American Blues

WILL a separate province emerge for Anglican traditionalists in America? It does not appear so. The reasons are many, and the time has come to list them. ECUSA traditionalists are, to put it succinctly, few, divided and, in the strictest sense, unprincipled. Let me explain what I mean.

American traditionalists are, self-evidently, a small group in a declining church. It is true that the confirmation of Gene Robinson as Coadjutor Bishop in New Hampshire passed by only nine votes in the House of Bishops, and that over forty voted against it. But that state of affairs will not long persist. Just as the number of bishops opposed to women’s ordination dwindled rapidly to the present three, so will opposition to gay bishops quickly wither. And, like those opposed to women priests, once gone they will not be replaceable.

On the `dog and postman principle’ (where the dog is merely interested in attacking the postman, whereas the postman is engaged in the higher task of delivering letters, see Letters, page 21) many will persuade themselves that opposition to gay bishops and gay marriages is a quaint opinion which stands in the way of the church’s wider task of preaching the gospel.

Bishops, for the most part, have an infinite capacity for deciding that what is least inconvenient to themselves is good for the Church as a whole. In this they are backed by the general liberal superstition (contradicted by all the available and undeniable facts) that concurrence in the current ambient consensus on `issues in human sexuality’ (as the British euphemism has it) is itself a form of evangelism.

The traditionalists are, moreover, tenaciously connected to the very church which marginalizes them. ECUSA suffers from an unconscionable degree of self-esteem. It is not an established church, but it preens itself upon being the Church of the Establishment. And although it has lost its hold on the intelligentsia which once supported it (and which by liberal concessions it is seeking to woo back), it still delights in the ambiguity of calling itself `the National Church’. GF Bodley’s Cathedral, on Mount St Alban in Washington is called the’ National Cathedral’; and the radial chapels of St John the Divine Cathedral, New York seek to subsume the saints and architectural styles of immigrant communities in whose home lands Anglicanism was, for the most part, unknown. Dominance by inclusion was operative over a century ago!

ECUSA traditionalists are, if that were possible, even more attached than the liberals to this overweening institution. They are simultaneously afflicted by Anglophilia, and Tudoritis. They have, until very recently, viewed their co-belligerents who left the Episcopal church in the late seventies to form `continuing’ Anglican bodies, as second-class citizens. They have conspicuously failed to make common cause with the small but robust Polish National Catholic Church. They share the scarcely veiled contempt with which WASP Anglicans generally view the Roman Catholic Church. And they find the Orthodox inexcusably ethnic. In short, they are an embattled minority simply because they have consistently refused to make common cause with the majority.

All this would not be so bad were the traditionalists not also fatally divided amongst themselves. The epitome of that division is the tiny but significant Anglican Mission in America. This group of (mainly evangelical) parishes has grown into an ecclesial entity which claims oversight from the Primates of Rwanda and South East Asia. But structural and ecclesiological problems dog AMiA at every step. Rwanda is a province which ordains women to the priesthood; SE Asia is a province which does not.

What should be the attitude of AMiA (which has from its inception included both women priests and their opponents) to the innovation?

A wide-ranging process of consultation has begun, at the end of which it is envisaged that a binding decision will be taken. It is significant that hardly anyone (even those in FiF/NA who have soldiered on for twenty years and home the heat of the day) has had the courage to explain to the leadership of AMiA the manifest absurdity of a splinter of a splinter, depending for its authority and authenticity on the good will of two other splinters, deciding the nature of orders in the Universal Church. Nor, it appears, has either Primate explained what must undoubtedly be the case- that whatever decision is reached one or other of them will be obliged to withdraw, since neither is competent to act contrary to the canons of his own province.

AMiA-the `traditionalist constituency’ of the Episcopal Church in little-demonstrates the tensions which make an internal reconciliation improbable. The very attempt at reconciliation can only facilitate the spread of the Anglican virus among those who wish to quarantine themselves from it.

Finally, the ECUSA traditionalists are unprincipled. That is to say that they have never defined the basis of their rejection of the authority of the `National Church’.

Is it scriptural? In which case why was the confirmation of a gay bishop, rather than the continuation in office of an heresiarch like Spong, the defining issue? And why have so many `traditionalists’ in ECUSA accepted with little or no question the divorce culture which is now normative for Episcopalians?

Is it ecclesial? In which case why has the demand for alternative oversight of those opposed to women’s ordination been so muted and so ineffective? And why has repudiation of the authority of the diocesan, when it has come (as in the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Rosemont), been complicated by so many other attendant issues?

FiF/NA has committed itself to securing the consecration of two good and holy men as bishops for the constituency. It has named them. What it has not done is to identify those parishes to whom they would minister, and what would be their ecclesial relationship to other Anglican bishops. How, and in what degree of communion, would they relate to: bishops in ECUSA (and other provinces of the Communion) who do not ordain women; ECUSA bishops (and those of other provinces of the Communion) who ordain women, but are deemed otherwise to be `orthodox’; the English Flying Bishops; the bishops of AMiA; the bishops of various `continuing’ churches?

Such questions demand a systematic rather than a pragmatic answer, for bishops are, by nature and design, the focus of a local eucharistic community which is related to the world-wide Church through their charism and ministry.

American traditionalists have, for some time now, looked elsewhere for salvation. Immense energy has been expended on gaining the support of Primates and bishops of other and sympathetic provinces. This effort has resulted in resolutions at the Lambeth Conference and at the Primates’ Meeting which have been a source of encouragement. But that is all, I suggest, that they ever can be. Lambeth meets infrequently enough to be a gathering which has always been overtaken by intervening events; the Primates’ Meeting is too much in the control of the Anglican Communion office (a fiefdom of American liberals) and of the Archbishop of Canterbury. If Rowan (despite all his talk, or perhaps because of it) is in fact- as a canny American friend of mine described him – `just Griswold without the gung-ho’, then there is little help to be had from either quarter.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.