Michael Heidt on the future of American orthodoxy

Some 200 traditional Anglicans descended upon St Vincent’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Fort Worth to attend ‘Forward in Orthodoxy, Unity, and Mission’, the sixteenth Annual Assembly of Forward in Faith North America. They could not have chosen a more appropriate place to meet; gathering on the geographical frontier of the United States, the delegates were themselves pioneers, hoping to carve out a new territory where Catholic Faith and Order may be practised with integrity and in good conscience. All well and good, but how is this to be achieved? Ironically enough, by an alliance with the Anglican mainstream in the form of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Congregations, or ‘NACDAC’ for short. This was the essential business of the assembly; in the words of Fr Tanghe, FiFNA Secretary, ‘the purpose of this event is to get parishes, priests and people to join the Network.’ What does this mean?

Here things become a little complex. The NACDAC is made up of nine ECUSA Dioceses (soon to be eleven), the majority of which have no problem with the ordination of women. The NACDAC itself counts many priestesses among its membership and these are supported by such key Network Bishops as Herzog of Albany, Salmon of South Carolina and Duncan of Pittsburgh, the Network Moderator. This is hardly surprising given that NACDAC has grown out of the American Anglican Council (AAC), which is conservatively Evangelical but has no qualms over ordaining women to the priesthood. In the corporate language of the bulk of the Network, the validity of female Orders is neither a ‘communion breaker’, nor a ‘salvation issue’. For FiFNA it is both and an alliance with Anglicans who appear to favour little more than a return to the status quo ante General Convention 2003 would be intolerable if it were not for its necessity. The plain fact of the matter is that the Network presents the only significant force in the landscape of North American Anglicanism capable of commanding Communion-wide respect and attention. This is in no small part due to its numeric and financial strength, both of which are considerable. Sadly, FiFNA on its own does not have this kind of leverage. The Network does and is already recognized by the Primates of the Global South as the true voice of Anglicanism in America. Accordingly, FiFNA has no choice but to join its ranks, or run the unacceptable risk of increasing marginalization and ultimate irrelevancy. Fr Kirk put the matter well at the Assembly, ‘The Network is the only ball game in town, and so you’ve got to join.’ That being so, how can a workable alliance be made given fundamentally divergent views on, at the very least, Holy Order? The answer lies in the FiFNA Convocation.

If the overarching theme of the Assembly was alliance with the Network, its principle subplot was how. This was addressed in terms of the FiFNA Convocation, a non- geographical grouping existing alongside the Network’s five other geographical equivalents. However, unlike its five allies, the FiFNA Convocation will not ordain women and, not being territorially bound, will be able to provide sacramental and pastoral care to Network parishes in areas that do. This allows FiFNA to reap the advantages of Communion recognition and strength of numbers, whilst retaining its Catholic integrity. In doing so, Forward in Faith North America has positioned itself as a rallying point for those ‘Continuing Churches’ for whom the ordination of women is an insurmountable barrier to communion, but who nonetheless see the importance of ending their isolation from the rest of Anglicanism. For them, the FiFNA Convocation represents a workable bridge to fuller cooperation and missionary endeavour with other orthodox Anglicans. It was heartening to see evidence of this unitive movement at the Assembly, with Archbishop Hepworth of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), offering to support the non-geographical Convocation with eighty-five of his US parishes and the Anglican Province of the Americas (APA) being given full communion status. The Reformed Episcopal Church was also represented, and it too seems ready to come under the Forward in Faith aegis. This is good, because it makes some headway towards redressing the scandal of orthodox disunity in North America. Perhaps more importantly, it lends weight of numbers to the Catholic Convocation, which desperately needs critical mass if it is to act with any influence in the Network itself. All this is positive; Forward in Faith North America does seem to be moving and in something like the right direction. In the words of Fr Ilgenfritz, FiFNA’s Vice-President, it’s ‘Full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.’ The problem being that the torpedoes in question have considerable stopping power.

The first of these potentially explosive munitions concerns the Network itself. The FiFNA Convocation exists in impaired communion with it, which underscores two dangers. In the first instance, we have to question the feasibility of impaired communion itself. Is it possible for such a union, which is so far from complete and organic, to be anything more than a marriage of convenience? If so, and it appears that this is the case, is it possible for it to last? Experience tends to argue otherwise, which brings us to the second point. As the Secretary of Forward in Faith UK reminded the Assembly, ‘There has never been an instance where those opposed to the ordination of women have been granted the tolerance promised to them by those in favour of it.’ Neither has there and FiFNA must hope that the unsettlingly Hitlerian sounding NACDAC will be an exception to this rule. There is some reassurance to be had in the genuinely honourable characters of the bishops involved, Bob Duncan is no Griswold. By the same token, the Global South is far from being a champion of the ordination of women and if anything the reverse. Hopefully, with the passage of time we will find the Southern Primates exercising an orthodox influence on their Network friends. Even so, FiFNA must enter into its new alliance with eyes wide open to the pitfalls of a union with those who hold markedly different views on the nature of Holy Order and, in many instances, the Church herself.

The second threat comes from ECUSA itself. There can be no doubt that the revisionist ascendancy will do all in its considerable power to remain where it is in the ascendant. Regardless of the outcome of the Eames Commission, the going will get tough for the Network and its various Convocations. If the Commission refuses to discipline ECUSA, heretical bishops will have further carte blanche to persecute traditionalists, even if by no other means than forced visitations, deployment and the ordination process. In short, all the now familiar panoply of attrition that has been levied against orthodox Episcopalians for years. On the other hand, if a rebuke is given, it seems highly unlikely that ECUSA heresiarchs will meekly repent of their errors; Vicky Gene Robinson is unlikely to resign his hard-fought see out of obedience to a Communion he plainly cares little about. Then, with the subsequent severing of even the pretence of Communion accountability, persecution of traditionalists could begin in earnest. It would be unreasonable for either the Network or FiFNA to pretend otherwise. As General Sherman was accustomed to say in the War Between the States, ‘War is hell.’ Doubtless he made it so and we should not underestimate the potential for viciousness on the part of the ECUSA opposition.

If the first of our potential threats comes from without, the third is homegrown and comes from within – from FiFNA itself. In order to make its Convocation a reality, instead of an empty exercise in posturing, FiFNA has to develop greater clarity of purpose. It is remarkable that the primary business of the Assembly, the establishment of a Catholic Convocation in the Network, should have merited so little time in the Assembly agenda. True, most speakers addressed the theme, some obliquely; others less so, but only one hour’s worth of Q&A with the Network Bishops appeared to be specifically devoted to the subject. Again, whilst the Executive Council were enthusiastically in favour of the Convocation, none appeared to think it necessary to state the strategic vision behind it and the means whereby this is to be attained in a clear, forceful and compelling way. This was in interesting contrast to FiF United Kingdom, whose goals and aims were summed up neatly in four points by Fr Kirk.

One would have thought that in an affair of such magnitude, touching on the realignment of Anglicanism itself, significant time and attention would have been devoted to its business at the Assembly. This did not appear to be the case, which led some to question the extent to which FiFNA is really in earnest about its chosen way forward. Despite appearances the problem is one of focus rather than intent. Herein lies an important question; there can be no doubt that FiFNA is well intentioned but does it possess the organizational vitality to realize its goals?

The number of paid-up member parishes suggests otherwise; there are evidently forty of these and a further forty-three affiliated parishes, which do not pay dues. Good intentions notwithstanding, this does not amount to a ‘Free Province’, or anything like it. In a similar vein, it seems unlikely that an organization with a proposed operating budget of $131,942 for 2005 is well poised for success. As one senior priest was heard to comment, ‘This is the budget of a small, failing parish.’ Maybe so, and an uncomfortable metaphor which the Assembly failed to address with any great deal of urgency. As with the Network itself, these are serious matters requiring serious attention; after all, if the Convocation has neither members nor money it will fail. No-one wants this to happen, not least the membership of FiFNA who have put considerable time and effort into their work for orthodoxy in the United States. More than this, it must not be allowed to happen because if it does, the lone Anglo-Catholic voice in the Network will be extinguished and this would be nothing short of disastrous.

It therefore falls to the leadership of FiFNA to rise to the not inconsiderable challenge before them: namely, turning their branch of Forward in Faith International into the vibrant voice of North American Anglo-Catholicism that it should be, all the while carving out new ecclesial territory in the Network. That there are threats and obstacles to this course of action is self-evident, but so too is its worth. It now remains for the plan in hand to be put into action, confidently, realistically and with prayerful energy. We must have no doubt that this is possible, torpedoes notwithstanding; we must be equally sure to ask God to grant us the increase in the days ahead, for if ever a healthy dose of grace was needed it is now.

Michael Heidt is parish priest of St Luke’s Bladensburg, Wahington DC