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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS 10 MARCH 2007 -- Rt. Rev'd Dr. Tom Butler

Presidential Address, 10 MARCH 2007


By Rt. Rev'd Dr. Tom Butler, Lord Bishop of Southwark

Synod meets in the shadow of the recent meetings of the General Synod last week, and the meeting of the Primates in Tanzania last month.

We'll be hearing reports about both of these gatherings later in our agenda, but the mood was well captured in the national press on the second morning of Synod. The first afternoon there had been a wide ranging debate on the government's proposals to upgrade the Trident Nuclear Missile system. In a similar debate in 1983, the then Archbishop of Canterbury had intervened to speak sharply against a motion for Britain to unilaterally disarm its nuclear weapons. His intervention carried the day. In last week's synod the present Archbishop of Canterbury again intervened in the debate, but from a polar opposite perspective. This time he criticised the motion, itself critical of the government's proposals, as being too timid and said, "In short, I don't believe that there is a case for the moral acceptability of nuclear weapons that I could, with integrity, accept."

In my mind~Rs eye I could already see the next day's headlines, "Archbishop says Trident Immoral". I was wrong. The archbishop's words did not appear in the headlines, indeed no newspaper carried the story of the debate, except a couple of sentences in the Financial Times.

Other words from the Archbishop that afternoon formed the next day's headlines, words from his presidential address "Archbishop says Church obsessed with sex." On reflection I shouldn't have been surprised, for there's no question that in the perception of the media, sex is a sexier story that the morality of nuclear weapons, and as if to prove them right Synod spent the bulk of another day on two private members~R motions on gay sex.

The afternoon debate was of particular interest to me as it featured amongst other powerful speeches two contributions from priests in the diocese of Southwark; shall we call them Paul A and Paul B? Neither liked the House of Bishops Pastoral statement on Civil Partnerships. Paul A had a motion criticising it and moving matters in a more traditional direction. Paul B had an amendment criticising it and encouraging the Bishops to keep their statement under review. To the surprise of some, Paul A not only welcomed Paul B's amendment but voted for it. Had there been a meeting of minds? Against all precedent had some people changed their view by what they had heard in a General Synod debate? Not really. Both Paul A and Paul B wanted the Bishops to review their statement, but Paul A wanted it to be reviewed in a more traditional direction, and Paul B wanted it to be reviewed in a more liberal direction. Given this situation I would not be surprised if my Episcopal colleagues were not in too much of a hurry to undertake the suggested review.

But, nevertheless, I believe that the debate was something of a watershed. Some Synod members spoke honestly and clearly about their life journeys, in a way which wouldn't surprise members of this diocesan synod because this is the culture of metropolitan London, but it did startle and surprise some synod members from elsewhere in the country where such frankness is not so often heard in the more sheltered environment of their diocese and synod. We also heard some very firm speeches concerning biblical orthodoxy and its supposed consequences. No changing of minds then, but an opening up of a genuine debate whose consequences are not easy to predict.

The same might be said of the Primates Meeting in Tanzania. None of us were there but in a letter to Primates last week Archbishop Rowan observed that the meeting was far from being an easy few days but he believed that it had been a productive gathering with a great deal of honesty. The product of the meeting was a communiqué containing a set of demands to which the American Church must respond by the end of September, and a draft covenant to which provinces are to respond and their bishops are to discuss further at next year's Lambeth Conference.

We'll look a little more closely at both covenant and communiqué a little later in our agenda, but now I'd like to reflect upon what might be a flaw at the heart of this approach to our difficulties.

As part of my preparation for the Synod Debate on Trident I revisited the 1983 debate and the decades of the Cold War which preceded it. Two immensely powerful nations faced each other across a deep divide. Marxist ideology taught that Communism must eventually be all-conquering because it was error free and was the engine which drove history forward.

It would then, ultimately produce a better life for its people than capitalism. What unfolding history demonstrated, however, was that the people behind the Iron Curtain did not see this better life unfolding. On the contrary, they saw the gap between their prosperity and that of the capitalist pragmatic West ever widening and they voted with their feet and left where they could, and ultimately liberalisation came, in one Eastern bloc country after another. The ideology ultimately could not resist the truth of what people experienced in their lives.

The West had no such ideology to defend or promote but its Cold War leaders proved to be vulnerable in another way. President Johnson only served one term. President Nixon was forced to resign.

It was the public reaction at home to the ever expanding war in Vietnam which brought President Johnson down. The most powerful leader on earth could not withstand popular democracy. With Nixon it was not radical students or the grieving relatives of soldiers killed in battle which haunted him but the step by step legal consequences of a petty political burglary which he either authorised or created the climate in which it could happen.

If the product of the Cold War was in the Soviet Union a demonstration of the hollowness of an ideology proved false by the truths of history, in the West it was the demonstration that ultimately popular democracy and the rule of law are stronger than any national leader, good or bad. And this popular democracy and the rule of law stem from the heart of the American Revolution and is part of national selfhood.

What relevance does all of this Cold War reflection have to our present situation in the Anglican Church? I believe a great deal. On the one hand, however powerful an ideology might be, whatever claims it might make backed up by whichever resolutions in significant gatherings, that ideology will not ultimately stand the test of historical truth if it is in fact untrue. People will walk away from it as they walked away from Communism when they had the opportunity of doing so. I suppose we might call that the Gamaliel Principle.

Then, what of the significance of popular democracy and the rule of law in America? I may be getting this wrong, but I believe that the Primates have ignored or underestimated the strength and depth of these values in church as well as state in the United States. The church was the creation of popular democracy after the revolution. Church congregations in each state voted as to whether they wished for bishops to be appointed. Still today, bishops in America have no authority to veto decisions of their diocesan councils. African bishops might in some places be in a position to hire and fire their clergy at will; American bishops have no such authority and would regard it as being un-American.

Whatever the issue, then, for primates to instruct or request American bishops to take actions which appear to them to be undemocratic, or exceeding their powers, is to ask something that they are not in a position to deliver without denying their church polity, culture and history, however loyal they wish to be to the Communion.

And here I believe lies the fundamental flaw. The Primates have misunderstood the nature of our communion. From the consecration of the first overseas Anglican bishops there was no intention of creating a kind of Soviet bloc Communion where each province had to march in step with one another.

Listen to this letter of the English Bishops to the Philadelphia Convention in 1786 when they had been requested to consecrate an American priest as bishop. They wrote: 'We cannot but be extremely cautious, lest we should be the instruments of establishing an ecclesiastical system which will be called a branch of the Church of England, but afterwards may possibly appear to have departed from it essentially, either in doctrine or discipline.'

There was no intention then of creating a branch of the Church of England in America, or an Anglican satellite, and the English bishops were ultimately satisfied in their negotiations with the General Convention and America had their bishops but in way far more accountable to local church democracy than we have ever seen here.

Of course most of the Anglican Churches in the Communion were established in countries which were part of the British Empire, with bishops initially sent out to serve from England. But that was not universally so, and just as the nations achieved independence with their own constitutions, so we see autonomous local Anglican provinces with their own constitutions and systems of canon law.

And just as many of these nations, with others, have voluntarily become members of the Commonwealth symbolically focussed on the Queen, but with no pretence of having authority in one another's nations, so the Anglican provinces find the focus of their unity in the archbishop of Canterbury, but up until now there has been no sense of having authority in one another's provinces. That is not the post-Tanzanian meeting climate. We will see later in the year whether the American bishops can find the form of words demanded of them. I could offer them one or two priests from the Diocese of Southwark who are skilled in drafting words which take us to the brink but not quite over it. It might be possible and we might yet all show up at the Lambeth Conference next year.

But whether we do or not, I would like us to return to our roots and ask ourselves, is it our calling to be a Communion where we must march in step, and if one province departs from the others in doctrine or discipline, they must depart the Communion because otherwise the others feel compromised? Or is it our calling to be a Commonwealth of Anglican provinces, uncompromised by the beliefs and behaviour of other provinces, trusting that they know what is best for the Church and world in their particular culture with their particular history and tradition. I don't hear that argument being made. Perhaps it should be.

In the meantime let's get on with our calling which is to be Church in this great city and its hinterland.


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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