Churches talking past each other

05 March 2009

Many in the C of E misunderstand the Episcopal Church in the US, says James W. Jones

Different grasp of power: the US Presiding Bishop, Dr Jefferts Schori

Different grasp of power: the US Presiding Bishop, Dr Jefferts Schori

I AM a priest from the Episcopal Church in the United States, and I found myself sitting in the gallery of the General Synod last month, watching it discuss the Anglican Covenant pro­cess (Synod, 20 Feb­ruary). I was in London to speak to an inter­national counter-terrorism con­fer­ence, as I am a Professor of Religious Studies, and my research involves the psychology of religious terrorism.

I felt honoured to attend the Synod. Most of the discussion focused on the possible impact of the Covenant on the Church of England, but, as it progressed, I found it increasingly hard, as I heard the American Church pilloried and de-scribed in misleading, if not incor­rect, ways.

As far as I remember (I did not take notes), one speaker said that the American Church was “preaching a new gospel”; another said Americans were “tearing the fabric of the Com­munion apart”. I got the impression that some of the speakers felt that the schismatics (as I think of them) were being persecuted by lawsuits, and needed to be protected from the American Church.

I wanted to stand up and defend my Church. I have been a priest for 40 years, and I regularly read the church Fathers and the Anglican divines; I hardly feel as if I am “preaching a new gospel”. No self-styled traditionalist has been “driven out”, asked to leave, or forbidden by the Presiding Bishop from teaching or preaching.

Later I met a colleague from the Church of England, who said that the American Church has “a very weak theology of the episcopate”. How power is distributed is always a theological issue; and whether power is more top-down or bottom-up is a theological issue.

The American Church (as the first anti-colonial Church) has a clear theology of the episcopate, how power should be distributed, and how the lines of accountability flow. This is represented by the fact that our bishops are elected by clergy and laity together; that the elected General Convention has a great deal of au­thor­ity relative to the Primate and the bishops; and that our Primate is called “the Presiding Bishop”, and not the Archbishop or even, ordinarily, the “Primate”. Such a doctrine places the episcopate in the context of a very strong doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and of the distribution of the Holy Spirit throughout the Body of Christ.

Of course, this is a part of American culture. In its constitution and throughout much of its history, the United States has articulated an understanding of power which em­phasises authority flowing from the bottom up, and constrained by a system of checks and balances.

The governing structure of the Episcopal Church was established at about the same time as the United States’ constitutional government, and there are clear parallels between them. Governing authority resides with the Church’s elected General Convention, paralleling the US national legislature, and both are divided into two elected houses. The power of the executive branch (the President and the Presiding Bishop) is carefully circumscribed.

Church-history textbooks, how­ever, say that the developing Christian Church took over the administrative structures of the Roman Empire, and so the early-medieval Church (and its successors) reflects Latin adminis­trative culture. Many “stronger” theo­logies of the episcopate reflect Euro­pean monarchical cultures or African tribal cultures. So this is only to say that the American Church is Amer­ican, the Church of England is English, and the African Church is African.

I THINK that the American Church has done an embarrassingly poor job of articulating its theology. I found its response to the Windsor report (the document To Set our Hope on Christ) lacking in theological argu­ment, and have said so publicly.

The American response em­phasised the personal experiences of members of the Body of Christ in the United States, and the historical context that led to the American Church’s current position. This re­flects the nature of theological discus­sion in the United States, where ex­perience and historical context are given great weight. This is a theo­lo­gical epistem­ology that I think is quite defensible. But I think that theo­­­logical epistem­ology itself needed to be defended, and that was not done.

In addition, by putting so much emphasis there, doctrinal issues that are part of the debate — such as scrip­­tural authority and human nature — were not discussed in enough depth. Theologies of scrip­tural authority and human nature were implied, but not elaborated. The American position deserves (and can receive) a stronger theological ration­ale.

BEFORE attending the Synod, I spent two days at the counter-terrorism conference hearing recent US foreign and military policy being attacked — in ways that I agreed with. Then, at the Synod, I heard the American Church attacked in ways I certainly did not agree with. This did make me wonder, as I have before, to what extent the controversy about Bishop Gene Robinson is another expression of a distaste (which I share) for the United States’ acting unilaterally.

Belonging to an international Communion, and not simply a national Church, is important to me, and I feel great warmth for the Church of England. Yet I come away saddened that the mainstream of the Episcopal Church in the US and many members of the Church of England appear to have talked past each other. Differences over specific issues (such as the full inclusion of devout gays and lesbians in the life of the Church) reflect breakdowns in un­der­standing of more fundamental theological concerns, such as the nature and distribution of power, and the place of experience and context in theological reflection.

I hope it is not true that, to para­phrase the quotation attributed to Winston Churchill, we are “two Churches divided by a common language”. But even that separation (if it existed) did not keep our two nations from powerful co-operation. May that remain true for our two Churches as well.

The Revd Dr James W. Jones is Pro­fessor of Religious Studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a psy­chologist.

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