|Open Letter to the Lambeth Bishops
To the Bishops gathering for the Lambeth Conference:
I write to you personally and openly. I hope that at least some of you will take my words to heart, not because they are mine (which, on their own, would not count for much), but because they represent the mind, I believe, of many in the Communion who are not as vocal in the councils and organs of communication within our church as some.
I write to urge you to prayerful action in the face of widespread concerns that the upcoming Lambeth Conference will prove not only wholly irrelevant to the needs of our common life, but perhaps also the last such conference that our Communion will engage. Yet, in large measure, God has placed these matters in your hands. Although I am not privy to the planning, the intentions, and the ordering of the Conference, there are clear signs that the Conference runs the risk of failing to face and respond faithfully to the needs of God’s people within our Communion and her churches.
Let me outline first what your Conference embodies, as I and many understand it; next, what dangers we are in that your gathering must somehow address; then, what I believe God is calling you to specifically; and finally how you might practically respond.
What is the gathering you are now attending?
1. The Lambeth Conference is the only, the widest, and the most venerable gathering of bishops within our Communion of churches. Within the catholic tradition of our common life, this means quite simply that it is the most representative gathering of our Communion, with all the promise and responsibility that this implies. People have long spoken of the Lambeth’s “moral authority”; there is none greater among the gatherings of Anglicans.
2. I am well aware that the Lambeth Conference itself has long proclaimed that it is not a “synod” in some technical sense, granted the canonical powers to legislate for its member churches. But, with these canonical constraints granted, it remains a fact that the Lambeth Conference is the one gathering of Anglican bishops; and if it is your mind, guided by the Holy Spirit, that is spoken and heard, what we have called a “moral authority” will be understood, and rightly so, by the people as an authoritative voice, equivalent to any synod or council within our tradition. As I have argued before, Lambeth “can be what it wants to be”, that is, if the will of the bishops is joined by a divine grace to speak as one. And you are called so to speak (1 Cor. 1:10).
3. I am also aware that there is a deliberate desire at this decade’s conference to avoid a focus upon parliamentary debate and resolutions, and instead focus upon common discussion, listening, and prayer. This is as it should be: for what council of bishops could ever speak faithfully unless its words emerged from a mind submitted to and brought together in the Spirit of Christ Jesus? And how shall this happen but through the gathering in prayer in the example of the first Apostles?
But if this prayerful reflection does not, in this time, give rise to a common resolution regarding the responsibilities of your own pastoral office and the ordering of our common life, such devoted intentions will have been wasted, perhaps culpably so.
The Moment We Face
1. Your responsibility is shaped, in part, by the times we are in. For we are facing the most perilous crisis in our life as a Communion and as members of it, that we have ever faced. To be sure, this is not the first major threat to our common Christian life as Anglicans. During the first half of the 17th century, the Great Migration saw thousands leave England, and effectively leave the Anglican church, for North America; the subsequent Civil War nearly destroyed for all time this tradition and her gifts, and despite emerging from this, the Anglican Church was long beset with exiles and schisms. These were first made international at the end of the 18th century, with the American Revolution and the Methodist divisions, and the 19th century also saw a long struggle, marked by anguish and departures, one however that was more than compensated by an unparalleled missionary outreach. For all that, nothing in the past compares with the sheer extent of the threat to Anglican existence that we now face, as the Communion looks into permanent and multiple fracture, and local churches do the same in the wake of already grievous divisions.
2. There are those who believe that Anglicanism’s structural dissolution could represent not only a “new thing”, but a “good thing” as God reorders His church during this epoch. And who is to say for certain?
But we should beware of attributing to God’s goodness the fruits of our own failures. For the signs are not good at all: in the West, the Christian witness has flagged, in some places diminishing terribly. Even in the United States, most indicators point to the beginning of a decline in Christian faith that is afflicting all churches in different ways. And in the global context, where growth has been noticeable among Christian churches, we should not fool ourselves: the fastest growing religions are not Christian at all, but often something very different (e.g,. Mormonism). The demise of the Anglican Communion will weaken all Anglican churches; some – among whom are the poorest – will lose the support of their brethren to the hurt of their people; others, in richer nations, will carry on perhaps in shrinking and increasingly irrelevant niches; while finally others will merge into the simple arena of religious competition within their societies, left to the fortunes of politics and the struggle over limited resources.
3. In any of these not only possible, but likely scenarios, Anglicanism will not only have squandered its historic bequest, but we will have failed in our vocation to stand with and serve the larger Church in our single witness to our Lord Jesus Christ. Only 100 years ago, in Edinburgh, we were willing to take the lead in such a common privilege. Now we struggle even to stand upright within the wind.
4. Within the United States in particular – and now I speak of my own church – the future of Anglicanism looks grim. On the one side stands the national office of the Episcopal Church, supported by many bishops and dioceses, that has flouted the traditional teachings of the Church, rejected the pleas and recommendations of the Communion, and engaged in formal and informal processes of bullying, denigrating, and smearing those who disagree. On the other side are traditionalist bishops, dioceses, and congregations, the most formally organized of which (e.g. the Common Cause groups) are moving in a direction of denominationalist marginalization. Whatever GAFCON’s hopes may contain for the broader world, the context and dynamics of American religion mean that any movement determined by autonomous structures will be swallowed up by sectarian identities. What are American Anglicans to do who remain committed to the Anglican Communion’s vocation of unity-in-council for the sake of the Gospel? If the Lambeth Conference cannot take it upon itself to act with clarity and evangelical coherence in the face of the threats to our common life, you abandon us.
What you are called to do
You must pray, you must reflect, you must listen. You must also act. Let me suggest four central actions you must come to a common mind about. In all these cases I use the term “must”, not because I am absolutely certain of these matters, but because I believe that God is indeed calling you to act, and this belief is buttressed by the discernment of countless others around the Communion.
1. You must state clearly that the actions of TEC as an official body, and of certain Canadian dioceses, are unacceptable to you as bishops of the Communion. And you must decide, resolutely, that those bishops from these churches who are in agreement to press forward in ways the Communion has now clearly and consistently repudiated no longer partake in your common councils. I am not eager to state this; but I know of no other reasonable course to take at this point. This is not a matter of punishment, or even “discipline” in any technical form: it is a matter of common Christian sense. TEC (to use this example) has demonstrated clearly, and with increasing hard-heartedness, that it does not wish to respect the common recommendations and pleas and even hopes of the Communion as a whole. Not only that, TEC’s enacted wish to go her own way has caused chaos in our midst.
I do not deny that a part of that chaos has involved reactive responses by other provinces and bishops in the Communion; and that, in a merely pragmatic way, some of these responses have sown an extensive amount of confusion that requires disciplined resolution (see below). But the root cause of all of this has been, without doubt, the uncompromising insistence by TEC’s leaders that they must go their own way. In March of 2007, I was present when a proposal was made to TEC’s House of Bishops that TEC take 5 or 10 years “break” from the Communion; it was a proposal that was greeted with much applause by the bishops. Now is the time to take this proposal up among yourselves, and formally accept it with deliberated application to your own common life.
You can still be friends; you may still choose to cooperate in this or that matter. But the disagreement between TEC and the Communion’s members as a whole has become too great and too destructive, and “walking together” (Amos 3:3) is not only no longer possible; it has long ceased in any substantive way.
2. You must call back into your midst those who have stayed away from this Conference, not simply as a sign of continued fellowship, but in order to meet face to face again to resolve and heal the breaches that are widening among you month by month. There is much speaking of the truth, repentance, and reconciliation that needs to be done among you and with them. But it is not right simply that declarations be made or statements offered or private counsel kept in the face of the present estrangements, irregular episcopal acts, and hostile words. There is scandal on every side: confront it and heal it among yourselves, armed with powers of Christ’s spirit.
3. You must come to a common and directive mind on how you will recognize and work with those Anglicans in North America especially – bishops, dioceses, congregations, and clergy – who have remained faithful and wish to remain faithful to the common agreements of our life in the past and those upon which you are ready to embark (and yes, this includes many who do not accept the ordination of women; they cannot be forgotten). You cannot, of course, resolve or expel the litigious spirit so deeply and scandalously embedded among Americans of all theological stripes. But you can state clearly what your communion in Christ constitutes and with whom, and you can agree on how you will do this in a single and common way. Do not be afraid to do so, thereby giving hope and a foundation for continued witness in our lands.
4. I pray that you will state clearly your commitment to the expeditious formulation and application of an Anglican Communion Covenant, one that will be faithful, concrete and adaptable to the mission entrusted to us. We have done good work thus far, but there is more to do, and beyond that the daunting vista of how we might put such a covenant in place so as to be both effective and capable of including all who are willing to commit to its common vision. Help show us the way, and do not simply stand on the sidelines and watch this project either float or sink of its own accord. Its purpose and character are yours first of all.
How can you accomplish this?
The grave concern that many of us have is that your conference will come and go without any of these matters being dealt with straightforwardly and positively. We know that there are many among you even who do not believe that your conference should be dealing with such matters, and would like the format of your meeting to exclude any decisions.
I cannot say what formal means are open to you. But I can say this: you are bishops of this church, you are gathering in the great name of Jesus Christ, and you are called to be faithful stewards of the mysteries entrusted to you (1 Cor. 4;1). In such a posture you have no choice but to be courageous and call for the work that needs to be done, and then do it, whether the conference seeks your counsel or not. You are Esthers before the king, come for such a time as this (Est. 4:13-14). And as Augustine notes, it is up to God to change the king’s heart, not you: yours is to witness faithfully. You must find a way to bring these matters before your colleagues; you must press them with vigor, charity, and focus; you must be untiring and hopeful that God will bless your testimony. If not you, who shall it be? The Church of Christ depends upon her Lord; but He has called you to be His servants in His mission.
My good bishops: we pray for you ceaselessly; we seek the blessing of the Lord Jesus upon you; we yearn in the Spirit, often in ways we cannot express, for the healing of our church and the life of our mission together. May God himself be your strength and your guide.
Your brother in Christ,
Wycliffe College, Toronto
Covenant Design Group