The election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) is an occasion of great sadness for all who care about the unity of Christians. Those who have always been skeptical of the ecumenical effort may well say, “I told you so,” and indulge in a measure of schadenfreude . That is not, I would suggest, a faithfully Catholic response.
The Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to Christian unity understood as full communion in faith, ministry, and sacramental life. That commitment is grounded in the prayer of Our Lord “that they may all be one” (John 17), as magisterially elaborated in the encyclical of John Paul the Great, Ut Unum Sint . The ecumenical vision of the Second Vatican Council has repeatedly been reaffirmed and strengthened by subsequent popes. Going back long before the Council, there was thought to be a special relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. In the theological dialogues following the Council, great hopes were vested in the possibility of ecclesial reconciliation with Anglicanism. Those hopes, some suggest, have now been blasted and are probably beyond repair. At the same time, the actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church may mark its definitive break from the worldwide Anglican Communion of more than seventy million members. That would leave the Episcopal Church with its two million members isolated as simply one among many mainline/old-line American denominations.
The election of Bishop Schori is on a trajectory of continuity with earlier Episcopal actions. In the mid-seventies, ECUSA unilaterally decided to ordain women to the priesthood, and the Church of England followed suit. Rome, which believes the Church is bound by Scripture and authoritative tradition, teaches that the Church is not authorized to ordain women to the priesthood and therefore cannot do it. Following what it believes to be the logic of ordination to the priesthood, ECUSA then ordained women to the episcopate. The Church of England is currently considering the ordination of women bishops. If the ordination of women priests is invalid, the ordination of women bishops casts a broader pall of invalidity, since bishops ordain other priests, both male and female.
Of course, the great and more recent commotion in ECUSA was sparked by the ordination of Gene Robinson, a practicing gay priest, as bishop of New Hampshire. A number of provinces of the Anglican Communion, notably in Africa and Asia, where the great majority of Anglicans are, have declared that they are no longer in communion with the American province. Thus the breakup of the Anglican Communion seems almost inevitable.
Facing that prospect, the Lambeth Commission on Communion some months ago issued the Windsor Report, which proposed that the ECUSA apologize to the Anglican Communion for difficulties caused by the election of Robinson and that a moratorium be declared on ordaining gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Schori was sharply critical of the Windsor Report, and her election is a decisive repudiation of its recommendations. Schori is an unequivocal supporter of Gene Robinson and of the blessing of same-sex unions. She is reported to be a friend and strong supporter of the retired Bishop John Spong, perhaps the most leftist of ECUSA bishops, who has long agitated against core doctrines of historic Christianity such as the inspiration of Scripture and the divinity of Christ.
At each step of the way, Rome pleaded with Anglicans to reject such grave departures from the orthodox Christian tradition. It may be that there will emerge from the breakup a new configuration of the Anglican Communion with which serious dialogue can be resumed. A few bishops of ECUSA and a larger number of clergy and parishes are involved in “continuing Anglican” movements and are working in tandem with the African and Asian provinces. A great deal depends upon how Canterbury, meaning the Church of England, positions itself in the rapidly advancing dissolution of what was the Anglican Communion. As of this week’s General Convention, however, one thing seems certain beyond doubt: The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has declared itself to be just another liberal Protestant denomination, in deliberate defiance of the Anglican Communion and in scornful indifference to a long history of hope for reconciliation with Catholicism. Yes, many, going back to John Henry Newman in the early nineteenth century, said that this would be the inevitable outcome of Anglicanism’s claim to be a “middle way” between liberalism and Catholicism, but it is nonetheless very sad to see it come to pass, and to see the self-congratulatory rejoicing of Episcopalians in celebratory assembly at the death of an honorable, if finally untenable, hope for greater Christian unity.