Friday, March 19, 2010

Authority, Mission and the Anglican Church in North America: Part II

By Robin G. Jordan

The high growth rate of the African provinces that are organized along more authoritarian lines than the Western provinces is not the only reason that some North American Anglicans have supported the creation of similar authoritarian organizational structures in the Anglican Church in North America. A number of North American Anglicans who favor this type of ecclesiastical organization for the Anglican Church in North America display a tendency to be impatient with deliberative assemblies, due process, and the rule of law and to be distrustful of lay involvement in the governance of the church. They tend to blame the synodical form of ecclesiastical governance of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church and the laity of these churches for the direction that the two churches have taken. Their minimization of the major role the bishops and other clergy have played in the developments in these churches comes very close to denial.

Yet Canadian Anglican and American Episcopal bishops have been overseeing the selection of practicing homosexuals for ordained ministry in these churches, approving their candidacy for ordination, and ordaining them. They have also been sanctioning the blessing of homosexual couples in their dioceses and the development of rites for the blessing of these couples. American Episcopal bishops confirmed and consecrated openly gay man as a diocesan bishop and they have confirmed and will consecrate an openly lesbian woman as a suffragan bishop. Canadian Anglican and American Episcopal clergy have been preaching the acceptance of homosexuality and the tolerance of other religions from the pulpit and teaching it in the classroom. They have also been preaching and teaching universal salvation.

In Episcopal parishes and churches the rector or vicar plays an influential role in the life of the church. His influence extends to the selection of nominees for the churchwardens and the vestry or bishop’s committee, for the chairs and even members of church committees, officers of church organizations, and delegates to the diocesan convention. In a parish or church with a liberal rector or vicar, congregants who hold these posts are likely to share the views of the pastor, be sympathetic to them, or be amenable to doing things the way the pastor wants them done. Anyone who is not a “team player” is likely to find himself labeled as a troublemaker, marginalized, and pushed to the periphery of the church. As a parish or church becomes more liberal, some conservative members of the congregation are likely to migrate to more conservative churches or cease going to church altogether. Others may for a variety of reasons remain. They may privately cling to their conservative beliefs or in time adopt more liberal ideas and values. The likelihood of a parish or church with a liberal rector or vicar sending conservative delegates to the diocesan convention is very slim.

In the diocesan convention the bishop exercises considerable influence. If the bishop is a liberal and the majority of diocesan clergy are liberal, the likelihood that the delegates the diocesan convention sends to the general convention will be liberal or open to the liberal point of view is quite high. A liberal-dominated diocesan convention is likely to elect a liberal bishop and a liberal-dominated House of Bishops to confirm a liberal bishop.

The problem is not the organizational structures of the Episcopal Church. Liberals benefited from a changing culture outside of the church and conservative apathy, complaisance, and disorganization in the church. The structures themselves did not open the door to liberalism.

It is sometimes argued that if the Episcopal Church had been more authoritarian like the Roman Catholic Church, it would be less liberal. While the Pope may be conservative and official church teachings are conservative, the American Catholic Church has not escaped the influence of liberalism. It also has been affected by the cultural changes of the past fifty years. Once liberalism or any other ideology gains a hold in a denomination with an authoritarian organization, the adherents of this ideology can exploit the authoritarian organizational structures to promote the ideology. This process may take a number of years but eventually it will produce desired effects.

Some North American Anglicans who favor the organization of the ACNA along authoritarian lines see in this type of ecclesiastical organization the means by which their own particular theological and ecclesiological outlook may not only be saved from oblivion but also given greater prominence in the ACNA. Authoritarian bishops fit their particular view of episcopacy and the episcopate. In their view the episcopal institution is a prelatical institution and this institution is essential to the existence of the church. They have strongly been influenced by post-Constantine prelacy and “the liberal-catholic myth of a ‘prelatical-episcopate’.”

The authoritarian organizational structures of the African provinces to a large extent reflect the influence of traditional African society. From the days of the Pharaohs traditional African society has been authoritarian and hierarchical with the king or the paramount chieftain at the top of the hierarchy and the common people and the slaves at the bottom. The bishop in the African Church occupies a position similar to that of a chieftain in traditional African society. This is quite evident from the enthronement ceremonies of an African bishop. This is not to denigrate the role of the bishop in the African Church but to recognize the cultural influences upon that role.

In the Anglican Church of Rwanda, for example, the minimum age requirement for a bishop is much higher than that in Western churches. Bishops are chosen from the older clergy of the church: they must be at least 40 years of age. The primate must be 55 years of age. This in part reflects the Rwandan understanding of the New Testament requirements for a bishop. It also reflects the influence of traditional African society.

In the Anglican Church of Rwanda the primate is elected by the house of bishops and must be a member of the house of bishops. As for bishops of the diocese the diocesan synod presents two candidates to the house of bishops which elects one to be the diocesan bishop. If there is a tie, the candidate who has served the longest is declared elected. If both candidates have served the same length of time, the oldest candidate is declared elected. If the house of bishops is not satisfied either candidate meets the necessary requirements for bishop, it sends the names of the candidates back to the diocesan synod and requests additional nominees until a qualified candidate is found and elected. The election of the diocesan bishop must be confirmed by the primate. The influence of traditional African society is quite evident in the process for resolving ties. Assistant bishops and bishop coadjutors are appointed by the diocesan bishop after the diocesan synod and the house of bishops approve the creation of the office of assistant bishop or bishop coadjutor.

These structures also reflect the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The African provinces are attracted to the structures of the Roman Catholic Church because they fit with their understanding of the role of the bishop. The feudal prelatical model of the bishop, inherited by the Church of England from the pre-Reformation medieval church, and the authoritarian, hierarchical character of traditional African society have influenced how they understand this role.

The authoritarian organizational structures of the African provinces may be a culturally appropriate way of organizing the Church in a traditional African context. However, they are not without their problems. In Africa provinces diocesan boundaries do not respect ethnic, linguistic, and tribal divisions. A number of these groups have histories of long standing enmity with each other. One group may dominate the provincial hierarchy while another group may comprise the majority of the clergy and laity in a diocese. The group dominating the provincial hierarchy may pick a diocesan bishop who is a member of their own group and not the majority group in the diocese. This happened in a diocese of the Province of Central Africa and resulted in a boycott of the new bishop’s enthronement. The doors of the cathedral were also locked against the new bishop, and the clergy and the people took to the streets in protest of the appointment. This is just one of a number of problems to which the authoritarian organizational structures of the African provinces are prone. As Stephen Noll, former vice-chancellor of the University of Uganda, has observed, the Africans still have a lot to learn about the difference between episcopal authority and episcopal tyranny.

In England bishops are officers of the state and lords spiritual of the realm. They have a political role as well as an ecclesiastical one. They sit in the House of Lords in Parliament. The episcopate in the Church of England is a prelatical institution. It suffers from a number of problems. There have been repeated calls for its reform. It is certainly not a model to adopt for an African province or a North American one.

The Church of England has a history of authoritarian bishops who have used their episcopal authority in a tyrannical manner to impose their unbiblical views in doctrine and their aesthetical tastes in worship upon the English Church or its overseas dioceses. Three such bishops are Archbishop William Laud in the seventeenth century and Bishops Robert Gray and Henry Philpotts in the nineteenth century. Among Archbishop Laud’s plans was to send a bishop to the Massachusetts Colony to which the persecuted Puritans were fleeing and put an end to the Puritan experiment with congregationalism in the New World. The original purpose of the system of conventions in the Episcopal Church was to serve as a check and balance to prelacy. Despite this safeguard the Episcopal Church has also had its share of tyrannical bishops.

Considering the recent experiences of former Episcopalians with the Episcopal Church’s prelatical episcopate, with a number of congregations and clergy involved in serious theological disputes with their bishops, their support of the authoritarian organizational structures in the ACNA and its member organizations is surprising. With these experiences fresh in their mind, they would be expected to want to limit the powers of bishops, place checks on their use of authority, and establish safeguards against the abuse of power and arbitrariness in governance. However, while they have left the Episcopal Church, they have not shaken off the liberal Catholic ideology of prelacy.

When confronted with the major role that bishops played in the developments in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church, their response is typically, “But we have godly bishops.” They are highly uncritical and subjective in their view of the godliness of their bishops. They seem unable if not unwilling to consider the possibility that those whom they regard as paragons of godliness may, like all human beings, turn out to have feet of clay or that future leaders of the ACNA may prove to be not so godly. They also show a willingness to excuse or even condone in their present leaders what they do not in the leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church.

Despite the claims of its proponents this type of ecclesiastical organization is not a good model for a new North American province. In the next article in this series, I will examine a number of its major weaknesses.

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