There are storms and then there are monster storms--the sort that spring from an unlikely confluence of an array of separate unpredictable events. And the effect can be devastating. If you're an Anglican or have an interest in things Anglican, you may have thought you were traveling on rough seas already. (I've been one for 34 years, and I have yet to see conditions I would describe as placid.) But hold on. We ain't seen nuthin' yet.
What are the ingredients of this Perfect Storm? I'm not going to look for origins back at the dawn of creation itself, though Sin could certainly be named as a primary--and primal--element in the recipe. No, I think we can locate the first flap of the proverbial butterfly wing about 45o years ago, in the Elizabethan Settlement. In her desire to win and hold the loyalty of as many of her subjects as possible by allowing for a modest degree of elasticity in religious belief and practice, the Queen sowed the seeds of that distinctive quality of Anglicanism that is both its glory and its shame--on a good day, our much-vaunted comprehensiveness; on other days, enervating ambiguity of thought and expression.
Turning now to the Law of Unintended Consequences, we might find the next plank on our scaffold (yes, I'm mixing metaphors--deal with it) at the time of the American Revolution, when our colonist forebears acquired a fierce penchant for the appearance of democratic egalitarianism (actual reality is never as simple as appearances) in their political life, and imported those predilections into ecclesial life when they wrote the constitution and first canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America--appropriately enough, in 1789, the same year which produced the U.S. Constitution. Democratic procedures are not necessarily alien or inimical to Christianity, but they are not particularly native either. And the same goes for egalitarianism; the mainstream of the Christian tradition has tended to embrace hierarchy rather than eschew it. So what we have is an Episcopal Church infected with the virus of Americanism, and therefore unable to delineate between its Christian and Catholic identity and its American identity.
The next ingredient--another unintended consequence--is the culture of clubbishness (or, to put a more positive spin on it, collegiality) in the House of Bishops, not so much nowadays necessarily, but in the 1960s when the Bishop of California, James Pike, brought scandal upon the church by publicly disavowing--or seeming to do so, at least, which is probably worse--central doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, among others. He was a charming and magnetic person, and had a vibrant ministry in New York before being elected to the episcopate. The people whose job it was to rein him in and impose discipline were his friends. They liked him. So they cut him slack, and lots of it. The failure of the House of Bishops to subject Bishop Pike to canonical discipline was seen as a sign that Episcopalians don't really believe all that much. That isn't true, of course, but the perception was created, and it's a failure that haunts us to this day.
Now comes the incessant tug-of-war over homosexuality, contested on one level or another at every General Convention since 1979. This reflects, of course, a parallel level of stress in dealing with the same issue in secular society, but magnified for Episcopalians because--and I'm going out on a speculative limb here--whatever the percentage of those who identify as gay or lesbian in the general population, that percentage is magnified among Episcopalians. It's everyone's issue, but for some reason it's more ours than it is others'. This conflict, of course, reached an Omega Point of sorts in 2003 when General Convention consented to the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and his consecration the following November.
On deck for recognition at this point is the arrival of the post-colonial era in international Anglicanism. Sometime between the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth Conferences, Anglican churches in what is now called the Global South came of age. Collectively, they came to represent the vast majority of the world's Anglicans. For the first time, the collective face of Anglicanism is non-white, and to a large degree non-English speaking. And it is also quite conservative theologically. For the first time, at Lambeth 1998, the Global South took its full place at the table and flexed its muscles. This is a shock that the First World provinces in the U.K. and North America (and their de facto colonial clients in parts of Central and South America) have barely begun to absorb.
And then, in the mid-1990s leading to the turn of the century, the world suddenly got a lot smaller, and it became virtually impossible for large organizations to control the flow of information to their stakeholders. The internet changed everything. Absolutely everything. The importance of this technological development for the way Anglican Christians and churches relate to one another cannot be overstated. The speed with which events have unfolded can be traced directly to the internet. Expectations have permanently changed. Transparency in church politics has increased exponentially, and so has the capacity for demagoguery.
So far, this is the recipe for some pretty significantly troubled waters, but not yet a cataclysmic storm. For that, we need to factor in a chain of events that can only be described as bizarre, and has gotten more so on nearly a daily basis.
Since 2003, the capacity of the aggrieved minority party in the Episcopal Church to maintain its loyalty to the institution in the face of an unending onslaught of insults to its theological integrity reached a breaking point, and this impatience has spread abroad. The legendary Anglican ability to just "muddle through" whatever problems it encountered and still maintain visible institutional unity finally foundered. (The internet was a big factor in this.) There has been a rebellion against majoritarian tyranny, and now we have the alphabet soup of offshore Anglican jurisdictions establishing beachheads in what had been thought to be the exclusive territory of the Episcopal Church. And at an international level, the provinces that have, by the lights of the Episcopalian establishment, "invaded" our territory, are largely boycotting this summer's Lambeth Conference, raising the specter of the actual dissolution of the worldwide Anglican Communion itself into Canterburian and non-Canterburian elements.
Bringing it home now to current events: In December of 2007, the convention of the Diocese of San Joaquin voted to remove any constitutional link between itself and the Episcopal Church and affiliate instead with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which, in a less controverted era, was intended to cover only Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Peru. It was not, however, a clean break. Some seven of the diocese's 47 congregations clearly elected--with no particular surprises here--to remain connected to TEC and therefore sever their relationship with Bishop Schofield and the departing/departed convention. Significant minorities within about as many again additional parishes and missions formed congregations in exile (since the secessionists kept control of the real estate) and established a handful of new plants. Four other parishes--three of them among the largest in the diocese--entered periods of discernment as far as their future was concerned.
However, as is now well-documented--on this blog and elsewhere--the four clerical members of the Standing Committee, and two of the lay members, almost immediately following the December convention, signaled their intention to not follow the majority to the Southern Cone. They did so by consenting to the election of a bishop by a diocese of the Episcopal Church, and transmitting that consent through normal channels. In mid-January, the President of the Standing Committee spoke on the phone with the Presiding Bishop and informed her that a majority of committee's members did not intend to join in the secession, and wished to continue to operate under the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. A day after this phone conversation, Bishop Schofield, in effect, recognized this reality and effectively "fired" these six individuals, and reconstituted the Standing Committee of the Southern Cone Diocese of San Joaquin from the remaining two lay members. But for reasons at this point known only to her, the Presiding Bishop refused to recognize the loyalty of the six, despite clear knowledge of their intention to follow the canons, and publicly declared her judgment that there were in fact no continuing members of the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. This was the first of three canonically questionable moves on her part that cast a shadow over the entire project of rebuilding the ministry of TEC in the central valley of California.
The second such canonically questionable (and this is a charitable description) move took place barely two weeks ago at the meeting of the House of Bishops. The question before the house was the canonical deposition of two bishops--Schofield of San Joaquin and Cox, retired Assistant of Oklahoma. In the case of Bishop Cox, the entire process (under the so-called "abandonment of communion" canon, which calls for summary judgment without trial) was botched, as he was never inhibited and the Presiding Bishop held the "indictment" (from the Title IV Review Committee) back when she was canonically required to have presented it to last September's meeting of the HOB. But in the case of both bishops, the deposition failed on a technicality, though this was not noticed at the time. Within it couple of days, however, outside sources pointed out that the required number of votes to depose needs to be not just a majority of a quorum, but a majority of the "whole number" entitled to vote. As I write, at least one member of the HOB has demanded that this irregularity be investigated, and we can be sure the dust is far from settling.
Now the final ingredient in the Perfect Storm recipe--the one that will act as a catalyst, joining with the others to ignite a cataclysm in the Anglican world. In less than two days' time, the Presiding Bishop is intending to call to order a special convention of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in the city of Lodi. While it is arguably her duty to facilitate the reconfiguration and reinvigoration of TEC's ministry in that area, the way she has gone about doing so seems to ignore, if not flout, the very Constitution and Canons of the Church she serves. This is where the canonical cloud over the deposition of Bishop Schofield becomes extremely relevant. Only in the absence of a bishop can the Presiding Bishop step in to a situation, and then only under strictly limited circumstances. But there is plausible doubt whether Bishop Schofield has in fact been properly deposed, and this calls into question any action that the special convention on Saturday will take. Of course, Bishop Schofield has no desire to be the Episcopal Bishop of San Joaquin, and he has in fact submitted his resignation to the Presiding Bishop. The problem is, neither she nor the House of Bishops bothered to accept that resignation! So, do we indeed have a vacancy in the office of Bishop of San Joaquin? Practically, we do. But technically, we do not. And with as much at stake as there is in these times, with the level of trust in our leadership eroding at every turn, this is one occasion when it is imperative to be excruciatingly correct technically, to bend over backwards to avoid even the whiff of an impression of the subversion of due process.
But wait...there's more! The "unrecognized" Standing Committee--that is, the duly and canonically elected Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin--made it clear to the Presiding Bishop on several occasions that, in the event of Bishop Schofield's lawful deposition, they stood ready to perform their duty and become the Ecclesiastical Authority of the diocese, cooperating with her office as appropriate under the constitution and canons. As recently as two weeks ago, they expected to shortly be called to act in accordance with the polity of "this Church." But because of the technical glitch, they cannot recognize the See of San Joaquin as vacant, and are therefore unable to lawfully step in.
So what we will have Saturday is a Perfect Storm--an institution going rogue on itself, ignoring its own polity, its own rules . . . just because it can. The harm that this will do to the commonweal of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is untellable. If we can't trust ourselves to live by our own laws, if the ends are seen as justifying the means, if a mistake in the past is used as a justifying precedent for repeating the same mistake, then the confidence of the minority that the protections afforded them under our polity will indeed be effective evaporates like morning mist under the desert sun. We are left to be drowned by the tyranny of the majority. If that is the offering we must make, then so be it. No such costly oblation will, in the redemptive economy of God, go wasted. But on the Last Day, I do not anticipate being envious of whose who, buoyed by a perception of power made invincible by righteousness, are in these days the instruments of such an unholy wrath.