Serious Questions For The Dallas Meeting From Fr. Samuel L. Edwards
The Christian Challenge (Washington, DC) September 29, 2003
In the aftermath of the last (perhaps in more than one sense) General Convention of The Episcopal Church, I understand that soon you will be joining in Dallas with a couple of thousand others to contemplate what Fr Geoffrey Kirk once called the great existential question: What do we do now?
What you feared and what many of us long warned of has happened: The religious institution called The Episcopal Church no longer only risks becoming, but actually and clearly has become the unChurch.
It is now what a colleague several years ago called the Elegant Cult of Universal Sexual Affirmation (ECUSA). That characterization was funny then. Now, sadly, it is all too true.
I am very concerned for you and for all my co-religionists who at least for the time being remain within ECUSA. Because of this, I think I must ask questions and raise issues that only a few others seem to have asked or raised and that fewer still within the conservative/orthodox alliance have answered or addressed. I don't wish to rain on the parade to Dallas, but for the sake of clarity of thought and effectiveness of mission, it seems to me that if these questions and issues are not addressed, the October gathering will prove to be no different than any of the multitude of ecclesiastical pep rallies that for the last decade and more have characterized the corporate life of the dwindling remnant within ECUSA.
You will have noted that I refer to the conservative/orthodox alliance. I want to be clear why it is that I use that phrase. It is not because I think the two terms conservative and orthodox are interchangeable. Far from it: Despite their current commonality of interests, and the habit of the members of both groups of referring to themselves as orthodox, they are two distinct positions, even if there is a considerable amount of overlap in the individuals and groups that are part of the alliance. Their desired ends may look the same, but they are rooted in distinct soils one of history, the other of eternity.
It would be true though probably not comprehensive to say that the conservatives conceive Anglican renewal more in terms of a return to a previous status quo, while the orthodox see that renewal as a transformation of the defects of the previous system in light of the eternal and universal gospel. In other words, the former are more interested in a return, while the latter seek forget the things which are behind and reach forward to those things which are before (cf. Phil. 3:13). One might say and not go far wrong that conservatives are interested in re-establishing the traditions (small t plural) of Anglicanism, while the orthodox seek t o establish themselves in the Tradition (large CT singular) of the Church Universal, of which the Anglican Way (and my avoidance of the term Anglicanism here is deliberate) is a particular manifestation.
From where I sit, it appears that the conservatives in ECUSA have finally reached their deviance toleration limit. For many, even most, it would be sufficient to return to a point sometime prior to the Robinson affair or before the resolution from the 00 General Convention which recognized without evaluating, and therefore practically endorsing a variety of sexual lifestyles among the members of The Episcopal Church. A smaller number would prefer to return to a time before 1979 (the Prayer Book revisioning note, NOT revision) or 1976 (the authorization of female priests and bishops) or 1973 (the relaxation of the marriage canons) o r 1970 (the equation of deacons and deaconesses). It is this, I think, that is a major reason for their desire to stay connected to the Canterbury Communion. What they do not and dare not recognize is that, even if any of this could be accomplished (and, frankly, none of it can be) and whatever status quo ante they prefer could be restored (and it cant), the fundamental disease of which all of these manifestations are symptoms the replacement of genuinely scriptural doctrinal standards with varying degrees of subjectivism, scientism, sentimentality, and experientialism would still be in the Episcopal body politic.
(It occurs to me that, in a bizarre sort of way, the conservatives are more traditionalist than the orthodox. Having said that, I hasten to remind you of the low opinion I have of anything to which an ism is attached however you slice it, an ism always ends up destroying that to which it is attached, for it puts that thing at the center of reality and ours is a jealous God.)
The orthodox within ECUSA, in contrast to their conservative allies, reached their deviance toleration limit long ago. Many have left, but many others me until recently and you to this day have been hanging in since then in hopes that steady witness to the things that are not shaken might at least secure them a protected enclave from which they could undertake the transformation of ECUSA a possibility which, in retrospect, was never real. They are more apt to recognize the disease of which I wrote above, but with few exceptions they are not as insistent as they should be about announcing the diagnosis to their conservative co-belligerents: It does tend to irritate them because it carries with it the discomfiting knowledge that they need to revisit some of the deviations (e.g., marital discipline, women's ordination, prayer book revisionism) which they find tolerable, or even good.
Sooner or later, after the Dallas meeting or during it, this distinction between conservatives and orthodox will prove critical. You should keep it in mind as you wrestle if you choose to do so with the questions and issues I've been preparing to name since the beginning of this letter. And now, here they are:
First, what is the objective of the Dallas meeting? Does it have more to do with the preservation of Anglicanism or with fidelity to the Gospel? The two are not necessarily the same, you know. Anglicanism (in contrast t o the Anglican Way of being an evangelical and catholic Christian) is really not the answer, but a large part of the problem. Anglicanism (a noun which did not exist in the English language before 1846, if The Oxford English Dictionary is to be believed) is a fundamentally denominational or sectarian (and therefore uncatholic and unevangelical) posture and mindset, excessively focused on the question of its identity. Any attempt to rescue Anglicanism is bound only to lead to new denominations or sects in which the practical subordination of the Gospel to ecclesiastical institutionalism one of the great faults of ECUSA will remain unhealed. It is only when fidelity to the Gospel is the main focus that Anglicans will remember who they are. This is completely in line with the seeming paradox at the core of the Gospel: He who seeks his identity will lose it, but he who loses his identity for the sake of Jesus Christ and his Gospel will find it.
One gets the impression that for many of the pilgrims to the Wyndham Anatole, the most important task for the Dallas meeting is to find a way to preserve their connection with the Canterbury Communion (which is seen as a sine qua non of Anglican identity) while distancing or even separating themselves from ECUSA. For years long before my recent departure from ECUSA I have found this focus on Canterbury as the fonset origo of Anglican identity to be anachronistic and not to put too fine a point upon it a mere Anglicanization of Roman ultramontanism (which makes communion with the Roman see an essential element of catholic identity).
I do not think the English reformers meant to exchange a system in which catholic authenticity was defined in terms of connection to a single see for one in which it was defined in terms of connection to a different single see. If the principle is fundamentally wrong in Latin, it is not made right by being translated into English.
As long as I'm being blunt, in fairness it needs to be pointed out t hat the Roman system makes communion with the See of Peter only one of several elements essential to authentic catholicity, while increasingly the Anglicans or to be more accurate, the anglicanists look upon communion with the See of Augustine as the only thing essential to Anglican identity. Seemingly, a body of believers can hold all the historic elements of the Anglican Way, but if that one particular thing is missing, it isn't really an Anglican Church. Thus, we end up with a situation in which Anglican jurisdictions such as my own and others are considered counterfeits, while jurisdictions like ECUSA, the Anglican Church in Canada, the Anglican Church in New Zealand, which spit on Scripture and tolerate or even promote doctrinal and practical perversity, are considered authentic because they re still in formal communion with Canterbury. (And, while were at it, lets not forget that Canterbury's Archbishop presides over a Church which permits atheists, transgendered priestesses and suchlike to minister to its people.) Well, an over-valuation of mere pedigree always was an unfortunate characteristic of the state church in England.
Second, how does the current determination to remain within the Canterbury Communion differ in principle from the previous (and, for some, current) determination not to leave ECUSA? I don't see that it does, and, consistent with the principles outlined above, it seems to me that it provides a distraction from what ought to be the more central focus of the meeting, which would include consideration of how to address the formation and/ or reformation in Anglican institutions including those represented b y the participants in the meeting of those elements, attitudes, systems, and perspectives which have contributed to the necrosis of ECUSA.
Third, what, if anything, is going to be done to address the obvious variances within the conservative/orthodox coalition in ECUSA over what degree of deviance from apostolic faith and order is acceptable? Is the coalition going to seek a lowest common denominator, or is it going to seek the truth?
Fourth, assuming that the Dallas meeting produces something more than (1) counsel to wait for the hoped-for lead presumably to be given at or in the wake of the upcoming emergency Primates Meeting and (2) an agreement to have another meeting, how is the conservative/orthodox coalition going to establish a system of accountability that will significantly reduce the chances of a similar doctrinal crisis afflicting the orthodox body in future?
Fifth, what are you all going to do if no effective intervention is forthcoming? Notice, I say effective intervention: It is conceivable that there could be a kind of on-paper intervention which in spite of the good intentions of the orthodox Primates would be ineffective due to the fact that there is at present no way of enforcing any disciplinary decision against ECUSA. The Primates might suspend ECUSA, but they could not suspend its leadership in any way that would give more than moral relief to the traditionalist constituency, and only that would effectively put an end to the revisionist revolution.
It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the Primates will intervene in the way the organizers of the Dallas event desire, but the fact remains that their writ will run only in those dioceses which agree with them and where it is not necessary and have no effect in those places where in fact it is most needed. (It could be like the Emancipation Proclamation, which in spite of its high rhetoric freed not a single slave, since it applied only to those territories not under Federal control.) In other words, it would be good news for conservative and orthodox Episcopalians in Fort Worth, South Carolina, Dallas, Quincy, Pittsburgh and so forth, who are already protected, but would give nothing but moral comfort to those in Washington, New York, Newark, Pennsylvania, California, and so on without giving them any real cover. If (like the Emancipation Proclamation) such an intervention were to have as its concealed agenda the sparking of a revolt by the conservative and orthodox against their revisionist oppressors, that would be understandable, but given their track record of the last thirty and more years, it seems less than certain that this proclamation would be any more effective than that of 140 years ago.
Sixth, is any consideration going to be given to determining what will be the conditions for victory? That is, what are the conditions whose fulfillment will enable the conservative and orthodox advocacy groups to close down their operations, having fulfilled their purposes? Is there even any awareness that such groups need to plan for their own demise after having achieved their goals? This is important, since those that do not or will not end up manufacturing crises to keep themselves alive. (The NAACP and the NARAL are a good secular examples of this phenomenon, as was the Soviet Communist Party.)
Finally, and not least in importance, is there going to be any serious consideration given at this meeting to the place of non-Canterbury Communion Anglicans in this reformation? Or, rather I should ask, is the Dallas assembly going to give consideration as to how it fits in with the ongoing recovery of the Anglican Way? That recovery and reformation has been going on for some time already amongst us other Anglicans: For a quarter-century we have been endeavoring to bear witness to the faith and to remain loyal to the order which ECUSA has now and indisputably consigned to the ash-heap of history. We have borne the obloquy of ECUSAs revisionists, of its corporatists, and not infrequently of some of its conservative and orthodox members. We have had serious problems of our own, to be sure, but in the face of all that, we have been planting churches, converting the unchurched, and raising up our children in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. We are now seeing the rise of a new generation for whom the abuses of ECUSA are largely things of which their parents and grandparents speak and which make it into the newspaper headlines occasionally, but whose grounding is in the classical Anglican Way and whose focus is on offering its message of stable hope and faithfulness to a world adrift on a swirling sea of relativism and despair. We've been doing what you also seek to do, and we will continue to do so whether or not the Dallas gathering takes any note of our existence. Yet I do think that, if the questions I've raised her e are taken seriously, we can work effectively, not just for the recovery, but for the extension of the Gospel treasure through the Anglican Way.
This comes to you with my blessing and best wishes and with prayers for an outcome of your meeting which will give glory to God and benefit to all his holy Church. I remain
Faithfully yours in Christ Jesus,
The Revd Fr Samuel L. Edwards Anglican Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (APCK) Fort Washington, Maryland
(Thanks to David Virtue for bringing this into the public domain. Errors corrected, I believe. Original left out all the "9"s.)
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