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This page last updated 13 June 2004
Anglicans Online last updated 16 July 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online

Playing at Cassandra?
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

The Reverend Canon Gregory Cameron, ecumenical officer to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and secretary of the Lambeth (or Eames) Commission on Communion, gave a speech on May 30 to the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. In it acknowledged the dilemma the Canadians were facing, caught between the desire to include gay people fully into the life of the Church and the need to respect the opinions of Anglicans elsewhere in the world. A 'no' vote to same-sex blessings would disappoint gay people in Canada. However, if the Synod approved same-sex blessings, then

. . . the work of the Lambeth Commission becomes horribly complicated, because we will be told that the Anglican Church of Canada refuses to hear the voice, and to heed the concerns of your fellow Anglicans in the growing provinces of the Global South, who are your international family. The reaction to such a decision, without very careful explanation and liaison by the Church of Canada, is likely to be on a par with that currently being experienced by your neighbors to the South.

. . . the implications of your decision for the unity of the Anglican Communion, perhaps even its very survival in its current form, are just about as serious as it could get. (See http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ecumenical/news/20040601canada.cfm. The Synod voted to put off a decision.)

'Just about as serious as it could get. . .' How many American Episcopalians think the work of the Eames Commission is really important to them? This is a question worth raising. If we do not think what they are deciding really has potential consequences for us, what might our reaction be if we find out that those consequences are really serious?

The Lambeth Commission on Communion, chaired by the Most Reverend Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, has as mandate to advise the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council when and how 'it would be appropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury to exercise an extraordinary ministry of episcope (pastoral oversight), support and reconciliation with regard to the internal affairs of a province other than his own. . .' In other words, how to deal with the Canadians and us.

Too many Episcopalians, in this writer's not-so-humble opinion, are blithely imagining that nothing is really going to happen to us after the Eames Commission makes its report to the Archbishop of Canterbury by September 30. After all, some say, we belong to this somewhat loose family called the Anglican Communion, famous for eschewing centralized authority and depending on the wealth of the American Church. The majority of Episcopalians were pulling for Rowan Williams to be appointed as Archbishop. He's our man, some say -- and we are the principal bankrollers of the Lambeth Conference. How bad can it get?

Imagine these different scenarios:

  • The Episcopal Church is declared to be 'an observer' of the Anglican Communion. We would be allowed no representatives on the various inter-Anglican boards, and as with the Churches of India, there would some limitation on inter-communion.
  • Our ecumenical partners are informed that dialogue with American Anglicans should now include the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Anglican Province of America as well as the Episcopal Church.
  • Dissident Episcopalians belonging to the Network of Anglican Communion Diocese and Parishes are recognized by the majority of Provinces as speaking for the American church.
  • The concept of diocesan boundaries, in effect among Anglicans since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD (yes, that council), is declared to be temporarily lifted in the United States, allowing all manner of Anglican missions to be founded from offshore provinces. Some primates think this is already their prerogative.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury, under pressure, decides that the 53 bishops who participated in the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire will not be invited to the 2008 Lambeth Conference. The Episcopal Church House of Bishops decides to boycott the Conference (except for the Network bishops, who de facto end up representing us).
  • The Archbishop refuses to impose the more stringent measures called for by the Primates, and the Anglican Communion splits along North / South lines.

Any of these scenarios or others not imagined here may well come to pass within the next year or two.

So how bad could things really get? It all depends on your point of view.

If the Episcopal Church is an American denomination first of all, like say the Southern Baptist Convention, then what our cousins outside our borders think of us is interesting but essentially irrelevant. Non-Roman Catholic Americans strongly believe that the vote is the single most powerful deciding factor in government, including church government. If some hierarchs don't like it, tough. All we have to do is out-wait them, some are saying, they will come to see the light, just as with women's ordination.

If one believes that the identity of our church comes from, among other things, being in communion with the See of Canterbury, then any of the above scenarios coming to pass is a real tragedy. 'That may be a price worth paying,' as Canon Cameron said, 'if you conclude that this is where Christ leads.' But 40 percent of the bishops of our church voted not to confirm the consecration of Gene Robinson. A significant number of Episcopalians think we made a big mistake. Such developments will lead to stronger strains on the fabric of our own church.

If the Communion splits, it would seem that only the most insular Episcopalians would think it had nothing to do with them. Our legitimacy would be called in question by a lot of people. Recent court decisions have upheld the principle that the Episcopal Church is essentially a hierarchical church. But if the 'hierarchy' outside our church doesn't recognize us, or does so only partially, who are we then?

This problem will be most acute for the Episcopalians outside the United States. It never fails to surprise this writer how few people know that the largest diocese of the Episcopal Church is Haiti. And how many know that we have a diocese in Taiwan? Not to mention the other nine dioceses outside the U.S. (see http://anglicansonline.org/usa/index.html: Outside the USA). And let us not forget the 20 congregations and 4,000 members of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.

A split of the whole Communion would have dire consequences far beyond the little province called the Episcopal Church. Anglicans have always liked to squabble among ourselves, but if the squabbles turn to global schism, it will be decades, if ever, before order is restored. The very principles of Anglicanism itself would be discredited, and more authoritarian structures, including the new ones in the fragments of the former Communion, would be validated as essential to the good order of the Christian Church.

It seems only prudent that we take account of the process being followed by the Eames Commission. If we are unpleasantly surprised by their report or the decisions that may flow from it, our reaction will probably be less than irenic. Thinking things through now will help us react productively and minimize possible damage.

This writer is not comfortable playing Cassandra. Maybe this will in fact just blow over. But even our friends in the Communion -- and we have a great number indeed -- have noticed and been angered by our seeming insouciance. The least we can do is pay attention, as if it all really mattered.

Because it does, of course. 'If one member suffers, all suffer.' (I Cor. 12:26)

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.


THE RIGHT REVEREND PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.