Friday, March 7, 2008

What is an Anglican, and who decides the question?

What does it mean to be "an Anglican"? This is the question that is dividing the Anglican Communion today. Different groups, and different persons, will give different answers. If a Bishop receives an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference, does that mean that the Bishop can consider that he/she is an Anglican? I submit (pace ++Rowan Williams) that an invitation to Lambeth is not the test. However, the fact that you do not get invited to Lambeth is a pretty good indicator that you are not regarded as "Anglican" by the majority of bishops calling themselves Anglican. (I will deal with the cases of V. Gene Robinson and the bishops of CANA and AMiA separately.)

The first requirement of being "an Anglican" is to acknowledge that there is a body in Christ that is greater than the church of which you are a member. Whether your church calls itself "The Episcopal Church" or "The Church of England" or by some other name, to be an Anglican is to acknowledge that your church is part of a larger ecclesiastical body.

Every Anglican starts out being the member of a church within the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion itself has no definition apart from its constituent churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury is nothing more than the primate "of all England", who by historical precedent is also recognized as the titular head of the Anglican Communion, but his authority in that capacity is pretty much limited to convening meetings of the other Anglican primates, and issuing invitations to the decennial conference at Lambeth Palace.

The predecessor to The Episcopal Church (TEC) began as a branch of the Church of England in the seventeenth century (the first parish, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, was formed in Jamestown in 1607). Subsequent parishes also were formed under the Bishop of London, and no independent bishoprics were established while America remained under British rule. After the American Revolution, the relationship with London could not continue, but there were no bishops in the colonies until Samuel Seabury, elected from Connecticut, arranged to be consecrated by bishops of the Episcopal Church in Scotland (now the Scottish Episcopal Church). Even after the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America (PECUSA) was organized by a convention held in 1789, however, the succession from the Church of England was very tenuous, and the Church barely survived until it obtained a stronger leadership in the early nineteenth century. Today, the Preamble to the Constitution of The Episcopal Church (TEC---the successor name to PECUSA) describes it as "a constituent member of the Anglican Communion", but this relationship had not become formally established until the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral Agreement of 1886-1888. Recently, however, TEC has departed from the teachings and doctrine that were previously adopted by a majority vote of Anglican bishops at Lambeth. TEC has departed from these teachings and doctrine by the unilateral action of its own General Convention in ratifying the election of V. Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire, which action was contrary to the spirit (if not the letter) of Resolution 1.10 adopted by the Anglican Communion at its 1998 Lambeth Conference.

TEC has sought to justify its actions on civil rights grounds. The Anglican Communion, however, is not based on civil rights, because inasmuch as we all are sinners, God owes us nothing. There are, and can be, no "civil rights" before God. Each of us sinners must stand before the judgment seat without previous claim of rights, civil or otherwise.

Is this view of the matter dogmatic? No, just principled---curmudgeonly, yes, but in a principled way. To those who would comment here: the Richard Hookers among you are welcome; the John Shelby Spongs are not. If you have a spiritual point of view that is backed by logic or history, by all means, have at it; but if your argument consists solely of emotional hand-waving and jumping up and down, or of ad hominem assertions and invective, it will not last long here. I will exercise my rights as moderator to edit or even delete such comments into oblivion, and without any notice or apology. (That is what it means, after all, to be a curmudgeon. Live with it.)

The warning having been issued, I will welcome honest debate about points that are still open to debate. Such points necessarily involve those aspects of TEC which its leadership is wont to refer to as its "polity"---meaning its autonomous structure within an interdependent Anglican Communion. (I often get the impression, however, that TEC's leadership today considers that autonomy trumps interdependency.)

So let's begin with this proposition: the General Convention of TEC is a body of limited authority, deriving its powers from the members who elect its delegates (both bishops and deputies). One of the limits on its authority is that it has no power to make TEC a branch of the Roman Catholic Church, for example. If we can agree that TEC's elected representatives have no such power when assembled in General Convention, then what can we say about General Convention's power to take TEC out of the Anglican Communion? It follows, does it not, that TEC's members would first have to receive notice of that topic's being on the agenda, and to have authorized their elected delegates to vote on it, before electing any such delegates? Even then, the topic may be non-delegable, since it goes to the heart of our Anglican identity. In other words, the mandate of General Convention should not extend to a decision to take TEC out of the Anglican Communion, because it is a decision that must properly be made only by the members of TEC themselves. Since it touches on a group's very identity, decisions about what that identity is to be are in essence non-delegable. Moreover, there is no grant of such authority in TEC's Constitution; to the contrary, its very first phrase describes TEC's identity as a member of the Anglican Communion, and of no other.

(Note that I am not arguing that TEC could not have a written Constitution that did give such authority to its representatives assembled in General Convention---but such a Constitution could come into being only after a full and open discussion among TEC's members about authorizing the deputies to GC to vote on such a subject. The current TEC Constitution is silent on the topic of changing TEC's identity, so that silence may best be interpreted as requiring a vote on such an authorization before it could be put into effect. Otherwise there would be no limit whatsoever on the authority of GC to legislate, and that is not consistent with a representative polity.)

If we can agree thus far, what follows? Ah, that will be for the next post.


  1. Peter Toon says that if you're not in communion with Canterbury, you're not an Anglican. Obviously mainly of the continuing Anglicans (anglicans?) disagree.

  2. I would say that being in communion with Canterbury has historically been a necessary, but not a sufficient, criterion of being an "Anglican." Example? The Episcopal Church itself is providing an excellent current example: it is in communion with Canterbury, but many in the Anglican Communion rightly question whether it is Anglican, since it refuses to abide by the Lambeth resolutions it disagrees with, and apparently reserves the right to pick and choose the ones it will follow.