Michael Heidt on a tragic game with profound consequences

Some may remember the excellent 1970s television series, ‘Record Breakers’. It was hosted by the inimitable Roy Castle, who would rush about the United Kingdom, charting the success of various attempts to break world records. This exciting show never made it to the States but of course it didn’t have to because we had a better equivalent, the acclaimed ‘Communion Breakers’ which has been running with uninterrupted success for something like thirty years. Like Mr Castle’s series, the plot is simple; whenever General Convention or one of its subsidiaries, usually a bishop, says or does something to break the church’s communion, an orthodox umpire rushes out to the sideline and cries ‘foul!’ The worldwide audience then shouts out, ‘You’re a communion breaker!’ and the game continues to the next outrageous round. This would be a fine and amusing thing were it not for the fact that it’s an ecclesiastical reality show of the first order, the real-world record of a province of God’s catholic church gone desperately wrong. And, in the latest cringe-making installment, the traditionally minded umpires appear to have become selective in their application of the show’s rules.

These are straightforward, when ECUSA acts contrary to scripture, tradition or reason, the godly umpires swing into action. The question is, why have they chosen this moment in the life of three decades’ worth of communion-breaking heterodoxy to come out in force? Why have they waited for the consecration of an open and unrepentant gay bishop to step up to the proverbial touchline and blow the whistle? Is it because openly gay priests who have been living with their same-sex partners are somehow less sinful than bishops who do the same? For that matter, why go to war over Robinson and not Spong, why chose biology over psychology? More importantly, why ignore or endorse the ordination of women when this clearly contravenes the rules of communion, of adherence to scripture, tradition and reason? There can be no question that this has produced a state of impaired, or broken, communion within Anglicanism and precisely for the reasons touted in the Robinson affair. Why then do the new protectors of the truth fail to apply their criteria for orthodoxy consistently, making one thing a ‘salvation issue’ and another not, when both break the same rules?

Some argue that the answer lies in thinly veiled homophobia and it would be odd if there were not some truth in this, especially given the deep-seated puritanism of American culture. Again, the charge has particular force if we credit the Network umpires with a full, or catholic, understanding of tradition. When seen in this light, their opposition to Gene Robinson seems at worst duplicitous and at best rooted in fear and prejudice. If it were otherwise they wouldn’t persist in ordaining women. Thus, homophobia may be part of the answer but I fear the real reason is far less complex and far more frightening.

As the Presiding Bishop never tires of telling us, ECUSA is a thoroughly democratic church. Accordingly, elected laity and clergy elect Bishops who gather together to vote on anything they consider worthy of attention at General Convention. This would work if the voters in question understood what it is they’re voting on, but this is simply not the case. The bizarrely low level of debate on the ordination of women is a perfect example, ‘We have female judges and police, why not priests?’ To which the baffled Episcopalian scratches his head and grudgingly acquiesces to charges of prejudice. If the same person were able to view Scripture through the lens of Tradition, if he knew what sacraments are and why God gave them to us, he could mount a cogent defense. But of course he doesn’t and the fierce proponent of wimmin church is left in possession of the field.

Herein lies the shocking truth; it’s not so much that the average Episcopalian and the bishop he elects is positively against sacramental validity and the communion it engenders, but that neither has a very firm grasp as to what these things mean. Why then should we expect a delegate to General Convention who is incapable of defining the words ‘catholic’, ‘church’ and ‘sacrament’, to vote in a catholic way on matters concerning the sacramental unity of the church of which we are a part? All this to say nothing of the same person’s ability to elect a bishop who will do like wise? The issue here is surely not one of fear, or even animosity, but ignorance.

This answers our question. The current squad of umpires in the latest round of ‘Communion Breaker’ are not dishonest; they mean what they say when they tell us that they are all for scripture, tradition and reason, and it would be wrong to think otherwise. By the same token, it would be equally mistaken to suggest that their reading of tradition is anything like deep enough to satisfy a catholic understanding of the same. Given this, Network Bishops can ordain women with good conscience; they cannot give their consents to Gene Robinson. This is frightening, because it highlights the protestantism, intentional or otherwise, of our Network allies. Not only that, it bodes ill for the future of North American Anglican orthodoxy when its new found champions seem unable to grasp the fullness of the principles that make this possible. In the face of this it would be tempting to walk away from the discussion. Why, after all, should we attempt to work alongside Anglicans with whom we are at best in a state of impaired communion?

We must do so for several reasons; in the first instance it would be criminal to add to the scandalous disunity that is the sad hallmark of traditional Anglicanism in the United States. In the same vein, it is uncharitable at best to ignore other Christians who have suddenly come alive to the fight against secularism and disbelief in the church. It may very well be that they do so for imperfect reasons, but better this than not at all. More selfishly, the Network holds out the best hope that anglo-catholics have of achieving alternate episcopal oversight within ECUSA and even the least sanguine observer has to admit that something is better than the current nothing.

All this notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether the ACN has the good faith that I have given it. Is the Network able and willing to accommodate a catholic constituency in the form of the FIFNA Convocation and, for that matter, do American anglo-catholics have the vitality to make it happen? The jury is out on both counts, may it answer ‘yes’ to each as we move to the defense of the church.