Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, has proposed creating a two-tiered Anglican Communion¯one tier of "covenant" churches in communion with Canterbury and another tier of churches only in "association." The former would be those in agreement on the role of the Bible and tradition in Anglican teaching and ministry. Those in looser association would include presumably the unrepentant and more heterodox Episcopal Church (USA).
"The reason Anglicanism is worth bothering with," Williams said in a reflection dated June 27, "is because it has tried to find a way of being a church that is neither tightly centralized nor just a loose federation of essentially independent bodies¯a church that is seeking to be a coherent family of communities meeting to hear the Bible read, to break bread and share wine as guests of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate a unity in worldwide mission and ministry."
No one could envy Bishop Rowan’s task, or deny that he is working with the best of intentions, but is it enough to hear the Bible read? Isn’t the issue of whether the Bible is preached? For that to happen, you would have to grasp what the Bible means, for example, when Jesus declares "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." If your first reaction is to read back into those words the early Church’s divinizing and absolutizing a mere man in the name of patriarchal hegemony, then you can listen to the Bible all day long and will be no more Christian for it.
Similarly, is it enough merely to break bread and share wine as guests of Jesus? Or are we in the presence of that very Jesus’ body and the blood of Lamb? To decide, one would have to agree on whether Jesus’ death was indeed a sacrifice¯a paschal mystery. That means doing theology, something Anglicanism has been very bad at in recent years, because it usually means reaching hard and fast conclusions, without which there is no basis for unity in mission and ministry.
Even a conservative evangelical seminary such as Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry in Pennsylvania reminds prospective students that they must be tolerant of varying views, which upon careful reading of their faith statement includes such issues as the ordination of women, the nature of the sacraments, and the perpetuation of the charismatic gifts. But on what basis are these opposing views being formed, nurtured, or at the very least tolerated within the seminary itself? Scripture and tradition alone? Or is something else at work even within the evangelical wing of Anglicanism¯namely, the principle of the broad church of loose circumscription?
Of course, the Church of England has been in tension since its sixteenth-century beginning¯among those who would have imposed a Continental-type Reform and those who wanted to retain as much of the old faith as could be salvaged. A level of disagreement has been the defining characteristic of Anglicanism. Some would even say its glory.
So has the Episcopal Church in the United States strayed so far from Anglican principle (putting aside procedure) in the whole Gene Robinson business? Anglicans have suffered agnostics and Unitarians as bishops¯John Shelby Spong has spent his entire career mocking and denying every single tenet of historic Christianity¯now suddenly the election of an openly gay bishop in Gene Robinson or a woman presiding bishop in Katharine Jefferts Schori breaks the back of the Anglican Communion? I think the question is less one of whether a denomination can agree on what "born of the virgin Mary" means, as opposed to, once this is accepted as an article of faith, what to do with those in ministry who do not believe it and openly teach against it. That then becomes a matter of church discipline.
The Thirty-nine Articles will not suffice for this purpose. Most historians agree that they were never intended to be a complete statement of faith but merely a litany of doctrinal stances that distinguished the Church of England. So it’s hardly likely that they will now suddenly provide the dogmatic frame the Anglican Communion needs.
There is some hope, though. In a letter to the faithful dated June 27, Rowan Williams lists as a summary item the following: "Commitment to the Communion’s teaching, on the basis of Scriptural and historic teaching reached in common council." A council, did he say? Would this mean the production of another, modern confession¯a more complete statement of faith? Perhaps even a catechism, which is what the Anglicans really need? Until Bishop Rowan and all Anglicans of goodwill reposition Anglicanism on a confessional foundation, even appeals to scripture and tradition will not be enough to keep their house from crumbling.
In addition to which :
Father Richard John Neuhaus ventures into the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Wednesday, July 5, for a talk and book signing at Barnes & Noble. That is at 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street, beginning at 7pm. The book is Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth . He says he would be pleased to see you there. For information, call 212 362-8835.
In the 164th edition of the ever-popular section called “The Public Square,” Father Richard John Neuhaus offers lively comment on, inter alia , why non-Christian intellectuals are blind to the social force of Christianity in America, the significance of the passing of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the pity of Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation , the surprising impromptu catechesis of Benedict XVI, Notre Dame’s problems with being Catholic, the dubious friends of Israel, how commentators are skewing the message of the encyclical Deus caritas est , flawed “scientific” measures of the effectiveness of prayer, what Catholic bishops got right and wrong on immigration policy, how to understand the hysteria of Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy , Orthodox challenges to Catholic piety surrounding the Real Presence, the wrong arguments about capital punishment, the crackup of the Anglican communion, the mischief in the term “theocon,” and what Paul Hollander has taught us about “political pilgrims.” As Father Neuhaus is fond of saying, “when a magazine defines its scope as ‘religion, culture, and public life,’ there is almost nothing of interest that is not fair game.” Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?