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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Wonderings of an American Anglican on the Cusp of the 21st Century
By Rt. Rev. Douglas Theuner, Retired Bishop of New Hampshire
I call the following little piece a “wondering” because that’s just what it is. Often convinced that I have been blessed with the gift of discernment, I make no pretensions to prophecy. These “wonderings” are based on the observations and experiences of a lifetime as a Christian and nearly a half-century as an ordained Episcopalian; parish priest and diocesan bureaucrat. I first put something like this to paper 7 or 8 years ago, rather as an afterthought, for the Episcopal clergy of New Hampshire at a diocesan clergy conference. Although I have saved what I then set to paper, I do not have it in front of me as I write this. I doubt that it differs much from then to now, except for the relatively new element of a dissident Anglican group seeking to officially represent that tradition in this country.
These wonderings concern the shape of the Christian churches in America today. Though they may hold true world-wide, I am not sufficiently well-versed in things global to assume that. They do not go beyond Christianity to the other Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam, although they might, if we posit a near-universal search for a “Moral Imagination”, as set forth in Richard Wright’s recent book:” The Evolution of God.”
The Ecumenical Movement in this country and, most likely, throughout the world, has run its course; at least in its long-standing search for collaboration among, and reunification of, existing ecclesiastical denominations and structures. I see this in spite of recent accomplishments such as the Lutheran-Reformed “Terms of Agreement” and the Lutheran-Episcopal “Call to Common Mission” and other such bi- and multi-lateral arrangements.
Rather than being the harbingers of the future, these agreements may well represent “the swan song” of denominational cooperation in a post-denominational age in which few care much, if at all, beyond their own local congregations and the facility with which they can engage in common ministry in collaboration with their neighbors, as opposed to the competitive context which denominationalism has fostered. Traditional denominational approaches to ecumenism are also suffering from the lack of funding brought on by decreasing denominational budgets. There simply isn’t the money to maintain a series of bi-lateral dialogues; particularly, for the Episcopal Church, when so much of those resources have recently been channeled into what I believe is the ultimately fruitless dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church who’s re-union stance remains “our way, or the highway”. It is no less likely that American Anglicans will submit to the authority of the Pope than it is that Rome will make anything less a condition for reunion; even for limited mutual reconciliation and recognition of ordination and subsequent eucharistic fellowship; both, in my judgement, absolute necessities for meaningful missional ecumenism. We can’t afford to pour money into irenic statements about the BVM, the only value of which will be to increase dust gathering on the shelves of their repose and to make Anglo-Catholics in search of “authentication” feel a little more secure about their “Catholicism”.
As see it, American Christianity is currently re-forming itself into several mutual interest groups which are superceding previous denominational loyalties and their rapidly disappearing constraints, as follows:
- EASTERN ORTHODOX: (continued “right practice” in church; conventional behavior outside)
- ORTHODOX CATHOLICS:
Roman Catholics who adhere to the dictates and prescriptions of a hierarchy dominated by the papacy
- Anglo-Catholic Anglicans; both those who remain within The Episcopal Church, and those of other dissenting “Anglican” groups
- PROGRESSIVE CATHOLICS:
- “Liberal” Roman Catholics who reject much of the teachings and dictates of the Church of Rome, yet identify culturally and emotionally with it and will most likely continue to unless driven out by a hierarchy intolerant of dissent.
- “Liberal” Anglo-Catholics who remain within The Episcopal Church
- “Liberal” Lutherans who lean toward Catholicism in liturgy and theology
- ORTHODOX PROTESTANTS
- Mainline Protestants from Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Stone-Campbell traditions
- Orthodox Lutherans
- Evangelical Episcopalians
- Other denominations and independent churches of various “Evangelical” traditions
- PROGRESSIVE PROTESTANTS
- “Liberal” Protestants from the above Mainline Traditions
- Christian Unitarian-Universalists
- Other “liberal” religious traditions
All modifiers and definitions are subject to subjective interpretation on the part of both the user and the reader. The terms: “Orthodox”, “Progressive”, “Liberal” are used above in a kind of short-hand way with the expectation that they may mean something to another reader with no pejorative connotations intended. These delineated categories are by no means intended to be perceived as “cast in stone”. They represent a situation very much in flux and there will necessarily be overlaps and fluctuations. No doubt there are others who, like myself, consider themselves to be at one and the same time “Liberal” and “Orthodox”; Catholic and Protestant (given that my early theological formation was in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, matured by my life in the United Presbyterian Church (USA) and my nearly 50 years of ministry in The Episcopal Church): a firm believer through all my ecumenical travels in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (even though never quite sure how to spell it!) As I look at it now, this is not so much a “wondering” about the future, as it is my assessment of where we are, and are more deeply moving at the present time.
The above groupings are not intended to imply structures or formal alliances but, rather, states of mind in what I believe to be clearly a “post-denominational era”. (“Denominationalism” is just “Parochialism” writ large!) Meaningful ecumenical efforts and collaboration will not take place at the denominational level, but rather, in grass-roots efforts conceived for missional purposes at the local congregational level. It seems to me that the most appropriate role remaining for denominations in this time is to “get out of the way” of these efforts, as in the formal “Terms of Agreement” and “Call To Common Mission” mentioned above, as well as in lesser arrangements (which MUST be followed by more substantial and permanent arrangements), such as those approved this past year by PCUSA and TEC.
An Anglican Post-Script: When the Episcopal Bishops issued their “Quadrilateral” on church union in Chicago in 1886, they thought, with no little hint of apostolic superiority, that they were offering their “separated brethren” a gift. Over the years it has turned out that it was a gift nobody really wanted, as their “mainline” colleagues realized that they already had “the Apostolic Succession”, if, however, in different, although equally valid forms, than the Episcopalians’ vaunted “historic episcopate”.
As the twenty-first century dawns, the sun has virtually set on the British Empire, that red-globed entity that so captured the imagination of the world - especially the English-speaking world - during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Episcopal Church is no longer “Grand Old Party (what’s that?) on it’s knees” or “the First National Bank at Prayer” (Presbyterians and other “mainliners” take note; this is also about you.) The Archbishop of Canterbury is a British political appointee who’s “day job” is running the Church of England; an increasingly moribund institution. On a good day the Archbishop has about as much influence in England as the Pope has in Italy. (Orthodox Roman Catholics take note; this is also about you.) The powers that appointed Rowan Williams head of the Anglican Communion are politicians, principally interested in keeping it together, as the last vestige of the British Empire. While we revel in the myth that a divinely anointed monarch appoints the A of C (as opposed to a Prime Minister who may be, as is the present one, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic, as the last one now is, or, indeed, nothing at all), the Queen – a true Anglican and an outstanding example of a “constitutional monarch” – ages, and it is unlikely that either the monarchy, or the established “Church of England” will long succeed her reign.
It seems to me quite unlikely the present day Episcopal Church will trade its integrity for the sake of the “unity” of the Anglican Communion. After all, TEC
started the communion ….and WITHOUT the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his episcopal colleagues! I am an Anglican, by temperment, by theology and by apostolic succession! No one can take that from me; not even the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is simply who I am. I never needed him; nor he, me.
Of course, the Anglican Communion may read The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada out of full communion but that won’t make us any less Anglicans any more than the Southern Baptist convention breaking ties with the World Baptist Federation makes them any less Baptist. (Would anyone call them anything else?). Such a move would not please the powers that be behind the Church of England, however, as that would mean diminishing the total membership of the Anglican Communion and perhaps making it at best the fifth largest communion in the world (after Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Reformed and perhaps even Methodists and Baptists). That’s no way to perpetuate the long-gone Raj nor any imperial longings!
If the dissident “Anglicans” now seeking to be the American representation of the Anglican Communion can harness their anger and keep their egos in check long enough to focus on the mission of the church (absent money, great cathedrals and other expensive, historic institutions, and whatever prestige and image remain for “Episcopalians ), they may well be recognized by the A of C as the “true” Anglican Province in North America. However, Adolf Harnack’s description of the Holy Roman Empire as “a shadow of a wisp of smoke”, may apply as well to the British Empire and to the Anglican Communion; the last battleground of the British retreat from empire ( a battle being fought more intensely in Africa than in North America). So be it!
Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. So be it…..and, whatever our transitory loyalties, may they always be subordinate to Him and to His Church…a Church that no one other than Roman Catholics and perhaps a few Eastern Orthodox and off-beat sectarians would equate with any denomination! AMEN!
Douglas E. Theuner (Revised: October 2009)
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