The nature of religious authority

There has been considerable discussion about the nature of authority in the Anglican Communion, precipitated by the recent Primates’ Meeting. These discussions often focus on the locus of authority (is it the bishop, the national church, the local congregation); less often do they focus on the origin of that authority. The lack of conversation about the source of authority is largely due to the notion of apostolic succession, although the challenge to that idea comes from those who view scripture or adherence to some doctrinal formulation to be more important than a genealogy that can trace authority to the apostles.

It’s interesting occasionally to compare the sources and loci of authority in one’s own religious tradition to those in others. There is currently something of a debate taking place within American Zen Buddhism that can shed light on our controversies. The source of the current conflict is described here. Here’s a call from one Zen practitioner for a “Protestant Reformation.” But the problem in Zen predates the current controversy. There’s a fascinating book that describes similar developments in the San Francisco Zen Center, entitled Shoes outside the Door.

Given the apparent centralizing and bureaucratizing tendencies in the Anglican Communion, it’s important for us as Episcopalians and Anglicans to do all that we can to resist such efforts. An interview with Bishop Mark Sisk of New York details some of the issues, and the cultural/political differences between the American church and other branches of the Anglican Communion.

The dust settles on the Primates Meeting

It didn’t take long, for there wasn’t much dust. It seems little happened, or in ABC-speak, “conversations took place, relationships were deepened, yada yada yada.” George Conger, Paul Bagshaw, and the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church comment.

There seem to have been some important developments, not least the recognition (finally, what took so long) that the role of the primates differs widely from local church to local church, that their power and office are often structured quite differently, all of which make unified action impossible.

Bagshaw makes two comments which seem on target, and which reflect on ongoing development in the Anglican Communion. One is that “it is an ever more clerical communion.” It’s not clear to me why, and given the enormous cultural shifts throughout the world, a narrowing of the power and role of the laity seems both wrongheaded and against the tide of history. The second comment is that, given the changes in roles for the Lambeth Conference, the Primates Meeting, and the sidelining of the Anglican Consultative Council (all of which I think are taking place and have been taking place for the last decade), power is centralizing in the Archbishop of Canterbury and in the Anglican Communion Office–as Bagshaw terms it, an international bureaucracy. This, too, seems odd to me, and somehow roughly parallel to developments in the European Union, where power has centralized in the bureaucracy, not in any deliberative bodies.

But more important than any of this may be the absence of a significant number of Primates, for whatever reason. For many of them, what the Archbishop of Canterbury does, the meetings he calls, are meaningless. Conger and Bagshaw agree that “the Anglican Communion as we knew it no longer exists,” what isn’t clear is what precisely is coming into existence. And so long as there is no lay voice at the highest levels of international meetings, I don’t think the Episcopal Church should spend time, energy, or money, trying to remain a part of it.

Tactics and Strategy in the Anglican Wars

It turns out that the so-called Oxford Statement was written over a month ago, but released on November 24. In it, a number of Primates declared their intentions not to attend the Primates’ Meeting in Dublin in January. The timing of the document’s publication is odd, however. It appeared on the day of the vote in General Synod to send the Anglican Covenant to the dioceses. According to Thinking Anglicans, it came out during the debate in General Synod, but too late to affect the voting.

One wonders whether GAFCON meant to upstage the Church of England’s meeting; whether they were asserting their independence, and the irrelevance to them of the Church of England’s position; whether they meant to release it earlier in order somehow to affect the voting (what we in the US call an “October surprise”).

Whatever the case, it seems to me that their actions have undermined all those, beginning with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who are trying to hold the Anglican Communion together; indeed all those who think the Anglican Communion is worth preserving, in whatever form.

Walking Apart: The End of the Anglican Communion

So, it turns out it wasn’t the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada forced out of the Anglican Communion by the Global South Primates, but rather the Global Primates who have walked away. And they chose to do it on the same day that the Church of England General Synod voted to send the Covenant to dioceses for discussion.

For all the criticism of the Archbishop of Canterbury, on this blog and elsewhere throughout the last weeks, criticism that continues even today, the effects of his statements and years of effort, however futile, seem to have preserved something of Anglicanism, in spite of it all. Oh, there are apparently those who are leaving, the GAFCON Primates who signed the statement yesterday that they will not attend the Primates Meeting in Ireland in January. But as others have observed, it’s never quite clear whether all the signatories of GAFCON statements have actually signed or even agree with the statement. They have also made clear that they are having nothing of the covenant. The full statement from that group is here.

Mark Harris’ comment on this development is spot on:

GAFCON is on its way to forming an alternate way to be Anglican in the world, one which the Covenant does not support and the existing unifying elements in the Anglican Communion are irrelevant.

His full commentary is here.

Here is what Tobias Haller has to say.

Oh, I have no doubt that this is not the end of efforts to keep things together. But the Covenant was the last best shot from Williams, et al, to hold things together, and with the GAFCON folks not playing along, I see no way forward. Unless something radical happens, the Primates Meeting will be a rump; the conservative Primates not attending, or forcing the ABC to disinvite our Presiding Bishop, which would also lead to others pulling out, I suspect.

Whatever they will say about the Archbishop of Canterbury down the line, they won’t be able to criticize him for not trying hard enough to keep the Anglican Communion together. In my view, the timing of the GAFCON statement was a direct attack on Rowan and on his vision for Anglicanism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s address at General Synod

The ABC’s address to General Synod today is available.

He talks about the Anglican Covenant and decision facing Synod concerning the ordination of women bishops. Here is the heart of his defense of it:

The Covenant offers the possibility of a voluntary promise to consult. And it also recognises that even after consultation there may still be disagreement, that such disagreement may result in rupture of some aspects of communion, and that this needs to be managed in a careful and orderly way. Now the risk and reality of such rupture is already there, make no mistake. The question is whether we are able to make an intelligent decision about how we deal with it. To say yes to the Covenant is not to tie our hands. But it is to recognise that we have the option of tying our hands if we judge, after consultation, that the divisive effects of some step are too costly. The question is how far we feel able to go in making our decisions in such a way as to keep the trust of our fellow-Anglicans in other contexts. If we decide that this is not the kind of relationship we want with other Anglicans, well and good. But it has consequences. Whatever happens, with or without the Covenant, the Communion will not simply stay the same. Historic allegiances cannot be taken for granted. They will survive and develop only if we can build up durable and adult bonds of fellowship. And in this respect, the Church of England is bound to engage in this process as one member of the Communion among others. The fact is that the mutual loyalty of the Communion needs work, and the Covenant proposals are the only sign at the moment of the kind of work that has to be done.

The ABC is rarely clear in his writing but the key sentences seems to be these: “The question is how far we feel able to go in making our decisions in such a way as to keep the trust of our fellow-Anglicans in other contexts. If we decide that this is not the kind of relationship we want with other Anglicans, well and good. But it has consequences.” One might turn the question back on him, because clearly the decision to ordain women bishops has led to the breaking of trust with some groups within the Church of England. He would undoubtedly say that he wants to keep the trust of those fellow-Anglicans, but they had no desire to do the same. So then what?

More interesting still is his decision to build his essay around John Wesley. A good Anglican, certainly, but when it became necessary, he took actions that led to the creation of the Methodist Church in the USA. That wasn’t an action taken lightly, but it certainly broke the trust with the Church of England and with Episcopalians in the US. And those actions had enormous consequences for both denominations, impoverishing each in some ways, but at the same time creating structures that would contribute to the enormous growth of Methodism in the US.

One might conclude that Rowan wants us to follow Wesley’s lead and go our separate way.


More developments in Anglicanism

Some interesting developments. An excellent essay by Jim Naughton on Episcopal Cafe; one of the more important observations:

One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to notice that the covenant contains no standards of evidence, and provides for nothing resembling due process, The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion can investigate complaints in whatever manner it sees fit. Perhaps this is unsurprising. If the only fact at issue is whether a party has given offense, the only evidence necessary is the offended party’s assertion that they are, indeed offended.

A news release from No Anglican Covenant.


Keeping track of all the words written in the last few weeks would be a full-time job. The Church of England General Synod will be debating the covenant tomorrow. It promises to be interesting.


Covenantal Developments

Canon Alison Burnett-Cowan, Directory of Unity, Faith, and Order of the Anglican Communion Office defends the Covenant, arguing that we should read it before criticizing it.

Responses: from the Mad Priest:

From the Episcopal Cafe: “It seems to this writer that people have read it very carefully and are not so willing to gloss over the words as easily as the ACO.”

And from Tobias Haller:

What sense, after all, does it make to turn an ad hoc impairment in communion into something that looks very much like an institutional severance in communion? Since participation in the Instruments is at least in part definitive for membership and participation in the Anglican Commuion, and as the Covenant declares as well, the means by which the members “are enabled to be conformed together to the mind of Christ” (3.1.2), anything remotely resembling permanent suspension by or from those Instruments as a “relational consequence” seems to indicate a serious and debilitating breach in the Anglican Communion and the body of Christ. And the Covenant provides a mechanism to promote it, and little in the way of helping to prevent it. It is the schema for an autoimmune disease in the Body of Christ.

This is a Bad Idea. Please, England, put it down.

And from the No Anglican Covenant blog: A point by point response to some of the more tendentious assertions