Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.
By Marshall Scott
Several years ago I began describing our Anglican struggles as “cowboy poker.” For those who have never heard of it, cowboy poker is a unique game. It’s a competition held in some rodeos in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere (yes, there are rodeos elsewhere). A card table and chair are set in the middle of the arena. Contestants sit around it playing poker. There is money on the table, but it isn’t won by playing cards. In fact, the cards aren’t the game. Instead, a fighting bull is released into the arena, looking for something to attack. The expectation is that the bull will charge the table, and the pot will go, winner-take-all, to the last person seated at the table.
I’ve had that thought again and again through the past few years. There have been many ways of looking at our struggles – differences over the limits of welcome and inclusion, over the interpretation of Scripture, over theological anthropology. However, it has also been a family argument over patrimony. That has included arguments over who would be the “true heirs” of the Anglican tradition; but also who would be recognized as Anglican by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The difference would fall between those who measured it by official recognition by the Church of England and the Anglican Consultative Council; and those who measured it by invitations to the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meetings, and “representative bodies.” Granted, there have been, as I said, disagreements about interpretation, but those have been in the context of remarkable agreement, included even in the draft Covenant, that Scripture and the Prayer Book tradition are fundamental to the Anglican tradition. So, I think there’s something to be said for the thought that this is about being recognized – being accepted, officially if grudgingly – by Canterbury (and if possible by the current incumbent).
Which has allowed Archbishop Williams to play cowboy poker. For the past few years, and in fact arguably until his recent Pentecost letter, he has actually done very little. He’s said quite a bit, but he’s actually done very little; and much of what he has said and written has clarified nothing and satisfied no one. The one thing he has accomplished is getting attention focused more and more on the office of Canterbury. He has allowed others to speak of an “enhanced role” for Canterbury, whether to love it or hate it. He has repeated understandings of “unity” and “catholicity” that have emphasized the episcopate and implicitly his role as primus inter pares. He has held out a Covenant draft that, really, only he has found essential. He has called the game – he has made himself the game – and has waited to see who would hang in there.
If you’ve never seen cowboy poker played, you can see it here. Even if you haven’t seen it, you can well imagine the result. Yes, there is a winner, at least in that someone will certainly be the last unseated. However, in the meantime a good deal of mayhem will take place. The table and chair will be upset. The cards will be scattered. The participants – ultimately, even the last one seated – will be running to where they see safety. True, there will be some people working to provide safety – cowboys on horseback to rope in the bull if needed, and safety personnel (these days calling themselves “bull fighters” and not “clowns,” and dressed to reflect the change) to distract the bull away from players – but only at great risks of their own; and even they can’t prevent the destruction. Yes, there will be “winner,” and great entertainment for the gallery, but the original set pieces will be destroyed.
Like all metaphors, this one has its limitations. It strains quickly if we try to identify too specifically all the players. At the same time, I find myself making some effort. Specifically, I wonder where Archbishop Williams is in all this. I think at first he thought himself some combination of the rodeo manager and bullfighter – able to call the game and set the rules, and to prevent injury to the players. However, all too quickly he became the prize (or at least his office), with the Communion as the table. When the bull was loosed, he was not in the position he thought to prevent the mayhem. Now he is discovering something most of us discovered some time ago: that he was not in control either of the bull or the players. And we are watching as he discovers that his “chair,” the Church of England, is no more secure than that of any other player.
And who is the bull? We need not think too long to realize each of the players will identify the bull differently. Some will say the headstrong Episcopal Church. Others will say the over-reaction of conservative Anglicans in opposition. Some might say Archbishop Williams himself, with his desire, as becomes ever clearer, for a more “church-like” Communion, speaking with one voice and settled authority. And, of course, some will identify the bull with the “spirit of this world,” and/or the Great Deceiver himself.
I don’t automatically discount any of those identifications (including the last). However, I find myself wondering if the bull isn’t the Holy Spirit, going where he will and beyond our control. I wonder whether this isn’t a challenge, not to any one position within the Communion, but to our conviction that the Communion is so important, so integral in itself to God’s plan, that it becomes a prize to be claimed, whether in its structures or in the representative patrimony of Canterbury. If we have come to see the Communion as that “precious,” than perhaps it has become an idol; and as we have seen again in Scripture and in the stories of the Saints, God breaks idols down. That is a painful experience, for it can indeed be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. At the same time, it’s more painful the more attached we are to the idol being taken down.
Perhaps even this stretches the metaphor too much. Still, the thought intrigues me. Certainly, it challenges our convictions on a number of topics. It especially challenges not only our ideas about God’s purposes in the Communion, but our beliefs about what being one as Christ and the Father are one might look like. At the same time, it offers the corrective that this is God’s plan, and not ours, no matter how much we might want to participate in it. And it offers promise: promise that if we find our idol swept away, it is removed so that we might focus once again on God’s plan, and not our own. We might start looking for the Spirit in our lives, instead of looking at the prize we seek and at one another as competitors, challengers in a winner-take-all contest.
Indeed, we might return to the task of seeking God together, to discern the direction God is taking. After all, if all the players were to look out, to cooperate in discovering the direction of the bull and sharing that information with one another, all would be less likely to be hurt. Of course, if we would embrace that model, we’d have no prize, no winner, no game. On the other hand, we would once again have our focus where it should be: not on ourselves and our own issues, but on how the Spirit is moving in the world. We would also once again be working in concert, not on lock-step, but in meaningful unity even in our diversity.
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.