Think before you leap

The Archbishop of Canterbury has written an e-mail to an American bishop that tries in inject calm into a diocese where several parishes wish to withdraw from the Episcopal Church by reiterating the concept that the diocese is the basic unit of ministry in an Anglican church. Updated again. (And again, with Tobias Haller's cogent comments.)

In a letter written on October 14th to Bishop Howe of Central Florida, Dr. Rowan Williams writes:

The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the Diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such. Those who are rushing into separatist solutions are, I think, weakening that basic conviction of Catholic theology and in a sense treating the provincial structure of The Episcopal Church as if it were the most important thing - which is why I continue to hope and pray for the strengthening of the bonds of mutual support among those Episcopal Church Bishops who want to be clearly loyal to Windsor. Action that fragments their Dioceses will not help the consolidation of that all-important critical mass of ordinary faithful Anglicans in The Episcopal Church for whose nurture I am so much concerned. Breaking this up in favour of taking refuge in foreign jurisdictions complicates and embitters the future for this vision.

The e-mail creates other questions and may have muddied the waters for many faithful Episcopalians. For example, Williams seems to minimize the role of the Provinces, which would seem to have implications that go far beyond the Episcopal Church (see for example The Province of Central Africa). It is hard to tell if Williams is saying that Provinces per se are less important, or that picking and choosing an agreeable province when ones own doesn't suit is not the answer. We await clarity on this point.

Another consequence of the email message is that it raises again that elusive concept of Windsor Compliance. While the implication is that parishes that associate with overseas provinces are not necessarily Windsor compliant, he seems to imply that a narrower understanding than the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council understood after the last House of Bishops meeting.

The context of the email's release is a pastoral letter describing the process Central Florida is developing to deal with the parishes and missions that wish to disassociate from the Episcopal Church. It is clear that the heart of the note is to provide support and calm for a conservative bishop trying to hold his diocese together, and disencouragement to separatists.

Read the whole email here , here, or here.

Comments appear on Fr. Jake and on Covenant.

Here is a short piece from the Living Church headlined "Archbishop of Canterbury Discourages Separatist Solution."

New Updates: More comments appear in these places.

Thinking Anglicans has a new round-up here.

Entangled States here and New Virginia Churchman here.

Over on Stand Firm, Stephen Noll comments in detail here.

Here is what the Anglican Scotist says .

Pluralist Speaks speaks about the letters implications.

Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside offer's his reflections here.

Comments (5)

Perhaps I'm leaping before thinking, but I find it calming that at the outset of the email the ABC says he's saying nothing new: "without forestalling what the Primates might say, I would repeat what I've said several times before - that any Diocese compliant with Windsor remains clearly in communion with Canterbury and the mainstream of the Communion, whatever may be the longer-term result for others in The Episcopal Church." If this was new this was where _my_ greatest concern lay.

It is encouraging that in the opening sentence of the paragraph where he quotes from the ABC's email Howe wrote "I [Howe] have said repeatedly that it is my desire to remain both an Episcopalian and an Anglican." That is, Howe is not taking the email as an invitation to quit TEC. I note also that the ABC in essence asks that the Windsor bishops stay in TEC - that's a message to Common Cause and the dioceses contemplating an exit.

It is also encouraging that the ABC criticizes those rectors/churches who have jumped ahead and found a foreign solution. To be sure, he's not interested in seeing overlapping jurisdictions. Just imagine if (for example) the Diocese of Virginia were found Windsor Compliant as would be highly likely. Would CANA quietly fold its tent?

Dr. Williams wrote: “I continue to hope and pray for the strengthening of the bonds of mutual support among those Episcopal Church Bishops who want to be clearly loyal to Windsor. Action that fragments their Dioceses will not help the consolidation of that all-important critical mass of ordinary faithful Anglicans in The Episcopal “Church for whose nurture I am so much concerned. . . . I should feel a great deal happier, I must say, if those who are most eloquent for a traditionalist view in the United States showed a fuller understanding of the need to regard the Bishop and the Diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the ‘national church.’ ”

But in TEC, the “all-important critical mass of ordinary faithful Anglicans” speaks in General Convention. Dr. Williams, fixated on bishops, disdains the “national church.” So there he reveals his stance in plain language.

The bishop has been a useful symbol of continuity and unity. Originally, I understand, the bishop was chosen from amongst his people -- which tradition TEC follows in having bishops elected by their dioceses. (This faithfulness confuses both Rome and Canterbury -- the bishops of the former are appointed by the Vatican, the latter by the Crown.) But the doctrine of Apostolic Succession is proving pernicious. We now realize that there were no "bishops" in the days of the Apostles. There is no pipeline of grace and authority going back to the beginning. We are left to make arrangements true to the facts of the world we live in today, respecting our traditions but not limited by them. (The earth is not flat, and gay people exist, whatever scripture writers supposed.)

A pity that giving legislative weight to the Lambeth get-together and requiring compliance with a "report" issued on no previously recognized authority were not countered at the beginning. We seemingly did not wish to be like Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit's kittens, and "disturb the dignity and repose of the tea party."

Would it matter to TEC and the wider world to allow Dr. Williams and his cohort to fritter away their influence in pursuit of their medieval fantasies? (Williams COULD be preaching about economic injustice, about oil wars, about how humankind has botched its stewardship of the natural order.) The C of E is fading on the ground; African fundamentalism has little appeal where it has no power.

The era of cheap energy that’s allowed the population of the earth to balloon to 6.6 billion is ending – available oil supplies are diminishing as demand soars. Climate change is galloping ahead of computer models. The oceans will rise in the lifetimes of our children. Hard times are coming. What's local may survive. Multiplying bishops and playing medieval church won't be major concerns in a decade.

Murdoch, Gary's spouse

I think there are two points worth keeping in mind here.

One is that a fundamental argument of progressive Christians is that we should not insist that words automatically apply outside the context in which they were written. Such is the basis of the argument for reconciling the biblical writings of St. Paul with the idea of something like woman's ordination. I think we need to read the Archbishop's words to a local bishop struggling with local problem (albeit with Communion-wide implications).

Second, the Archbishop's words raise the question of subsidiarity within the Communion. What exactly is the fundamental unit of the Communion? Irenaeus, in the early church, argued that the diocese was the fundamental unit. But that was written in a time when the Church was undivided.

In the modern era, when the Church is split by divisions, what is now the fundamental unit? It seems that the Episcopal Church argues, and the Windsor report concedes, that the fundamental unit is the Province, not the diocese. If that's the case, then we might need to ask for a fuller explication of the Archbishop's thinking...

I believe Abp. Williams is using the Council of Nicea's canon 6 as the basis for his comments. If you read it then it becomes apparent that this canon is the source of the principle of the inviolability of diocesan boundaries.
I'll post one translation of Canon 6 below.

Canon 6 seems to establish Patriarchates - it mentions the jurisdiction granted to Alexandria, then compares Alexandria to "Rome.....
and the other provinces" who by the same "custom" as Alexandria "retain their privileges".

This would mean that Abp. Williams is proposing that the Anglican Communion is essentially a "Patriarchate" and he is the "Patriarch" (as the Roman Catholic Pope was, first, and remains, one of the five Patriarchs). This would explain the principle of a jurisdiction of Churches identified by their relationship to one bishop that must form the basis of Abp.
comments (though it begs the question of authority).

Canon 6 mentions "Metropolitans" however. One question would be: "Is the "Metropolitan" the "Patriarch"? If not then it causes problems for Williams'
argument. If he uses this canon as a model - with him as Patriarch - then one would, presumably, have to identify a "Metropolitan" of the fourth century with an Anglican Primate today. That would seem to give authority to the Primate (= 4th Century "Metropolitan") rather than insist that the primary relationship is with the "Patriarch".

The reality is that Williams is proposing not only that bishops today are "Monarchical" (a early Medieval interpretation), but only subservient to the "Patriarch". I believe that this is the Roman Catholic belief - that a bishop is the only "king" of his diocese (since we do not subscribe to this view it is not appropriate to say "Queen" and "her") and serves only the Roman Patriarch (Pope). Authority might be delegated via Cardinal or Archbishop, but it ultimately remains with the Pope as Patriarch of the Roman jurisdiction.

For us something called "The Reformation" intervened. As Alister MacGrath pointed out in a piece in the C of I Gazette (I posted a link a couple of days back) the danger of Williams' perspective is that it ignores our Reformation heritage.

One question is this: what does the rest of the Anglican Communion think about "Monarchical Bishops"? Or Archbishop Williams as a "Patriarch"? I suspect we'd get a mixed response.

Ultimately, the success of the Communion has been a willingness not to define theological and judicatorial terms to death - because if we did, we would certainly slay this complex and gentle beast.

What Abp. Williams has done is really the ultimate Anglican Unforgivable - insist, as Archbishop of Canterbury, on defining something on which many within the Communion will differ in very specific and exclusive terms .

Nice going, Rowan. You can put down your gun now - and, yes, it turned out to be loaded, didn't it!? Too bad you didn't think about that before pointing it at the Communion and pulled the trigger!

Nigel Taber-Hamilton

I am convinced first that he was indeed responding to a local problem, and did not think of wider consequences (which is actually cause for some concern, considering his acumen). That said, I do have some concerns.

First, I am convinced that Williams is really interested in a new ecclesiology for the Communion, one more integrated than we currently practice, but without a central "patriarchate" or "curia." His language has been remarkably similar to Ratzinger's on the subject. Second, I'm convinced that he was continuing to affirm the principle of seeking reconciliation in the local setting - in this case, congregations within a diocese.

However, the problem this raises is that of what constitutes "local" with respect to a diocese. He appears to discount provincial structures, and specifically the Episcopal Church. At the same time, in his comments in New Orleans he affirmed American dioceses seeking reconciliation within the provincial structure of the Episcopal Church. The Windsor Report did the same thing in affirming DEPO, and the Joint Standing Commission did as well in their comments on interventions after meeting in New Orleans. Even the (unacceptable) Dar es Salaam proposal maintained some semblance of reconciliation within the provincial structures of the Episcopal Church. (Reflections in greater detail here.)

I think he has muddied the waters. I wait to hear how the Common Cause Partnership in North America, or Reform in England, will respond. I hope it was unintentional; but it bears continued vigilance.

Marshall Scott

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