Monday, September 21, 2015

#TractSwarm Four: The Heart of Anglican Catholicity

Justin Welby, 105th Abp of Canterbury
The Archbishop of Canterbury announced a proposal last week to deal with the schism within Anglicanism by dismantling the Anglican Communion and replacing it with a looser network of provinces connected to the See of Canterbury. The big change would be that, while these provinces would remain in communion with Canterbury, they would not necessarily remain in communion with each other. I considered this distressing news in light of the most recent Society of Catholic Priests TractSwarm on the heart of catholicity for the 21st century Anglican. To what extent can Anglicanism claim catholicity when it proposes to pursue schism for short-term relief, rather than to hold out for long-term unity?

It is probably clear from the way I framed this question that I do not think this is a wise approach to our current difficulties. But it's not because I disagree with the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury about the impossibility of bringing progressives and conservatives to consensus on human sexuality, the consecration of women bishops, or other controversial issues. It's not because I have a solution he and his predecessors haven't yet thought of. And it's not because I don't think folks just haven't tried hard enough. There is a deeper reason. It is because the decision we make now has repercussions for generations that come after us. We cannot simply make decisions for ourselves, but must take the long view of the implications of walking away from each other. Diplomacy and patience over time--perhaps even several lifetimes--is the only answer.

Michael Cerularius
Imagine if the rigid and hotheaded Papal Legate, Humbert of Silva Candida, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, hadn't succumbed to anger and namecalling and anathematized each other in 1054. Might the Great Schism have happened anyway? Perhaps. But perhaps if everyone had known how irreversible and devastating this exchange of tempers would be for all of Christendom, they would have taken one more deep breath, gone away to cool off, or just agreed to disagree for the time being. Or maybe the Pope would have sent a more irenic and levelheaded representative than Humbert to Constantinople to speak on his behalf. Once the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church was shattered, like Humpty Dumpty, there was no putting the pieces back together again.

Later in the week, after the Welby proposal had aired, I was re-reading a passage in William Sydnor's  The Prayer Book Through the Ages, about the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1789, where there were serious divisions over the draft of the first American Book of Common Prayer and the consecration of Samuel Seabury. Sydnor observes, 

In that company the tensions were great. In addition, those in positions of power were difficult to deal with, and some of them could not get along with certain others. The possibility that this band of apparent irreconcilables might reach any consensus looked dim. But the seemingly impossible was brought about by the patience and statesmanship of those in key positions, principally William White and William Smith. Moreover, it was accomplished without breaking off communion with the Church of England (Sydnor, 61, emphasis mine).

Bishop William White
There are consequences of both giving in to impatience and frustration and of practicing patience and diplomacy. It is heartening to remember how the efforts of the Episcopal Church's first Presiding Bishop, William White--not to mention many others--enabled the American Church to be born and to remain in communion with the See of Canterbury. The heart of Anglican Catholicism for me, then, is the recognition that we need each other when we don't agree with each other, or even when we dislike each other. But instead of slapping a bull of excommunication on the high altar of Hagia Sophia like Humbert, we should accept the fact that unity is out of reach for the present, and yet not walk away. We should realize that unity is not an entitlement, something that should come easily, but something that is hard-won after generations of labor and faithfulness.

In the early Church, schism was one of the worst sins a Christian could commit, and it's not hard to see why, the effects are devastating to the Body of Christ. In the polemics and politics of the Anglican Communion, we should set aside our expectations of immediate gratification and take the long view, the one that Jesus offered us in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Our time is not God's time. We cannot predict when the unity of the Church will become apparent and we will be able to enjoy the fruits of that unity.

Abundant Blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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