When the Vagrants become Vigilantes:

The Anglican Mission in America and Lawlessness.

by Mark Harris


On the matter of the Anglican Mission in America's ordination of four persons in Denver, Dr. Louie Crew has written of his experiences of the heart concerning the full bounty of God's grace in the moment. With wonderful and poetic graciousness he notes this extraordinary event to be within the circle of God's love and care. I commend his reflection to us all.

In an article, The Fourth Way, I noted,

The internal and external critics bent on saving the Episcopal Church are to be listened to with an open mind and heart. They are, after all, carriers of the Good News as God has given them light. Perhaps great good might come of those efforts.

Those critics within our Church who finally cannot work within the framework of our Church are of course free to leave and those outside our Church who wish to raise up other visions of faithful community within the geographical boundaries of our Church are free to do so. But such goings and comings are not to be construed as acquiescence to diagnoses that we are ill or to remedies involving corporate takeover.

Dr. Crew considers AMiA folk to have left the Episcopal Church. In that he is correct, both concerning the facts and the effect. But AMiA has a mission which concerns providing a remedy for the illness that it sees pervading the Episcopal Church. It concerns taking enough members of this Church with it to constitute an alternative and ultimately substitutionary body as the legitimate Anglican presence in America.

The tragedy is that there is indeed a pervasive illness in the Episcopal Church and in all churches of Christendom, but it does not concern matters of right belief as AMiA would suggest, but rather matters of pride, self-righteousness, power and prejudice that is it concerns a pervasive and unrelenting sense of racial and other superiorities.

It is therefore of some importance to look through the critical lens of those who yearn for love and justice and find only hard words of judgment in the actions of AMiA, or for that matter ECUSA and any other religious institution that submits to the pervasive sinfulness of self-righteousness.

This is meant in no way to lessen Louie Crew's call, Let those of us in ECUSA be very careful to keep wide open the door for reunion, and until reunion happens, let us hold AMiA in our prayers. It is to suggest that we are called to be both as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents.

AMiA as Mission gone Missing.

Half a century ago Howard Thurman stated, in his powerful essay, Jesus and the Disinherited, It is the sin of pride and arrogance that has tended to vitiate the missionary impulse and to make of it (the Church) an instrument of self-righteousness on the one hand and racial superiority on the other. (p. 12-13, Beacon Press edition.) Self-righteousness and racial superiority go hand in hand, indeed self-righteousness and a wide variety of superior sensibilities stand together and form what Thurman calls the wall, the wall against which the mass of humanity is backed, crushed and beaten. And the stinging critique that Howard Thurman raises is made the sharper when he states, the dramatic demonstration of the impotency of Christianity in dealing with the issue (of racism) is underscored by its apparent inability to cope with it within its own fellowship. (see Preface) We are so complicit in racism that we do not even recognize its subtler forms in the purity demands we make on peoples of all sorts who are crushed against the intolerable walls we place there to guarantee our power and superiority.

It is therefore of some value, in looking critically at the ordination to ministry of four men in Denver to the office, it is claimed, of bishop in the Anglican succession, to point out the obvious: No matter that these men may be personally just and loving persons, mission in these positions is not about justice but about purity. Purity requires walls; indeed it invites walls. So it is not surprising that mission in the Anglican Mission in America is about as far as it is possible to get from the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ to the great mass of peoples whose backs are against the wall.

To be honest, the missionary work of the several Anglican churches, including and perhaps especially ECUSA, is quite often shot through and through with the same wall building. Yet the beginning proposition of most mission efforts in the church is about breaking down, not building up walls of separation. We can be challenged, after all, to look at our sense of racial and other superiorities and can be turned from our prideful ways. And that is because our beginnings rest not in our sense of purity, but in Our Lord's giving of self for the whole world, and we know it.

When the church is formed as a self-giving agent of God's love it is constantly tested against the need for justice and love heard in the cry of those who are dispossessed and disinherited. In the Church's several localized incarnations its leadership is continuously confronted with those who whose backs are against the wall. And certainly in any missionary effort involving sending persons into new and uncharted places of mission, the plumb line against which the church is to be measured is that of justice, not purity.

If we are about building the church, the measure of our efforts is not in the purity of our faith, or in the righteousness of our actions, or in the superiority of our way of living or our selves. It is measured, as Bishop Rustin Kimsey says, in our listening to the suffering of the world.

It is clear that AMiA's people have felt, as Louie Crew suggests, embattled within ECUSA. For them to leave, if that is what they have done, is understandable. To some extent all embattled people stand together with their backs to the wall, and all can justly claim the sting of intolerance. ECUSA will indeed be judged by its intolerance just as will all agencies, persons, principalities and powers of this world.

Yet we ought to clearly understand that AMiA is also claiming that its purpose concerns replacing the Episcopal Church which it believes is corrupt beyond redemption with another ecclesial entity that is pure and orthodox in its faith expression. It is embattled because it has declared war against what it perceives are the forces of darkness and death. In this it is not a victim but a force to be reckoned with. Its efforts are sometimes likened to an ecclesiastical coup-d'etat. Perhaps that is going too far, but at the very least it takes the law into its own hands, attempting to overturn the more or less democratic processes of decision making in the Episcopal Church with the vigilante efforts of the truly righteous.

Singapore revisited:

Most Anglicans looked on the ordination in Singapore of two men, each righteous by all accounts and individually genuinely likable, as irregular at best, schismatic at worse. That event in Singapore constituted yet a new way of producing vagrant bishops, bishops with no known ecclesiastical domicile. Yes, they had hands laid upon them by persons in Apostolic succession, but that address only provides a linear succession number, not a city, nation or people address.

Their mandate derives only from their ordaining bishops. They are charged so generally to the address the impurity of the American Episcopal church as to have no location, but a general hunting license, and concerns for no constituency except the embattled who are sought out to join them.

Their status as vagrants is a product of deficiency of call: they were neither called out of a community set on God's justice and love, nor were they sent out by a Church to be agents of that justice and love in the world. They are not landed in the Kingdom of God; they are landed in the kingdoms of this world, where purity is more important than either love or justice.

At the time of the ordination of the Singapore two, I wrote,

This business of these two new bishops is going to get out of hand, and we will increasingly regret the day it happened. It is clear that many, both conservative and liberal already do. The Episcopal Church needs to be clear and forceful in its rejection of the notion that it is unable to manage its own affairs. (See Mucking about in the Fields of the Lord)

Happily, the Presiding Bishop spoke forcefully then and is doing so again now regarding the Denver four. The Archbishop of Canterbury (who comes close to declaring that these are not bishops at all) joins him in this.

The ordinations in Singapore produced a new order of wondering bishops whose primary occupation appears to be to attract congregations to their righteous and purist sensibilities. These men are vagrants, mucking about in pastures not their own, trying to collect in communities of people who feel the Episcopal Church has lost its way. The mission here is not to the unchurched, but to those perceived as being poorly churched. The target is precisely members of the Episcopal Church.

The matter is indeed getting out of hand, and the setting apart of four more men for this strange, vagrant and misguided mission is yet another sign of things gone amuck.

The first two members of this new line of vagrant bishops were set apart by foreign authority to be the defenders of righteousness in the lawless town of the Episcopal Church. It seemed like the old West again, the new sheriffs come to town, sent to bring law and order to the place.

In a way we deserved it: we in the West exported our righteousness and racial superiority wherever we went as if it were the wind of good news. We constituted ourselves as guardians of the truth. Now we are reaping the whirlwind and the purists are on our case. It is not a pretty sight. The members of the household are set at odds with one another and no one is safe from righteous indignation. We must indeed pray that the doors stay open to unity rather than family violence.

The Denver Four for Vigilance:

If the ordering of the first two men in Singapore was like the empowering of sheriffs, the ordering of the Denver four is like the empowering of vigilantes. Where the first were set apart elsewhere to be missionaries of pure religion in what is perceived as the lawless Episcopal Church, these next four were set apart in the territory of the Episcopal Church itself to do this work. The crossing of boundaries was no accident. By doing so and acting in another's jurisdiction AMiA was clearly signaling that it considers the Episcopal Church no longer a jurisdiction of the Anglican Communion worth honoring.

Again, as with the Singapore two, it is unwarranted speculation to suggest that the four set apart in Denver are any other than honorable men, convinced in faithful ways that they are doing what is right and necessary. Indeed we ought have admiration for their willingness to do this strange thing precisely because without the courage of right intention they could not act at all. So we must begin by acceding to their high sense of purpose.

But these observations are not about their sense of purpose. This is no more in question here than is the sense of purpose of perfectly well intentioned missionaries who nonetheless were often the carriers of self-righteousness and racial superiority. What is in question is the result of their engagement in that missionary activity.

The locally deputized can work in quite useful ways. But too often they become more vigilant than legal. That is, they become vigilantes in the classical sense, often encouraging the crowd rather than serving the common good.

It is for this reason that we must be clear about the matter of these four set apart in Denver. This is part of a serious effort to expand the allegiance to the purity code embraced by these men and the people of AMiA. In some places this will take the form of convincing congregations to come over to the purists camp. In other places it will take the form of reasonable discourse on the rightness of their position. (And they can no doubt be reasonable men.) But in yet others there will be intimidation of those who would suggest that AMiA is simply and profoundly wrong.

So we must early on be clear: AMiA is mistaken in its mission. The Episcopal Church is not, or ought not be, about purity, but about doing love and justice both.

Whatever the purpose for bringing in the sheriffs, these four are the beginning of a vigilante committee. If the AMiA is to grow it must build on discord within the Episcopal Church, and the best way to do that is to make purity, not justice, the issue on which dissention is encouraged and choice made.

These newly ordered persons are deputized as vigilantes. They will run through the streets seeking out creeping heterodoxy, biblical study that does not conform to a particular biblical standard, or moral stances deemed biblically incorrect. They will be cajoling the confused or battered to a purer view of the faith. They will be as 1st Peter suggests, prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. (1 Pet 5:8)

On the Internet Bruce Garner noted the disjunction between the out of the blue ordaining of the four in Denver and the quite normal (but new for them) election of a bishop for the American Convocation of Churches in Europe, both occurring the same day.

Both were new things, but the uniqueness of the Denver ordering lay in the self-referential call. The ordering in Paris assumed that call comes from God by way of a people in place. The first produced vagrants seeking members from within another church, the second a bishop elect for a people in ministry. The first produced four strange ecclesiastical personages, the second produces a bishop.

AMiA is no answer to the question, whither the church?

Howard Thurman asked in the Preface to Jesus and the Disinherited, Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin? One can and ought expand this question to include other classes of persons subject to discrimination and injustice.

The church's impotence derives from its self-righteousness and its sub-message, too often presented, of racial and other superiorities. Overcoming that disability requires a faith that is based in doing justice and living in mutuality. Such faith is hard to come by, and were AMiA to be in service to that end it would be a joy.

I see nothing of the purism of AMiA that serves such an end. Indeed, were AMiA to succeed I would see the day soon when it would be increasingly difficult, even in the Episcopal Church, to speak out against so called Anglican orthodoxy. The fear of loosing even more people to AMiA would make it hard to hear the call of those who daily are against the wall of injustice. It would be hard not to find oneself having to choose between the appearance of purity and identification with the disinherited, who feel cut off from a religion that calls them to righteousness in faith but not to justice in the world.

Vincent Harding, writing an introductory essay to Jesus and the Disinherited notes that Thurman's message is now replete with significance for many other people as well. Latinos, Native Americans, Southeast Asians, and many women and gay and lesbian people are only the most obvious additions to Thurman's community of the wall. He asks, shall we gather at the wall, joining them to tear it down, or will we stand aside pure and undefiled. This is where we are, and the choice is always before us.

For Anglicans the times are confused and the Denver four simply make for more confusion. Still, I believe there is great hope. In an essay some months ago, titled There is Great Disorder Under Heaven, I wrote:

The word of hope might well begin with the observation that There is great disorder under heaven. That disorder is the early signs of the fall of Babylon, and from the position of the discounted, rejected and un-represented what could be more hopeful? The reader should beware in the actuality of life together every church, every gathered people, becomes Babylon directly in proportion to its pride in being itself the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ because we eat the bread of tomorrow, the bread of the reign of God, not because we are as community ourselves the promised bread.

We all must know we are none of us the promised bread, the bread that those up against the wall so desperately need. For those who are hungry, Gandhi said, God must come as bread; for the disheartened and the disinherited that bread must be justice. And in neither case do churches whose quarrels drown out the cries of the powerless serve God.

The Anglican Mission in America is neither Anglican nor Missionary, and its target is not America, but the Episcopal Church. It travels with false papers. It will be called to account.

Then again, we are all to be called to account. It will not be a pretty sight. At the last only God's mercy and grace will prevent our condemnation for not having heard the suffering of the great mass of people whose backs are against the wall. But we better not bet on righteousness. The only purity that counts is purity of heart.


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