February 1, 2016

A Reflection on Bishop McConnell’s Reflection on the Meeting of the Primates

Bishop of Pittsburgh Dorsey McConnell wrote “A Reflection on the Anglican Primates’ Meeting” January 16, the day after the Anglican primates concluded their meeting in Canterbury. That meeting, of course, declared that there should be restrictions imposed on The Episcopal Church for a period of three years. (I discussed what the primates did in my essays “Abuse of Anglican Power: Where Do We Go from Here?” and “Additional Thoughts on the Meeting of the Primates.”)

The curate’s egg
Bishop: “I'm afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones.”
Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”
When I first read the bishop’s message to his diocese, I had a hard time deciding what to make of it. I have continued to think about it, but I still cannot say that, on the whole, I am either pleased or displeased. McConnell’s missive is something of a curate’s egg, I’m afraid.

It is good to keep in mind that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is still rather conservative. Liberals played a crucial role in keeping the diocese in The Episcopal Church despite then bishop Robert Duncan’s leading many congregations out of it. Enough conservative clergy and laypeople remained, however, so that the diocese, while now in the Episcopal mainstream, is nearer the conservative bank than many of us in the diocese would like. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Bishop McConnell has kept what remains of the diocese together and now presides over a diocese no longer actively hostile to The Episcopal Church. He wrote
The primates’ decision, along with the fact that the current leader of the ACNA was invited to participate for the duration of their deliberations, has opened old wounds for many of us: for lesbian and gay members of our diocesan family and the congregations who support them; for our more conservative sisters and brothers who have remained in TEC out of their love for the Church; for all of us who have spent painful years nurturing relationships across deep disagreements in order to hold the unity of the Body of Christ.
The bishop then insists that any wounds felt in the diocese are “the wounds of Christ crucified, …, the wounds of our own selves crucified to one another and to the world.” I’m not sure I know what this piece of clergy-speak means. I think he is saying that we are enduring the consequences of taking a principled stand, and I wish that he had said something like that.

McConnell goes on to say that we—the churches of the Anglican Communion, presumably—are stuck with one another:
What makes this moment so painful is that, even as we hurl threats of separation, or lay down conditions, or demand repentance from everyone but ourselves, we know we cannot get away from one another.
I have two problem with this. First, I don’t believe The Episcopal Church needs to repent of anything regarding its adoption of same-sex marriage. The decision of the General Convention was long in coming and prayerfully considered. We knew that the decision would upset some primates, but we thought that pleasing God was more important. What, exactly, is the bishop referring to when in the phrase “everyone but ourselves”?

Then, there is the matter of Anglican churches’ relationships to one another. Many in the Communion are intent on replacing the traditional bonds of affection with bonds of obligation. But we are stuck with one another only so long as we choose to be. McConnell implies that our connection to the wider Communion is indissoluble. He writes about “the unity of the Cross”—more clergy-speak. But aren’t our bonds of affection with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, say, stronger than those with the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion? I see no theological reason why our relationship to Anglican churches should be any more sacred than our relationship to other Christian bodies. (Readers objecting at this point that Anglican churches are interdependent, should read my essay “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence.”)

Bishop McConnell’s next paragraph acknowledges reality:
The world suggested by the primates’ decision appears to imagine another: a unity achieved or broken by the actions of ecclesial structures. Although I was initially encouraged by their stated desire to “walk together,” upon further reflection, it is difficult to imagine what this would look like in five or ten years. There is not the least sign that our General Convention would undo recent actions in regard to marriage, nor that the Church of Canada will change course, nor that the Churches of the Global South will in any way become more tolerant of these trends.
This is a clear acknowledgment that, certainly in three years’ time, nothing much will have changed, and the Communion will be right back where it started. But, suggests the bishop in more clergy-speak, we should carry on:
But the unity of the Cross is not something we achieve; it has been achieved for us. We need only live as if we knew it, through lives of sacrificial love even and especially toward those who believe they can do without us.
This is followed by something of a non sequitur:
The trend indicated by the primates’ actions suggests that the formal instruments of Anglican fellowship may become less important in the coming years.
This may well be true, but it surely isn’t obvious. The primates may have overplayed their hand and may be more widely recognized for the disruptive cabal that they are. Or, as seems more likely, they will have established another precedent leading to even more interference by Anglican churches in one another’s affairs. The Primates’ Meeting may be either less or more important in the future. What is certain is that Archbishop Justin Welby is willing to pander to the angry conservative element of the Anglican Communion for the sake of “unity.” In future years, he may well become known as the Neville Chamberlain of Anglicanism. God save us!

Bishop McConnell suggests, correctly, I think, that the more important aspect of the Communion is the collection of relationships between people, parishes, bishops, and dioceses across Anglican churches.

Alas, he seems to excuse the actions of the primates (and his own longstanding connections to Uganda through Pilgrim Africa) by saying that the churches of many of the primates “are beset by challenges we can scarcely imagine”—poverty, colonial oppression and post-colonial condescension, Islamic aggression, and the ravages of war. These challenges do exist, but they are no excuse for attacking The Episcopal Church as a way of distracting Africans from their local problems.

The bishop’s letter ends with this:
As we live this mission on the road, I believe that the common life we have built in this diocese will be shown as an effective and godly example for the whole Communion. Our diocesan community spans the theological breadth of Anglicanism and we hold that breadth as a treasure, not a weakness. We do so as our conscious expression of the faith once delivered to the saints and still held by us today. I trust that God will sow seeds of His reconciliation wherever our own story is told.
He almost strikes a proper tone for a 2016 Bishop of Pittsburgh, but he needs to be chided for the phrase “the faith once delivered to the saints.” This is a favorite phrase of the now disgraced Bishop Robert Duncan, who used it as shorthand for the conservative, moralistic theology that he held as the righteous alternative to the mainstream theology of The Episcopal Church.

I wrote about the phrase “faith once delivered to the saints” more than eight years ago in my blog post “The Faith Once Delivered.” Here’s how I ended that essay:
The next time you hear someone piously pontificate about “the faith once delivered to the saints,” remember that the proper response is to ask, “Yes, and what was that?” You might even cite Jude 1:19, which says about the false teachers, “It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions” (NRSV).
Perhaps Bishop McConnell should explain just what he meant and why he chose to use a phrase so dear to his predecessor.


  1. Some years ago I was chided for suggesting AAC/NACDAP use of "faith delivered to the Saints" was a misappropriation of Jude 1:3 on the point that I would have said simply Jude 3 if I had been well versed in Scripture. :-)

  2. This calls to mind Romans 12:9-21:

    Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    Bill Ghrist


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