By George Clifford
No less an observer of, authority on, and participant in American Christianity than Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas has remarked that all American Christians are now congregationalists (Andy Rowell, “The Gospel Makes the Everyday Possible,” Christianity Today, September 2010).
Rampant congregationalism is readily apparent in the Episcopal Church (TEC). Many congregations act as autonomous Christian outposts with only nominal accountability or loyalty to broader ecclesial structures. For example, a relative handful of congregations angry over a variety of issues have attempted to withdraw from TEC as a congregation, taking their members, real property, and other assets with them. Pope Benedict’s recent overture to Anglicans appears to be an attempt to capitalize on this congregationalism, inviting (perhaps even trying to entice by lowering the emotional cost) individuals and congregations to align with Rome.
Concurrently, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, views his diocese as being engaged in a global struggle for the soul of Anglicanism. Among other complaints, Bishop Lawrence accuses TEC Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, of attempting to intrude on his Diocese’s sovereignty by posing queries about the Diocese of South Carolina’s actions in response to at least one of its parish affiliating with another province. Bishop Lawrence’s sentiments are sadly not unique among TEC dioceses, though perhaps more extreme and certainly more publicized. The diocese is historically the Church’s basic organizational unit. However, no diocese, any more than does an individual congregation, constitutes an independent entity. In biblical language, no arm or other part of the body can survive detached from the rest of the body.
So what’s a good Anglican to do?
We can’t turn the clock back. Even if one thinks the Roman Catholics were correct to object to making the Bible available to everyone (and I am not among that number), foreseeing that this would unleash an uncontrollable plurality of views, there is no closing that Pandora’s box. William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and all the saints, celebrated and anonymous, who translated the scriptures into the language of the people surely did God's work. Tolerating the uninformed reading and study of scripture that results in a minority of Christians (mostly non-Anglicans, thanks be to God!) adopting idiosyncratic or even harmful interpretations is a small price to pay for the benefits of widespread accessibility to the Bible and competent scholarship. I would rather lament Episcopalians generally having a shallow acquaintance with scripture at best (cf. the recent U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey - Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life) rather than despair over our wide variety of theologies, orthodox or otherwise. Depth of love, not theological perspicacity, measures the Church’s faithfulness.
Unanimity of theological views does not exist in any Church, including the Roman Catholic Church with its strong, central hierarchy. A Roman Catholic who worked for me was the first Polish-American priest Pope John Paul II ordained. Careful to always toe the party line out of understandable personal loyalty to “his” Pope, even this priest, occasionally voiced personal reservations and nuanced points of agreement. Honestly acknowledging, affirming, and appreciating theological disagreement seems far healthier for individuals and the Church than pursuing a mythical holy grail of unanimity.
Furthermore, we can’t substantially compromise our understanding of God's vision for the Church as a community that practices radical hospitality without compromising our faithfulness to Jesus’ call. Compromising our vision of who God has called TEC to be for the sake of peace or even unity within the Anglican Communion is to seek doctrinal purity on a diocesan level rather than congregational level, an equally quixotic and unrealistic quest.
We can improve our skill at playing nice with others, one of life’s basic lessons according to Robert Fulghum in Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Of course, that idea was not original with Fulghum; Jesus encouraged his followers to love others, including one’s enemies. Playing nice means not picking up one’s marbles and going elsewhere because one loses a game or one’s feelings get hurt. Playing nice also does not include always insisting on having one’s own way. Ironically, research suggests more clergy, most of whom presumably answered a call to minister to God's people, lose their jobs because they have not learned this basic lesson than for any other single reason. One miracle that I discern today is that the Church retains as much fractured unity as it does in spite of the many centripetal forces that seek to tear it apart (individualism, a pervasive congregational ethos, clergy and laity who have not learned to play nice, etc.).
We can forthrightly avow our intent to remain in full communion with Canterbury and the other members of the Anglican Communion. However, even as TEC is responsible for its choices, so the Archbishop of Canterbury, the various Anglican Communion structures, and the individual Anglican provinces are each responsible for their choices. If one or more of those entities chooses to “punish” or impair communion with TEC, TEC should recognize that the decision and responsibility for it belong to those who made the decision and not to TEC. TEC, as far as I can discern, remains broadly and strongly committed to traditional, “big tent” Anglicanism and the historic understanding of the Anglican Communion as Churches in voluntary, non-authoritarian non-hierarchical communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. When other entities strive to manipulate TEC with ultimatums, threats, or blame, those groups exhibit behaviors that egregiously deviate from how Jesus treated people.
George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.