May 10, 2007

Rearranging the Chairs

In an otherwise well-thought out essay, the always well-worth-reading Ephraim Radner makes, in my opinion, an unhelpful dichotomy. He refers to two models for the church as “localist” and “confessionalist.” At issue are the political structures of and between the various churches; this is all about politics, about who relates to whom, and how they do so, and how decisions are made and enforced. In short, our present turmoil is about ecclesiastical polity, the form of church (or inter-church) government.

The main problem with this current essay is that Dr. Radner’s categories aren’t based on the real division, and I find he creates a distinction without a difference. Read his confessionalist definition and I would say it applies equally to the localist — that is, the church is entire wherever the forms and structures are intact, the sacraments administered, and the gospel preached. That’s the traditional Anglican definition, and it works for me as it has worked for Anglicanism up until very recently — it is the holographic model by which the church subsists entire in each particular provincial instance, much as Christ is truly present in every fragment of the loaf. The fact that Dr. Radner avoids the classical language in his first definition (and uses it in his second, thereby tipping his hand a bit) only makes it seem that the definitions are different.

But, of course, this isn’t the issue. Both of Dr. Radner’s “sides” would agree on that. The problem is “How do these various parts remain united under (or within) a form of governance?” The difference of opinion plaguing us at present is not about the nature of the church (local or universal), but about the day-to-day realities of recognition of orders, cooperation in mission, common worship, and so on. It is not about what the church is but what it does and how it does it.

The real difference is between federalists and unionists: those who want a dispersed authority based on autonomy of and cooperation by the interdependent members of the communion (what we’ve had in Anglicanism since the mid-19th century), and those who want a centralized authority based on a consensus of leadership with the authority to excise from membership those who buck the consensus (the impetus towards a superior synodicality). Dr. Radner has been on the latter side for some time now, and he has good company.

But as I note, the federalist model is the one we’ve had up until now, so Dr. Radner’s case for change needs to be more persuasive. He is pressing for a more centralized form of government as a way of easing the tensions. This comes, in part, because some are unwilling to live with the ambiguity inherent in the looser model: the tensions themselves are the problem. It is not evident to me that the movement towards greater importance to the Instruments of Communion has in fact enhanced or been instrumental to our communion; that is, towards soothing the tensions. On the contrary, they seem to have led to more and more disagreement. So those who wish to push in that direction, seem to me to have a difficult case to make. If they do this to the green wood, how will the dry fare?

Let me hasten to add that I am not utterly opposed to a clear statement being made about how the communion can or should continue to function. But I remain convinced that agreement on a minimal set of principles (such as the Lambeth Quadrilateral) coupled with a laissez-faire willingness to tolerate dissent or disagreement on any matter that “cannot be proved from Scripture” — and I mean proved as in “objectively proved even to those who disagree” — would be preferable to the present Draft Covenant, which holds the authority to exclude from communion as it were like the hatchet in the glass case in the hallway, with a neat label, “In case of X break communion.” If your only tool is a hatchet, remember, everything will look like something to hew.

The real problem

What I would suggest is that we do not in fact have a systemic problem, but a particular disagreement about a fairly narrow range of issues, most of them impinging on sexuality. The heated denials that it’s really about Scriptural authority can no longer be taken seriously: after folks saying the Windsor Process wasn’t really about sex and the Primates meetings weren’t about sex, ultimately the only concrete matters that get laid on the table at the end are about sex — oh, and boundary crossings (but as the boundary crossers will assure us, it’s really about sex.)

Seeking a systemic solution for a particular problem is like the old, “The whole class will sit here until the one who stole the pencil comes forward.” I suppose it works, but it’s not very productive; especially when it turns out no one took the pencil — it just rolled under teacher’s desk.

At the same time it is no use pretending we aren’t in a difficult situation in the Anglican Communion. The seams are bursting, and there seems to be a kind of hastiness and ire in the air. So I’d like to offer for reflection something I wrote some decades ago about the renewal of religious communities. I mean, communities are communities — and renewal is renewal. What I’d like to suggest is that by an appeal to systemic change (rather than renewal) the Anglican Communion is in breakdown mode. Here’s what I wrote back in the 80s — I think it has some relevance to the present situation.

The cycles of doubt

There are four breakdown stages in a community, each characterized by a form of doubt: Mechanical, Conceptual, Moral, and Total.

Mechanical doubt: Are we doing things the right way?

Mechanical doubt is often the first response: members see the order not as a vision-inspired community, but as a mechanism that needs adjustment. Changes are superficial: a new habit design, new liturgies. Of course, there is nothing wrong with either of these things, if they grow out of a living spirit—and if they are responses to the real problems. But if they are efforts to pump life into a comatose body, it is too late for such therapies to be effective. In an organization which does not constantly seek renewal, superficial changes will do little good. Indeed, the adoption of a “therapeutic” model can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: we must be sick because we are seeking a cure!

Conceptual doubt: Are we doing the right things?

At this stage it isn’t the manner of working that comes under doubt, but the work itself. Should we stop teaching? Do we really need to say the Divine Office? These are more fundamental questions that touch at the ethos of the community. If approached with a lack of insight, actions at this stage can lead to disaster. A rebound effect can occur at this point, and some members — or the community as a whole — may develop a siege mentality. Any change becomes a fundamental threat not just to the ethos of the community, but to some even larger principle: the Faith, the Nation, the Cause. Such polarization can render productive renewal nearly impossible.

Moral doubt: Am I doing the right thing?

At this level of doubt individual members begin to internalize the misgivings and apprehensions that have troubled the organization. Those who no longer accept the driving myth of the organization, or who have reached a point of cynicism, begin to make accommodations. They begin to wonder whether they personally need to observe the rule with rigor or vigor, and laxism prevails. More conservative members come to see change and renewal as threats to their personal well-being and identity, with a concomitant decline in self-worth.

Total doubt: Why am I / are we doing this at all?

At this stage personal and communal cynicism, despondency and despair emerge full force, and the doubt shifts almost to an existential level. Organizations which have descended this far into doubt are unlikely to survive; though even here it is possible to rediscover the core ideal which drove the community.

So that’s what I said back then. Does it make sense for us now? The way out, as I counseled the religious communities, is not necessarily systemic change, but renewal in accordance with the founding charism of the community. (I didn’t make that up, by the way; Pope Paul VI did.) I have reflected before on the things I think are distinctive and worthy in Anglicanism. This is our way forward — by a return to our roots, which provide a way to deal with the pressing issues before and behind us.

I agree with Dr. Radner that the Anglican Communion could — if it gets its act together — be a “school for communion” for the wider church. But let us not get too grand: The Anglican Communion is provisional just as every other church is provisional until the Master returns. We are challenged to tread the difficult path between a totally centralized authority and a totally dispersed congregationalism. I think that is the best way to structure the church. Some might call that triumphalist; but as I don’t insist on it for those who don’t agree — which would be a contradiction to the model itself — I don’t think I’m triumphalist in the ordinary sense of the word.

As for the present situation, however, to update an old analogy, I think it is a matter of rearranging the deck chairs on the QE II. The problem isn’t with the ship, but with those who don’t like the arrangement of the chairs — or perhaps, they don’t like some of the passengers themselves, or how they behave themselves. That is where the “theological difficulty” lies. The rest is all politics.

— Tobias Haller BSG


Patrick said...

Is it just my imagination, or are are your four stages of breakdown related to De Lubac's four levels of scriptural interpretation (literal, spiritual, moral, anagogical)...?
Thanks for linking to your earlier essay--it was really illuminating! I think it should be recirculated widely. However much I like this vision, though, I wonder how sustainable it is, for two reasons. One is that the Orthodox church seems to maintain its communion of national churches only by not changing anything, and by postponing another general council to the indefinite future.

The other is that the unity of prayer book worship (and I mean TEC 1979, not 1928 or 1662!), in my view a key counterweight to diversity of theological opinion, is threatened by the propspect of multiple alternative revisions (or am I exaggerating?)

Tobias said...

Thanks for the comment. The connection with the levels of scriptural interpretation wasn't conscious; I supose one might also relate it to the levels of lectio divina. Might make an interesting reflection in itself.

I agree with your view of the Orthodox "solution" -- which is closer to the Anglican Settlement than the Roman Catholic papal (or curial) model that some appear to wish to adopt for Anglicanism. I would note, though, that the various Orthodox churches do change things independently, albeit very slowly and very cautiously -- and some are even beginning to address the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The liturgical diversity issue is the more relevant one for us Anglicans, though. There is a bit of a paradox here: Anglicans have repeatedly said both that their unity lay in the liturgical life, and that the various "national" churches were at full liberty to alter their rites and ceremonies! The key, from the American BCP preface of 1789, was the assurance that the liturgical changes were "necessary" -- but that claim hardly stands up when one examines the extent of the changes, most particularly in the Eucharist. As the preface said, this was an opportunity to "fix" things after over a century (from 1662 to 1789) and major shifts in philosophy and thinking.

Perhaps, though, with all of the cross-fertilization between the various provinces (the 1979 BCP influence on the Canadian ASB; the increasing influence and example of the NZ and Australian books) we may actually evolve another level of commonality out of the mix of various options -- in an organic and evolutionary way in which what "works" becomes more normative. I believe such open and organic processes are preferable to a centrally controlled imposition; though I am not at all opposed to central coordination.

Prior Aelred said...

Tobias --

I have been very impressed with your reflections on the nature of the church, the covenant, etc. I wish I could arrange my thoughts with such clarity & express them so precisely.

My bishop (Fond du Lac) has asked for reflections on the Covenant & I am tempted to send him the jinkotu link & be done with it (trusting that you aren't going to unexpectedly change course).

Ephraim RAdner said...


You are right to note that the two vying views of the church I identified within TEC (and the Communion, for that matter) are really quite similar. I think I said as much: they both see the immediate church as self-sufficient, "immediate" either in terms of locality or in terms of a subscribed framework of belief. Anglicanism has tended not to see the church this way, especially as the Communion itself emerged (but even before, in the 17th century). And the emergence of the Communion, in its time and in its own form, is indeed, something that demands a re-thinking of our ecclesiology in any case.

For, in the context of the 20th century's grappling with the fragmented Church's moral complicities within the horrors of local and confessional sin, the claims to ecclesial self-sufficiency constituted by the localist and confessionalist views do appear to be contradicted by the facts.(Claims to ecclesial self-sufficiency by e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, are equally misplaced, in my view, even if they derive from different theological starting presuppositions.) Yes, we are all "provisional". But Anglicanism is indeed well-positioned -- by Providence? -- to engage its provisional character for the sake of the still-to-be entered communion of the Christian Church in a special way.

It is obvious, perhaps, that I have a high view of the Church's calling (and therefore of any provisional church's vocation), and a very low view of each provisional church's actual condition. This, it strikes me, is somewhat the reverse of at least one common perspective on the Church in the modern West.

Tobias said...


As I said, there is much upon which we agree, especially concerning the provisional nature of all churchly institutions; and I hold that any "autonomy" has to be conditioned by mutual respect and forbearance. Autonomy is not absolute, but limited by the principles of subsidiarity, and by the principle "What touches all" articulated (albeit somewhat inaccurately) in the Windsor report.

I also quite agree with your observation that the Anglican enterprise has shifted in the last quarter of the last century. The era of governance by bonhomie is clearly at an end. Some might say the Communion has grown beyond the capacity for the old rules any longer to work -- as often happens when a pastoral parish grows to program size and the clergy and lay leadership who beforehand served so well find themselves at a loss, and things seem to "get out of hand." People who study such dynamics tell us that the number 40 can be a tipping point, and that is just about where we are in the Communion.

So, as I have said here and elsewhere, I am not opposed to the idea of a Covenant to the extent that some appear to be. I remain leery of the Instruments of Communion, largely on the basis of their performance thus far (perhaps like the cleric and vestry trying to handle a large influx of new parishioners?); and I would argue for minimal, and possibly incremental steps towards change.

In keeping with my reflection on renewal by a return to the roots of a community's charisms, I was heartened to see what amounts to essentially my beloved Lambeth Quadrilateral as a cornerstone of the Draft Covenant. My chief critique of the work your drafting committee developed (as with the version appended to the Windsor Report) focuses upon what seem to me to be provisional elements allowing for dissolution. In fact, were it not for article 6.6 of the Draft, I could probably support it. Though I have a few minor quibbles here and there, it is this paragraph that presents the greatest challenge for me in terms of undercutting the radical call to unconditional mutuality and commitment that, in my opinion, is essential in any covenant worthy of that name.

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I hope we may, barring any end runs by the irascible or the impetuous, have the opportunity to continue this process towards a better solution.

Marshall Montgomery said...


I have posted a long reflection on Ephraim Radner's latest which references and engages your essay. You may find it here. I would be happy to continue in dialogue with you.

Tobias said...

Dear Marshall,
Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Ephraim and I have been having a good discussion in the comments section of my blog.

My primary problem with Ephraim's approach has to do with my distrust of systemic solutions to particular problems. That is the heart of my concern with the development of a model of superior synodicality (which the ACI has offered as their solution for years now.)

TEC has a perfectly good synodical structure, but it doesn't always please everyone. If it is true, as you suggest, that new things have to be tried to see if they work, it makes sense to look at the experiment on a smaller scale, and also to look at past performance. My suggestion is that this shows us there will always be people dissatisfied with decisions made by any form of polity (as in TEC); and that the unity of the Anglican Communion, witnessed since Lambeth 1998, does not encourage me to think a new structure at that level would do anything other than exacerbate the differences.

That is why I think, at this point, a loosening would be more salutary than a more intense bondage -- but only in the interest of a later coming together. A "hard" schism at this point (which I can't help but see coming, though I wish it wouldn't) will be much more difficult to mend in the long run, than a messier tangle of bilateral impairments stewarded over by a benign leadership (the Archbishop of Canterbury with the ACC). Let the communion find its own level, so to speak; in time, many who exit in high dudgeon now may come back in twenty, thirty or a hundred years.

A longer reflection from the GC deputation of the Diocese of New York will be posted shortly, and it has some further reflection.

Marshall Montgomery said...


Thanks for your comment. You may want to check out my latest post, Some ROOMinations, which again references you.