Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bare Ruined Choirs

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I sat down to write what became the first post on this Weblog, I never conceived how far and how fast the Anglican Communion could fall in the ensuing thirty-two months. Its very structures are unraveling before our eyes, and there are calls for it to go into a state of suspended animation for twenty years or so, with still others saying it should be put out of its misery here and now.

There is only one slight problem with recommendations such as these: since the current members of the Communion cannot agree even on as much as a Standing Committee, how could they ever come to agreement on such a weighty matter as suspension, or total dissolution?

Let us frame the inquiry from a slightly different perspective: cui bono? Exactly which groups, and which individuals, would benefit from the continued existence of the Anglican Communion?

We might as well start at the top: surely the Archbishop of Canterbury would so benefit. There is really no other explanation for the extraordinary degree to which he has alienated so many by trying to keep everyone at the table. And he is, after all, the titular head of the body. So he is, if you will pardon the metaphor, the captain who cannot leave the ship, but who must go down with her. That gives him a strongly vested interest in seeing her stay afloat.

And who comes next, in terms of obvious benefit? After last week's vote in General Synod to recommend adoption of the Anglican Covenant, I would submit that the collected bishops of the Church of England are next, with the clergy and laity not far behind. (There was not a single dissenting vote among the bishops, and only a couple of dozen dissenters among the latter two orders.) How do the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church of England benefit from the Anglican Communion? The answer is obvious: they are the ur-Anglicans! The Communion is but a reflection upon the wide world of the heritage which they embody. If the Communion were to pass out of existence, it would be like a man losing his shadow: what does it say about someone who cannot even cast a shadow?

Close behind the Church of England -- and some might argue for their precedence; I would not take issue -- are certainly the very structures of the Communion itself: the Anglican Communion Office, and the much vaunted, yet stillborn, Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. I traced the history of their coming into existence in this previous post. It is manifest that if the Communion ceases to exist, they will have no further functions to perform.

From this point on, I am afraid the analysis of benefit goes rapidly downhill, and even could become rather cynical. For example, some might perceive that other bishops in the member churches of the Anglican Communion would certainly benefit from its continuance; they would be the ones who came to Lambeth in July 2008, and who thus were invited to take tea with Her Royal Majesty. Others might say that it is the pomp and splendor of Anglican liturgy and ritual which will hold the Communion together. And it used to be the case that the existence of the Communion operated as a validation of Anglican orders. That is to say, a priest or deacon ordained by any church within the Communion could, by virtue of that fact, obtain a license from a bishop with jurisdiction to minister in any other church in the Communion.

Now ECUSA, however, following the lead of its Presiding Bishop, has decided that a priest (or even a bishop) who leaves ECUSA to minister in another province of the Communion thereby abandons the Communion -- of the Episcopal Church. A member of the clergy thus leaving ECUSA thereby renounces his ministry, and the Presiding Bishop pronounces sentence of deposition -- even if the bishop in question came from that other province in the first place! This has brought about a balkanization of the Anglican Communion, and by undermining its orders, has contributed to its demise.

As a result, ECUSA as a Church no longer needs the Anglican Communion -- except as a shield, to defend what it considers to be its exclusive franchise in America. But it cannot benefit from the adoption of a Covenant, because it sees the Covenant (even as currently proposed) as a potentially unacceptable limit on its autonomy. (It is noteworthy that it was ECUSA, and not any other province, which spawned the original anti-Covenant movement.) So if the lack of a Covenant means that the Communion will cease to exist as such, ECUSA will actually find such a result to be of great comfort to it.

Why is that? Think about it: even without the Anglican Communion, there will still be an Archbishop of Canterbury. And even though there appears to have been some recent bad blood between the Archbishop and the Presiding Bishop, and despite its torpedoing of Anglican orders, ECUSA will continue to claim that it is "in communion with" the see of Canterbury. So long as ECUSA has the final word on what that phrase means, it will support the abstraction of an "Anglican Communion." Indeed, if the Communion becomes the metaphorical equivalent of Tintern Abbey -- the picturesque ruins of a grand structure which once resounded in the praise of God -- then so much the better, as far as ECUSA is concerned. It can claim to be "in communion" without having the bother of any actual relations to maintain.

As I said, the analysis of cui bono rapidly descends into cynicism, and there is no benefit to going there. It profits nothing to wring one's hands over that which once was, but no longer is, and never again can be. Shakespeare's seventy-third sonnet, from which the title of this post is borrowed, actually has much to say about the state of the Anglican Communion. As you let its lines sink in, ponder their application to that state:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
"Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by" -- there could not be a better description of the Communion's predicament. No doubt there are many (and your curmudgeon is among them) who conclude, with the poet:
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

As the sonnet describes, the forces maintaining the Communion have become weaker than those which are hastening its decline. The Church of England alone cannot be the Communion, and pomp, ceremony and tea with Her Majesty are no counterweight to the gratifications of championing inclusivity and social justice. (Never mind that none of those things pertains to the great mission of the church catholic -- for that is just the problem.)

The demise of the Anglican Communion is thus a secondary consequence, not a primary one in and of itself. The structure of the Communion arose and flourished while there were churches bent on performing a common mission. That common mission no longer exists -- and that is the demise we should be ruing, not the Communion's. The question is not: the Anglican Communion -- cui bono? Rather, it is this:
Exactly who benefits if the church catholic fails again in its mission, and fragments even more in the process?

Think about it -- and then pray for your church universal. Ultimately, despite what mortals may do or believe important, her fate is in God's hands.


  1. Ask the typical pewsitter in T.E.c. a question about the Anglican communion and you are likely to be greeted with a smile that masks the thought, "Duh, the what?" I agree that T.E.c. is more interested in the franchise rights than real communion (despite all the blather about "relationships").

  2. "Rather, it is this:
    Exactly who benefits if the church catholic fails again in its mission, and fragments even more in the process?"

    The World, the Flesh and the Devil.

    Conversely, who benefits if the Anglican Communion in fact does not fail in union, and thus does not fragment even more?

    The Kingdom of God, his Peace, his Coming, his Proclamation.

  3. Mr. Haley,

    Did you ever follow up your three great posts on the sky and dates of Christmas with the one you promised at the end: "In a later post I will take up another of the Bible's descriptions of the signs at the time of Jesus' birth, and show how they fit in with what has been discussed in the three posts to date." (

    Please, consider making a special category on the guide page for your Christmas posts.

  4. St. Nikao, the three Christmas posts thus far are collected on the page "Evidence for the Accuracy of the Bible", which is linked from the Science and Religion page. I will improve on the description at the latter link, to make it clearer.

    I also plan to put up the fourth post as we get closer to Christmas.