December 14, 2007

Come thou Long Expected Advent Letter

Well, the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued his Advent letter, strangely enough a day after his Christmas greeting.* The form and content of the Advent letter perhaps make it clear why it was delayed: it is no brief greeting but a rather detailed examination of the situation in which the Anglican Communion finds itself. For the Archbishop of Canterbury it represents something of a breakthrough in clarity, even though the situation it describes remains rather fuzzy; it is rather like a very sharp photograph of a painting by Monet — perhaps of a cathedral in the late afternoon sun.

So what can we draw from this letter. I think a few points are worth noting.

  • The Episcopal Church has done about all it can do in relation to meeting the demands placed upon it by the primates. This will not be (and has not been) enough to satisfy some of those same primates; so there is at present no consensus as to how well TEC has complied with those demands.
  • The decisions of the Lambeth Conference, while not canonical, represent the "mind" of the Communion even if they do not represent a consensus. There is thus a some tension between a general agreement, a majority view, and a true consensus.
  • The major problem now is that there is no consensus about a process by means of which a consensus can be reached: we need to have a covenant, but until we have one we have no way of deciding how to get one, unless everyone agrees — and those who don't agree are ipso facto no longer part of the consensus. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Lambeth 2008 will be the forum for all of this to come to a head, and any invited who refuse to come have abdicated their place at the table, and perhaps in the Communion. Those who are not invited are not being invited because they represent, in different ways, breaches in the status quo ante of Lambeth 1998.
  • We are in this together and we should stay together. We just need rules we can all agree to, and then we'll all agree.
  • More committees and commissions will be formed to continue the dialogue as we continue to work our way through these differences of opinion. When we've decided we've got enough in common to stay together, we will stay together. Those of us who are still there, of course.

This admirable clarity being acknowledged, the Archbishop still does not appear to grasp that the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church is an equal partner with the House of Deputies in the General Convention. They do not have any "decisive" power to operate contrary to the decisions of that Convention; although as part of that Convention they do hold an absolute veto power over any decisions of that Convention (as, of course, do the Deputies). If this is what the Archbishop means (that the Bishops alone can hold the line at GC 2009) then he is spot on. But if not, it appears the place of Bishops in our governance is one of those things that simply will not penetrate the Archbishop's psyche. They are not the primary theologians of the church; and in the Episcopal Church they are only one strand of its governance. At least the Archbishop has finally acknowledged that this may be a matter in which there is a difference between what TEC believes and what he thinks is believed "elsewhere in the Communion." And yes, it does need to be addressed.

So, where does this Advent letter leave us? About where we are. No further forward, no further backward. The Archbishop has admirably described the present situation, more precisely than he has heretofore. And the way forward, in his eyes, is further engagement and dialogue rather than separation. Several balls have been cast into several courts, and whether any are kicked back remains to be seen. I do not look for this Advent letter to find wide approval among those itching for decision. It is good, in Advent, to be reminded, "woe to those who look for the day of the Lord."

Tobias Haller BSG

*Update: According to Jake, whose more thorough commentary I commend, the Advent Letter to the Primates was actually sent to the Primates earlier, but only released now when it was assumed that all the Primates have received their copy.

Further Update:
Jake has received an e-mail from no one less than Venables himself, who declares that he, as a Primate, received the Archbishop's Letter at the same time as everyone else, on December 14. This would certainly explain his having made assertions the week before which the letter shows to have been profoundly mistaken. I do not, by the way, share Jake's assessment on this question, as I see the ABC's letter as a strong rebuke to the nonsense in San Joaquin and elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

when i first read it, i was upset at the apparent disconnect between the assurance that the communion believes in civil rights for gay people and an end to homophobia, on the one hand, and the manifest support on the part of many Anglican primates for anti-gay legislation and outright homophobia, on the other hand.

of course, the Archbishop is not responsible for that disconnect's existence. so i was upset perhaps at two things: that the disconnect seemed to be papered over, and that there is a long history of saying "we're against homophobia and for civil rights" while opposing any actual moves in those directions.

so i expressed this to a local faculty member with some status on some of these things, and she invited me to ask what the Archbishop's goals were and what a better letter might look like, and i would (presumably) respect it as a damn good letter. (my words.)

so i spent more time today doing that, and i realized

1) the letter is far better than my first reading of it. your own description seems dead-on, and in accord with it's being, actually, quite good.

2) a critical goal (not the only one) of the letter is to articulate "where we are" as a communion.

3) and so the real defect in the letter is that the only group whose point of view is not expressed is that of faithful gay and lesbian christians. everyone else can see, in the letter, that their points of view and opinions are in the mix. but the point of view of gay and lesbian faithful christians--ours is missing.

4) one indicator of that is the following: the letter says that gay people are entitled to the pastoral care of the church, and immediately follows that with a statement that this does not imply same-sex blessings. for that to make any sense, you must either say that marriages are not part of pastoral care (ludicrous), or that "gay people are entitled to pastoral care" does not mean equal pastoral care.

and so the missing point of view, the one which is apparently not allowed to be part of the mix, is the point of view that gay people are the equals of straight people.

i suspect, upon more serious reflection, that the Archbishop does not think that gay people are the equals of straight people. and a close reading of his essay from so long ago on the topic, will, i think, bear that out.

Malcolm+ said...

+Rowan seems to be saying that participation in Lambeth presupposes acceptance of the idea of an Anglican Covenant.

As I have said elsewhere, the Covenant proposal is simple well-intentioned stupidity. If we can meet, none is needed. If we cannot, none will do.

I've posted about this Covenant issue on my own blog last week.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I could support a Covenant based on mission and ministry --- and this is the direction others are heading. So if that can be affirmed at a Lambeth Conference, I could go along with it. I don't think the current approach of the Covenant Design Group (based on punitive measures) will be around much longer.

Anonymous said...

I think the letter does represent significant progress in that the ABC has strongly and directly condemned the whole enterprise of CANA and other unauthorized exercise of episcopal ministry in other bishops' dioceses and provinces. Would it were that he had done so in 2003 or 2004!

June Butler said...

Tobias, I began writing that I could support a covenant based on mission and ministry, but I fear that's not what it will be. In fact, I'm almost sure that's not the kind of covenant it will be. So I'm back to no covenant. We have a covenant.

liturgy said...

My ecclesiastical teeth were put on edge by the change in Anglican ecclesiology implied from the initial greeting. See my reflection at

Advent blessings