LETTER FROM AMERICA – AUGUST 1997
DAILY LIFE IN LAODICEA
I WROTE THE LEAD for this letter two weeks ago before leaving for our General Convention, the equivalent of your General Synod that meets for almost two weeks once every three years. In it I predicted:
First, that the legislation making the acceptance of women’s ordination mandatory would pass by a large majority. The bishops voted for it 140 to 44, almost all the “centrist” bishops voting for it. About half the votes against it came from retired bishops.
Second, that the homosexualist agenda would not pass but their proposals be put off for more dialogue, study, and so on, and the Church would continue effectively to accept the moral innovations by refusing to discipline the innovators.
And third, that most conservatives would fail, or refuse, to see how fundamentally divided they are from the Forces of Progress.
The third prediction
The first two events you will have read about in the church press, the third probably not. The sort of conservative I mean is that in a new group called the American Anglican Council, which describes itself as “a network of networks” combining all the resistance groups in the Episcopal Church. It is led by the Bishop of Dallas, James Stanton, a courageous man who led the presentment against Bishop Righter for ordaining an active homosexual man. He and most of its board promote the ordination of women while having no time for homosexuality.
A disappointing AAC
The AAC worked very hard to organize its members, but its two major statements at Convention disappointed. When Frank Griswold, a man fully committed to the revisionist cause, who has admitted to ordaining homosexual people, was elected presiding bishop, they issued a press release congratulating him upon his election and saying “We hope to work with him in the task of strengthening and renewing the Episcopal Church” and “the new presiding bishop will need to help the Episcopal Church find its center.” The effect of the release was “Please let us play. We’ll be good. Heck, if you let us play we’ll even be the ball.” One imagines, in contrast, St Paul’s response if the Church in Corinth wrote to say it had elected Frank Griswold as its bishop.
Their closing statement, read by Bp Stanton to the House of Bishops on the last day of the Convention, declared “come what may” the AAC will “maintain communion” with the Synod bishops. This is something, but much less than the “should they be deposed for their position, we will not accept that action” one hoped for.
It went on to say, to those “who are anguished by the apparent willingness of some in the leadership of this church to bless, condone and promote sexual practices clearly at odds with the whole of the Biblical pattern,” that "we pledge that we will stand with you. We will not abandon you, nor our determination to guard the faith once delivered to the saints.” (Note that “apparent”: “obvious” or “open,” surely, would have been truer.)
An earlier version of this statement, which some AAC leaders told me would be read, included instead of this paragraph a declaration that the AAC’s bishops would cross diocesan lines to serve parishes out of communion with their bishops because their bishops reject Christian moral teaching. In discussing it among themselves, the letter lost the specific promises that made it of value and became the sort of generic declaration conservative Episcopalians have been making for two or three decades, which have raised hopes without satisfying them.
An emasculated AAC
Many people were disappointed with the AAC, especially those of us who had been arguing for years that orthodox Episcopalians must recognize the ecclesiological implications of the deep divisions within the Episcopal Church, and had thought the AAC leaders finally understood.
We found, at the end, that the AAC was unable to act with any real clarity, I think for three reasons.
First, many of its leaders still believe that the Church is reformed and the Gospel advanced by political maneuvering and calculation. They like playing the game too much to retire or even to recognize how irrelevant is the game to the things they care about, and therefore they tend to find or invent reasons to keep playing.
Second, its leaders believe that they must remain members of the Episcopal Church. This is the crucial requirement for many of them. In the latest newsletter from the AAC, their vice-president describes the AAC as “a way to remain within the Episcopal Church and give your witness.”
The problem with this commitment is that you cannot think through a question if you rule out a particular answer before you start. You cannot think very deeply about the question, “What does it require of me to be a faithful Christian at this time and place?” if you also say, “Whatever it means, it means my continuing to be an Episcopalian in good standing.”
In fact, such people don’t let themselves even get near observations that might lead to questions that might lead to their having to ask whether to leave the Episcopal Church. The slightest hint of a reason for division will start them using one or another diversionary tactic. They have lots.
I am told that at one of the AAC’s nightly strategy sessions, one charismatic bishop rumbled “I didn’t come here to despair.” He left the meeting early and went round the next day telling people he’d had to leave “because there was so much anger in the room.” I’m sure neither of these charges was true, but they let him feel quite good about not doing anything, and (a bonus, this) morally superior to those who wanted to do something.
A position or pose
Third, the AAC includes among its leaders, especially among its bishops, a large portion of “wets” or “centrists” whom it wants to satisfy, but who are the sort who want to “Do something!” without actually doing anything. For them the position -- or the pose -- of being in opposition is by itself enough, and they will always counsel patience and “continuing to work within the system” and not doing anything “to scare people away.” Whatever action is proposed, they will ask for a weaker one, and let it be known that the AAC could lose their support if it acts “hastily” or “divisively.” Their authority in the AAC’s councils acts as a great weight holding back those who would respond with some clarity to the fundamental division between them and the revisionist movement. Various leaders told me privately that the AAC would act “soon” after Convention, and were being quiet now to avoid “scaring off” possible friends. But whatever they intend, so far the effect of the AAC’s witness is to let their yea be “maybe” and their nay “not yet.”
David Mills is the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod of America. He helped edit the Synod’s daily newspaper at the General Convention.
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