Friday, March 18, 2016

Time to Think Out of the Box: Ecclesiastical Organization and Mission in the Twenty-First Century

I originally posted this article on Anglicans Ablaze one day short of five years ago. I is one of a number of selected articles that I am reposting on Anglicans Ablaze due to their relevance for today.

By Robin G. Jordan

I had an opportunity to listen to Canon Phil Ashey’s audio, “Anglican Perspective: Why Form a Diocese?” For those who may not be familiar with Canon Ashey, he is the Chief Operating and Development Officer for the American Anglican Council. He served on the Common Cause Governance Task Force that drafted the constitution and canons of the Anglican Church in North America.

In the audio Ashey advocates the formation of geographic dioceses within the Anglican Church in North America, opposed to non-geographic judicatories. The constitution and canons of the Anglican Church in North America permits the organization of groups of churches into dioceses on a non-geographical basis as well a geographical one. As a member of the Common Cause Governance Task Force that drafted these documents Ashey should be thoroughly acquainted with their provisions.

One is prompted to ask why Ashey is promoting the formation of geographic dioceses over non-geographic judicatories. Is he acting on his own? Or is Ashey acting as an official representative of the ACC, which is acting on the behalf of the ACNA in this matter. If the latter is the case, why has the ACNA Provincial Council not issued a policy statement encouraging the formation of geographic dioceses and discouraging the further establishment of non-geographic judicatories? Is it trying to create the impression that groups of churches are free to organize themselves as non-geographic judicatories and seek affiliation with the ACNA while actually opposing the erection of such judicatories?

The ACNA leadership is not known for its openness and transparency. It does not tell ACNA congregations and clergy and the general public what it is doing until it has done it. In this way the ACNA leadership seeks to avoid any opposition developing to what it is proposing to do. The ACNA leadership, unlike the 1968 Lambeth Conference, does not believe that all major issues in the life of the church should be decided with the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision. What the ACNA leadership does not want to happen is public debate that may raise questions regarding its judment.

In the audio Ashey gives four reasons that groups of churches that desire to unite with the ACNA should organize as geographic dioceses. He does not mention that they have the option of organizing as non-geographic judicatories.

The first reason that Ashey gives is that it is biblical—or so he maintains. He claims that the apostle Paul in his epistles urges the churches in the same region to organize as a diocese. He does not cite specific New Testament references that support his assertion. Whatever Paul may have written to the churches in the same region in his epistles, it is stretching the truth and twisting the Scriptures to assert that Paul instructed them to organize into geographic dioceses.

The Anglican Reformers found no evidence in the New Testament that God had mandated an particular form of church governance or ecclesiastical organization. They inherited the diocesan system from the Medieval Church, which in turn had acquired it from Imperial Rome. The Roman Empire had been organized into dioceses for civil administrative purposes. In the early Christian Church the sphere of ministry of a bishop was not even called a diocese. It was known as his “parish.” Such a parish consisted of the main church of a city or town and a number of outlying churches . As the Christian Church grew and expanded, the bishop’s sphere of ministry was eventually renamed a diocese after the Imperial Roman civil administrative unit.

In Britain and Ireland the Celtic Church was not organized into dioceses. It was a monastic church rather than an episcopally-organized church. It had no organized center. The monastic communities comprising the Celtic Church formed loose networks based upon who founded them. Ireland had no cities or towns. It had no system of interconnecting highways. The population lived in rural settlements. Britain’s few cities and towns and road system were confined to the area that the Roman legions had conquered and turned into a Roman province. The British adopted the practice of living in cities and towns under the influence of their Roman conquerors. Before the arrival of the Roman legions they had lived in rural settlements like the Irish. Outside the bounds of the Roman province they continued to do so. Patrick tried to establish the diocesan system in Ireland. It did not survive his death.

The Celtic Church did have the threefold ministry of deacon, presbyter, and bishop. However, bishops in the Celtic Church were not the prelates that they were in the Gallican and Roman Churches. The principal leader in the Celtic Church was the abbot, the head of the monastic community.

Even though the Celtic Church was a monastic church, the Celtic monks did not live in cloistered seclusion. Nor were all the monks celibate. Some of the monks were married and had families. Both monks and nuns sometimes lived in the same community.

Celtic monastic communities were centres of Christianity in a pagan world. The Celtic monks were very active in mission. The Celtic monastic communities not only welcomed seekers but sent out teams of monks to evangelize the pagans. The Celtic monks were responsible for the evangelization of Scotland and most of England.

The Celtic monks also crossed the English Channel and evangelized pagan Brittany, Germany, and Switzerland. They crossed the Alps and established monastic communities in Northern Italy. The particular ecclesiastical organization of the Celtic Church gave it much greater flexibility than the Gallican and Roman Churches and made it more ideally suited for mission. Combined with the missionary zeal of the Celtic monks the Celtic Church saw the spread of Christianity wherever the Celtic monks went.

The situation that the Celtic Church faced in the British Isles and Europe was not unlike the situation that the Anglican Church faces in North America. The population contained large numbers of unchurched non-Christians. The situation differed in one major respect. The Celtic Church saw the numbers of these people grow less as it spread the gospel. The Anglican Church is seeing the numbers of such people grow more, even seeing its own members become a part of this population segment.

Augustine would introduce the diocesan system in the southeast part of England, in a Saxon kingdom, establishing sees at Canterbury, London, and Rochester. But this system was almost swept away following his death.

The diocesan system was not fully established in England until the Middle Ages. Bishops in Medieval England were feudal lords. Their diocese was their fiefdom. They lived in a palace, which might resemble a castle. They had vassals, retainers, clients, and serfs. They operated their own system of courts like the other feudal lords did. They not only stored wine in their cellars but they also kept prisoners. They sat in the English Parliament when the king summoned Parliament.

This is the diocesan system that the Anglican Reformers inherited. Rather do away with the diocesan system, they sought to reform it. While they found no Scriptural mandate for a particular form of church governance or ecclesiastical organization, they also found nothing in the Scriptures that prohibited bishops and dioceses. They retained the diocesan system because they were accustomed to it. They could not imagine any other way of organizing the church. They also realized that a complete reorganization of the English Church might create unrest and rebellion. The reforms they had made in the liturgy and worship had already met with resistance.

The second reason Ashey gives for groups of churches organizing into geographic dioceses is that it is missional. “Missional” is contemporary term. The old term was “missionary.” However, it has fallen out of favor. In the Church of England, the term “mission-shaped” is used instead of “missional.”

What Ashey is claiming is that geographic dioceses are shaped for mission. The question is what is his understanding of mission. Is it reaching and evangelizing the unchurched and enfolding them in new churches? If that is the case, the diocese has not shown itself particularly suited for this purpose.

Ashey fails to mention that the Anglican Reformers, in retaining the diocesan system, did not do it because they thought that it was the best way to carryout the Great Commission. Rather they thought that it was the best way to achieve “the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living, without error and superstition.”

In the sixteenth century all the English people were regarded to be members of the Church of England. Church attendance was compulsory. Those who did not attend church could be fined or imprisoned. In the twenty-first century church attendance is purely voluntary. Less and less people are attending church.

In the eighteenth and nineteen century it became evident that the diocesan system was not really shaped for mission. Military and naval chaplains, company chaplains, and missionaries, supported by independent missionary societies, were responsible for the spread of the gospel to North America.

The eighteenth century not only saw the development of such missionary societies but also the Methodist movement and open-air preaching. The diocesan system and the parish system that was a part of it were obstacles to the spread of the gospel. A large segment of the English population was unevangelized and unconverted.

In the twentieth century dioceses did not prove to be the most effective organization for mission in North America. For example, the Diocese of Louisiana in a space of 40 odd years, to my knowledge, planted only three new churches. During the same period the population growth of a number of areas of the state, including my own parish, Louisiana’s equivalent of a county, was booming. A clear need for more churches existed in these areas. Here in western Kentucky where I now live, no new churches have been planted since 1980. One church has closed since I first began coming to the region in the 1980s. Only two of five surviving churches are holding their own. The other three churches are struggling. What happened in Louisiana and what happened here demonstrate that falsity of Ashey’s assertion: the diocese is not missional, or mission-shaped, in of its self.

A critical element in mission is churches and church leaders committed to mission. Organizational structure is secondary. It, however, may help or hinder local churches in mission. From what I have seen the diocesan system can be a hinderance to mission.

As I have noted the ancient Celtic Church was very effective in mission without a diocesan system. If one examines how the churches that are most effective at evangelism and church planting in the United States are organizing for mutual support and assistance and the recruitment, training, licensing, and deployment of clergy, the organizational structure that they are adopting is not the diocese or geographic judicatory. It is what Lyle Schaller, a leading ecclesiologist, calls “affinity networks.” An affinity network brings together churches that share a common theology, common values, and a common vision.

The diocese or geographic judicatory, on the other hand, may include churches that have disparate theologies, disparate values, and disparate visions. Rather than cooperating with each other, the churches compete with each other to make their particular theology, values, and vision the theology, values, and vision of the diocese or geographic judicatory. The result is tension, power struggles, and conflict.

We have seen what happened in the Episcopal Church. Conservative congregations and clergy experienced serious theological disputes with their liberal bishops. Conservative congregations and clergy were increasingly marginalized and pushed to the periphery of the Episcopal Church. One diocese after another came under the sway of the liberals in the Episcopal Church.

Those who think that the ACNA has no divisions need to think again. Disagreement over charismatic renewal and women’s ordination is likely to intensify as churches with different positions on these issues are thrown together in geographic dioceses. Every new parachurch organization goes through a honeymoon period. The ACNA is no exception. When the honeymoon ends, the problems begin.

Affinity networks offer a way around the differences in theology, values, and vision that divide the churches in the ACNA. If a geographic-based organizational structure is desired, it can be established within each affinity networks in the form of what are called episcopal areas in the Church of England. Each episcopal area is under the oversight of an area bishop.

One of the reasons that the Anglican Mission, formerly the Anglican Mission in the Americas, decided against full integration into the ACNA was that it would have been required to dismantle its present organizational structure. In its ten years of reaching and evangelizing the unchurched and planting new churches, the Anglican Mission had found its mission networks much more effective than the diocesan system.

As the third reason for groups of churches organizing into geographic dioceses Ashey appeals to Jesus’ high priestly prayer: 
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:20-21
This passage is not a Scriptural warrant for one visible Church headed by the Pope as Roman Catholics claim. Nor is a warrant for geographic dioceses as Ashey would have his listeners believe. Formation into a geographic diocese cannot produce oneness in a group of churches that have disparate theologies, values, and visions. It is highly doubtful that Jesus, when he was praying, had the bringing together of churches into one denomination or judicatory in mind. Jesus was one with the Father, not only because he was the Son and therefore the Second Person of the Trinity, but also because he sought to do the Father’s will. They were united in purpose. This is the kind of oneness for which Jesus is praying. He is praying for unity of will and purpose. What was it that John tells us that Father and Son willed, what was the purpose in which they were united?
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:14-17)
The salvation of humankind was what they willed and purposed. A group of churches do not need a particular form of ecclesiastical organization to work together to proclaim the gospel to the entire world and to make disciples of every people group. They do, however, need to agree on what is the message of the gospel. Proclaiming the gospel entails more than proclaiming “the transforming love of Jesus.” What is more important than being united into one ecclesiastical organization—judicatory or denomination—is being united in doctrine, in what they preach and teach. Organizational unity is no substitute for doctrinal unity.

The fourth reason for a group of churches to organize themselves into a geographic diocese that Ashey gives is that the geographic diocese is normative for the Anglican Church. He says that groups of churches desiring to unite with the ACNA should organize in geographic dioceses because the Anglican Church has always done things that way.

Ashey is not telling the whole story. There is a lengthy list of exceptions to what Ashey claims is the norm for the Anglican Church. The Church of England has a long history of what are known as “peculiarities”—chapels, churches, districts, and an entire island deanery, Jersey—that are under the oversight of a different bishop from the diocese in which they are located. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the English established what were called “the English Episcopal Chapels” in Scotland. They were licensed chapels that had English clergy and used the English Prayer Book and over which the Scottish bishops had no jurisdiction even though they were located in their dioceses. The various missions that Anglican missionary societies established in Africa, Asia, India, and South America were not organized into dioceses. The Reformed Episcopal Church was at one point organized into synods, not dioceses. The Anglican Communion Network that became a founding entity of the ACNA had both geographic and non-geographic convocations. The Kenyan, Nigerian and Ugandan missionary convocations that formed the Common Cause Partnership with the ACN, the AMiA, and the REC and from which the ACNA was formed were not organized into dioceses. The Anglican Mission is organized into mission networks. This particular list of examples of exceptions to this supposed norm is not exhaustive.

What Ashey is basically arguing is, “We’ve always done it this way.” This is a poor argument for not finding a better way of doing something—for example, organizing groups of churches for mission, when the way we have always done it has not proven very effective. We live in a different world from England in the sixteenth century or the United States in the 1950s. What may have worked then, if it indeed did work, is not guaranteed to work now.

Anglican identity is not tied to organization into dioceses. The Thirty-Nine Articles, the Anglican Church’s confession of faith, forms with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and 1661 Ordinal the long-recognized doctrinal standard for the Anglican Church. It contains no reference to dioceses as the normative form of organization for the Anglican Church. Its definition of the visible church is, in the words of the late Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes, Anglican minister, scholar, and seminary professor, who wrote the definitive work on the theology of the English Reformers, “a gathering of believing people in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments are ministered with due order and discipline as ordained by Christ” (Article XIX). This describes the local church, not the diocese. The emphasis is upon the proclamation of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments, not a particular ecclesiastical organization.

Some readers may point to the African provinces and argue that they prove the effectiveness of the diocesan system. The African provinces do not prove diocesan system’s effectiveness but show what churches committed to mission can accomplish. Other factors include a form of governance and leadership that is consonant with the local indigenous culture. The paramount chieftain, the tribal chieftain, and the village headman play an important role in traditional African society. So do the paramount chieftain’s council of lesser chieftains and advisers and the village council of elders.

The African provinces also illustrate the problems of the diocesan system. In many parts of Africa dioceses have been formed without regard to the ethnic, linguistic, and tribal differences of a region’s population. The result has at times been open strife. In one instance the majority of congregations and clergy in a particular diocese refused to recognize their new bishop because he did not belong to the same linguistic group and tribe to which they belonged. They had been promised a bishop who would be one of their own clergy. They not only refused to attend his enthronement but also locked the doors of the cathedral to him and took to the streets in protest.

Those who are expecting that the organization of the ACNA into geographic dioceses will yield a unified denomination are going to be sadly disappointed. The idea that a bishop of one persuasion can be a bishop to congregations and clergy of other persuasions is idealistic. It does not work in practice. For the few examples of bishops who have dealt fairly with congregations and clergy of a different persuasion, there are many more examples of bishops who have not. In case of the Episcopal Church disputes between congregations and their clergy and their bishops led to the formation of the ACNA in the twenty-first century as they had led to the formation of REC in the nineteenth century. Similar disputes between evangelicals and Anglo-Catholic Bishop Gray in South Africa led to the formation of the Church of England in South Africa. Bishop Gray upon his appointment sought to reshape the churches in his diocese more to his liking.

It is time to think out of the box. Congregations and clergy in the ACNA need to give serious consideration to what type of ecclesiastical organization is going to work best in the twenty-first century North America. If mission is their priority as should be for all Christians, Anglican and non-Anglican, then they need to consider what is the best organization for effective mission and the doctrinal unity requisite to mission. They need to ask themselves whether organizing solely on the basis of geographic proximity is the best way to achieve these ends.

Some will argue, as does Phil Ashey, that it is the way we have always done things. But is that sufficient reason for continuing a system that is not effective for mission.

A strong case may be argued from Scripture that mission should be chief guiding principle for determining what type of ecclesiastical organization a group of churches should adopt. Among the questions that any group of churches seeking to band together for mission need to ask are these six questions: What type of organization would enable us to most effectively support and help each other in mission in our own respective communities?

What type of organization would enable us to most effectively combine our resources and mobilize them for mission outside our respective communities—both in North America and the larger world?

What type of organization would enable us to most effectively plant new congregations?

What type of organization would enable us to most effective recruit, train, license, and deploy both licensed and ordained ministers?

What type of organization would enable us to most effectively to equip other church leaders?

What type of organization would enable us to ensure that we are all on the same page as far as theology, values, and vision are concerned?
In seriously considering these questions, they are likely to conclude that a type of organization that is based on affinity and to a lesser extent on geographic proximity would be more effective than a type of organization based solely on geographic proximity. Canon Phil Ashey does a great disservice to Anglican congregations and clergy seeking to band together for mission and to unite with the ACNA when he fails to draw this to their attention. He is in the long term also doing a similar disservice to the Anglican Church in North America and the cause of the gospel in North America and the world.

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