “militant traditionalists” would give way to a genuine third option for the Episcopal Church, namely, the opportunity to grow, for the first time, into a more articulately catholic and evangelical way of being church—precisely in communion with other Anglican churches, gathered around the historic See of Canterbury, and with a view to wider ecumenical usefulness and faithfulness. Such a development would be consistent, as well, with the historical “genius” of Anglicanism as a means to an end—in the Church, in Christ.