THE COMMENTARY

Portuguese Men of War

 

BY NOW it is old news. On Saturday, 30 January, in Singapore Cathedral, Charles Murphy and John Rodgers were consecrated as missionary bishops to their own country, the USA and their own church, the Episcopal Church. The consecrators included retired bishops of North and South America but, most significantly, led by the Primate of South East Asia (Moses Tay) and the Primate of Rwanda (Emmanuel Kolini).

Though the news may be stale, the consequences will be with us for some time to come. The consecrations could be a temporary blip in the history of Anglicanism or they could start a sea change in the way the international communion does business, one province with another.

The background to this event is long and substantial but the watershed was almost certainly the Lambeth Conference. The thriving, growing, often poor and persecuted third worlders at last felt themselves strong enough to take on the Western church whose moral carelessness and, in some areas, virtual apostasy, was not only causing massive decline in Europe, America and Australia but, by virtue of economic patronage was, too often, felt to be attempting to exercise undue influence on the structures and appointments in the poorer and more traditional provinces.

The set piece battle/debate was on homosexuality because this is where almost all evangelicals can be assumed to hold common cause. (They could not do this on women priests because too many of them have utterly failed to grasp the consequences of feminism on key doctrines of the faith and central issues of Christology and Ecclesiology.)

The result of this "set to" was an overwhelming victory for the doctrinal conservatives and the Africans went home happy. The Americans went home seething and immediately announced their defiance of the decision of Conference.

The English bishops went home, some apologizing to the gay lobby for the unfortunate result, and got on with business as usual. They would not make a fuss like the Americans but they would continue ordaining practising homosexuals and, publicly, turn a blind eye to any irregular domestic arrangements.

Incensed by Lambeth's condemnation, Frank Tracy Griswold III (Presiding Bishop, ECUSA), invited the Anglican Commission to inspect his lively and exciting church. Far from mollifying the concerns of other provinces, the tour simply exacerbated them.

What also became clear was that, not only did much of ECUSA bear little or no resemblance to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church but that those bits that did were often under severe persecution from the liberal hierarchy.

Vain pleas were made to Griswold and Co. to come back into line with the Word of God and, failing that, to at least allow proper episcopal care of the orthodox priests and believers.

At the last meeting of the Primates, in Kampala, the issue was pushed back to the forthcoming meeting in Lisbon at the end of March. By then it was common knowledge that Abp. Moses Tay and others were so exercised by the crisis that rumours of impending consecrations were running high. Furious diplomatic activity was put in train to prevent them but no ground was given on the key issue of "flying bishops" for orthodox Americans.

On 30 January, the debate moved on to new ground. Tay and his colleagues described their initiative as an emergency reaction to "the unrebuked ridicule and denial of basic Christian teaching" in the Episcopal Church. They hoped it would "give the faithful in the US a place to remain Anglican" and help address the 30% drop in membership of ECUSA in recent years.

Amidst all the subsequent storm of statements and correspondence, real and virtual, two things seem clear. No-one doubts that the two men chosen are first class men with very impressive track records. It is also beyond dispute that the consecrations are valid, if irregular.

Many of the reactions to this event have been predictable. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who had battled manfully to dissuade Tay and Co., termed the consecrations "irresponsible and irregular" and "a grave disappointment".

Presiding Bishop Griswold declared himself "appalled" and "profoundly disturbed by the caricature presented of ECUSA". He went on to say that he did not know one active bishop in his church who was not orthodox.

As John Spong's successor is preparing liturgies for the solemnization of homosexual partnerships and the recently elected "Priest of the Year" turns out to be an out of the closet vicar with a live-in lover, such statements can only enhance Griswold's reputation as a truly incredible leader.

The Primate of Canada was incandescent, describing the consecrations as "an act of aggression", "an open and premeditated assault on Anglican tradition, Catholic order and Christian charity." This is a bit rich coming from the boss of a church which has been merrily and enthusiastically assaulting all three for a number of years now. Try getting ordained in Canada if you oppose feminism and sexual immorality and support the Prayer Book.

But conservatives have been troubled too. Abp. Goodhew of Sydney, who had so recently prevented his diocese from breaking ranks over the question of lay celebration, was clearly disappointed that his fellow evangelicals had not given it one last shot at Lisbon before acting. Some American conservatives have been less than sure about the timing of the act while unhesitatingly blaming the liberal establishment for years of ruthless provocation.

Curiously the two dioceses from which the missionary bishops come have made it clear that they will continue to regard them as Christian brothers and continue to seek a just resolution to the problems which have spawned the crisis and the reaction.

Bishop Ackerman (Quincy) has made the simple but telling point that one man's canonical disobedience is another man's prophetic act. And there's the rub - not only for the overlords of ECUSA but for the whole Anglican Communion.

For thirty years now enthusiasts for the liberal agenda have claimed an implausible blend of spiritual inspiration and secular common sense to lead the church in ways plain contrary to the Word of God. They have achieved this by a ruthless quest for power, the hijacking of the institutions, the deliberate and wholesale disappointment of orthodox from pastoral office and, piecemeal, by the claim of Provincial Autonomy.

When the American church performed its "prophetic act", in despite of the Communion, by illegally ordaining women and then legitimising that illegal act, it set a precedent it has been following ever since.

When the English church embraced the same scriptural disobedience it did so knowing that the Communion was not of one mind and in contempt of its major ecumenical relations.

When the Canadian church denied ordination to anyone committed to Anglican tradition and Catholic order, it did violence to its apostolic claims and headed down the sectarian road.

All of these were acts of Provincial Autonomy and possibly irreparable rents in the fabric of communion.

Now, frustrated by years of this behaviour, some conservatives have simply employed the same weapon in a rather novel and creative way. They have imbibed the liberal lesson that agendas are forced by action and faits accomplis are the only theology that western hierarchies understand. That it took so long is a testimony to the extraordinary patience of conservatives and their profound desire not to further damage a massively wounded church.

The American hierarchy needs to proceed carefully. A bank robber who returns home to find he has been burgled cannot afford too much public outrage. It is true that two wrongs don't make a right but if, as in this case, the burglar turns out to be one of the bank tellers trying to get back enough to feed his family, the original felon would be wise to settle on the way to court.

The liberal provinces must allow flying bishops and preferably an orthodox province. Had flying bishops not been granted in England there is no doubt that consecrations would have taken place here several years ago and, I have little doubt, if that system is ever scrapped or abused the question would rise again overnight. The feeling about the persistent and deliberate disregard of the Act of Synod in diocesan appointments is slowly heading towards critical mass.

In all this the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury is most uncomfortable of all. Charged with the unity of the communion, he may lecture others on the dangers of provincial autonomy only to be reminded of his enthusiasm for it when it suited his lobby. He may, in many matters, be more conservative than many of his bench or his first world peers but he has surrounded himself with liberal careerists whose sole common ground with him is the feminist issue and whose most benevolent wish for him is a happy and immediate retirement. In these circumstances it is difficult for the orthodox to know how best to support the Archbishop in areas where our solidarity in the Gospel demands it. Stripped of political power and their rightful place at the family table, western orthodox are reduced to pleading for a couple of spare bishops from a heterodox hierarchy that has usurped the apostolic thrones.

Singapore, right or wrong, has sent a strong warning shot across the bows of the liberal episcopal bark docking at Lisbon. Given the choice between obedience to Frank Tracey Griswold III and all his works and obedience to God it is, what I believe our American friends call, "NO CONTEST".

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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