Friday, November 04, 2011

Faithful Division: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Postmodern Anglicanism

Review: Nancy James, The Developing Schism Within the Episcopal Church. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.

In the introduction to her recently published history of North American Anglican conflict, Nancy James observes:

Every action and decision entrusted to a bishop reveals the working of his or her mind. In the complex relationship between a bishop and his diocese, or a bishop active in the House of Bishops, or a Bishop in the Anglican Communion, certain theological values are seen in realized action. A lived theology, a bishop acting in history, emphasizes that God moves within human history. The specific task of a bishop is to over-see the church from a theological perspective. To state that this is a controversy about homosexuality might attract journalistic and press attention, but this radical simplification of the controversy misses the heart of why many have poured their hearts into the struggle. (4-5)
James is to be commended for the admirably neutral manner in which she delves into the spiritual journey pursued by the Episcopal Church (TEC) over the past eight years and the ultimate emergence of a new contender on the American denominational scene, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Sadly, this reviewer is unable to accord The Developing Schism an unqualified seal of approval, for its most frustrating feature is not the line that it takes, but the fact that it too often leaves the reader uncertain as to the conclusions its author intends to draw.

Reflective of James’s approach is her opening chapter, which provides background on Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) theologian Charles Price (whose image graces the book’s cover). Price’s life and writings could well have served as a template for the dissolution of relationships within TEC, but instead he flits in and out of the narrative in a somewhat ghostly fashion. Little effort is made to demonstrate either his impact on Broad Church Anglicanism in North America or his relationship with conservative students at VTS and when the principle authority cited in support of his theological importance is a volume of essays written in his honor, the reader can be forgiven for wondering how vital a role he actually played.

James is correct to suggest that a comprehensive account of all groups and movements involved in Anglican realignment would be a monumental task (v-vi), and yet there are significant omissions that leave her argument considerably weakened. As the author of a study of Anglican renewal in Pittsburgh I must confess partiality, but I do feel that confining discussion of Pittsburgh to its bishop (now archbishop) alone is to neglect an important diocesan relationship that preceded Robert Duncan’s arrival in southwestern Pennsylvania and which helped nurture the leading conservative Anglican seminary – Trinity School for Ministry – and foster ties with Anglican provinces in the Global South. Indeed, a section of The Developing Schism entitled “The Formation of Trinity Episcopal School” is noteworthy for the sparseness of references to the seminary in question. (116-119)

If anything, The Developing Schism gives undue prominence to the charismatic elements of the renewal movement, to the detriment of both the Anglo-Catholic and non-charismatic Evangelical contributions. Coupled with the lack of discussion of the establishment of the Anglican Communion Network, the reader is left with the impression that there was no intermediate step between Gene Robinson’s consecration and the departure of the parishes that formed the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) in 2006 and it accords an exaggerated significance to CANA at the expense of, for example, Christ Church, Plano (formerly in the Diocese of Dallas).

Similarly, while James stresses that the beginning of the national schism can be traced to VTS and the Diocese of Virginia (iv), her discussion of the history of the the CANA congregations is patchy. It is not until the reader is more than half way through the book that Truro Episcopal Church is mentioned, and only then in the context of a sermon delivered by Dr. Price in 1987. (119) The construction of the networks of evangelical association that began at Truro during the 1970s is not addressed (nor the role of the now retiring Bishop of Central Florida, John Howe, then an outspoken Evangelical priest at Truro). The influence of the future CANA congregations in the governance of the Diocese of Virginia and the generous financial support they provided in the 1980s and 1990s is also undocumented. Without such context, the casual reader is abruptly thrown into a discussion of the breakdown of relations with Bishop Peter Lee, the drafting of the now notorious Protocol and the celebrated votes of disassociation in 2006 and subsequent lawsuits that seems to emerge from thin air. (149-153, 159-160, 163-167, and 175-179) Equally curious is the abrupt incursion into the narrative of a reference to Pope Benedict XVI that moves unevenly from Benedict’s support for Anglican conservatives to the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. (181-183) Both topics might have been profitably addressed by James, but here they seem to have no connection to the wider narrative.

At the heart of James’s account are eighteen interviews with prominent figures in the controversy, including two African archbishops, Peter Akinola and Henry Orombi; American conservatives Robert Duncan, John Guernsey, and Martyn Minns; and American progressives Peter Lee, Gene Robinson, John Chane and Louie Crew. Notable by their absence are the present and former Presiding Bishops, Katharine Jefferts Schori and Frank Griswold. While it would have been very effective to use those interviews as the basis for a study of the “mind of the church,” which James does on occasion, the switching back and forth between narrative and personality ultimately works to the detriment of both. Both Peter Lee and John Chane receive considerable attention from James, but ultimately her stream of consciousness mode of description leaves the reader grappling adequately to summarize the theological views of her subjects. It is not that there are no insights, merely that they require great effort on the part of even the informed reader to discern them.

One of the strengths of The Developing Schism, it must be said, is that it does identify a strain of what James terms “remnant theology” that existed in both reappraising and reasserting – to use Kendall Harmon’s terminology – Episcopal groups during the 1970s and 1980s. (28-29) That the former would have largely won the debate within the wider Church by the mid-1990s was by no means assured in the mid-1970s, the acceptance of the ordination of women notwithstanding. If John Allin (who goes unmentioned by James) could be elected Presiding Bishop in 1973 in succession to John Hines, one cannot conclude that TEC’s present course was at that time inevitable. The failure of the center to hold in the late 1980s and early 1990s is one of those questions that historians still struggle to explain definitively. The Developing Schism does not really offer a clear explanation, but the author does document the importance of liberal organizations – particularly members of Integrity – both in lobbying and securing election to policy-making structures within the Church. Indeed, it was a supporter of Integrity – Edmond Browning – who was elected as Allin’s successor as Presiding Bishop in 1985. (51-52)

Some will decry James’s assumption that both sides are seeking out the transcendent, either in “realized justice” or in “religious laws” that “allow the free action of the Holy Spirit,” (40), yet it seems a not unreasonable proposition. Louie Crew’s invoking of the language of “new life of the Spirit” in support of gay identity (48-49) will perplex (or anger) many, but to dismiss it as inauthentic is as unwise as to presume that a traditionalist concern with social morality is mere window-dressing for covert racism and misogyny. James’s chapter on African Anglican identity undoubtedly provides valuable context for what it means to be practitioners of a persecuted faith, whether it be the Ugandan Christian martyrdoms of the Amin era or Peter Akinola’s more personal experience of the darker aspect of Nigerian indigenous religion (67-94).

Towards the close of her story, James identifies a profound truth about spiritual jurisdiction:
The schism raises questions about whether a postmodern diocese is an ontological state rather than a geographical unit . . . Though living on different continents, the Orthodox Anglicans bear resemblance to their charismatic counterparts in Africa . . . Possibly the idea of the sanctity of [the] geographical diocese is an Enlightenment idea whose time is past. (205)
James here enunciates the future Anglican reality – a “postmodern” North American traditionalism that downplays those hierarchical structures that are part of the warp and woof of the churches of their Global South brethren. Here in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, the decision to explicitly vest all parish property in the parish corporation, while partly a reaction to perceived abuses in TEC, also reflects a new practical congregationalism. Moreover, the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh has been receiving extra-diocesan parishes into its ranks from California to North Carolina and from Wisconsin to Texas since its inception. Such trends may be explained as part of the reality of the mission-centered church, but they also foreshadow new ways of embodying Anglicanism in the twenty-first century.

“Maybe some will regret thoughts they have expressed or deeds they have done,” James concludes, “but in the early twenty-first century, we have witnessed some honest, fallible seekers after God” (227). With such a conclusion, this reviewer wholeheartedly concurs.


The Rev Canon Dr David Wilson said...

Thanks for sharing this. I am almost persuaded to shell the cash for the book itself.

Unknown said...

Be cool if Amazon put it on the Kindle.