Saturday, December 20, 2008

The True [Anglican] / [Episcopalian] Communion in the USA

I had the pleasure of meeting Jordan Hylden at a conference last year on the Anglican Covenant. He is a very bright young man and, I think, very wise. He's written quite a few essays for First Things (a generally Catholic site). Here's a taster from his latest - it's worth reading the whole lot to get a wide 'perspective' on Anglican // Episcopalian developments in the USA:

"Some Episcopalians and Anglicans (myself included) strongly dislike these characterizations—to be genuinely Episcopalian, they believe, means to be in fellowship with the Anglican communion, and to be authentically Anglican is to be part of a global communion of catholic Christians united by creedal orthodoxy and a commitment to read Scripture, pray, and worship together in the historic Anglican tradition. But although this sounds wonderful in theory, it is simply not what has happened, by and large, in the American context. Because of what’s taken place over the past five years, Episcopalian is now understood to be a term set in opposition to Anglican, and Anglican refers not to a global catholic communion but rather to an American-African evangelical phenomenon. Whether we think the words ought to bear these meanings is not the point—my point is that this is what the words actually do mean, in newspapers and conversations and pulpits across the country.

Take, for instance, the widely publicized formation just this month of a new conservative Anglican province—the so-called Anglican Church in North America, with Robert Duncan as its new archbishop and primate. By taking the name Anglican for themselves, the clear implication is that the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church are not in fact authentically Anglican, since they need to be completely replaced. In this, they are only following the practice of previous breakaway groups, such as the Nigerian-based CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) and the Rwandan-based AMiA (Anglican Mission in America). The commonplace notion that Anglican means “not Episcopalian” is no coincidence; this is precisely the conclusion that the average church-going American would reasonably draw from following the news.

Moreover, the vision of Anglicanism here in play clearly gives very little weight to catholic order and global communion. The new Anglican church was created, as it were, by fiat— Duncan’s forthcoming elevation as archbishop, and the new group’s status as an Anglican province, are thus far only self-declared realities. And although Duncan’s group and his supporters have asked for approval from the global Anglican instruments of communion, they have also made it clear that they do not consider such approval to be necessary. Duncan and his allies enjoy the support of five evangelical Anglican primates, mostly African and all associated with the confessional GAFCON movement. This is, forthrightly, all the approval that the new church supposes itself to need; apart from this, Duncan’s group considers itself authorized to go it on its own. If ordinary Americans are expected to suppose that Anglican means something other than a conservative evangelical movement with liturgy and bishops, it cannot be from reading the daily headlines.

Episcopalians, for their part, genuinely do see themselves first and foremost as an autonomous, liberal American denomination. Their election of Gene Robinson as the church’s first openly gay bishop, of course, along with their practice (in many dioceses) of liturgically blessing same-sex unions, has led to a great deal of turmoil. But despite being asked many times by the Anglican instruments of communion to reverse course for the sake of Anglican unity, Episcopalians show little sign of doing so. By and large, Episcopalians like Bishop Robinson; as one friend of mine remarked, the thing about Robinson isn’t that he’s theologically unique as an Episcopalian, it’s that he’s so typical. Most Episcopalians are very content with their church’s position on homosexuality, as well as with the church’s general doctrinal haziness; such things are not about to change anytime soon. Even though holding to such positions may well mean walking apart from other Anglicans, the majority of the church views this as an unfortunate but acceptable necessity. In short, it seems clear that for most Episcopalians, the core of their identity lies elsewhere than their status as Anglicans.

All in all, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the commonplace definitions of Anglican and Episcopalian in the American public lexicon have their roots not simply in confusion or misunderstanding, but in what has actually happened on the ground. Many may view these realities as unfortunate, but that does not change the fact that they have indeed become realities. If these words are to change in their popular meaning, they will have to change also in fact. And to do so will mean fighting an uphill battle against the forces that have given them their current definitions."

FOOTNOTE: Damian Thompson in his Daily Telegraph blog has also sighted and responded to Jordan Hylden's article. Among his comments are these, with a memorable image at the end!

"Conservative Anglicans in America are busy building an autonomous province, the Anglican Church in North America, headed by the Most Rev Robert Duncan, who was until recently Bishop of Pittsburgh and is a completely kosher (as it were) Anglican bishop within the jurisdiction of the Province of the Southern Cone. Whether he will be an authentic archbishop of a new province is doubtful, shall we say - but, then, whether The Episcopal Church (TEC) can remain part of the Anglican Communion is also doubtful. Don't be fooled by those fancy chasubles: in many respects it's already an independent, DIY denomination whose modus operandi is closer in style to that of Unitarian Universalism than to apostolic Catholic/Orthodox Christianity.

What we're witnessing, in other words, is a multi-vehicle pile-up on the Anglican freeway. So much for the breathing space that Rowan is supposed to have created at his triumphant Lambeth Conference."

The freeway image could be taken in another way: ++Rowan has created the opportunity for the road to fork so that no crash occurs ... and the question is whether both roads are included in the Anglican roading system, or just one of them! But I like Damian Thompson's description of TEC: "in many respects it's already an independent, DIY denomination whose modus operandi is closer in style to that of Unitarian Universalism than to apostolic Catholic/Orthodox Christianity". Spot on!

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