Watching the Anglicans

I remember during the heady days of ecumenism that one of the top Lutheran bishops was happy for the prospect of full communion with the Episcopalians because it took them one step closer to Rome. Well, the next step will have to be like Neil Armstrong’s, because the American Episcopalians are still in trouble with Canterbur y. Bishop Gene New Hampshire (that would be Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson) was pointedly uninvited to the latest Lambeth Conference, which is a big deal for Anglicans. Is the A rchbishop of Canterbury not in full communion with the Bishop of New Hampshire? Shall the rest of the Episcopal Church accept this half-excommunication of one of their own?

Did Rowan Williams expect this when he became Archbishop? I wonder if he looks back with longing on the see of St. David and the primacy of Wales. All this Anglican Communion politics, when what he’s best at is encouraging the church in a secular England and winsomely representing the gospel there. Canterbury is the head of the Communion, but Williams is only the first among equals, and he has little clout compared to his counterparts in Rome and even Constantinople.

We grieve for the Anglican Communion these days. I don’t see how they can work this out, considering the parties and positions. The Nigerians versus the Americans. The Americans are the Nigerians of the Western Hemisphere and the Nigerians are the Americans of Africa. Or some would say, the Germans, but Germans are not Anglicans.

From a Reformed perspective, you have to ask, why is Bishop Robinson such an issue when Bishop Spong never threatened the Anglican Communion? I have met Bishop Robinson and heard him speak. He loves the Lord Jesus. He worships the Trinity. He confesses the faith once delivered, and he testifies to the gospel. He believes in the Resurrection and the Atonement and the Exodus from Egypt, for Heaven’s sake. Bishop Spong is still called a Christian only because he calls himself that. He’s an impressive man, especially to himself. Bishop Robinson exhibits repentance, humor, and self-deprecation.

But the Anglicans don’t think from a Reformed perspective. When you finally come down to it, apparently the cliché is true, that for Anglicans it doesn’t matter what you believe. Well, it does, of course, but not enough to pose a threat.

What matters is your ritual. What you celebrate and how you celebrate. This approach has its virtues. If you attend any Anglican church, the sermon might be thin, but the liturgy will give you a Creed, the Trinity, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and his coming again, some repentance from sins, some real prayers, some real blessings, and some real miracles–the sacraments. During the sermon you can read the Thirty-Nine Articles in the back of the prayer book and thank God for the Belgic Confession.

Anglicans found it problematic when some Canadians and Americans began celebrating gay weddings, or holy unions, or whatever, but even this was tolerable. It used to be the case that all Anglicans, worldwide, were united by the Book of Common Prayer. But since the 1960s the various provinces have developed their own prayer books, and the New Zealand book is now very different from the British ASB. Liturgical disunity may distress Anglicans, but they’ve been living with divergence for some decades now, and it hasn’t threatened their Communion’s unity.

But a gay bishop! Anglicans are fundamentalists about one thing, and one thing only, and that is the hierarchical episcopacy. In the seventeenth century their motivation was political: “No bishop, no king.” What their motivation is nowadays is open to question. But as became evident in the process of full communion with the Lutherans, ever ything is negotiable except episcopacy.

And when an out gay man is elevated to the episcopacy, then Anglicans are threatened. What matters is not what he believes but what he is, because a bishop is. The symbol of a hierarchical bishop is not his pulpit but his chair. When he’s just sitting there, holding his staff, he’s at the center of his job. Celebrating Eucharist and baptizing and preaching can be done by mere priests. Only bishops can confirm, but a Prayer-Book Study in the ’60s argued that it can only be reser ved to bishops for reasons more political than theological. It gives the bishop something special to do when he or she visits a parish. The chief role of a bishop is to represent the church, and that means, with such Incarnational theology, to represent Christ himself. Well!

The Anglican Communion is at heart a communion of bishops. This communion is objective and linear, like a family tree. They may not take the Bible literally, but they are literal about their hierarchical network. Your ordinary American and Canadian laity are not really in communion with each other. They are in communion with their respective bishops, who are in communion with each other, provided their communion is guaranteed by being in communion with the A rchbishop of Canterbury. Their ongoing crisis shows us what Anglicans are fundamentalist and literalist about!

Last summer I attended three different Anglican churches in Canada. The first week I went to the tiny parish near our cottage, where we have prayed for eighteen years. Our lay reader preached on the gospel, and he was good; he preached the text. The next Sunday I had to be in K ingston so I attended the cathedral. A n archdeacon preached on the gospel, and he was excellent; he preached the text. The third week our little parish had a union service with the parish in the next town, so with four other locals I went there. I heard another archdeacon preach on the gospel, and he was very good; he preached the text.

Not once did I hear a peep about the troubles of the Anglican Communion. I heard about the Lord Jesus, and his death, resurrection, and coming again, and we confessed our sins, and we praised the Trinity, and we repeated the Creed, and we gave thanks and ate his precious body and blood. I was quite satisfied each time. You might get a different impression of the Anglicans by kneeling next to their laity in prayer than you get by watching their bishops from the outside.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.