A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Edward J. Mills III
One hears, of late, many calls to remove, punish, banish, or otherwise censure the American Episcopal Church within the worldwide Anglican Communion. Into this situation I would like to inject a reminder of several historical realities that should inform how we, the Episcopal Church, might respond. All seem to me to be more than substantially sustainable historically.
First of all, the illusion of a big, collegial, worldwide Anglican Communion of longstanding centuries of harmony is just that, an illusion. Where it existed, it was a colonial church, run by and for the British Empire. The “sun never set” on the British Empire, nor on the Anglican Church. In the 1990’s I was a friend of a former “Lord Bishop of Polynesia”, a political post in a colonial church that covered more landmass on earth than any other diocesan entity in the Anglican Communion. It was a position of colonial power in a colonial church, as best as I could tell. He was not a bad man, just a man stuck in a bad situation, trying to make the best of a bad situation. While I was in seminary in the late 1970’s I became friends with most of the indigenous African students in my seminary. They were, simply put, a lot of fun to have as friends. I was appalled at their consistent stories of abuse at the hands of their church leaders (all white Westerners). They were beaten or otherwise punished (when young) for offenses such as looking a white woman in the eyes, not stepping into the street and off the sidewalk to make way for a white person, and so on. These men came from all over Africa, so this was not a localized aberration. I finally asked a friend from Malawi the question that had haunted me for a year or more of hearing these stories, “Why are you a Christian—given this treatment at the hands of the church?” He blinked at me, and answered, incredulously, “Because I love Jesus.” Well, duh.
The truth of the matter, historically, is that the Anglican Communion we now know only came into being after the breakup of the European colonial empires following the two world wars, and actually some time after that. Only then was it any sort of association of peers in communion. Even then, it has been a very bumpy ride.
The second historical reality is one of those “you can pay now or pay later” situations. Since the time of the Wesleyan Movement, we in the Anglican Church, and then the American Episcopal Church, have refused to decisively and definitively go on record that we are not, nor have we ever been, a Fundamentalist Christian body. We have failed to serve our historical role, forged in the English Reformation, as being a Middle Way between extremes—in the modern context between Fundamentalism, on the one side, and secularism, on the other. We have, putting a positive spin on it, preferred to live together civilly within a reality that no longer reflects our ethos. More cynically, I would offer that we have lusted after the numbers, money and success of the more fundamentalist among us. And we found an ingenious way to do so. We sent them overseas as missionaries. This happened in the 19th century Evangelical Revival in the Anglican Communion and they thrived in the conservative environments of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Following the Charismatic Renewal of the 1970’s we again did so, but this time more dominantly to Latin America where they too thrived among the conservative peoples there fed up with the Roman Catholic Church. We wanted them there, away from us. They wanted to be there, away from we apostates. It was a deal fraught with eventual disaster. We refused to “pay” then by being honest about who we are, so we are “paying” now. Paying now, paying later, is always more expensive.
The third historical reality is actually the “dirty little secret” of the success of the modern Anglican Communion. This is the fact that for years we in the West have bought off the silence of the burgeoning Third World Anglican Church. We have capitalized upon their desperate poverty with millions of dollars of what I can only call “hush money.” We have made an deal, explicit or implicit, that for this money they will not complain about our liberal ways and we will not complain about their cultural realities with which we struggle such as polygyny. But the cat is now out of the bag and the Western Anglican Fundamentalists have become political players—and have begun paying their own “talk money” to replace our “hush money.” The ugly truth about all this it that it has been predatory, colonial behavior no matter who was paying the bills. It is cynical to the “nth” degree and a recipe for eventual disaster.
Finally, I have a daughter, and I have no desire for her to live in a church and world dictated by current Third World Christian mores. I remember my utter astonishment, while in seminary, when I realized why my friend from the Sudan’s wife walked 8-10 steps behind him on their daily walk around campus. Dumb hillbilly from West Virginia that I was, I had no idea that that was a woman’s place in a marriage! I want my daughter to be her husband’s equal not his servant or pet. I do not wish for her or her daughters to be genitally circumcised in order to ensure that they are virgins when married—a practice still widely performed on young women in Africa and the Middle East. I have no desire to either banish her, or have her stoned to death, for the crime of becoming pregnant outside of marriage. I have no desire for her to be banned from the priesthood—in fact, at present I simply hope she will remain a Christian given what she has seen of the church in her lifetime. All of these cultural norms are, to a large extent, part of the belief structure of those parts of the Anglican Communion that wants us censured or gone. They are part and parcel of their belief structure that so opposes our rapprochement with homosexual persons. Given these historical realities, I offer a solution.
If they do not want our presence at the Anglican Consultative Council, or in the Anglican Communion, let us separate as friends and thrive separately. In fact, this will allow us to actually thrive for who we are—or could be. I have served eleven churches in just under thirty years (mostly as an interim) and have found that the rank and file of the Episcopal Church are thirsting for the real thing, for what we really are and can be, a middle way, between Fundamentalism and agnosticism/atheism. We can in fact embrace a way open to the sciences, the social sciences, historical research, biblical scholarship and a real and substantial Christian faith. Everywhere I have served I have found an enormous response to even my worst stumbling efforts to preach, teach and chart a path in this middle way. Let us part company with those parts of the Anglican Communion who wish to be done with us with grace, love and dignity. Let them take their obvious numbers, success, and prestige. God bless them. More daringly, let us continue to give to them from our economic wealth…but now with no strings attached. No more hush money, but love money, because of their desperate poverty. Let’s not burn our bridges either. When and if they wish to have us return, let us also return with grace, love, and dignity. It might just eventually happen.
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