Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A House Divided Against Itself

Having taken a little time off last week, I hoped that I would gain some perspective on our larger picture. What is going to happen to the Anglican Communion? What will become of the Episcopal Church (USA)? On the eve of General Convention 2009, are there any positive developments, anything about which one can feel optimistic?

Every Saturday, the Lead at Episcopal Cafe publishes what they call the "Saturday Collection", in which they try their best to show what is happening in the Episcopal Church (USA) in a positive light. I am here to tell you, alas, that all such attempts amount to shoveling sand before the tide. There is so much that is negative which goes on in the Church, week in and week out, that the few things one can point to which are actually positive fail even to weigh in the balance.

The Episcopal Church (USA) is a house currently divided against itself: it is sinking into the mire of a double standard. There is one measure, or canon (in the original Greek sense of the word), applied to those who are considered "OK", or "with the program", or "one of us", while there is an entirely different standard applied to Episcopalians who fail to "go with the grain", or to "fall in line", or to "live into the faith". The tragedy of the Episcopal Church (USA) is, in the first instance, that each side has no trouble telling who is on their side, and who is on the other. But the even greater tragedy is that the side that currently leads the Church---the side which sets its current agenda---has no problem whatsoever in judging its own by a measure (canon) which is entirely different from the one it uses to judge those it recognizes as being on the other side.

Let me start with someone whom I deeply admire for his calm integrity in the current Church troubles---Father Tobias Haller, whose well-named blog In a Godward Direction is linked in the sidebar under the "AngliCannon to the Left". We share a love of liturgy and church music (which both of us from time to time compose), and apparently also a reverence for the Book of Common Prayer. As Father Tobias emphasizes, the fact that it is a Book of Common Prayer serves at the same time to explain why those who profess it are not free to tinker with it at will.

(By the way, my groupings of the blogs to which I link are not intended to be critical, satirical, derisive, or judgmental in any sense. To the contrary --- the titles indicate my intent not to take anyone too seriously, by analogizing to Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade". As each of us rides further into that Valley from which none shall emerge alive (in the human sense), I take some bemusement in imagining that we are daily faced with cannon shot landing around us from all directions --- some of which we are free to ignore at any given moment, but all of which together we disdain at our peril, and eventually must take into account. "Cannon to the right of them,/ Cannon to the left of them,/ Cannon in front of them/ Volley'd and thunder'd;/ Storm'd at with shot and shell,/ Boldly they rode and well,/ Into the jaws of Death,/ Into the mouth of Hell/ Rode the six hundred." Tennyson, in just these nine lines, has captured the essence of dealing with the plethora of information in our time. Whether one seeks enlightenment from Internet sources, or from the printed, aural, or visual media, as one rides on, in the only direction that time gives us ---further into that cannon-ringed valley --- one has to note the direction from which the shots are being fired, if only to make the appropriate maneuvers in order to be able to remain on one's horse for a little while longer.)

Now where was I? Oh, yes, introducing the double standards at work in ECUSA these days, and leaning on my colleague Father Tobias Haller. We both, I like to think, take the Book of Common Prayer very seriously precisely because it defines what keeps us in common with each other as Episcopalians. If one is free to alter its prayers, rites, or rubrics at will, then it is no longer something we hold in common. It becomes, in Shakespeare's phrase, something that is "more honor'd in the breach than the observance" --- which is to say, something not honored at all, since to have reason to depart from it is to say that there is no longer any reason for it to hold us all together.

Although the 120-day canvass period is not yet over, and nothing is for certain, it appears that one person who will pay a price for his arbitrary alteration of rites in the Book of Common Prayer is bishop-elect Kevin Thew Forrester of the Diocese of Northern Michigan---by his failure to gather the requisite consents from the bishops and standing committees of the other ECUSA dioceses, who are charged with the responsibility of "guarding the faith". It is a serious enough consequence for the Reverend Mr. Forrester not to gain those consents, and I do not mean to belittle it in the slightest, but at the same time I feel constrained to point out that nothing the Reverend Mr. Forrester has done will lead to the suspension or inhibition of his ministry within the Church. Nor, be it understood, am I calling for any such discipline --- the time is long past when any good could come of that. In pointing out what follows, I am showing only the blatant double standard that the Church applies to its clergy, depending on which side of the spectrum they are perceived, by those in power, to fall. That double standard currently defines the Church, and is a necessary part of the process by which it is breaking up, as I shall show presently.

At the same time that the Church appears to be barring Kevin Thew Forrester from being one of its bishops, it sanctions (allows) others of its bishops to violate the canons with impunity. Forget about same-sex blessings for a minute, and let us just focus on the practice of inviting anyone who comes through the door of an Episcopal Church, whether baptized or not, to partake of Holy Communion --- the so-called practice of "open communion".

The very name is an oxymoron, of course. To take "communion" is to share what one has in common with one's fellow communicants --- namely, having been baptized into the Christian faith. What we have in common with all other humans is not what defines us as Christians, and to make simple humanity the common factor, or even the act of coming into a church, is to degrade the significance of baptism as both a sacrament and as the initiation into the Christian faith. Why bother with baptism if one may receive communion regardless of one's status as a believer? There is no implied threat of any kind to withhold communion if one does not choose to be baptized as a Christian. The invitation, instead, is to return as many times as one feels like to receive communion, without fear of being "excluded". To be inclusive to that degree is to define away the meaning of one's faith, and to reduce it to a Sunday gathering of whoever bothers to show up.

To accept the oxymoron arguendo, however, it remains the fact that "open communion" is, in our current Church, a blatant violation of our national canons. (Canon I.17.7 provides: "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.") Some may point to the 1979 revisions to the Book of Common Prayer which (among other things) eliminated the old BCP rubric that "And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready", and claim that its elimination meant that Communion was now open to the unbaptized. But that would be an erroneous conclusion, as Father Haller demonstrates once more to our gratitude, in this post. The intent was to eliminate any implication that confirmation was required as a prerequisite for taking communion; that is why the Canon was left unchanged.

While he was the Bishop of Northern California, the Rt. Rev. Jerry A. Lamb was notorious for inviting all present, baptized or not, to any Eucharist at which he presided. When he was called on it at a diocesan convention, he buried the matter by appointing a task force to conduct a survey, and to make a report at a subsequent convention. And by the time that later convention came around, he had announced his retirement, so the matter was finessed. (The report of the task force appears to be no longer on the diocesan website, but its findings are described in a paragraph at the bottom of page 13 of this document.)

Now, however, Bishop Lamb is once again in charge of Eucharists, every time he visits a parish that chose to remain with ECUSA in the area of the former Diocese of San Joaquin, and he continues to invite all to take communion. There are no voices raised against his practice of celebrating open communion --- either among his parishioners, or in the House of Bishops of which he is a member.

Let us remember, however, that the same House voted to depose its oldest member, Bishop William J. Cox, for the simple offense of responding to the request of the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda to ordain two priests and a deacon into that Church. He did not, in so doing, offend against the express language of Canon IV.9, which makes it an act of "abandonment of communion" to "exercis[e] episcopal acts in and for a religious body other than this Church or another Church in communion with this Church, so as to extend to such body Holy Orders as this Church holds them . . .". No, he did not violate that language, because he performed the act of ordination for "another Church in communion with this Church" (ECUSA has yet to declare itself "out of communion" with any other Church in the Anglican Communion).

Instead, his offense was to perform the ceremony on the premises of a Ugandan-affiliated Anglican Church which had earlier paid the money demanded to be allowed to withdraw from the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. Even though there is no national canon covering the point, it seems that a parish which is allowed to withdraw from an Episcopal Diocese is still considered to be "within" that Diocese for purposes of having to request the consent of its diocesan bishop for any episcopal acts or visit to take place on the premises of that parish. And so Bishop Cox had to be "deposed", even though the Presiding Bishop had to violate the canons five separate times to do so.

But Bishop Lamb is allowed to violate Canon I.17.7 with impunity, nearly every Sunday. And not just him---only last week we were in a parish in the Diocese of Oregon which proudly announced in its Sunday service handbook that all are welcome to partake of Holy Communion. It explained: "Worship at [this] Church is open to all people, and you are welcome and invited to join with us for the Eucharist, which we believe is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. . . . We pride ourselves on being a welcoming community, and this spirit is reflected in who we are in our worship of the risen Jesus." I daresay that Canon I.17.7 itself is probably "more honor'd in the breach than the observance" throughout the Episcopal Church, Sunday after Sunday, without fear of any disciplinary consequences whatsoever.

This double standard is the outward sign of a church that is sundering. All are welcome, except for those who do not agree with the program. Never mind that they were members of the Church long before the current "program" was adopted by those now in charge. By bending and ignoring the language of the canons yet even more, they can be ejected, and those who are "with it" will no longer have to put up with them.

With the formation of the new North American province later this month, there will be an alternative to ECUSA and to the Anglican Church of Canada on this continent. It may not immediately be accepted as a province of the Anglican Communion as a whole, but it will be accepted into communion with all those provinces which represent the vast majority of the world's Anglicans. Those currently riding at the helm of ECUSA and ACoC may tisk, mutter, and shake their heads, and Dr. Williams may mumble something unintelligible into his distinguished beard, but the reality will be that those whom ECUSA currently does not welcome will have joined forces, and those forces will far outnumber those of ECUSA and ACoC combined.

"A house divided against itself shall not stand . . .". Those words from Matthew, echoed by Abraham Lincoln in 1858, are finding their relevance again in what is happening today. Since Lincoln used those words to make a forecast in which he could not err, let me quote the rest of the passage here, and then update his forecast:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Similarly, ECUSA (and ACoC) will become "all one thing or all the other." While I reject any parallels between the condition of slavery (imposed by force) and the choice to engage in same-sex relations (imposed upon no one), I know that those who see themselves as victims will nonetheless attempt to draw them. My point instead is that by driving out all those who disagree with invoking God's holy orders and sacraments in recognition, blessing, and even encouragement of such behavior, ECUSA and ACoC will inevitably define themselves over time by what they choose to celebrate. And that will make them separate from the Anglicans who do not celebrate the same things.

Whether this is good news or bad news depends on one's point of view. Thus, let the"Saturday Collections" by all means continue; I intend not the slightest disparagement of looking for things all can agree are good about a church. The process of separation is painful to some, and only disagreeable to others, but it must go forward.


  1. Dear Mr. Haley,

    Your article is very insightful. I want to note a couple of implications to the double standard within TEC that you described.

    The analogy to Matthew's and Lincoln's reference to the "divided house" is not quite apposite, because within TEC the "progressives" running TEC do not agree among themselves about what is acceptable. Stand Firm reposted an article by the Anglican Centrist that discusses the evident failure of Rev. Forrester to gather sufficient consents to ratify his "election" as a bishop. The Anglican Centrist ascribes Forrester's defeat to the difference among "institutional" progressives and "prophetic" progressives within TEC's leadership. According to Anglican Centrist, while the prophets are OK with Rev. Forrester rewriting the Creeds and the offices in the Prayer Book, the institutionalists are not.

    The Anglican Centrist's article correctly points out that the prophets and the institutionalists are not united, but he does not, in my view, go far enough. In my opinion, the progressives collectively have altogether demolished the concept that there can be a common understanding of the Christian Faith; I think that TEC has entered a period like that during the Judges, when every man did what seemed right in his own eyes.

    In my view, the Book of Common Prayer expresses the result of Anglican understanding of Christianity; the Prayer Book did not create that understanding. The institutional progressives within TEC have reversed that causation.

    Moreover, if I am right, the institutionalist progressives' focus on the Prayer Book are focused on the wrong thing; TEC will never have agreement concerning the Prayer Book as long as there is no broad agreed theology.

    Lincoln expected the Union to become either all slave or all free. I don't think that TEC faces the same "either/or" choice, because there is no coherent agreed understanding of the Faith among the progressives. Your article correctly criticizes TEC's double standard applied to Rev. Forrester, Bp. Lamb, and Bp. Cox. I respectfully suggest that standards within TEC are not possible at all at this time, given TEC's theological and philosophical incoherance and chaos.

    I think that when an organization loses a shared understanding of its purpose and beliefs, the leadership often reacts by emphasizing procedures. That focus conflates the way in which a decision is made with the substantive merits of that decision, as well as whether the decision actually furthers the group's goals. This focus keeps everybody from discussing whether the group has any coherant agreed beliefs and goals. Interestingly, the Presiding Bishop and her advisors have chosen this situation to demolish TEC's procedures in their determination to attain the results they want today.


  2. The practice of Open Communion still goes on at Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento.


  3. Hi Curmudgeon,
    Your commentary is excellent and timely.

    Interesting to note that at least one of the nominees for bishop in Georgia is known for openly promoting Communion of the unbaptized.

    The diocese of Northern California task force report can still be found online:

  4. Publius, thank you for that very thoughtful gloss on my post. I especially agree with your observation that "TEC has entered a period like that during the Judges, when every man did what seemed right in his own eyes."

    That means, of course, that ECUSA (my way of reminding us what gave us TEC) is even more divided against itself than ever. I wonder whether the institutionalists and the prophets will in time separate, as well---particularly when the budget goes critical.

    As you suggest, the emphasis on (inconsistently executed) procedure will take the leadership only so far. The truth which our Lord expressed remains: a house divided against itself cannot stand. And for the near future, that means the separation process we are seeing now will accelerate at GC 2009.

  5. DPK, thank you for confirming what I suspected.

    Karen, thanks very much for resurrecting those links. Here they are, in clickable form:

    1. Article from T19 archives

    2. Task force report

    3. Cover page with links to individual papers by members of the task force

  6. The links that Karen so helpfully provided lead one to this particularly fine paper by Father Christopher Seal of the Diocese of Northern California, which sets out in wonderfully thorough detail the theological arguments against open communion. I had forgotten, for example, about this statement in the Didache:

    ""But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist but those who have been Baptized in the Name of the

    Father Seal's paper concludes with an apt warning:

    "We who feed on Him in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving, are not waiting until the life to come to receive it; we already have it. The eternal life we own is not ours by right, it is Christ's, which He graciously shares with us, outwardly in the Sacraments, and inwardly in the Holy Spirit. We who are the heirs of the Holy Apostles and tamper with the terms of our inheritance do not imperil only ourselves. We are answerable to the Lord for our stewardship of His flock."

  7. I continue to be rewarded by following Karen's links. Here is another very fine paper by the Rev. Richard B. Yale, also of the Diocese of Northern California.

    I recommend everyone to go to the third link first, and use the links on that page to read the Report itself and the individual papers from the members of the task force. These documents deserve better exposure on the Web.

  8. Thank you for the kind words, friend Haley. I hope to post a short note on the open communion matter (which I also find more than a little troublesome.) I find it particularly dissonant that some of those who stress the importance and centrality of the Baptismal Covenant are also among those who favor or practice communion prior to baptism.

    My assessment is that they have confused the pre-Constantinian church with the post-Constantinian church. We have made the Eucharist the norm for public worship, and made baptism difficult and less accessible -- to say nothing of neglecting public Morning Prayer (a liturgy at which all are truly welcome) in many of the larger urban churches. It is a perfect storm, in one sense...

  9. Amen, Father Haller---particularly with regard to celebrating Morning Prayer. (We have just started a Sunday evening Compline service in our church.)

    I look forward to your post.

  10. I think that it was Marcus Borg who said that if we were to follow the example of Jesus' table fellowship we might have "open communion," but that we might change our practice of indiscriminate baptism. How we hold hospitality and the call to discipleship together is a challenge and not easily met with a rule book. I became aware of how our holding to the norm of communion for the baptized alone when I was required to sit through a Roman Catholic mass each month aware that I was not welcome at the Table. One other Episcopalian and I politely declined to share the Peace with our students because we saw it, esp. in the Roman rite, as a sign of reconciliation among those who would be receiving communion. I am uncomfortable with the practice of open communion, but I would rather err on the side of hospitality.