Like most Christians, I don’t pay attention to missives from
church leaders. This week,
however, dueling pastoral letters issued for Pentecost from Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop
of Canterbury, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the
Episcopal Church, caught my attention–because one so rarely witnesses a first-class
theological smack down between tea-drinking Anglican primates.
Unless you’ve been sleeping in a cave, you are probably
aware that the Episcopal Church (of which I am a member) has been arguing about
the role of LGBT persons in the church.
Along with the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church has opened
itself toward full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians. Here in North America, this has caused
some defections (fewer than at first predicted), some legal suits (most have
been settled in favor of the Episcopal Church), monetary fallout (hard to
separate from general economic downturn), and bad feelings (which, sadly
enough, remain). But what is most
surprising–and I regularly hear this from bishops, clergy, and congregational
lay leaders–is that things are much less tense in the Episcopal Church now than
they have been in recent years. Folks
are moving ahead in their local parishes doing the sorts of things that Episcopalians
are pretty good at doing–creating beautiful worship, praying together, and
feeding hungry people.
Despite that fact that the Episcopalians are bumpily
journeying into a renewed future, some other Anglicans–mostly in Africa–are
pretty mad that we’ve included our gay and lesbian friends and relatives in our
churches. Large communities of Anglicans in places like Uganda (the same Uganda that recently tried to pass a death-penalty
law for gay people) and Malawi (the same Malawi that recently sentenced a gay
couple who wanted to marry to 14-years hard labor) are
seriously unhappy with American Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans.
And this leads us to the Pentecost pastoral letters.
While (somewhat ironically) attending a conference in
Washington, DC entitled “Building Bridges,” Rowan Williams sent out his
Pentecost letter to Anglicans worldwide which, after saying a lot of nice
things about missions and diversity, pulls rank and proclaims that he’s going
to kick people off important committees whose national churches have violated a
controversial document called the Anglican Covenant. This includes the Canadians (who let gay Christians get
married) and the Americans (who recently ordained a lesbian bishop in Los
Angeles) and some Africans (who ordained some Americans who were splitting
churches in places like Virginia and Pennsylvania).
In response, Katharine Jefferts Schori essentially, but in a
nice sort of Anglican way, accused Williams of being a theological dictator–or,
as she says in understated fashion, “Unitary control does not characterize
Anglicanism.” For non-Anglicans,
trust me, those are fightin’ words.
This is not a conservative/liberal argument (both Rowan
Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori are theologically liberal). This is a
fight between rival versions of Anglicanism–a quarrel extending to the
beginning of Anglicanism that has replayed itself periodically through the
centuries down to our own time.
Rowan Williams’ letter articulates “top-down Anglicanism,” a
version of the faith that is hierarchical, bishop-centered, concerned with
organizational control, and authoritarian. It is an old vision that vests the identity of the church in
a chain of authority in the hands of ecclesiastical guardians who agree on “a coherent
Anglican identity” and then enforce the boundaries of that identity through legal
means. This version of Anglicanism
stretches back through the Middle Ages and relates to similar forms of
Christianity as found in Roman Catholicism and some forms of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Katharine Jefferts Schori’s letter speaks for “bottom-up
Anglicanism,” a version of the faith that is democratic, parish-based, mission-oriented,
and (even) revolutionary. It is
also an old vision, one that vests the identity of the church in local
communities of Anglicans at prayer, who adapt their way of life and liturgy
according to the needs of Christian mission. This version of Anglicanism is rooted in both the ancient
Celtic traditions of English Christianity and the missionary work of St.
Augustine of Canterbury circa 600.
As history unfolded, different cultures have picked up on
one or the other of these two streams–for example, the British church remains
primarily hierarchical (even referring to their bishops as “My Lord Bishop”);
while the American church is primarily democratic (“God alone is the Lord”). The Ugandan church is authoritarian;
while the South African church is revolutionary. The Anglicans in Sydney, Australia are boundary-oriented and
communally closed; while most other Anglicans in Australia are
liturgically-oriented and open (the Anglicans in Darwin, Australia are so open
that their cathedral doesn’t even have walls).
At its best, Anglicanism manages the polarities between these
tensions–often creating locally innovative expressions of a church that is both hierarchical and democratic, bishop
and parish centered, bounded and liturgically open at the same time. Over the centuries, this has been
called the Anglican art of comprehension, or the via media (the “middle way”).
But once every few hundred years, the tensions explode. This is one of those times.
The argument isn’t really about gay and lesbian people nor
is it about, as some people claim, the Bible or orthodoxy. Rather, the argument reprises the
oldest conflict within Anglicanism–What kind of Anglicans are we to be? How do we relate to the world and
culture around us? And very
specifically now: What kind of
Anglicans are we to be in the 21st century? And how to we relate to the plurality
of cultures in which we find ourselves?
Set in this frame, this isn’t just an Anglican
argument. Roman Catholics,
Orthodox Christians, Protestants of all sorts, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims are
having the same arguments within their varying traditions and cultures. What kind of religious faith are we to
practice in the 21st century?
And how do we relate to the plurality of cultures in which we each find
For what it is worth, the river of history does not seem to
be on the side of hierarchical church control; rather, history seems to be
moving in a the direction of what Thomas Friedman might call “flat
church.” The tides are pulling
most ecclesiastical boats toward bottom-up versions of faith. Hierarchical church control is, as Harvey
Cox argues in his book The Future of
Faith, a “rearguard attempt to stem a more sweeping tidal change” toward a
new experiential, inclusive, and liberationist view of God and faith.
Despite their smack down, I think that Rowan Williams and
Katharine Jefferts Schori might actually agree on the fundamental questions of
identity, mission, and 21st century change. I also suspect that Rowan Williams
would secretly find the “sweeping tidal change” more spiritually interesting
than trying to keep the Anglican institutional ship afloat in the waters. But he thinks that he’s in
charge–and he’ll be captain of his Titanic until the last.
As for me, I kinda like this American Episcopal river
raft. Better for navigating strong