Thursday, December 8, 2011

Reflecting on Church Disunity and Communion.

With the conflict between Bishop Murphy of the AMiA and the Synod of Rwanda being in the news, I find myself more focused on the Church Visible than I usually am. Please forgive me for a post more about church politics than the substance of faith. Early in Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a scene which hits me with a mixture of sadness and laughter every time I watch it. To join it in media res:

Reg: Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People's Front.

(Others): Yeah

Judith: Splitters.

Francis: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.

(Others): Oh yeah. Splitters.

Loretta: And the People’s Front of Judea.

(Others): Splitters.

Reg: What?

Loretta: The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.

Reg: We're the People's Front of Judea.

Loretta: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.

Reg: People’s Front.

Francis: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?

Reg: He's over there.

When I look over the churches who claim to hold an Anglican Episcopate in America, I cannot help but feel a not at all comfortable sense of familiarity. Anglican Catholic Church (ACC), Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), Episcopal Missionary Church (EMC), Reformed Episcopal Church (REC), The Episcopal Church (USA) (TEC)

… wait, what?

The Episcopal Church (USA)

... that’s us.

We’re not the Protestant Episcopal Church (USA)?

Let’s not go there.

Whew. Now that I’ve listed a few of the more prominent examples, let’s get into the issue. Don’t we proclaim our belief in one holy catholic and apostolic Church? Doesn’t this seem somewhat at odds with how we elect to deal with conflicts of practice and interpretation? We are a daughter of the Church of England after all; perhaps we ought to learn more from our mother than we have.

It does not take a great scholar to discover the very violent disputes of doctrine and theology at the birth of the Church of England. Initially the Church was very catholic in form, then it yielded to many of the stands of the Reformation movement of Luther under Cranmer, to be placed back fully in communion with Rome, and then to extract itself again under Elizabeth, to so remain to this day. The Church was not eventually stabilized and made whole by a firm stand against its critics and disputing parties; but by embracing them. The famous Via Media of the Elizabethan Settlement which declared the Church to be both Catholic and Reformed, and to make a liturgy wide enough to allow what each side considered respectful worship.

While the Puritan movement did briefly upset this balance and seek to steer the church firmly into the protestant camp, the Restoration put an end to this and restored the precious balance which remains today. Over years the names and affiliations have changed, but the unity in diversity has not. High Church, Low Church, Broad Church… Anglicans all. And like any true family, they squabble, loudy from time to time.

Somehow we have allowed a bit too much of our American Nature into our own Episcopal Church, to our discredit. My fellow blogger over at hypersync has expressed this idea in more depth, and I will simply point reader’s to his thoughts rather than try to replicate them in my words. While this does an admirable job of pointing out the flaws in those seeking to leave, let us not congratulate ourselves too quickly on our virtue for having stayed. For just as those who leave do so with too much gusto and zeal for my taste, so do we encourage them too well for our part.

To draw on another pop culture touchstone, Leia warned the Empire that the tighter their grasp, the more planets would slip through it. This is what the National structure at 815 of TEC has forgotten. In our desire to be progressive, inclusive, and forward looking, we become rigid, authoritarian, and exclusive of those not in step with our vision. The Church should not seek to create a body of Bishops who support the Presiding Bishop carte blanche and are happy to submit to an ever more hierarchical relationship. It should cherish the dissenter, the questioner, the curmudgeon. For it is only in the face of dispute that ideas are truly tempered, and where we can see the flaws in what may be plans made with the loftiest of goals. This may mean having to deal with occasional embarrassment. It certainly means having to expect to be wrong from time to time, and to have most ideas fail to be embraced universally… but that is part of what makes our Communion so strong. We should be pleased to have Diocese in which different ideas are put into practice. What better way to see the fruits of our ideas than to be able to contrast them with a Diocese which has followed another way. I am far from advocating anarchy. We must have a liturgy, beliefs, and understandings (such as a Constitution and Canons) which bind us as one, but the hand should be light, allowing freedom where there is not a clear mandate for uniformity.

Looking over the confusion and complication that the absurd game of musical provinces and unilateral decrees of being in or out of Communion has caused fills me with sorrow. I have family of a high church bent and they find themselves having to attend a very low church charismatic congregation so as to remain in the Anglican Communion. This link to Canterbury means more to them than the trapping of worship they would prefer. Likewise I read the blogs of many priests who find themselves in varied affiliations in this fractured climate who clearly have much of value to say to one another, if only we could learn from our mother. It is okay for family to disagree. If The Episcopal Church will stop trying to ground anyone who misbehaves and giving the impression of wishing to elevate the Presiding Bishop to Archbishop authority over the Church, perhaps the dissenters can feel safe enough to stay and we can all be enriched. Until then I’ll just try and catch myself when I’m inclined to shout a charge of “Splitters!”

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