Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Anglicanisms across the Atlantic

The last week’s developments in Anglicanism on both sides of the Atlantic have led to fears that after months and years of posturing, things may now be unravelling more rapidly, whether by accident or design. The Melbourne Age ran a story on December 19th referring to ‘severe shocks’ and which quoted me a couple of times (as a ‘leading Liberal’!), perhaps without shedding too much light on the subject or on my own views. I am breaking my general blog silence about Anglican Communion affairs (there’s far too much already being said out there, and far more heat then light generated) to offer a little more to the curious. My intention here is not to address the issues of theology or ethics that are so difficult for many, across various divides; it is more to muse on how existing structures and emerging tendencies seem to be working in the two settings of the USA and the UK.

The first key development of the last week was the release in the UK of a document called ‘A Covenant for the Church of England’, issued by leaders of a collection of evangelical groups. The other was a set of votes from parishes in the Diocese of Virginia to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate themselves to CANA, once billed as the ‘Convocation of Anglican Nigerians in America’ but now by sleight of hand simply the ‘Convocation of Anglicans in North America’.

What is most striking about these developments is not really that they signal any uniform crisis in global Anglicanism, but rather just how differently they show things are playing out in the UK and USA.

The purported ‘Covenant’ sponsored by key figures in English groups including Reform, the Church Society and the presumptuously-named Anglican Mainstream is a highly tendentious document which has been savaged by moderate evangelicals, notably the Bishop of Durham (N. T. Wright) and another UK evangelical group, Fulcrum. Most of what needs to be said has been said in their commentaries, which are available on line. The document is a rather clumsy attempt to use the language of ‘Covenant’ to promote a particular agenda, not for the Church of England at all but for elements of it whose conservatism makes it hard for them to live and work directly within the existing structures. This ‘Covenant’ is not a means for Anglicans to agree together, but an extended shibboleth, designed to identify, separate and galvanize those of a very particular mind.

Tom Wright’s reaction strikes me as both necessary and at certain points very apt, but the very fact of it, from whom it came and where it was addressed, is arguably the most revealing thing. In the UK the fringe conservative elements are misreading the global and local situations, and marginalizing themselves over and against those who, like Wright, are of the ‘Windsor’ line – unhappy with the American Episcopalians, and/or conservative on various issues of gender and sexuality, but loyal Anglicans who want their own Church and Communion to have a future. Of course the very name ‘Anglican Mainstream’ reveals a group determined to believe its own publicity, however implausible. The actual mainstream in the UK may not be particularly liberal, but it has a strong and ecclesiologically-serious (if I can put it this way) centre. Those who believe in the Church will continue to reject the actions of any who regard their own agendas as necessitating separatist action, whether progressive or conservative.

The situation in Virginia and in the USA generally is harder to interpret. While it is immensely serious, and taken in conjunction with the recent actions in the Diocese of San Joaquin might signal an acceleration of fragmentation, it remains true that the individuals and communities which have left or are threatening to do so are incoherent, not a split so much as splinters.

Over recent years a series of people have left the Episcopal Church for odd trans-national relationships, sometimes looking to connect with Singapore or Rwanda (as in 2000), or now to join the quasi-Nigerian off-shoot. This latter has somewhat disingenuously morphed, to the dismay of at least some Nigerian Anglicans who initially supported it, from a pastoral network of expatriate Africans into a power-base in the US for Archbishop Peter Akinola’s attempts at establishing himself as a sort of alternative to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Still other American conservatives remain uncomfortably within the Episcopal Church, often putting a degree of trust in over-simplified pictures of the rest of that Anglican world which they think may rescue them. In particular they continue to look to the Church of England, not having abandoned hope in its obstinate moderation. The rhetoric of this conservatism often suggests an attempt to align with English moderates, rather than with the likes of Reform (whom they would find somewhat bizarre, like their cousins in Sydney). By labelling themselves as ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Episcopal’, or by wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of ‘Communion’, these straitened Episcopalians think to connect with those such as Wright who clearly sympathize with them on some key issues.

At the Falls Church in Virginia, which just voted to leave the Episcopal Church, they are clearly N. T. Wright fans – he’s regularly cited as an authoritative commentator in sermons on their web site. Oddly, Virginia Bishop Peter Lee from whom they have just separated, is not so unlike Tom Wright, at least ecclesiologically. In their own settings they are both centrists, and they both have significant respect from those who hold a variety of opinions about (e.g.) human sexuality. Lee has a good relationship with George Carey, whom he previously invited to minister to congregations such as the Falls Church. While the people leading the charge away from the Episcopal Church at Falls Church probably wouldn’t see Peter Lee as their worst enemy, I am not at all sure they are aware of the irony that they are fleeing communion with – among others – the same kind of people close at hand, whose communion they crave when it is on the other side of the world.