Much is being made of the publication of two letters from two primates of the Anglican Communion: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Both of them are well worth reading and say important things from their different perspectives: the Archbishop properly speaking in the role and to the end for which he feels responsible: to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion; the Presiding Bishop properly speaking for the historic and continuing independence of the Episcopal Church concerning its internal affairs, while remaining Anglican in the same way it has from the beginning. To vastly oversimplify, Rowan appears in the role of loving parent of unruly children instructed that they will have to stay in their rooms without TV until they can get along with the rest of the family. He is very even-handed in laying down what he clearly thinks is the law. Katherine’s response is a reminder and reassertion that this role-play is in itself an assumption of a power not granted in an entity not yet constructed.
So, in its own way, this epistolary exchange incarnates the larger debate on the nature of the Anglican Communion itself, and whether it should continue as a fellowship of autonomous churches or morph into a more tightly governed structure, such as that proposed by the draft Anglican Covenant.
Some commentators are engaging in a bit of revisionist history when they seek to portray in the foundation of the Episcopal Church a desire to serve as a branch or outpost of the Church of England, which indeed the colonial churches had been, answerable to the Bishop of London, prior to the War of Independence. There may well indeed have been a few individuals who thought that way at that time. However, the bulk of the evidence shows that the emerging Episcopal Church of the late 18th century wanted nothing from England but bishops — that is, they wanted bishops (to remain Episcopal) but knew the church would not be English — and indeed if they were unable to obtain the episcopate from England they were happy to go to other quarters. Indeed, it is ironic that the principled Tory Seabury ended up going to Scotland, while the Patriot White held out for England, pressing other Patriots such as Jay and Adams in that cause. But however bishops were obtained, the documentary evidence shows that it was bishops that were wanted and not any kind of continued governance from England — a cordial relationship, yes; but governance, no.
On the contrary, great pains were taken in the new land to militate against any such divided loyalty. As the preface to the 1785 Constitution of the Episcopal Church stated as its first “Whereas” — “in the course of Divine Providence, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America is become independent of all foreign authority, civil and ecclesiastical...” This language was echoed in the Preface to the first American Book of Common Prayer in 1789.
Nor were the English particularly interested in ecclesiastical entanglement with this new independent church in America, playing what is best described as an affectionately avuncular role. In witness of this, the Act of Parliament permitting Canterbury the ordination of American bishops contains this important proviso:
Provided also, and be it hereby declared, that no person or persons consecrated to the office of a bishop in the manner aforesaid, nor any person or persons deriving their consecration from or under any bishop so consecrated, nor any person or persons admitted to the order of deacon or priest by any bishop or bishops so consecrated, or by the successor or successors of any bishop or bishops so consecrated, shall be thereby enabled to exercise his or their respective office or offices within his Majesty's dominions.
Hardly a “continuation” of the Church of England, and rather a blow even to the notion of communion itself — usually understood as involving recognition and interchangeability of ministers — or to the ahistorical notion that a “bishop is a bishop for the whole church.” In fact, this proviso echos the language of the ancient canons that required bishops to confine themselves to their own sees and not meddle about extramurally.
But back to the dueling epistles: some, such as Diana Butler Bass, see this as a turning point — something’s got to give, and the Communion will never be the same. She may well be right, and I think that is unfortunate. I wish Rowan had exercised the wisdom of a truly loving parent, when from his perspective the children started acting up, to let them be, rather than to formalize their quarrels — and his Pentecost letter continues on that road of mildly vexed and punitive paternalism. It may have effect: It is so much easier to have consensus when those who disagree are removed from the conversation; but then, as with Caroline’s “ball without dancing” — it will not be near so much a conversation. Or a Communion.
Tobias Stanislas Haller