Friday, August 31, 2007

Bishops as the Sign 0f [Dis]Unity?

Reflections on the establishment of the American Episcopate in 1792 & the Secessions with new Episcopates of 1977 and 2004-2007—leading to a Lament!

Various thoughts and feelings have been evoked in many of us by the circulation of color photos on August 29 of many Bishops in a merry, even triumphal, mood in the Anglican Cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya. They were there for the consecration of two Americans as Bishops of the Kenyan Church to be sent forth for service as missionaries in their homeland, the U.S.A.

Here are some of those thoughts evoked by the pictures in terms of a reflection.

The American Episcopate 1792

Anyone familiar with the origins of The Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. in the 1780s knows that the foundation of the American Anglican Episcopate came only with pain, perseverance, negotiations, diplomacy and much—very much—patience by Episcopalians. The consecration on Monday, September 17, 1792, of Thomas John Clagett at Trinity Church New York City by the Bishops of New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia (all of whom had been consecrated in Britain) was truly a momentous occasion for The Anglican Way outside of the British Empire. It was a major triumph of human diplomacy and prevenient grace to have Samuel Seabury, Bishop of Connecticut, sharing in a Service with Bishop Samuel Provoost of New York, for they had been in bitter combat for a long time. The new Episcopate became a sign of the unity of the Episcopal Church in the new Republic.

Continuing Anglicans, 1977-2007

Anyone familiar with the origins of The Continuing Anglican Church of 1977 knows that it seceded from PECUSA with high principles and with a vision of reforming and renewing the Anglican Way. Regrettably, the one movement was soon divided and became several jurisdictions (which remain with offshoots to the present). A chief reason for the internal schism was differences over the establishing of the Episcopate for this Church. Patience and diplomacy were in short supply and before the Church had had time to know itself and its possibilities it had four different lines of Bishops. So instead of Bishops being the Sign of the Unity of the Church they have been in these continuing Anglican jurisdictions signs of the very opposite, disunity; and they remain so despite various attempts to reconcile.

Anglicans looking to the Global South, 2004-7

Anyone familiar with what has been happening to the congregations that have seceded from PECUSA (“The Episcopal Church”) in the last few years knows that they have sought validation and support from Archbishops and Bishops from Provinces of the Global South’ and that they have not sought in vain. Not only are many individual congregations supervised by an overseas bishop, but the Provinces of Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have set up missionary jurisdictions and networks inside what has always been seen as the “territory” of The Episcopal Church on the American “homeland.” For these they have consecrated and allocated Bishops.

So, at a time when The Episcopal Church is still a member of the Anglican Communion of Churches, the Global South is treating it as if it were no longer a member and never to return as a member! Of course, seemingly good (even compelling) reasons are offered for this strange and abnormal state of ecclesial affairs; but; an external observer could legitimately wonder why such a rush, why not more patience, and why so many different jurisdictions all doing their own thing—why can’t they all wait until the time—say after Lambeth 2008— is truly ripe and then act in concert! So, once again, Bishops in modern innovative American Anglicanism are not the sign of unity but of, if not dis-unity, of diversity held together only by minimal “bonds of affection,” and with no internal American means of order polity and discipline for this whole movement.

In the light of American Church History…

It is, as it were, part of the landscape and thus hardly noticed, but the phenomenon of the massive supermarket of religions is peculiar to America for all kinds of historical, cultural, social and religious reasons. This ever present reality means that to use a very simple example, it is nearly as easy to start a new denomination as it is to push a car over a cliff, and it is more difficult to unite existing denominations, even of one type, than it is to haul a car back to the road from the bottom of the cliff.

Right now the “orthodox” school or movement in American Anglicanism, loosely in touch with each other via Common Cause is composed of:

• Dioceses within PECUSA
• Anglican Mission in America (Rwanda)
• Convocation of Anglicans in North America (Nigeria)
• A Kenyan “Diocese”
• A Ugandan “Diocese”
• Anglican Province of America (from the Continuing Anglicanism)
• Reformed Episcopal Church (begun in 1873)
• Anglican Communion Network
• Various Canadian Groups.

Here is the potential—if miracles occur today in ecclesial relations—of a new Anglican Province for America either to replace or to exist alongside PECUSA. Here also—in terms of the way things usually happen by the providence of God in America—is the potential for a new divided Continuing of Networks and Dioceses with allegiances to foreign shores and bishops.

If this potential were realized for a New Province it would still leave outside the new Province the following:

• Many “continuing” churches and jurisdictions
• The networks of Indian congregations related to the Churches of North and South India (members of the Anglican Communion)

• Not to mention PECUSA itself.

What causes one to lament is manifold—the seemingly inevitable divided state of The Anglican Way in North America; the failure of the Global South to study the secession of 1977 and the nature of the American supermarket of religions to learn from them; the haste of the Global South in setting up different and potentially ecclesial rivals, ahead of the Primates September 30, 2007 deadline for PECUSA and of the 2008 Lambeth Conference; and the apparent triumphalism which is being displayed both in the U.S.A. and Canada (not to mention in Africa) over these recent developments.

Perhaps the outward vesture and attitude ought to be sackcloth and ashes rather than ornate Episcopal attire and vestments (as the photos of August 29 declare).

Let us pray:

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do anything that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon
President of the Prayer Book Society 2007

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