Time for “As Canterbury turns”

canterbury cathedral2Today’s New York Times report about the sobering epistle from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams included several passages that I am sure raised eyebrows extra high among Anglican leaders in Pittsburgh and Episcopal leaders in New York City. As you would expect, this news story by the team of Laurie Goodstein and Neela Banerjee will be carefully parsed on this side of the Atlantic, because the Times is the holy writ for leaders in The Episcopal Church (formerly the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America).

For starters, it is important that the issue of same-sex unions is placed in the lead, along with a reference to the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

My reading of the archbishop’s statement — with its repeated emphasis on a threat to the sacramental unity of the Anglican Communion — is that attempts to modernize the ancient Sacrament of Marriage to include same-sex unions is just as divisive an issue for traditional Anglicans (and Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, and evangelical Protestants) as the issue of openly gay bishops. Here is one of the most crucial sections of the letter to the Anglican primates:

… (The) debate in the Anglican Communion is not essentially a debate about the human rights of homosexual people. It is possible — indeed, it is imperative — to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn’t settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God’s will. That is disputed among Christians, and, as a bare matter of fact, only a small minority would answer yes to the question.

Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes — which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society — there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms. Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching. And, to make clear something that can get very much obscured in the rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, this is not and should never be a question about the contribution of gay and lesbian people as such to the Church of God and its ministry, about the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people. Instead it is a question, agonisingly difficult for many, as to what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against — and so it is a question about how we make decisions corporately with other Christians, looking together for the mind of Christ as we share the study of the Scriptures.

My one criticism of the Times piece is that it does not allow leaders on both sides to debate this theological and doctrinal side of the Canterbury statement. That would, of course, have taken more than a few inches of type. Click here for my attempt in a Scripps Howard column.

Of course the crisis is linked to politics, inside and outside the church, and the story had to stress that. But the reason that Anglicans on the right side of the cathedral aisle are cheering today is that (a) Rowan Williams consistently described this as a conflict that must be addressed as an issue affecting the whole church, the global church, and that (b) he repeatedly said answers must be found in Scripture and in ancient church traditions. He mentions the historic flexibility of Anglicanism on cultural issues, but not as often as he underlines the authority of, for example, the “Bible and historic teaching.”

But back to what the Times report does include. Which phrase leaps out at you in this passage?

Conservatives hailed the archbishop’s move as an affirmation that the American church stepped outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy when it ordained a gay bishop three years ago.

The archbishop wrote, “No member church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship.”

Leaders of the Episcopal Church — the Communion’s American province, long dominated by theological liberals — sought to play down the statement’s import, saying it was just one more exchange in a long dialogue they expected to continue within the Communion.

Yes, says the Times, the U.S. church is dominated by “theological liberals” and those words — which are loaded, but factually accurate in almost any reading of modern Christian theology — can be used in broad daylight. If anyone is going to challenge this phrase, they would need to argue that the true ruling elite among Episcopalians is made up of pragmatists who are more interested in the survivial of the institutional church than they are in any one particular theological point of view. The most honest debates among Anglicans are held between honest and candid leaders of the left and the right who are willing to state their beliefs openly and then defend them.

cbury cross2Then there is this eye-opening paragraph:

The Anglican Communion has about 77 million members in more than 160 nations. Members in conservative provinces far outnumber those in the liberal provinces. The Episcopal Church has about 2.3 million members but contributes a disproportionate amount to Anglican Communion administration, charities and mission work. The Anglican Communion Network, a group leading the conservative response, said it had 200,000 members last year.

Bravo. There are all kinds of hard truths in that one punchy summary statement — from the disproportionate clout of American dollars in British offices to the growing statistical reality of conservatives in the Third World. And note the small size of the Anglican Communion Network. Or, is that actually small? How many Episcopalians are there perched on kneelers on any given Sunday?

This will be a major story for at least a decade, in church courts and secular courts. Who gets to write this covenant that is supposed to unite the communion? I would assume the archbishops of the 38 Anglican provinces will do much of the work and supervise the rest. They might seek input from Catholic and Orthodox leaders. And what will be the key issues they end up debating?

I’ll stick with my list of four tough questions that I posted the other day:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin? The key word is sin.

(4) Should Anglican leaders ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?

Stay tuned. And make sure you let us know the URLs for the best blogs — on the Anglican right and the Episcopal left — that are discussing this story and posting public responses by bishops and activists.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    As of 5:00 pm CT, the Dioceses of Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, and San Joacquin have requested Alternate Primatial Oversight (APO) from the Archbishop of Canterbury and/or other Provinces of the Anglican Communion. At least one other diocese is anticipated to follow suit within days. (The text of each APO request is available at Kendall Harmon’s excellent blog, http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net.) And the Church of Nigeria just elected an American to the office of bishop for a newly-formed mission similar to AMiA.

    +++Williams has his work cut out for him.

  • Jacqueline

    As a Christian I find your 4 hard questions the very easiest questions to answer in my life. I live with them and by them every day. Jesus Christ is not only a real resurrected historical Holy person, He is my best personal friend.

    If you want the answers according my life experience and to Holy Scripture as the Holy Inspired Word of God and not the revisionist work of men and women who would like to re-write it to justify their sinful lives, the answers are very simple:

    1. The Biblical account of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ did occur. Even historical accounts allow that this event did happen. A real event in real time that changed our lives forever, gave us a glimpse of eternity, and gives each person a choice to make about their personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

    2. Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone; He is the Way, the Truth and the Light; No man come to the Father but by Me. It comes to each person to make an individual choice. We are not puppets, but created with free will to love God enough to choose Him freely or not. But there is either a yes or no choice – not a maybe.

    3. Sex outside of Holy matrimony is a sin. But as we are all sinners saved by grace, we can repent and ask for forgiveness. We then stop the act(s) for which we have asked forgivness and walk in the path that God has ordained.

    4. Anglicans, or any other Christians, by our very nature “Shall have no other gods before Me” as stated in the 10 Commandments. We do serve a jealous God. There is only One True God and we can allow the worship of no other gods. God Almighty has commanded thus and we would be commiting heresy and blasphemy to allow it. We don’t have to ban it again – it is already done as part of the basis of our Christian faith. We worship and praise the One Holy and Triune God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.


  • http://www.getreligion.org Mandy

    I write from Australia. Please pray for our Anglican church throughout the world at this time. As a world-wide communion we value our common life and witness in the world. Please pray that current debates and discussions will give glory to God, help us to find creative ways to honour the different viewpoints within the communion and to honour all people who are affected by those debates and discussions.

    Thank you for your prayers.


  • Greg

    I’ll tackle the four questions… and I don’t think they are easy ones.

    1 – The event as described in the Bible, is described in many faiths before Christianity. Buddhist, and in ancient Egypt – both before Jesus. The virgin birth as well. Is the account accurate? Who really knows – what seems to matter is the difference that one mans’ teaching made and how it moved people to think differently towards each other. Did it really happen?
    I believe parts of it did, and I struggle with that a lot.

    I believe the Bible was edited with bias, translated with bias, and edited some more with bias. Who knows if what we have now is what they really wrote down in Jesus’ Aramaic language??

    2 – Again, without Jesus the grace of God does not exist? Then, Tibetan Monks are doomed to hell? God’s chosen tribe of Judah? Aborigines in Austrailia? The retarded? Those with Autisim? Those who cannot confess their sins? Who are we to say?

    3 – King David of the Bible had more than a handful of concubines didn’t he? What about the incest of Eve?????

    4 – This is an interesting question. Of which Gods should we remove first? Money? The Saints? Hmm. The Holy Trinity? – No Gods before me. Hmm. Maybe even Jesus?

    I believe we are on the edge of a reformation in the Christian Church. Like those asking tough questions like this and in the Sea of Faith, and a certain Episcopal Priest by the name of Rev. Spong.

    Which faith is more alive, the one that examines itself, or the one that does not? Jesus himself encouraged questions of ones own perspective, and critically examined both his deeds and deeds of others – didn’t he?

    Like Job speaking to the whirlwind, needing answers but really we only need and only pray for God’s grace.

    Do no harm
    Do all the good you can, everywhere you can
    If all else fails, and strife prevails, think and let think. – Charles Wesley

  • Byron

    Your first few comments appear to be from the right side of the aisle, so I thought I would pipe in from the left as an Episcopalian Christian very much affected by Canterbury’s decision to “get tough.” In reply to your four questions, I would the following thoughts:

    First, I think there is room for resurrection-centered Christianity and/as well as other historically valid forms, including historical-critical Christianty.

    Second, in a pluralistic world, I can accept Jesus as the Way while respecting those who follow other paths – in fact, unless we can do this, we face a pretty bleak future.

    Third, I think there needs to remain a diversity of views regarding sexuality, including respect for those who choose a chaste lifestyle (gay or straight) and those who choose a monogamous marriage (gay and straight). This one won’t be easy, as we continue to play out a pagan – jewish difference of opinion several thousands of years old, but again, it is critical that we come to some accomodation here.

    Finally, not so sure about your last question – worshipping other Gods? I’ve worshipped in a number of “broad” (liberal) Episcopal churches and have never seen such a thing. We all worship according to the Book of Common Prayer in a liturgical manner, (liberals, conservative evangelicals and anglo-catholics) – this has never been an issue in my experience.

    Hope this is helpful and glad to be part of the conversation.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    We are most likely embarqued on the Second Reformation, for which I would place the approximate beginning in about 1950 with the (still current) rise of American evangelical faith. Both Reformations deal with the authority and sufficiency of scripture, in the first instance a struggle against those who would add what they wish to scripture, and in the current situation against those who would remove what they don’t like from scripture.

    It is interesting that in both cases Anglicans took an early role in the effort — Wycliffe preceeded Luther by nearly five generations, a fact suggesting we shall not see a resolution of this particular struggle within anything like our lifetimes.

    The Anglican flavour of faith is particular enough that its distinctiveness pre-dates Wycliffe by several centuries, to say nothing of Henry VIII and all that. When the final Reformation wars ended, the seam between Protestant and Roman areas of Germany turned out to follow closely the southern extent of the areas originally Christianised by the Englishman ‘Boniface’ in the 8th Century. The flow of these things does not fit into a sound-bite or the lede graf in the NYT.

    It appears in all this that God is once again transferring stewardship of the Church from weak hands into stronger ones — in this case from the ‘West’ to the global ‘South.’ Nations such as Uganda were once a missionary field. They are now a missionary force.

    A generation ago Ugandan Anglicans and American Episcopalians each counted about 3 million active members. Today the Episcopal Church has lost no less than a third of its members (and only a fraction of the remainder are active in the faith), whilst the Church of Uganda has more than trebled to nearly 10 million members. The Church of England has a nominal 26 million members, but only about 1% of them are ever in church. Weak stewardship, indeed.

    There are more Anglicans worshipping on a given Sunday than in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand … combined. And the Church in Nigeria is twice the size of that in Uganda.

    As a 16th generation Anglican I’m inclined to believe it is no accident that American liberal revisionism has met its first real push-back in the only Protestant denomination with a worldwide structure capable both of holding it accountable and providing alternative, faithful oversight.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    Second last paragraph above should read:

    There are more Anglicans worshipping on a given Sunday in Uganda than in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand . . . combined. And the Church in Nigeria is twice the size of that in Uganda.

  • Tom

    Another question to decide: What do we eat and drink at communion? Your choices are a) The blood and flesh of Christ. b) Real bread and wine, with the Real Presence of Christ in them. c) Real bread and wine, which we understand to be symbolic of the blood and flesh of Christ.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/essays Dan Berger

    Finally, not so sure about your last question – worshipping other Gods? I’ve worshipped in a number of “broad” (liberal) Episcopal churches and have never seen such a thing.

    Point of information: I believe that just such an experience was a significant trauma for TMatt, one that helped crystallize his decision to leave PECUSA (as it was at the time).

    The occasion was the celebration of the Missa Gaia at St. John the Divine.

    Sorry to step on your likely response, TMatt, but I thought I might save you some time.

    Which faith is more alive, the one that examines itself, or the one that does not?

    I think it’s pretty silly to traduce those who take certain things as foundational givens rather than abandoning themselves to “sophisticated” skepticism. I recommend Michael Polanyi’s thought to you.

    If I constantly questioned the existence of atoms or the validity of the periodic table, I’d never get anything done.

    Likewise there are certain foundational ideas that define the sort of God you worship. I think TMatt’s questions manage the definition fairly well.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/essays Dan Berger

    P.S. re. “worshipping other Gods”:

    There have been anecdotal reports of non-canonical invocations of, say, Mohammed as a prophet of God in Episcopal churches, or lumping Jesus together, as a human visionary, with Gautama Buddha, Mohammed and Martin Luther King, Jr.

    But I’ve not experienced any such myself either.

  • Greg

    /quote-I think it’s pretty silly to traduce those who take certain things as foundational givens rather than abandoning themselves to “sophisticated” skepticism. I recommend Michael Polanyi’s thought to you.

    If I constantly questioned the existence of atoms or the validity of the periodic table, I’d never get anything done.

    Likewise there are certain foundational ideas that define the sort of God you worship. I think TMatt’s questions manage the definition fairly well./quote

    I was not intending to traduce anyone. Merely pointing out the fact that Jesus himself was a skeptic of the foundational givens of his day.
    As Christ – God himself was teaching us that the rules flex somewhat to show kindness and compassion to others.

    John Spong has similar questions and thesis statements. TMatt’s questions reminded me of those.

  • Todd

    As Christ – God himself was teaching us that the rules flex somewhat to show kindness and compassion to others.

    Whose rules – those of God, e.g., the Ten Commandments, or those of Man? It is clear in the Gospels that Jesus was condemning the Pharisees in particular for their hypocrisy, and Men in general for substituting their rules and laws for those of God. Christ Himself said that He did not come to change one bit of God’s laws. Indeed, he distilled all of God’s laws into two commandments:

    1. love God with all your heart, soul, and mind
    2. love your neighbor as yourself.

    Doing the second is impossible without doing the first – and both are impossible without the continual assistance and guidance of the indwelling Christ.

  • jayman


    If you are still reading comments on this thread I have a fifth question to suggest you add.

    “Do you believe in the personal bodily return of Jesus Christ to rein over the whole universe at the end of the age? Yes or no?” That too will tell you a whole lot about where somebody’s coming from.

  • Greg

    The greatest commandment, or the Jewish Shema with a twist…. The rules that flex are usually the rules of Man the way I see it – But in the eyes of the Pharisees, they were interpreting the rules of God. I guess my point is, it seems to me that today we have a group of Pharisees as well.