Parsing Synod — what have they done?
Many pixels have been darkened on General Synod and ACNA. (I updated “ink has been spilled”. Clever, eh?) Blogospheria Anglicana has been full of widely varying reaction to today’s passage of an amended resolution on the Church of England’s relationship with ACNA.
BabyBlue Online is practically giddy. You’d think Archbishop Rowan Williams was handing the keys of Lambeth Palace over to Archbishop Bob Duncan. Mark Harris says the General Synod “stepped in dung.” Over at StandFirm, they can’t seem to make up their hive mind; some say this is a victory for secessionists, whilst others say Synod has failed miserably. As with most things written by Anglicans, the import of what has been voted by General Synod is not easy to discern.
From my perspective, the motion as passed is a mixed bag. It does not achieve that ACNA sought, which was full recognition and the statement of an intention to seek full communion. On the other hand, it gives ACNA a level of recognition they did not yet have. The motion is short, so I’ll look at it bit by bit.
‘That this Synod
(a) aware of the distress caused by recent divisions within the Anglican churches of the United States of America and Canada;
BabyBlue reads this to say that Synod recognizes ACNA to be one of the “Anglican churches”. I’m not sure that’s the case. Even if it’s included as one of those churches, this is merely an uncontroversial statement that there is distress. No one should read any assignment of blame or credit here.
(b) recognise and affirm the desire of those who have formed the Anglican Church in North America to remain within the Anglican family;
Here again, one could read all sorts of things into the text. Conservatives, who claim to prefer a “plain reading” would do well to follow their advice here. ACNA itself rather ridiculously claims that they, ACNA, have been affirmed here. But the motion plainly affirms only the desire to remain within the Anglican family. This again contains no value judgment on ACNA (or TEC or ACoC). You can see what I mean over at Unthinking Anglicans, where there’s a helpful example of the difference between affirmed reality and affirmed aspiration.
And what of “Anglican family”? First, it cannot go unnoticed that the motion does not say “Anglican Communion” here. Despite what some conservatives have claimed, the motion pointedly does not affirm a place in the Anglican Communion. To use a phrase like “Anglican family” is much broader than that. Presumably that would include the entire alphabet soup of groups, some of which have never had any connection to the actual Anglican Communion. The “Anglican family” would probably include people who (a) use some kind of prayer book, (b) like to wear fancy vestments, and (c) write “request the honour of your presence” on their invitations, even in the US. This motion isn’t saying much, other than making it clear that ACNA is not in the Anglican Communion.
(c) acknowledge that this aspiration, in respect both of relations with the Church of England and membership of the Anglican Communion, raises issues which the relevant authorities of each need to explore further; and
Again, there’s nothing controversial here. To admit any of the “Anglican family” sects or groups into the Anglican Communion would raise issues. The motion merely points out that this will be complicated.
(d) invite the Archbishops to report further to the Synod in 2011.’
This is Synod’s way of saying, “Let’s all take a deep breath”. Maybe in a calmer situation, there will be some more clarity. Maybe Duncan will make up his mind if he is the sole vice-regent of the Archbishop of Canterbury for the US or if the Archbishop of Canterbury is “lost“. That would have a bearing on any recognition by the Church of England, I should think.
Here are a few further thoughts. I have grown weary of the topic, so you get bullet points, albeit lengthy.
- ACNA and its leaders need to make up their minds. One moment they’re singing the praises of the Anglican Communion and the Mother Church, and the next they are explaining that the Archbishop of Canterbury is “lost” and the Church of England isn’t really Anglican any more. If they want in, they should be respectful of the Communion. The way they speak ill of the Anglican Communion at times, I simply do not understand why they continue to seek recognition by a body they seem to despise.
- The Church of England needs to face some realities. Here’s one: there is no “North American” problem that is different than the “English” problem. The US and Canada have same-sex blessings and an openly gay bishop. England has same-sex blessings and gay bishops. The difference? We are honest with ourselves in the US.
- Here’s another reality. The secessionist agenda will come to England. Any recognition of ACNA here will only encourage them there. Already, on Stand Firm, one of the site’s leaders says, in reference to my claim that the likes of ACNA will be operating in England soon, “Christianity does tend to spread. Even in the Anglican Communion.” Get that, the Anglican Communion isn’t Christian, or at least not until they make it that way. In debate today, Synod members seemed shockingly unwilling to see what’s coming their way.
- One more for my friends in England. Despite their protestations to the contrary, Synod members have an impact on what happens here in the US. Synod unwittingly meddled in the internal affairs of TEC. Again, from Stand Firm, “[W]e churches being sued under a claim of ‘no division’ have had division recognized by the C of E. This can only be positive for our position. Thank you, thank you, C of E.” Lawyers all across the US are sharpening their pencils tonight, thanks to your motion, Synod.
- The motion, as passed, must be profoundly disappointing to ACNA leaders, though they wouldn’t admit that publicly, I suspect. ACNA got no real recognition, and Synod soundly rejected the effort to take steps toward full communion.
- For progressives, the disappointment is that so many Synod members would buy into the narrative that TEC has persecuted innocent ACNA. Fortunately, a number of people in Synod spoke on TEC’s behalf, reminding them that most of us are biblically orthodox Christians, and that the Spirit is alive in the church. Thanks to some hard work by Simon Sarmiento and others, Synod members were able to see the flip side of ACNA’s martyrdom narrative.
- For what it’s worth, I have no philosophical problem with ACNA operating as a parallel jurisdiction in the US. I think we have a lot of theological and ecclesiological examination to do, but there are already seven Anglican provinces in North America, so an eighth shouldn’t really harm TEC. In fact, as one Catholic-minded friend helped me see, recognizing ACNA might keep the alphabet soup from splintering further. Reunion is more easily achieved if we are talking with one group, not dozens. Having an established “conservative” province might, in the long run, foster unity. (I’m not advocating that, but rather admitting the possibility.)
- All of us have to get past our aggressive posturing so that we can focus on deep conversations and sincere prayer. What are first-order matters? Do we agree on these? Where we differ, why do we differ? What are second-order things, and on which ones can we permit difference? Progressives need to learn to start their arguments with biblical theology. Conservatives need to look at the history of the church and see that there is no such thing as an unchanged faith. The essentials have remained constant since the time of Jesus Christ, but the non-essentials have varied. Our conversations need to be rooted in an awareness of history and then move to a focus on essentials.
- We need to think about the real consequences of our positions and actions. Archbishop Rowan made this point in his presidential address. In a global age, we cannot think that our actions in North America will not have an impact throughout the world. But we also cannot let a few people proscribe the narrative. Bishops tell us the dire consequences of so-called liberal positions taken by the US. And yet, in my conversations with ordinary Anglicans around the world, lay people are simply not aware of specifics, let alone concerned by them. It is only clerics who raise the anxiety level. So, by all means, let us take into account the consequences of our actions, but this must be the actual consequences, not the potential consequences trumpeted only by archbishops.
This one is important, so it goes outside the bullet list. Here’s my main sorrow in all this: The church paid dearly in “opportunity cost” through all this. Imagine all the things General Synod could have accomplished had it not spent so much time and energy debating Lorna Ashworth’s motion. Imagine what might have been had Synod spent more of its energy on “Fresh Expressions” and other vital mission work of the church.
I am truly sorry that so many people have felt so unwelcome in the Episcopal Church that they have had to create new churches. It would be foolish to pretend that TEC hasn’t caused some of this through vindictive actions at times and through actions at other times that might have benefited from further reflection and clarification. Mostly I grieve that Christ’s body suffers as we turn our backs on his wish that we might all be one.
Unlike some progressives in TEC who are so frustrated by the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, that they are ready to go their own way, I see a sea change. Hope might be winning over fear. General Synod, in the end, did the wise thing. It said we need time, and we need to stay in relationship while we search for grace.
Let us all pray, with Jesus, that we all may be one. And let us imagine a hope-filled future where the Gospel is preached the ends of the earth. The devil is in the details, but only if we let the devil have a say. Let us be guided by the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth.
Photo from the BBC.