Friday, August 3, 2007

Reply to Philip Turner

To: The Very Rev. Dr. Philip Turner

Dear Philip,

Greetings in Christ!

Thank you for responding to my "Open Letter to the Network Bishops and Common Cause Partners Regarding the Future of Anglicanism in North America" (posted on this blog). with an Open Letter of your own to me (posted at http://www.anglicancommunioninstitute.com/). I have ever valued openness of theological exchange and wish to keep dialogue alive among genuine partners, even when it leads to different recommended courses of action.

You and I are both senior priests and theologians of the Episcopal Church with experience of the wider Anglican Communion. That grants us a certain standing to be heard, but obviously not as the voice of God. I agree with you that at the end of the day discerning God’s will is our common aim and prayer. But it is also the case, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, that the prayers of all cannot not be equally answered.

Thank you for not including me among those who may react to this or that current news in haste and anger. I have been saying much the same thing for many years, in reasoned prose I hope, and the only real change in my position reflects my pessimism over the rapid deterioration of the Episcopal Church and my increasing concern that this deterioration will spread throughout the Anglican Communion.

You ask: “Is the degree of hope for renewal and reform an adequate reason to separate from a part of Christ’s body?” To which my answer is Yes, as such hard judgements are often required as a matter of spiritual discernment and Christian prudence.

The framing of your question seems to suggest that there is a superior spirituality to those who remain joined to a hopelessly gangrenous part of Christ’s body or, to use Ephraim Radner’s image, who lash themselves to the mast of a sinking ship. I do not think this is necessarily so. Many people have left the Episcopal Church over the past decades in grief and as a matter of conscience, convinced that their souls or the souls of their families and flock are in mortal danger from continued association with a false gospel. It seems ironic that these people are then accused of not embracing the way of the Cross when they are the ones who have been leaving behind their church buildings and graveyards.

I do appreciate your reference to the Episcopal Church as “a part of Christ’s Body,” for it is at best only that. Whether the church catholic has ever been a monolithic entity I wonder, but surely in our day, the form in which we encounter the Church is manifold. It has been noted for years that virtually half of the clergy of the Episcopal Church began their Christian lives in other denominations, and we Episcopalians have never batted an eye in receiving “converts” from Catholicism or Baptistry as having chosen the better part.

The current situation, however, is more drastic. Many North American Anglicans have concluded that their church has “morphed into another creature altogether,” to use your phrase. They conclude that the Lord has removed, or is about to remove, the lampstand (being part of Christ’s Body) from this particular ecclesiastical entity (Revelation 2:5). This is why they feel they have the right to salvage their church property if possible and why they seek recognition from international Anglican Primates.

The question of whether and when that state of affairs in the Episcopal Church - call it losing its lampstand or call it walking apart - has become an irreversible reality, is a matter of “discernment of spirits” and prudence. I believe that we are obliged to discern God’s will for the Church - what the Spirit is saying to the churches – both individually and corporately. This kind of discernment has been happening in TEC with snowball-like momentum over the last decade. Many who thought the Episcopal Church would stop short of formal endorsement of the gay agenda are now convinced that that agenda will soon become the canon law of the Medes and Persians. Many who thought the formation of the Anglican Mission in America precipitous in 2000 have now joined it.

The one criticism you make of my Open Letter that I find particularly painful relates to my call to “take the risk of breaking communion with false and lukewarm colleagues in TEC.” I do not retract it, but I shall try to clarify it. “False and lukewarm” refers to two groups, not one. There are those who have lapsed into heresy (which I think is identifiable whether or not it is declared so by a Church council). There are others who “tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet.” Many of us have been quite willing over the years to work within a church that included worldly leaders and comfortable pewsitters. We even tolerated the Pikes and Spongs, thinking we had the historic tradition and formularies on our side. This is no longer the case. Jesus uttered a paradoxical pair of statements when he said: “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30) and “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). The time is coming and now is, I think, when the Spirit will dictate that only one of these courses is faithful. Hence it will be necessary to break communion with – not to judge the eternal destiny of – those who hold a true gospel while remaining in the Episcopal Church.

The exercise of prudence – a virtue which I know from your writings you value highly – always involves making a judgement call. I am making such a judgement call in my Open Letter. It appears you are doing likewise when you state that after September 30, if TEC retains its status unreformed by the Primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury, then the Anglican Communion will have “morphed into another creature altogether.”

So you yourself seem prepared to set a make-or-break date for the completion of the Windsor process and the sealing of the fate of the Anglican Communion. I agree. I do not think there is anything in my Open Letter that conflicts with that timetable. I am quite content to wait until September 30 to see what happens. That date is less than two months from now, and I don’t see what further division can happen in that time anyway. What I do think we need to do is to consider the outcome that the September deadline will come and go and no decision will be made at the Communion level.

That nothing will be done seems likely from two realities: the adamantine stubbornness of the Episcopal Church hierarchy and the apparent unwillingness of the Archbishop of Canterbury to take the necessary steps to discipline it. The House of Bishops, I am sure you will agree, will not change course, even as it effuses about its desire to remain in the Communion. You may be more hopeful than I about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s taking final action after TEC has been given its full measure of indulgence. I see little evidence of willingness from his actions and statements since the February Primates’ Meeting – especially if the recent statement of Archbishop of York reflects the view at the top.

We shall know soon enough. There is nothing in my Open Letter that preempts the Windsor Report as qualified by the Primates’ Communiqué from Tanzania. There is nothing that precludes the Anglican Communion Network and Common Cause partners working within the formal structures of the Anglican Communion if the Episcopal Church walks apart; indeed, it is my hope and prayer that they may be recognized and enabled to do so. But I also believe, with you, that if Canterbury fails to lead, then the Anglican Communion will cease to be a coherent Christian body as it has been in the past. If this comes to pass, the North American remnant, allied to churches of the Global South, will inherit the torn mantle of Anglicanism. I find it odd to deny the label “Anglican,” as Dr. Radner has done recently, to those, whether in North America or Africa, who may find themselves abandoned by and separated from Canterbury. Anglicanism without Canterbury will indeed be a diminished force, but what is the alternative? Episcopalianism with Canterbury? The same question was faced by the Marian exiles, and they voted with their feet.

So the main difference between us, as I see it, is the matter of contingency planning. You seem to suggest that for conservatives to plan for the certainty that TEC will not repent and the more or less likely possibility that Canterbury will punt is somehow unspiritual and unfaithful. I just don’t see that. Planning for eventualities is a part of Christian prudence and stewardship. One could even say that not to plan is unfaithful in that it is based on the fear that the perception of planning to separate will be dangerous politically. I recently heard of a conservative bishop who was asked “What if we are forced out of TEC?” and he rejected any such thinking on the grounds that “if they find out we're talking like this, they will use it against us.” That advice may be true, but it does not carry any spiritual superiority to what I am urging. Indeed, it may be helpful for the Archbishop of Canterbury to know in his deliberations what the consequences of his actions will be.

You seem to want to draw an opaque firmament across the horizon until September 30. I am counselling that we look beyond. No matter what vicissitude befalls us, I cannot see how loyal North American Anglicans can long remain in TEC as it is now constituted. Nor can I see the Episcopal powers-that-be accepting any solution from Canterbury and the Primates that would allow us to coexist within the legal framework of the Episcopal Church. I think the descent into the abyss of leadership over the past thirty years, which you have ably charted, bears me out.

So I think we are not so far apart as it seems, Philip. I do not think it is helpful to suggest a moral equivalence between Bishop Duncan and Presiding Bishop Schori, as if to call down a pox on both their houses. If it so turns out that TEC remains standing in the councils of Lambeth after September 30, then I trust we can say together– again with Lincoln – the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. And at that point contingency will become reality for us all.

May God bless you and your witness during this difficult time.

Your brother in Christ,

Stephen

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