Friday, July 25, 2008

Anglicanism: Catholic, Protestant, neither, or both?

More than a week ago I ran across the Open Letter to the Bishops Gathering at Lambeth in which Dr. Ephraim Radner more or less begs those attending the Lamebeth Conference to "decide, resolutely, that those bishops from these churches who are in agreement to press forward in ways the Communion has now clearly and consistently repudiated [that is, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada] no longer partake in your common councils." Additionally, he states that "If the Lambeth Conference cannot take it upon itself to act with clarity and evangelical coherence in the face of the threats to our common life, you abandon us."

I must confess to being extremely conflicted about this letter and its assumption that the bishops are somehow the sole arbiter of truth and discipline in the Anglican Communion. It is much the same sense in which the gathering of the Primates has assumed legislative, judicial, and executive powers far beyond what any council or synod has had before. Were we the Roman Catholic Church, we might well be used to doctrine being sent down to the masses (no pun intended...) from on high (either Pope or Council of Bishops) but there is enough of a Protestant strain in our makeup that we naturally recoil from any such seemingly autocratic rule.

On the other hand, Archbishop Rowan Williams has noted that bishops have what he refers to as a "unique charism" both implicit in their office and explicit in their ordination vows. As has been said repeatedly, the church is not inherently a democratic establishment. To the extent that it is, it inherited that character from the secular world, not from biblical mandate or church tradition. After all, the successor to Judas was selected by lot, not by vote. I don't think that it is an accident that there bishop, priest, and deacon are all nouns with no verb connotations (as opposed to Pastor, Minister, etc...). When clergy in the Episcopal Church are ordained, the bishop asks the Holy Spirit to "make" that person a bishop, priest, or deacon. Being a Episcopal deacon or priest (and, presumably, bishop) is not simply a job, it is a way of being. That sort of idea, that one's very "ontological status" is changed at ordination, is very catholic and not very protestant.

I hope that as the Lambeth Conference moves on, the bishops there can see their "unique charism" not so much as enforcers but as teachers, communicators of the experiences of God as told by a spectrum of the wider Anglican Communion. While this sort of result may not make the news, and will certainly frustrate conservatives, liberals, and those who would like to place people in such neat categories, it might well enable us to transcend issues and really talk about how we can proclaim the redemptive power of Jesus Christ in our own missional context.

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