A Message to the National Gathering of the Episcopal Majority
Editor's Note: Christopher Wilkins is Facilitator of Via Media USA and Vice President of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. The author of "T.S. Eliot's Theology of Style" and holder of the Ph.D. in Religious Studies, Dr. Wilkins lives and works in southwestern Pennsylvania. He has experience in leadership and faculty development, theological education, religious studies education, health care reform, and sustainable international development. A postulant in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Dr. Wilkins has served on vestries in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and currently attends Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is also a violist, a poet, and the father of two young sons.
Who We Are and Why
As facilitator of Via Media USA (VMUSA), I will be proud to join many members of our allied groups and other Episcopalians in “Remaining Faithful: A National Gathering of the Episcopal Majority” this November in Washington, DC. The VMUSA groups have been gathering with this purpose since our founding in 2004. Our goal remains what it was at our beginning: to preserve and protect The Episcopal Church as the American expression of Anglican tradition. As political machinations long familiar to us tool their way further into the fabric of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion, this is a good purpose to keep in mind.
As an Episcopalian, I give thanks for our church with its heritage, polity, and particular style of Christian ministry. It has a wide range of ways to celebrate and extend Christ’s love, address issues of justice, and inspire moral courage, particularly in the midst of controversy.
We are very much in the thick of one at present, and it threatens to get worse before it gets better. This controversy is about nothing less than what kind of church The Episcopal Church will be, and what kind of Anglican witness will be borne in America in the 21st century. Since Via Media USA ministers chiefly, but not exclusively, in dioceses that have joined or are heavily influenced by the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), we have seen more than a glimpse of what their future for the church holds. The ACN is an outgrowth of the American Anglican Council (AAC), a right-wing think tank and reactionary religious organization created by the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), which focuses on furthering rightist agendas and dominance in several mainline denominations. For background on the IRD and its connections to the AAC/ACN, see James Naughton's "Follow the Money," Daniel Webster's "This Schism is Brought to You by the IRD," and Father Jake's review of Hardball on Holy Ground.
The ACN is also the latest installment in a thirty-year series of reactionary groups opposed to progressive developments in The Episcopal Church, and increasingly opposed to the entire church itself. The distinctions between these two organizations are minor enough to warrant their treatment as a single entity, even if they remain themselves conflicted over such issues as the role and status of women, particularly ordained women, in the life of the church. Well-funded and increasingly intransigent, the AAC/ACN designs not merely to reform, but to replace, our church in the Anglican Communion and diminish it among American denominations. It has successfully brought its agenda upon the Anglican Communion, even though that agenda is inherently divisive and involves what its own prime movers are pleased to call “guerrilla warfare.”
Significantly more information about the related strategies of the IRD, AAC, and CAN is provided in the following analyses:
- this March 2005 analysis, "Parallel Universes, Attempted Coups, and Guerrilla Warfare"
- Bishop William Swing's April 10, 2006, essay, "The Episcopal Church in the Balance," and
As the song says, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. In our experience, people who plot and act in such ways are not simply good neighbors who think differently than most but agree to disagree and live at peace and work for change, if at all, within the system as it exists. In addition to welcoming moderates and liberals, Via Media USA groups welcome loyalist conservatives who are troubled by some things that The Episcopal Church has done but find them no reason to destabilize or reject the whole church. By contrast, at least as far as I can tell, the AAC/ACN sees every reason to do these things, and goes ahead and does them. This is why its members are more accurately called radical and reactionary, instead of reformist or conservatives. They have put forth a narrowed and totalizing (re)vision of the Gospel and the church that makes it impossible for them to tolerate difference or sit quietly with critical questions, alternatives, or dissent. In my experience, wherever these emissaries go, they divide parishes and dioceses on a host of theological, doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral questions, and, at this stage of the game, over the fundamental issue of whether or not people should remain with The Episcopal Church at all. If AAC/ACN influence grows, if the questions it raises continue to disrupt the church’s agenda, or if the divisions it seeks to institutionalize in the church stick, the entire Episcopal Church will suffer, much as Episcopalians have suffered in ACN dioceses for quite a while.
Reconciliation within parishes and dioceses will be needed, no matter what happens. It will take mutual trust and goodwill to achieve, but cannot emerge from the capitulation of an entire institution before the claims of its most disgruntled despisers. God’s truths do not admit of compromise, but call us to an ever-greater comprehension of them, and of each other, held together in Christ’s saving embrace.
Crisis? Whose Crisis?
Despite the controversy noted above, neither The Episcopal Church nor the Anglican Communion is really in crisis. Those parts that experience a "crisis" at present do so because their leaders fomented it and benefit from having it continue. In The Episcopal Church, it is only where AAC/ACN members have come into leadership or influence that there is a struggle over whether to continue with the denomination. What deep splits exist in the church, whether at the provincial, diocesan, or parochial level, are not ones between conservatives and liberals or between “orthodox” Anglicans and “pagan/apostate” Episcopalians. The splits are between a majority that is able to hold diverse opinions and worship and serve together, and a self-designated minority that cannot. This group seeks either to bend the church to its will or to get out of it with as much as they can carry.
This is not to say that the disagreements and tensions in the Church are not real. They are, and should be taken seriously. They should not be overblown, however, and will not be solved by destabilizing or decentralizing the church. Out of more than 7,000 parishes within The Episcopal Church, precious few have sought to leave. Out of 111 dioceses that make up The Episcopal Church, only seven are seeking ecclesiastical oversight from someone other than our newly elected Presiding Bishop. These attempts to post structural solutions to manufactured pastoral problems mask a grasp for power—the very sort of behavior against which the gospels and the apostles repeatedly witness, and which has proved so destructive to Christian communities in the past.
Members of VMUSA groups intend to remain in their dioceses as constituent members of The Episcopal Church. No individual and no group can remove part of this church from the rest. Just as the people of a parish are part of a diocese, so also each diocese is part of The Episcopal Church. That being said, the church is not a prison. Any individual is free to leave it at any time. Indeed, those who continue as Episcopalians should not make it more difficult than it needs to be for individuals to leave, if that is their choice.
However, the church is also not a convenience store or liquor store to be looted by those who happen to be inside it at any given moment. What Episcopalians have been given as this church they hold in trust for those who will come to it after them. To treat the institutional church, at the parochial, diocesan, or provincial level, as if it were fit for division into “mine” and “thine” is to betray its heritage and its integrity.
Recent Challenges to The Episcopal Church
There is a wideness in God’s mercy that graciously accommodates faithful intentions by forgiving the ways in which people fall short of Christ’s glory. If we seek it honestly, we will find it to be healing. When, despite the best intentions, we err, God enables us to repent of it, forgives us, and guides us as to how best to correct faulty decisions. The love Christians share in this way, and others, is Christ’s love. It enables us to disagree about political, economic, and social issues without ignoring their importance or diminishing those who debate them.
The 2006 General Convention showed great respect for the diversity of opinions within this church and within the Anglican Communion. Through many resolutions the church opened itself to continued conversation with others – even though in the end almost everyone found something to criticize, and many found diverse reasons to weep or express regret. Despite it all, the church continues, as does its worldwide fellowship with the Anglican Communion. As head of the communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams continues to work for reconciliation, just as the 2006 General Convention did, and as Via Media USA groups and others do at the grassroots level. No one does this perfectly or without taking steps here and there that require retracing. Unfortunately, however, the AAC/ACN and its international allies continue to move toward schism. Their words and actions are more a bid for control than they are an effort on behalf of reconciliation. Indeed, Archbishop Williams' initial responses to the 2006 General Convention – reported here and here – were so quickly misappropriated by the AAC/ACN that he felt compelled to issue this further clarification of them, refuting their claims.
If I read him correctly, Archbishop Williams is adamantly opposed to having the differences in The Episcopal Church and among Anglican Communion provinces lead to further divisions. He is critical of each thing that he sees increasing tension and division. This is the case whether or not the thing in question has been done with a purpose in mind, or whether or not it were otherwise good. He has repeatedly called Anglicans to account for those things we have done, and those we have left undone, that have hampered the healing and reconciling work to which we are called throughout the world.
The committees and legislative bodies of General Convention had to respond to the Windsor Report. They did so. The Windsor report has become many things to many people, and been the cause of more than one reader’s confusion by its multiple uses, misuses, and elisions. The repeated violation of diocesan and national provincial boundaries by such leaders as the primates of Nigeria, Uganda, and the Southern Cone demonstrates a disregard for the Windsor Report and for the provinces in which they intervene. Archbishop Williams has also noted this, most recently in his July 7, 2006, address. Such disregard for the Windsor Report calls into question the sincerity of these same leaders when they condemn The Episcopal Church for not responding sufficiently to the report, at least in how they read it. The report was meant to facilitate reconciliation, but has too often been used to further anger and division.
The ACN dioceses’ appeal for “alternate primatial oversight” is tricky, but ultimately destructive. On its face it makes little sense, because there are no provisions for anything like it in either The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion. It would be like Utah appealing to the United Nations for permission to become a canton of Switzerland. For a diocese to leave The Episcopal Church, or even to change diocesan boundaries or province designations, requires permission from General Convention.
These late requests by the church’s most ingrained opponents repeat a pattern of action that Via Media USA group members have witnessed for years, and in some cases decades, in ACN-dominated dioceses and parishes. Such actions bespeak a deep-seated disquiet that is not merely institutional, but theological as well as emotional. The kind of church that the AAC has long sought, and the ACN now is building, is fundamentally different from what The Episcopal Church has come to be. This is one major reason why these groups should be understood to be radical, reactionary opponents of the church, and ultimately incompatible with its thriving in Christian ministry.
In my judgment, there is little likelihood of reconciliation with the AAC/ACN under present conditions, although some members of these organizations may choose to continue as Episcopalians and should receive the support they need to do so. If the church these organizations seek to create comes into being, it will alter The Episcopal Church and many of its Anglican Communion partners for the worse.
A United Church for a Diverse Human Community
A tragic element in the current controversy in the church is that few, if any, of the major actors lack passionate commitment to Jesus Christ and zeal for the Gospel. Indeed, if anything, we have an abundance, not a lack of enthusiasm, in both the good and bad senses of that term. Although it may be impossible for us, for example, to accept certain prevailing local applications of the Scriptures toward homosexuality, female clergy, and a host of other matters, such perspectives should not cause us to dismiss or disparage those who hold them. Episcopalians are known for being a people who are generous with each other, and we should show respect for one another even when it is difficult to do. Traditionally embracing a broad range of liturgical expressions and scriptural interpretations, Episcopalians have every reason to continue to do so, and no good reason not to. Respecting the conscience and intelligence of everyone who studies the Scriptures, whether they come to agree or disagree about it, will help the church remain true to itself.
Such study requires, and enables us to delight in, interpretation. As those who have lived longest with these books attest, the Scriptures speak in different ways at different times,. Living with them in the fullness of humanity allows their way with any reader to be God’s way, and to thus be opened to its changes as God wills. This is not faithlessness, but a deep trust in the living Word once made flesh, and always there for those who would receive it. Such openness requires not reifying received readings as limits to any text’s meaning or authority, lest one substitute a human reduction for God’s entire living Word. All Christians need to be honest about how the Bible lives as the Word of God and as an icon of Christ, and not use it as a weapon against each other – a static repository of historical facts or traditions – or as something that stands like a golden calf above, and in judgment over, all else that is true.
Human diversity, which is one of God’s most evident gifts to humanity, should be treasured, and not least in matters of reason and conscience. It is difficult to live together amid passionate disagreements, but it is in their very tension that the grace and mercy of Christ abound, most clearly in a community seeking coherence and faithfulness instead of separation or isolation. The Anglican tradition has traditionally supported a diversity of opinions within the unity of Christian faith. It does not do this for the sake of the opinions themselves, but of those who hold them; people are worth more than what they believe, or affect to believe, on any given issue.
However, the unity of each Episcopal diocese under the leadership of a bishop properly subordinate to the church’s authority must be maintained. All Episcopalians are under the authority of the General Convention and Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, within the providence of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit binds us as baptized and adopted children of God, not merely as living emblems of our particular opinions on various matters, but as the church, the only body Christ has left on earth, and – most fortunately – a living one. Its unity is a gift from God to those who are made stewards of this oneness in Christ.
For this reason, movements toward schism, whether transparent or veiled, must be rejected. In their place Episcopalians should cultivate a spirit of reconciliation. In it, we would learn to see ourselves united by the strife that divides us. We would see beyond such strife into a Christian unity that would be worthy of a living, and a loving, God.