Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Political Challenge of Catholic Anglicanism

On the Sunday evening that fell during General Convention, it was my privilege to serve as a panelist in a roundtable discussion sponsored by The Living Church. The subject was The Promise of Catholic Anglicanism. What follows is not a transcript of what I said on that occasion, but a fleshed out version of the notes from which I spoke.

I’ve been asked to bring some remarks on the theme of this event—The Promise of Catholic Anglicanism—by putting it in a very specific context—the context of politics. I should say that my wife regularly scolds me for using any form of the word “politics” in a churchly context, for idealistic reasons I would suspect are fairly obvious. But she’s not here, so I am at some liberty if you all promise not to tell!

Here we are, at a convention, an organism given shape—indeed, given life—by Rules of Order, resolutions, caucuses, shifting alliances between interest groups and their proxies, and, of course, votes. General Convention is an inescapably political animal, a manifestation of the polis—the laos—assembled and purpose-driven, with everything that the word implies: appealing, unsavory, or indifferent. When I was on a tour of the Holy Land earlier this year, our Israeli tour guide reminded us that “politics” (along with “police”) comes from the same Greek stem as “polite.” So I can affirm that the most robust political activity within the church can—and indeed must—be unfailingly polite.

It may help give my comments some perspective if I allow myself to be briefly autobiographical. I embraced the Episcopal Church some 35 years ago specifically to become an Anglican, and I embraced Anglicanism specifically in order to become a Catholic, and I embraced Catholicism specifically in order to find rest—intellectually and spiritually—in the glorious given-ness of the Christian revelation. You see, I was raised in a Christian tradition where I was expected to develop “my” theology of this or that, or whatever. I attended a Christian college that, in many ways reinforced this notion. I can remember an exchange of letters with a church friend from high school days in which the subject of eucharistic theology came up, and he wrote, “I just haven’t worked out my theology of Communion yet.” Well, neither had I. And while that remark—and the fact that I found it perfectly plausible—strikes me as strange now, it didn’t then. Indeed, sometimes it felt like I would need to write my own Summa before I could give a coherent account my faith to a stranger on a bus.

What I didn’t realize when I was in college is that “given-ness” is a deeply Catholic notion. The content of the faith is not what “I” conclude based on my painstaking research and spiritual discernment, but we “we” have been given. The phrase “faith once delivered” may be overworked and abused, but it makes the needful point. And the “we” that has been “given” the faith is ultimately something much larger than the Episcopal Church and much larger than the worldwide Anglican Communion. It is something kata holos—“according to the entirety”, i.e. Catholic.

The opposite of “Catholic,” then, is not “Protestant” or “Evangelical”, but anything that is not “of the whole” or “of the entirety”—that is, anything that is merely “sectarian” or “denominational.” I know we’re about to adopt a “denominational health plan” at this convention, but I get very nervous when that term is used of the Episcopal Church, because it denotes something fundamentally un-Catholic, and it would be tragic for us to think of ourselves in such terms.

So the urgent political task (I might suggest) of Catholic Anglicanism is to resist those forces that narrow and constrain the focus of our ecclesial sense of identity, in which the “we” to which we are accountable becomes nothing larger than … this convention! This raises some quite highly-charged questions—political questions. For instance, it raises the question whether the Episcopal Church is a unitary organism or a voluntary confederation of dioceses. Unfortunately, the secular courts are being forced into deciding this question for us, but regardless of what they decide, the theological issue remains on the table. It raises the question of what the preamble to our constitution, wherein our identity as a church is constitutionally linked to something larger, actually means. And it raises the question of the evolving character of the relations between provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the emerging Covenant document that has been on all our minds.

This is a daunting political agenda, because the center-of-gravity in our common mindset has already slid, I’m afraid, quite far in the direction of sectarian denominationalism. We see a grasping at autonomy and the denial of any accountability beyond the concurred actions of the two houses of this convention. We see a tendency to evade accountability through appeals to “our polity”, with the subtext that our polity is not only “ours,” but inherently superior to that of our sister churches. We see an almost obsessive attachment to certain aspects of our baptismal liturgy in such a way that not only rips them out of context in reference to the rest of our own Prayer Book, but also in reference to the Catholic tradition to which we owe our identity. And this, in turn, leads to an idiosyncratic notion of “baptismal ecclesiology” that is cultured in isolation from the larger tradition, and therefore grows more sectarian and denominational (and therefore less Catholic) with every iteration.

I suspect I’ve now already stirred up enough angry hornets, so I’ll quit!


Malcolm+ said...

I'd question your juxtaposition of "autonomy" and "accountability." To insist on autonomy is not necessarily to evade accountability, and one can be accountable without surrendering autonomy.

To use a secular example, the person who commits an act of civil disobedience to protest an unjust law is certainly asserting their autonomy. But since a real act of civil disobedience includes a willingness to accept the state sanctioned punishment, the person is also accountable.

Or, to use an (admittedly not very catholic) ecclesiastical example, "Here I stand, I can do no other" certainly asserts autonomy. But if uttered with a willingness to pay the cost of conscience (rather than asking for others to pay on one's behalf), then it does not deny accountability.

tjmcmahon said...

Fr. Dan,
A very succinct analysis of the root problem we face within Anglican Churches today, especially in the west. I sometimes catch myself too late when in answer to a question about theology I reply: "I think that..."
In matters of polity, ecclesiology and autonomy, the first question that should be asked is: "Does this move us closer to the Church Catholic, or farther from it?" Any polity decision that further divides the Church is counter-productive in the long run, no matter how good the idea seems in the local "context." (The frequency of the word "context" is itself a negative indicator)