Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Emerging Secondary Infection

I'm probably the exact opposite of a hypochondriac, but I pay enough attention to medicine as a "popular science" to know that the first bug to bite you sometimes makes it possible for a second bug to bite you, and that the effects of the resulting "secondary infection" are sometimes more damaging than those of the original. Secondary infections are often "opportunistic"; they have no organic connection to the primary infection, but merely use it as a vehicle.

Within the Anglican world of the last several years, the "primary infection" has certainly been conflict over sexuality and sexual behavior, and the consequences have been severe, it not devastating. There is honest question whether Anglicanism as a recognizable current within the Christian river can actually survive very much longer.

But within the segment of the Anglican world known as the Episcopal Church, there is a secondary infection that has emerged suddenly--only in the last several weeks--and is growing virulently. Even though the sexuality debate was the vehicle that delivered it to the scene, it has no organic connection to sexuality or the range of theological positions with respect to sexuality. It could easily have been another issue ("lay presidency" at the Eucharist, for example, or communion of the unbaptized), but just happened to be sex.

What I'm talking about is the tension--indeed, the dilemma--that some are experiencing between their identity as Anglicans and their identity as Episcopalians. Not too very long ago, this would have been an inconceivable dichotomy. It was axiomatic that if you are a member of the Episcopal Church (USA), you are also automatically an Anglican, and if you live in the U.S. and wish to practice Christian religion as an Anglican, the place to do so is in the Episcopal Church. Except perhaps in the first session or two of an Inquirers' Class, it all went without saying.

So what has changed? Two things, mainly: First, the various breakaway chunks (too large to be called "splinter groups")--AMiA, CANA, et al; now perhaps congealing as the ACNA--have quite understandably appropriated themselves the moniker "Anglican" while broadcasting their perception that the Episcopal Church has terminally squandered its Anglican inheritance. So we hear things like, "My parish is Anglican, not Episcopal." This can be said both truthfully and innocently, of course, like a resident of Philadelphia saying, "I live in the United States, not in New York." But it can also carry with it an implication of mutual exclusivity and put-down, like I've heard some say, "I'm a Christian, not a Catholic." So when lay Episcopalians who are not well-informed about their own ecclesial identity hear or read such a remark, they might plausibly infer, "If that non-Episcopalian says she's an Anglican, then I must not be an Anglican." This is nonsense, of course, but it is understandable nonsense.

Second, the rhetoric of the primary infection (sexuality conflict) abets the spread of the secondary infection. It has exposed where people's core sense of ecclesial identity lies. It has revealed that, among those who once casually accepted the premise that "to be an Episcopalian is to be an Anglican, and vice versa", some understood the primary category to be Episcopalian, with Anglican as a nice add-on, while others understood the primary category to be Anglican, with Episcopalian as the necessary add-on if one lives in the United States. Of course, most who hold what would be described as conservative views on sexuality are among those who are most concerned about the strained relations within the Communion, and those who hold liberal views tend to be less concerned. But it's not all that simple. There are some whose convictions on the sexuality debate are agnostic or even "progressive," but who feel their Anglican-ness so strongly that they are led to dissent from the decisions of General Convention. Similarly, there are those whose views on sexual morality lie decidedly on the traditional side of center, but who feel their Episcopalian-ness so strongly that they are not bothered by the potential for broken relations with the Anglican Communion. It doesn't necessarily break cleanly along predictable "party lines."

I know (all too well, as does anyone in parish ministry), the practical truth of the saying, "Perception is reality." But some perceptions are plain false, not rooted in fact, and while they need to be dealt with gently and compassionately, in the end they need to be challenged. The truth is, there is no dilemma. There is no "Episcopal or Anglican" disjunction. There is only the "Episcopal and Anglican" conjunction.

Let's look at the Preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. It speaks volumes:
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church), is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy,Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. This Constitution, adopted in General Convention in Philadelphia in October, 1789, as amended in subsequent General Conventions, sets forth the basic Articles for the government of this Church, and of its overseas missionary jurisdictions.
A preamble, of course, is the governing rubric for the entire document; it is the interpretive key that unlocks the meaning of all the follows. So here we have it, plain as day: The core identity of the Episcopal Church is as a "constituent members of the Anglican Communion ... in communion with the See of Canterbury." Anglican identity is not (as they say in Louisiana) lagniappe, an optional extra. It's central, essential. And Anglican identity means being "in communion with the See of Canterbury." So those who assert the unbounded autonomy of the Episcopal Church are mistaken. According to our own constitution (I speak as an Episcopalian), the moment we cease to be in full communion with Canterbury, we have ceased to be who we are. We cannot cast off our Anglican identity without simultaneously casting off our Episcopal identity. In this light, then, the actions of recent General Conventions have put us on a collision course with ourselves. We are like a snake swallowing its own tail; it will lead only to our own demise. We are on the verge of violating our own constitution.

But wait ... there's more. The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer, which is our governing liturgical formulary, says this about our relationship to the Church of England:
It seems unnecessary to enumerate all the different alterations and amendments [between the English and American Prayer Books]. They will appear, and it is to be hoped, the reasons of them also, upon a comparison of this with the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. In which it will also appear that this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require. (emphasis added)
One of the repeated themes of the "Windsor Process" (which is now culminating in an Anglican Covenant) is that communion (koinonia) is the natural limit on provincial autonomy. Some have suggested that this is an unwarranted imposition on TEC from outside, not respecting our polity, not honoring our autonomy. Yet, a careful examination of our own foundational documents leads to the inescapable conclusion that the process is in fact calling us back to who we are, inviting us to remember our identity. The Episcopal Church is a body slipping rapidly into dementia, if not amnesia. It is a secondary infection, to be sure, but its effects have the potential to endure long after the sexuality mess is sorted out. The Anglican Communion is offering us an antidote. The new point of contention is between those who want to receive that antidote gratefully and those who want to persist in a perception that is not grounded in reality.


Undergroundpewster said...

At the risk of carrying an analogy too far, let me suggest that it is a weakened host that contracts the primary infection.

Oh Physician, where art thou?

Unknown said...

Your discussion of the Episcopal versus Anglican identity issue reminds me of a fairly recent "educational" exercise that we conducted in our parish (and to which we ill-advisedly attached the label "Discernment"). One parishioner quite innocently asked what we, as Episcopalians, would have to do in order to become Anglicans. Fortunately, the question was asked anonomously and without the necessity of my having to look the person in the eye and telling them, "nothing, you already are Anglican."

To expand a bit farther on Pewster's comment, TEC is indeed a "weakened host" and I would suggest that she has been "infected" for the better part of the last fifty years with the primary infection being her turning away from an orthodox understanding of Holy Scripture. Having become so infected, she has been susceptible to any number of potential secondary infections (human sexuality being only the most current). TEC is further weakened by each new infection and, absent the intervention of only one Physician that I know of, one of these secondary infections will result in her death.

Come Lord Jesus, the great healer, come.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

I would come at it from perhaps the opposite point of view: What is it to be "in communion with the See of Canterbury"? Is it to accede to the Covenant (I'm still waiting for the English Parliament to weigh in on a document that cedes part of its authority in church governance to foreign authority)? Is it agreement on common statements of belief (beyond the Nicene Creed which, for some apparently isn't enough)? What is it?

Put another way--I have never used, nor heard of any priest that I know using, the disciplinary rubric that allows the priest to literally refuse someone communion (i.e. excommunicate them). That is essentially what the Archbishop of Canterbury would have to do--state publicly and unequivocally that The Episcopal Church has gone so far outside the boundaries of the Anglican understanding of Christianity that it is no longer recognizable as Anglican. Unless and until that happens, the discussions of how to remain Anglican in the Episcopal Church are premature, to say the least. Frankly, I can't see that ever happening. At the least, such a thing would likely cause a revolt amongst elements of the Church of England.

We'll see what transpires over the coming years, but I'm (perhaps neively) confident that we can all remain Anglican without apology and Episcopalian without equivocation, even as we disagree on matters of sexuality and related issues.

Anonymous said...

I don't see that it has any real value to the issue at hand (because ABofC has no power to excommunicate outside his providence, and thus the illustration is unreasonable), but, just to balance out your assertion, I have known of many clergy - including myself, many years ago, and even "unofficially" just within the last year - who have made use of the rubric and "excommunicated" until repentance is made.

Anonymous said...

Within the Anglican world of the last several years, the "primary infection" has certainly been conflict over sexuality and sexual behavior

This confuses a symptom of the infection with the infection itself. It's like saying "The primary problem is a 105-degree fever" instead of the infection causing the fever. In fact, the primary problem in TEC is a radical and irreconcilable conflict over the nature of truth itself - a conflict that leads to mutually exclusive understandings of God and man and creation. Homosexuality was simply 'the issue that at long last couldn't be fudged.'


Brandon Filbert said...


I've known of several cases where the Disciplinary Rubrics have either been used or brought up in connection with serious pastoral matters. When used properly, they are a very effective and venerable way of saying that something is simply wrong in the context of the Body of Christ. If that has not been your experience, so be it. It has been mine -- and that of a number of other clergy I have known over the years. It is, of course, only to be used in very, very specific cases and with the utmost gravity.

However, I do think that the solution to all of this is not likely to proceed from the current Archbishop of Canterbury, and have my own concerns about the likely impact of a covenant in the long-term for all Anglicanism.

robroy said...

"Episcopal" is becoming an anathema for traditional Christians. Though Dan+ would like to reblur the lines, the distinction between Anglican and Episcopalian is real and becoming sharpened. The traditionalists still within the TEClub have done a terrible job of differentiation. It will get harder and worse.

Young fogey emeritus said...

An Anglican is anybody whose bishop is recognised as a member by the Lambeth Conference, from Dr Jensen to the Bishop of Fulham to the Bishop of New Hampshire to Dr Schori. Right now in America that's still you, the Episcopalians, and may well remain so. The Anglican Communion or the Episcopal Church doesn't claim to be the one true church nor claim only it has valid orders so I don't see what the fuss is about except the property fights (orthodoxy is not a licence to steal) which are to do with money. The losing side won't go out of business. Its bishops just won't get to go on a special trip to England every 10 years any more. (Or the Communion is nothing but an emotional substitute for the British Empire like the Commonwealth.)

The sex wars are only symptoms of the Catholic/Protestant divide (I don't think most of the conservative ex-Episcopalians understand that): infallible church or fallible denomination, or does TEC's General Convention claim a power to change doctrine, something the Pope doesn't dare? Which is funny as the excuse for the 'Reformation' was the Pope overstepped his bounds in that regard. Maybe the king really did just want to marry someone else to produce a son and grab church lands.

My guess is most Episcopalians don't care about the Anglican Communion like many Roman Catholics do about the Pope, and considering that they're completely independent and self-supporting (subsidies from the mother country ended over 200 years ago... something about taxation without representation) that makes sense.

tjmcmahon said...

Young Fogey-
"the Bishop of Fulham to the Bishop of New Hampshire "

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the bishop of New Hampshire was specifically NOT recognized by the Lambeth Conference, or indeed, by any of the Instruments of the Communion. That is one of the several major distinctions between TEC and the rest of the Anglican world.

That Fr. Dan and others are coming to recognize a distinction between Anglican and Episcopal identity is a good thing. Personally, for me the moment was several years ago, sparked not by the debate over Gene Robinson or SSBs, but by the institution of communion of the unbaptized, now openly practiced in something like 40 dioceses, and the publicly stated diocesan policy of the local TEC diocese (no offense intended to ++Rowan, but in his post GC statement, he was incorrect in his assertion that the practice was not official diocesan policy in any diocese of the Communion.)

There remain "Anglican Episcopalians" or "Episcopal Anglicans", but they are becoming a rare species. In the 1970s, there were hundreds of thousands of Anglo Catholics in hundreds of parishes, and are now a few thousand in less than 100 (I think) parishes and zero dioceses. The policy of TEC will be to winnow away the Anglicans within its ranks. You will see one diocese after another fall as the diocese of Georgia fell over the weekend. And within revisionist dioceses, the purge of orthodox clergy will continue. The "safe" parishes will no longer be safe, and families will continue to remove their kids from the influence of TEC- so within a generation, the "Anglican Episcopalians" will find themselves reduced as the Anglo Catholics have been reduced in the last generation.

While we pray for the many good Christians within TEC, and hopefully, TEC will allow some of its parishes and dioceses to remain in full communion with the Anglican Communion, there is little hope out there that the organization as a whole has any intention of returning to communion with the Anglican Communion, regardless of whether it signs the Covenant or not.

Young fogey emeritus said...

That's why I worded it as I did: I know Bishop Robinson wasn't invited (which didn't make sense because all his consecrators were) but IIRC he's still recognised by Lambeth as an Anglican bishop, at least because the province he belongs to is still in the club.

Dale Matson said...

"the moment we cease to be in full communion with Canterbury, we have ceased to be who we are. We cannot cast off our Anglican identity without simultaneously casting off our Episcopal identity." TEC has already cast off its Anglican and Episcopal identity like an adolescent who knows better than his parents and goes his own way. The primary disease is "Metastasized Ego". it is not dementia or amnesia, it is denial.