Distilling into Unity
Francis Gardom on the St Louis Congress, September 2002
Two meetings took place. From Sunday to Wednesday there was the 3-yearly meeting of Bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC); on Thursday and Friday the Council of the Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen (FCC) and several Continuing Churches including the TAC celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Congress of St Louis, September 1977.
In 1976 a handful of ECUSA bishops, acting without any authority, ‘ordained’ twelve women as priests in Philadelphia. At the General Convention of ECUSA the following year, their action was endorsed by a narrow majority, and women’s ordination proceeded apace, first in the USA, thence elsewhere.
However, a group called the Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen (founded 1973) who, then as now, saw this as the last straw in a series of actions by ECUSA for which it had no authority, called a Congress at St Louis in September 1977 to promulgate the Affirmation of St Louis. This Affirmation, drawn up the previous year, states that ‘nothing but an organizational separation from the Episcopal Church in the USA would answer the need caused by that church’s theological separation from the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’.
It was one thing, however, to affirm ‘the Catholic Faith which comes to us from the Apostles’; it was altogether more difficult to produce a new model for an ekklesia which would at once get rid of the errors infesting ECUSA throughout the 1960s.
By way of celebration
As we were reminded by its Chairman, Fr Scott Kingsbury, the FCC Anniversary was a celebration rather than a policy-making occasion. But alas, whereas St Louis 77 gathered eighteen-hundred people and produced a document to which all gave assent and has stood the test of time, the Anniversary at St Louis 2002 mustered only a tenth of that number who represented twenty-five of the fifty-four different jurisdictions which have emerged over the past quarter-century.
At Thursday morning’s session of the FCC the key-thought in everyone’s mind was unity. The post-1977-years which have been spent (or misspent!) waging fruitless territorial and accreditation wars between the Continuing jurisdictions enabled the ECUSA revisionists to do more or less what they liked. The recent persecutions by Bishop Jane Dixon of Fr Sam Edwards, and Bennison of Pennsylvania against Fr David Moyer could only happen because discipline, doctrine and decency had completely broken down, and those who might have been able to uphold them, the Continuum, were busy safeguarding their own interests.
So Thursday morning got off to a bright start. The bitterness and angst of previous meetings of like-minded but essentially competing individuals was conspicuous by its absence. Everyone agreed that ‘Something Must Be Done – and quickly’.
The next question of course was What – and how? Cracks reappeared in the fragile unity, and the earlier radiance began to cloud-over. Speaker after speaker took refuge under their pietistic umbrella and unity was confined to agreement that the ecclesial weather had never been worse!
To be fair, ‘tangible results’ were not what the event was about. It was a Celebration of the achievements of twenty-five years despite the setbacks.
Here’s one example. The TAC has developed from particular individuals who attended St Louis 77 into a world-wide communion of sound Anglican churches numbering over ¼ million people. That’s pretty impressive. They have flourishing operations in Canada, the USA, South Africa, India, Australia, the Torres Straits, Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. There are 80,000 verified members of their communion in India, over 50,000 in the Umzi Wase Tiopiya in Africa. Recently, in consultation with FiF, a new TAC diocese was created in Japan under the retired Bishop of Yokohama. In Australia David Chislett of FiF works very closely with Bishop John Hepworth of TAC. The recent association of TAC with the United Anglican Church, another body present at the Anniversary, brought in thousands more communicants, particularly from the Philippines.
Mistakes in hindsight
But now let’s return to the FCC. It’s easy to be critical what happened after St Louis 77 with the benefit of twenty-five years hindsight of their mistakes. But which of us can be sure that what then appeared an obvious step forward to them would not have been equally attractive to us?
Encouraged by the success of St Louis 77 many believed that a fistful of good Continuing Bishops, chosen by them from their own ranks, would, by itself, undo the mischief wrought during the 60s. Another, smaller lobby, was convinced that a dramatically extended Code of Canon Law, covering all the irregularities of that period, was equally important.
Experienced theologians, like Dr Trueman Dicken from England, who were present as advisers, pleaded with them not to ordain Bishops till their organisational substructure was ready, and not to rely too much on codified regulations as solutions. Their pleas went unheeded. Four Continuing bishops were duly chosen and consecrated during the following two years, and at least one participant body drafted their own Code of Canon Law running to hundreds of pages.
As Dr Dicken predicted, the St Louis train was derailed. Why?
Consider just the problem of choosing bishops. To those career-priests who habitually carry a crozier in their knapsack, to misquote Napoleon, St Louis 77 seemed an opportunity of fulfilling their otherwise unfulfillable ambition; but many other faithful priests, who had no such ambitions themselves, were justifiably considered bishop-material by those whom they served. Who better qualified to lead the new Continuing Church? The Who? question was bound to be a thorny one.
After the Who? question came the How Far? question: their ongoing relationship with ECUSA. It was rightly foreseen that ECUSA would continue to exercise a formidable emotional pull amongst ex-Episcopalians in the Continuum. Many were enticed back to ‘their’ familiar, and socially more respectable ECUSA church by their nostalgia for High Mass at St Biretta-the-Great, or Morning Prayer at St Cranmer-on-the-Level.
Some argued, then as now, that complete separation was the only answer; others realised that it would exclude not only the faithful remnant who chose to ‘stay in ECUSA and fight’ but, many others such as FiF, Reform and Cost of Conscience who, whilst agreeing with the Affirmation that an ‘organizational separation’ from error was essential, believe that a premature and total separation from their Anglican roots would be a mistake. So there are, inevitably, tensions between those who have made a ‘clean break’ and those who have not yet done so.
These Who? and How Far? questions continue to bedevil the Continuum. Alongside large bodies, such as the TAC, an alphabet-soup of tiny jurisdictions exists, with too many bishops competing for scarce resources – which is exacerbated when they do unite. Each party inherits another bagful of bishops from the other.
The TAC Bishops Meeting presented a more hopeful picture. With its world-wide ¼ million communicants it is obviously a serious player on the field.
The TAC bishops first ratified two Concordats, agreed the previous week in nearby Belleville, between themselves and FiF-America and Australia. This means that any member of FiF is welcome as a communicant or, if a priest as celebrant, at any TAC altar and vice versa. TAC and FiF/UK concluded such a Concordat some years ago. Sensibly applied it works well, and the FCC publishes a global Directory of these parishes.
Present also were bishops from the United Anglican Church (UAC). Recently both TAC and UAC under Archbishops Louis Falk and Gilbert MacDowell entered upon a provisional Concordat. Whilst each presently preserves its identity and assets, sufficient doctrinal unity already exists for them to collude in business of mutual concern.
Meanwhile potential areas of disagreement and tension (like overlapping jurisdictions) are being actively addressed. For instance they agreed not to duplicate each other’s work overseas. Reconciliations often founder on that shoal, one side seeing the other as demeaning their influence in that location. At St Louis friendly but frank discussion prevailed. The charitableness of the UAC Bishops towards the TAC was exemplary.
The rights and wrongs of it
The success of the TAC/UAC meeting suggested to my imagination three formats one right, the others wrong, based on scientific analogies, for edging the Continuum towards that unity which it so badly needs.
Wrong: The Chemical Format. When an acid is mixed indiscriminately with an alkali, the essential nature of each constituent is fundamentally lost: Acid + Alkali results in Salt + Water. That’s what happened after St Louis 77. The chemical change was too much for its own good. The reaction may be an interesting one but the product will cease to bear any relation to its constituents.
Wrong: The Physical Mixture. Imagine two similar liquids, each of which has become contaminated. Pouring them together will add the contaminations of each to the other and further degenerate both. That’s like saying ‘why don’t we just forget any differences and work together’. That typically-Anglican solution combines the faults of both and the virtues of neither!
Right: Distillation. If the liquids are kept apart whilst they are distilled, side by side by the one flame, each into its ‘true’ self and freed from their contaminations, the two can safely be integrated, without detriment to either but with enhancement to both – in quantity and quality. If each would-be uniting jurisdiction, with assistance maybe from the others, will allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to discern and distil what is right and purge what is wrong in itself, what is now sadly divided will once again recover the unity of St Louis 77.
TAC & UAC are engaged upon such a process. So let’s be positive about the Continuum. At St Louis 2002 the need for unity was unequivocally agreed. Besides the TAC/UAC I have been told that a number of other ‘approaches’ have since been made between those considering being ‘distilled into unity’. Encouraged by the Concordats with TAC, other Continuing Churches will, I believe, in due course be seeking unity-by-distillation with Forward in Faith. Are we ready to submit to such a distillation? I wonder!
Francis Gardom represented Cost of Conscience at both meetings.
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