May 10, 2010

Reviving an Old Proposal

A friend suggested the other day that The Episcopal Church withdraw from the Anglican Communion for a time. I have not been very sympathetic to such proposals in the past—our voluntary non-participation in the 2005 Nottingham Anglican Consultative Council meeting did not work out well—but, in 2010, the idea does not seem unreasonable.

In March of 2007, the Rev. Dr. A. Katherine Grieb, a member of the Covenant Design Group that had recently issued its first covenant draft, spoke to the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church about the draft and about the process that produced it. (Her remarks can be read here.) She also reflected on the recent meeting of the primates at Dar es Salaam, suggesting that “the best evidence for how [the covenant] is likely to be interpreted in the future is the Primates’ Communiqué.” She did not find this comforting.

Grieb made this surprising proposal to the bishops: “I suggest that we enter a five-year period of fasting from full participation in the Anglican Communion to give us all time to think and to listen more carefully to one another.” She explained that “we should absent ourselves from positions of leadership, stepping out of the room, so that discussions of the Anglican Communion about itself can go on without spending any more time on our situation which has preoccupied it.” Her suggestion was not acted upon.

I assume that the duration of Grieb’s “fast” was predicated on her talk’s having been given approximately five years before the 2012 General Convention. As it happens, we are now about as far removed from the 2015 General Convention, and I think this is an appropriate time to revisit her proposal.

In the intervening three years, the situation in the Anglican Communion has continued to develop. The current covenant draft is claimed as the final one, and all Communion churches are supposedly in the process of adopting it. The Episcopal Church exhibited less deference to Communion demands in the 2009 General Convention than it did in 2006. Moreover, some of the reservations held by Grieb’s audience are no longer relevant. The Archbishop of Canterbury invited nearly all Episcopal bishops to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and the schism in The Episcopal Church that was thought might be encouraged by an institutional fast happened anyway.

Many things have not changed. The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada continue to be vilified with regularity, and churches that might be expected to be defenders of the two large North American churches continue to be conspicuous by their silence. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury is pleased with his having successfully played midwife to an Anglican covenant, the recent “Trumpet” (communiqué) from the Global South suggests that the struggle for a new doctrinal and political direction for the Communion is far from over. Rowan’s covenant seems to please the Global South no more than it does the liberal West. The election of Mary Glasspool has occasioned renewed dissatisfaction abroad, and her May 15 consecration will doubtless unleash renewed paroxysms of distress from Third World primates and their Western patrons.

It is in this context that Grieb’s notion of The Episcopal Church’s “stepping out of the room” for a time looks increasingly attractive. The main purpose of doing so is the same—to allow the Anglican Communion to decide how it wants to structure itself, not how it wants to punish the American churches. I will have more to say about this and about other potential benefits below. I first want to outline my own 2010 version of Grieb’s proposal.


I have chosen to call my proposal a sabbatical from the Anglican Communion. I see it not as a time of self-denial, but as a period of respite, self-discovery, and patient waiting.

Let me begin by listing details of my proposed sabbatical, which differs in many respects from Grieb’s fast. Both she and I agree that certain actions would require the approval of General Convention. She suggested calling a special General Convention to obtain that approval. Convening a special General Convention would be cumbersome and expensive, however, and I believe we can avoid doing so by structuring our actions differently.

Specifically, I propose The Episcopal Church do the following:
  1. Announce immediately that a three-year sabbatical from participation in Anglican Communion activities will be proposed at the 2012 General Convention. The sabbatical is to begin at the end of the Convention and last until the end of the 2015 Convention. (The 2015 Convention could extend the sabbatical or take other action respecting the Anglican Communion.) Details of the proposed sabbatical (enumerated below) should be made public, though the General Convention might modify or reject the sabbatical idea.

  2. No funds to support Communion infrastructure are to be included in the 2012–2015 budget, though funds pledged in the current triennium budget are to be distributed.

  3. Funding for joint mission projects of The Episcopal Church and other Communion churches are not to be affected by the sabbatical, but no grants are to be made for infrastructure support to churches that have shown hostility to the domestic or foreign mission of The Episcopal Church.

  4. Between the 2012 and 2015 General Conventions, no representatives, official or otherwise, should attend Communion meetings. This prohibition is to include all Episcopal bishops. The church will neither respond to Communion requests nor offer any proposals of its own.

  5. No action is to be taken by the 2012 General Convention on the proposed Anglican covenant or any successor covenant that may be proposed before then.

  6. An amendment to the church’s constitution will be proposed at the 2012 General Convention to revise the Preamble to remove references to the Anglican Communion. (See “A Preamble Proposal.” Ideally, this and the next item should be pursued independently of my sabbatical idea. It is to be hoped that the General Convention will also move forward in authorizing liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions.)

  7. Section 1 of Canon I.20 should be modified to read something like the following (added language is shown in italics):
    Sec. 1. The Episcopal Church, a member of the Anglican Communion, has a relationship of full communion only with those Churches in the historic episcopal succession that have not declared themselves to be in impaired communion with or not in communion with this Church, and with those Churches with whom it has entered into covenant agreements, including:

    1. the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht,
    2. la Iglesia Filipina Independiente/the Philippine Independent Church, and
    3. the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar.
    The change would make it more difficult for ministers of Anglican churches that have declared themselves not in communion with The Episcopal Church to preach or celebrate in Episcopal Churches. It would also allow The Episcopal Church to establish missionary dioceses in such out-of-communion territories. The logic here is that churches’ being in communion with one another is like being friends. Mike is not really friends with Tom if Tom does not think of himself as friends with Mike, even though he might be a friend to Tom. (The relation being in communion with, I would argue, is a reflexive, symmetric relation. See “Some Mathematical Reflections on Communion.”)

  8. Between now and the opening of the 2012 General Convention, The Episcopal Church should participate only as required in Communion affairs. The church should neither respond to requests from the Communion nor offer any proposals.


What benefits might accrue from the proposed sabbatical?

First, the sabbatical is intended to give our own church respite from the unrelenting pressures to which we have been subjected since 2003. A sabbatical will give us time to discern what we expect in relationships with other churches, including those both in and out of the Anglican Communion. Also, in a time of dwindling resources, funds that would otherwise go to support a Communion infrastructure that seems to be satisfying no one could be used to strengthen our own church and to advance our own mission objectives.

The Anglican Communion, much of which seems eager to have The Episcopal Church out of the way, will get an opportunity to see what that might look like. Having lost its whipping boy, will the Global South turn its wrath on the Church of England and other Western and Western-leaning churches? Episcopal Church detractors in the Communion will have to decide just what sort of Communion, if any, they really want. Is the draft covenant strong enough? Is something more dictatorial indicated? Is Canterbury too influential? Is the real goal an Orthodox Anglican Communion, with or without the Church of England? Perhaps, just perhaps, life in the Anglican Communion without The Episcopal Church might be found wanting. If so, reconciliation will be easier after a trial separation than after a divorce.

More than once, I have heard pleas from progressives in various Communion churches for The Episcopal Church to stand and fight, rather than abandoning them to the machinations of Anglican troglodytes. To this I reply that The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada have received precious little substantive support from churches known to be sympathetic to their present understanding of their mission. The sabbatical would be a wake-up call for the progressive elements of the Communion to stand up and be counted, rather than relying on a long-suffering, if not actually masochistic, Episcopal Church to carry the banner of Modernism.

As I said earlier, no one seems genuinely happy with the prospect of an Anglican Communion structured by the proposed Anglican covenant. The reality is that forging a satisfactory agreement of substance among diverse organizations spread across the globe requires substantial time and money. The Archbishop of Canterbury, however, chose to develop a covenant quickly and on the cheap. Perhaps, without the immediate ability to chastise The Episcopal Church removed, the Communion will act with more grace and common sense. I wouldn’t, of course, be holding my breath.

Were we to implement my sabbatical idea, we would be saying to the Anglican Communion, “Decide how you want to structure the Communion, and let us know when you’re done. We will then let you know if we’re interested in being a part of it.” This will be a difficult declaration for some to make, but the Anglican Communion is only a means to an end. We should not indulge those who, for their own reasons, have made the Communion an idol to be venerated.

Am I Serious?

Do I really think that a sabbatical from participation in the Anglican Communion is the best policy The Episcopal Church could pursue? Well, yes and no. I am quite serious about the potential benefits, and I fear that the 2012 General Convention might sign on to the covenant, either out of a business-as-usual Anglican politeness or in the mistaken belief that the covenant really isn’t so bad. Going on sabbatical would certainly be preferable to that kind of self-destructive betrayal of the Episcopal majority and two centuries of independence.

My true preference, however, would be for The Episcopal Church finally to discover its institutional backbone and to declare that its current trajectory is not subject to foreign influence and that the church will not abandon that trajectory for the sake of the consciences of a handful of reactionary Episcopal bishops.

The leadership of our church has frankly been passive-aggressive in its dealings with the Communion, failing at every turn to make clear that actions, particularly by the primates, are unacceptable. Our church has repeatedly suggested that we are trying to comply with Communion demands, even when it has been clear that we had no inclination or will to do so. The consent to the consecration of Mary Glasspool was an inevitability, not a fluke, and the Presiding Bishop understood that inevitability at the same time she was leading the Communion to believe that we would maintain a moratorium on such consecrations.

Standing up to Communion bullies is what I really think my church should do, but stepping back to let them bully someone else for a while isn’t such a bad second choice.

No Anglican Covenant

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  1. you know, LD, I think this is a great idea - and especially the cutting off of $$. And I agree that we need to display some 'backbone'. Unfortunately, given our polity, there is no way to make such an announcement, absent - perhaps - a majority vote of the HOB. And too many of them seem to think that loyalty to 'Anglicanism' is more important then the oath they took to TEC. But I dearly hope many folks begin so speak about this idea, and thank you for the time you put into it!

  2. We can’t say what General Convention will do, but we can certainly say what will be proposed. We would need to build a coalition supporting the sabbatical idea to make such an announcement seem worth paying attention to.

  3. What if the Episcopal Church ceased to be a lightening rod? We'd leave the Anglican Church of Canada as the lone lightening rod. That would be one concern.

    I confess that I've been quite disappointed that the other more or less progressive churches fail to speak out in our support. It would be interesting to see what sort of drama would unfold in our absence.

  4. Thoughts from north of the border -Even as recent as a couple of months ago, I wouldn't have agreed with this article, but more and more I'm seeing the wisdom here. Part of me just wants to chuck the whole Communion thing and have TEC and ACoC go it in relationship alone, building on our connections with the Lutherans. But that step is too radical. What you propose here, might be a very educational tool for the whole communion. It's easy to say we do need you, you are a problem, we don't like you, but what would it look like (for both sides) if we in fact didn't have one another for a short time. Maybe we'd find it is best to be apart, and maybe we'd find otherwise. Perhaps the biggest issue is that I don't think the Global South would just let us all go, they'd continue to poach and claim sympathies with this group and that group. I certainly know for fact that if the ACNA folks here in Canada didn't have the ACoC to complain about, their blogs and their seeming purpose for existence would be empty. Sometimes ideas that make sense to just one person, can grow into ideas that make sense for us all. You have at least one person on Canadian soil who likes your idea.

  5. I think this is a really bad idea. Yes Canada has been a loyal friend but it is not the only one. What about Japan? And can we really abandon both the existing relationships and those in places like Nigeria who look to us for advocacy and hope. Sorry, I think this is simply wrong.

    I would actually prefer that the US sign the covenant now, when no one else has, and attach a detailed presentation calling for discipline under section 4 for border crossers.


  6. Jim has more to say about my proposal on Jim’s Thoughts. You can read his comments here.

  7. Lionel, it seems to be one aspect of our contemporary life--certainly in the Episcopal Church, but not exclusively ours--is the stress between those who desire purity and those who tolerate messiness. My personal hope is that we can figure out how to resist purges and punishments and tolerate messiness. Perhaps even cultivate structures that would encourage messiness. Your suggestions as they are presented here do pretty much the opposite and seem designed to draw sharp exlusionary lines and to present "my way or the highway" alternatives to those who differ in perspective from you. My sense is that in the coming era both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion may need to think of themselves structurally and relationally in terms of one of those complex Venn diagrams rather than as simple, monolithic entities. In a spirit of generosity and affection, of course, and a search for win/win resolutions to concerns with a potential to divide us.


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