Monday, July 10, 2006

Nigerian HOB responds to Archbishop of Canterbury's Reflections

First of all, a big Thank You goes to WB for the privilege of contributing to his blog.

The House of Bishops of the Church of Nigeria has responded to ++Rowan Williams' statement. Read the whole thing here:

Here's one paragraph: "His [++Williams'] analysis of the situation is quite lucid, and the liberal and post-modern tilt of some interpretations is apparent. But we must commend the fact that it appears we have finally come to that point of admitting that we are truly at crossroads as a Communion and the time to decide on the way forward can no longer be wished away. The mere fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury now proposes a two-tier membership for the Anglican Communion is his acceptance that the wound caused by the revisionists has become difficult, if not impossible, to heal. The idea of a Covenant that would ensure this two-tier membership of ‘Constituent Churches’ and ‘Churches in Association’ is brilliant as the heartbeat of a leader who wants to preserve the unity of the Church by accommodating every shred of opinion no matter how unbiblical, all because we want to make everyone feel at home."

You can taste the sarcasm. Or at the very least, the irony. Is the Catholic Church -- and Anglicanism as a part thereof -- supposed to be, fundamentally, a place for everyone to feel at home, no matter their beliefs? If so, then by all means, our unity ought to be preserved by some sort of sociological compromise, some way to get us all to co-identify without engaging theological hot-buttons. The WCC excells at this and has been in the business of sweeping theological differences under the ecumenical rug for decades now. It's no wonder the Nigerian bishops point out ++Williams' post-modern 'tilt' -- this sort of dodge is fashionable these days.

Like these bishops, I question whether the Archbishop's very practical solution has enough theological weight. Is there precedent in any patristic source for two-teir communion in the Catholic Church? Is there precedent in any Anglican ecclesiology for this sort of thing? Let's get the good Archbishop a WWLD bracelet: "What would Laud do?"

I oppose the idea of an Anglican Covenant, because it's un-Catholic. In the good ol' days, a synod would be convened, and a declaration of broken communion would be made, followed by institutional changes to reflect the new theological status. Practicality follows theology. That's the way it oughta' be.

I don't see why this process can't be done right now. ++Williams backhandedly admits that it can be: "All that I have said above should make it clear that the idea of an Archbishop of Canterbury resolving any of this by decree is misplaced, however tempting for many. The Archbishop of Canterbury presides and convenes in the Communion, and may do what this document attempts to do, which is to outline the theological framework in which a problem should be addressed; but he must always act collegially, with the bishops of his own local Church and with the primates and the other instruments of communion." So if he convenes a synod of CofE bishops, with the advice of the Primates, they can declare themselves out of communion with those provinces who want to 'walk apart', and invite all other Anglican provinces to do the same. The question of who's in and who's out answers itself. Sounds like a solidly Catholic way to do things. No Covanent needed.


mmbx said...

Fr. Thorpus, I agree!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your post. I agree that present situation in the Anglican Communion is very sad and frustrating. But, I am interested to know if you could find an example of the kind of synod you are proposing? Do you think there is either patristic or catholic precedent for breaking communion over ethical questions - or more specifically, over belief about what falls within the province of good Christian behaviour? I can't think of any. Can you?

Counsels and Synods are instruments for identifying what sort of statements must be affirmed as true on issues of doctrine. They clarify what constitutes true belief. I am not sure they are good for arbitrating on matters of ethical disagreement. Indeed, the first Apostles resisted schism with the 'Greeks' over ethics - over what could be claimed as legitimate behaviour ‘in Christ’. So, what you are proposing would be an innovation, a new strategy for dealing with dissent and disagreement. I am sceptical about whether it is a good idea, it sounds more like the logic of Protestantism: when there is something to protest, schism is preferable to patience and long-suffering.


father wb said...


But if the ABC convened a council of C of E bishops, it is very unlikely that they would declare themselves out of communion with ECUSA. They might even declare their support.

And the danger of convening the Primates to decide who is in and who is out is that (e.g.) Canterbury might find itself out, etc. Moreover, no one, that is, no province, has submitted itself to this kind of ecclesial authority. Ergo Lambeth resolutions not being binding. We've never gotten together as a COmmunion and said "we will be governed by the consensus of the primates and / or bishops" -- even in terms of what constitutes the Anglican Communion. And while I agree that we SHOULD, the fact is we haven't. And that is why I think the idea of a covenant is valuable. Because it will (in theory) spell out a coherent (hopefully) Anglican ecclesiology, adequate (hopefully) to handle the kinds of problems that have come up recently. I also note that issues of ecclesial authority are at the center of what we have identified, in the ARCIC documents, as keeping us from progress toward corporate reunion with Rome.


You asked: "Do you think there is either patristic or catholic precedent for breaking communion over ethical questions...?"

Sure! The canons of the Eccumenical COuncils are chock full of them, if the semantic range of "excommunication" includes "breaking communion" -- and it certianly would seem to.

And a good deal of thought was devoted by the Fathers to the question of which moral offenses should be dealt with using public penance and which with excommunication. But public penance itself can be construed as a degree of excommunication, as penitents were kept apart from the faithful, and were not admitted to communion (hence in some sense "excommunicated").

But the real problem in ECUSA is not ethical, or is only obliquely ethical. The real problem is about the doctrine of the faith. ECUSA is denying (1) the status of Scripture as (a) holy, and (b) the infallible Word of God. She is also (2) refusing to be bound by the unequivocal witness of the catholic Church on settled questions of moral doctrine.

In short, it is ECUSA who is breaking communion, not those within ECUSA who seek to remain faithful to the consistent witness of Scripture and the One Church. To say that the conservatives within ECUSA are the schismatic party is to say that the One Church has been in schism since the outset, and that only now is a small part of it (ECUSA) becoming non-schismatic. But that's absurd. Ergo, etc.

Anonymous said...

Wil & John,

Thanks for your correction. Yes. You are right to identify that my (above) analysis of the current conflict in the Anglican Communion as being primarily an ethical one is naively simplistic. I am as aware as you are that the question regarding homosexual activity in the body of Christ – especially as it relates to the ordination of clergy and bishops - is the unfortunate converging point, the nexus, of several theological disagreements that have been tacit and festering in the Church for some time now. I also recognize, as you point out, that it is ECUSA that is innovating here, even disregarding the (virtually universal) position of the tradition, and that therefore the onus of responsibility of all that follows must inevitably fall on her. So, to be fair, I am not at all suggesting that the conservative position is illegitimate, or the schismatic party, or that there has been some sort of an incoherent situation down through history – as you seem to think my suggestions necessitate.

One point: despite my inclination to agree with you, I would like to think however that your suggestion that “ECUSA is denying (1) the status of Scripture as (a) holy, and (b) the infallible Word of God. She is also (2) refusing to be bound by the unequivocal witness of the catholic Church on settled questions of moral doctrine” is slightly over-stated. Or, at least, I think that it is possible to be generous in our evaluations of ‘the liberal position’, seeing it as a genuine and authentic search for what it means to be holy, and to follow God’s word. I am reluctant to see it in the way you seem to, as a flagrant and wilful disregard for tradition and scripture. I think, for the most part, that people who endorse the moral goodness of homosexual sex (and therefore the validity of ordaining gay clergy and bishops) want to do the right thing. We all know these people, and if we are honest, we will acknowledge that they are as earnest and as faithful as any.

Now, I know your repost: want to know how to be holy, how to do the right thing?: look to the tradition and to scripture. And, I agree! I agree with you that the teaching of Christ and the Church are clear on this issue. I agree that these trump the pomo new-fangled hermeneutic and epistemology underwriting the liberal position. I agree that the witness of the Spirit is historically unwavering here. I agree that reason and experience find their fullness in obediential faithfulness to Christ’s teaching and to its preaching in the Church. I agree that the prophetic voice calls human hearts back to holiness not on to un-charted regions of moral experimentation. Okay.

I also think, however, that there is clear scriptural instruction regarding how to correct other Christians. It is just as important to be Christian as it is to be right. If I am right - that people on the theological left are genuinely searching for holiness - then I think the question of ‘who is in, and who is out’ is being asked too soon. (Of course, I may not be right.) Nevertheless, as I was trying to say above, synods and counsels are blunt instruments for bringing the sort of theological adjustments that are needed in this situation. Don’t you find it painfully ironic that the ‘conservative’ proponents of moral virtue (among whom I count myself) are so quick to forget the clear scriptural identification of the Holy Spirit’s presence with suffering (even long-suffering), patience, humility, kindness toward our enemies – even death on behalf of those who are sinning. It is in precisely this sort of situation that Christians within the Communion have the opportunity to demonstrate holiness towards those moving us towards schism (i.e., by listening, exhorting, praying, weeping, and suffering) and thereby sway their hearts.

You are not convinced. I know that. And, to be honest, I may not be either. I am torn between the conviction that unholiness cannot be tolerated and the (more self-critical and introspective) position that holiness on my part starts with suffering. In Christ’s body we are never in a position to say ‘I have no need of you’ and therefore ecclesial division is a scandalous incoherence. I don’t know. I am destroyed by it all – but maybe that is the right feeling.

God save us.


Father Thorpus said...

So the thing with synods is that no one has to submit to them at all. A synod is an inward-looking thing and has no reference or authority outside those who are gathered there as constituents. Please note carefully the wording of my suggestion to the Archbishop: he should convene a synod of CofE bishops and the synod should, with the ADVICE (voice, not vote) of the primates (and frankly, as WB notes, outside pressure is the only way the CofE bishops would vote this way), declare THEMSELVES out of communion with the Episcopal Church. Nothing need be 'decreed' concerning any other province; no universal jurisdiction is implied. It would simply be a declaration of the CofE, a self-definition. Then any church in the whole world who wanted to be in communion with the CofE would be invited to make a similar self-definition, and by this you would know which churches fulfill the two necessary conditions of communion: agreement in doctrine, and sharing of the episcopal ministry. This simple and elegant solution maintains everybody's autonomy as Anglicans; roots our communion in our traditional, Catholic structures; leaves no ambiguity to be cleaned up later.

This is the way communion works and has worked since the patristic days when the concept was invented. Each autonomous church, at whatever level a church understands itself, had a responsibility to be Catholic; that is, to self-identify as agreeing with the Catholic churches in doctrine and sharing with them the Apostolic, episcopal ministry. When a church fails in either of these two conditions, as did many of the Reformation churches, it follows that it cannot be in communion with the Catholic churches. Where that church was once Catholic, and now has intentionally changed, it is the responsibility of all the Catholic churches to excommunicate; that is, to declare publically that the relationship of communion has been broken, then to act in accordance with that declaration. Isn't this precisely how our communion with Rome was broken?

I call this a responsibility of the Catholic churches because of course the heretical church will believe itself to be faithful to Christian teachings, else it couldn't do what it was doing in good faith. I'm sure many gnostics believed they were in true churches. The ideal of Catholic communion was supposed to solve the riddle of who is and who isn't really Christian. If a gnostic sect had no recognition from the Catholic churches (in the West, represented by the see of Rome) that its doctrine was sound and its leadership apostolic, it could not be considered in communion with all the other churches, could not be considered to have valid sacraments (other than baptism) or ministries, could not be recommended as a place where salvation is to be found. In short, communion with the Catholic churches was a guarantee that you soul could go to Heaven, and excommunication out of that communion meant you were flirting with damnation.

Notice there was no process in the first four centuries of the Church for subimitting ones self to this kind of polity. There was no Covenant. It wasn't needed, because the whole thing is based on self-definition, and the reception of that definition by the Catholic churches.

Perhaps this is one reason the Lambeth Conference has never taken to itself a more than advisory authority. We don't need a church council to solve this, which is what Lambeth would essentially be if it decided to do more than advise. The patristic church didn't need a church council to solve this kind of problem, either. It was done by autonomous provinces self-identifying, and the consensus Catholic reception of that identification.

If you think about it, that's precisely the process that's going on right now in the Anglican Communion. We're doing it right and we don't even know it. TEC has self-identified, taking its 'prophetic' stance -- "though none go with me, still I will follow." TEC believes this stance is consitent with its claims to catholicity. The rest of the Communion has expressed some sort of response -- some in broken communion, some in 'impaired' communion, some in agreement. This process of reception came to a head in the Windsor report's call for repentence. TEC didn't oblige. The self-identification is clear. What remains is for someone to spearhead the Anglican Communion's reception of this self-identification, a reception which takes place through other processes of self-identification. Right now that someone is ++Williams, so my suggestion is that the CofE self identify; and since he's our symbol of unity -- we're all "in communion with Canterbury" -- it then remains for the other provinces to self-identify as in communion with Canterbury.

Techically, if our polity is based on the fundamental unit of the diocese, as Rome's is, Rowan Cantuar could simply make the declaration of broken communion on behalf of his own diocese. All those diocese or provinces who want to remain "in communion with Canterbury" would have to so self-identify. It would be like the bishop of Rome making a doctrinal pronouncement, and all those who value their identity as in communion with Rome towing the line. 'Course, ++ Williams would risk splitting the CofE itslef -- but it would be the most Catholic thing to do.

mmbx said...

I hope Cantaur reads "Whitehall."