Last week, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops met and let the world know just what they think of the rest of the Anglican Communion. The official text of their resolutions ran to several thousand words, but for the effect they are likely to have on the church’s relations with the rest of the Anglican world, the bishops could just as well have taken a page out of General McAuliffe’s playbook, saved everyone a lot of time, and issued a simple one-word response: "Nuts!"
At last month’s meeting of Anglican primates in Africa, the Episcopal bishops were asked to do three things : participate in the creation of a church-within-a-church for Episcopal conservatives, promise not to consecrate any more actively homosexual bishops, and promise not to conduct any more church blessings of same-sex unions.
If they did not, the African meeting clearly suggested, the Americans would in effect be choosing to "walk apart" from the wider Anglican Communion. It was rightly described as an ultimatum but nevertheless was quite measured¯no one asked Gene Robinson (the actively gay bishop of New Hampshire) to step down, and no one required anything of the Episcopal Church’s numerous openly gay priests. Essentially, the Anglican primates told the Episcopal Church that it would be allowed to push the boundaries, but within limits.
Unfortunately, last week the Episcopal Church apparently decided that it will be bound by nothing beyond itself¯not Scripture, not tradition, not worldwide Anglican councils, not anything. And it said so with a vehemence that was surprising, even to many of its supporters.
In their statement, the American bishops accused the global Anglican primates of "unprecedented" spiritual unsoundness and solemnly spoke of the Episcopal Church’s "autonomy" and "liberation from colonialism," which they understood to be threatened by the creeping rule of "a distant and unaccountable group of prelates." Apparently, they were serious. With no sense of irony, the bishops of an overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and liberal American church actually saw fit to accuse their fellow Anglicans¯many of whom are from poor third-world countries¯of "colonialism."
It is all very sad. One cannot read the bishops’ statement without sensing their anger and impatience. And what is worse, one cannot read the statement without sensing that the bishops have decided, for now and for always, to leave the Anglican Communion and cut conservatives out of the church.
The American bishops passed three resolutions. One was relatively uncontroversial, and passed unanimously¯ a simple invitation to Rowan Williams , archbishop of Canterbury, and the Primates’ Standing Committee to meet with delegates from the Episcopal Church about the present crisis. As Katherine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, explained : "There is some belief in this house that other parts of the Communion do not understand us very well." Many bishops, it seems, are under the impression that the Episcopal Church’s unique polity and theological concerns are not fully grasped by Archbishop Williams and the primates.
That is unlikely. Rowan Williams invited three Episcopal bishops to last month’s primates meeting for the express purpose of allowing the Episcopal Church to explain itself, and Archbishop Williams has indicated many times that he and the primates understand the polity and position of the Episcopal Church quite well (see here and here ). One doubts that additional meetings will finally enlighten Williams as to the true wisdom of the Episcopal Church.
A second resolution was much more pointed and potentially much more consequential. In it, the bishops flatly refused to participate in the primates’ proposed "Pastoral Council," in effect a church-within-a-church for conservatives, which they rejected as "injurious" and incompatible with the polity and canons of the Episcopal Church. The impetus behind the primates’ proposal was to provide a space for conservatives within the Episcopal Church who, for a variety of reasons, have become alienated from church leadership in recent years. It was a temporary, stopgap measure, designed to hold the church together until a more permanent solution could be found. Many had hoped that, by its adoption, the steady flow of parishes splitting off from the Episcopal Church would cease.
Sadly, the bishops’ rejection of the Pastoral Council means that the disorderly and painful fracturing of the Episcopal Church will likely continue apace, since the bishops do not seem willing to provide any sort of acceptable safe space for conservatives. It also means that tension with Rowan Williams and the primates will ratchet up another notch¯their proposed Pastoral Council, by which the primates intended to work with the Episcopal Church, will almost certainly now be implemented against the Episcopal leadership’s will. Conservatives who wish to participate in it will have to do so in defiance of national church leadership, and they may be subject to discipline.
The absurdity of this situation¯wherein Episcopalians could be disciplined for daring to conform to Anglican "doctrine, discipline, and worship," just as printed in every single prayer book in every Anglican pew¯apparently has not yet occurred to the Episcopal bishops.
Discouraging as all this is, it gets worse. This is the reason the bishops gave for their rejection of the Pastoral Council: "The meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution of The Episcopal Church," they solemnly intoned, "is determined solely by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church."
While that may seem opaque to the casual observer, it is actually a bold and sweeping statement that, if acted upon, will lead directly to a final split with Canterbury and destroy the idea of Anglican catholicity within the Episcopal Church.
To make clear the radical nature of the Episcopal bishops’ new claim, the constitution’s preamble is worth quoting: "The Episcopal Church . . . is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer."
By stating that the meaning of this sentence is determined solely by General Convention, the Episcopal bishops are doing nothing less than claiming that what it means to be Anglican, what it means to be in communion with Canterbury, what it means to be a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and hold to the historic Christian faith¯that all of this is to be decided solely by the democratic vote of clergy and laypeople once every two years in a Marriott hotel convention room, with reference to nothing and nobody. It is breathtaking in its arrogance.
The bishops’ third resolution is a long, churlish, and supercilious explanation of their actions, nominally addressed as a statement to their own American church but really meant as a jab at the rest of the Anglican world. With an assumed innocence that by this time ought to convince no one, the bishops proclaim the "deep longing of their hearts" to remain within the Anglican Communion, while feigning surprise at the notion that their continued defiance of the rest of that communion might somehow be a problem.
Stunningly, rather than admit that the Episcopal Church’s actions may perhaps have had something to do with the crisis that has nearly driven the entire communion off a cliff, the bishops actually point the finger of blame at the primates, who, the bishops allege, in their attempt to set boundaries and work with the Episcopal Church to provide a safe space for conservatives, are in fact encouraging "one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them."
To their credit, the bishops here show themselves to be not completely out of touch. They do at least recognize that their actions may lead to the withdrawal of Canterbury’s recognition of full Anglican status, which the bishops say they contemplate with "great sorrow." But no matter what the archbishop of Canterbury or other Anglicans may say, the bishops boldly declare that it will not affect "our own recognition of our full communion with the See of Canterbury or any of the other constituent members of the Anglican Communion." One imagines that Lewis Carroll would be proud.
There is more to be said, and many faithful Episcopalians have eloquently and clearly expressed their sorrow at the bishops’ actions¯most notably, the Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner and the bishops of Dallas and the Rio Grande . Rowan Williams, in a terse response issued by his press office, summed the whole thing up with one word : "discouraging."
Discouraging, indeed. But for what it’s worth, the bishops actually did not go quite so far as to declare their final independence from the Anglican Communion. While they roundly rejected the Pastoral Council, the bishops did not directly rebuff the primates’ requests to refrain from blessing same-sex unions and consecrating actively homosexual bishops. Several general statements in the bishops’ third resolution seem to signal that they will do so at the next bishops’ meeting in September.
But while this outcome may be likely, it is not certain. Some bishops may feel that they have adequately pushed back at the primates by rejecting their Pastoral Council, thus freeing them up to acquiesce in their other two requests. If so, it might win the bishops a seat at the table for next year’s Lambeth Conference, which would give them a say in crafting the all-important Anglican Covenant , in which terms for communion membership will be laid down.
Of course, even with their presence, the conservative Global South’s large majority will almost certainly make for a covenant unacceptable to Episcopalians, who will likely not go along with any covenant that allows other Anglicans to restrict their much-vaunted "autonomy." Such a covenant would likely be rejected by the Episcopal Church’s next General Convention in 2009, thus finalizing their decision to walk apart from the Anglican Communion.
So, in effect, while the Episcopal bishops may yet decide to do just enough to postpone their expulsion from Anglican councils for the time being, it is difficult to see how, should they remain on the autonomous course they have set, a schism could possibly be avoided. As most rebellious teenagers and philandering spouses eventually learn, autonomy can be fun for a time, but in the end it does not work well as a way of life together in a family. At last month’s primates’ meeting, most Anglicans decided that sacrificing a bit of their autonomy for the good of the family was what it took to live together as a church. Sadly, so far, it looks as if the Episcopal Church has chosen autonomy and individualism over community and fellowship.
Ephraim Radner sadly gave his conclusion: "There is clearly no place left for conservative Christians within the Episcopal Church’s official structures," he wrote. Last week’s meeting, he continued, "made clear that the alienation between the Episcopal Church’s leadership and the Anglican Communion . . . has become currently unbridgeable." "It now appears," concurred Jeffrey Steenson, bishop of the Rio Grande, "that a divorce may be inevitable . . . the opportunity for moving forward together is getting very slim." Paul Zahl, dean of a prominent conservative Episcopal seminary, went even further : "It is time for all of us to give up," he said, "and give up unconditionally."
Not all conservatives have reached the point of giving up. But there is no way to escape from the conclusion that it will not be long before they will have no other choice. The recent actions of the Episcopal bishops have made the prospect of a conservative exodus¯possibly numbering in the hundreds of thousands¯more likely than ever. Schism, which so many had hoped to avoid, is today closer than it has ever been. And it does not appear that anything will be done to stop it.
Jordan Hylden is a junior fellow at First Things .