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The boycotting of the Lambeth Conference in July by more than 200 Anglican Bishops worldwide has once again drawn attention to the divisions within the Anglican Communion. As mainstream Episcopalians, we are saddened by the rifts in the Church, especially because we believe them to be rooted, to a large extent, in misperceptions and misrepresentations. In addition, we lament the lack of civil dialogue around the divisions in the Church. We seek to remedy some of those misperceptions and advance a civil public discourse on these issues.
In May, Os Guinness posted a column to “On Faith” entitled “Evangelicals Reach Out.” The piece referenced his Evangelical Manifesto and the prominent Americans that had supported it. It was superbly written, and subsequently Newsweek carried it in print. It was an affirmative statement of belief, which we endorse. But it stands in stark contrast to others of Guinness’ public comments and the positions of some of the congregations and clergy with whom he has aligned himself. A year ago, Guinness and the Reverend John Yates wrote a piece carried in the Washington Post entitled “Why We Left the Episcopal Church.” We respectfully but strongly disagree with its depiction of the American Episcopal Church, as strongly as we endorse the message of the Manifesto.
As to our backgrounds: One author of this post, David Abshire, is an Episcopal layman who for over two decades has co-convened the Trinity National Leadership Roundtable with the rector of Trinity Wall Street. He also has participated in Guinness’ Trinity Forum, as Guinness has participated in the Roundtable. Both Abshire and Guinness have written on the importance of civility in American life (Guinness in his book Civility and Abshire with his essay The Grace and Power of Civility). With Ambassador Max Kampelman, Abshire chairs the National Committee to Unite a Divided America, a group of about 200 distinguished Americans, all signatories to a declaration calling for increased civility and inclusive leadership in government.
Abshire’s co-author of this post is The Very Reverend Ian Markham, whose most recent of several books is Do Morals Matter? He writes in the conclusion, “Talk in schools of a ‘moral-free zone’ is a manifest and dangerous nonsense.” Thus, he is not a moral relativist. As the recent inaugurated Dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, he has sought to reinforce this message in a vital center not only of the Episcopal Church in America, but the entire Anglican Communion. He is grounded in the good news of the Resurrection of Christ and his Gospel. We mention this point because Yates and Guinness argue that our Episcopal Church has abandoned the Scriptures. Furthermore, he leads the strongest seminary in the Anglican Communion, which draws students from all over the world.
Abshire, Markham and Guinness share a common understanding of civility: respect, listening, dialogue and the possibility of higher ground. This is exactly what happened at what is now called the “miracle” of the Constitutional Convention. Civility does not mean giving up what are considered sacred values. They didn’t do so in 1787. It does mean searching for transcendent values with which to advance the common good. So must the dialogue within our Anglican Church proceed, or we risk losing more breakaway congregants and clergy, some of whom are the finest of preachers and Church leaders.
The uniqueness of the Anglican tradition is that it overarches in an inclusive way while recognizing difference. In the very beginning it retained the Apostolic tradition of the Catholic Church, while reaching out to the Protestantism of Luther. As for the American Church it is highly significant that despite the enormous differences between Americans during the Civil War, the American Episcopal Church did not break apart North and South as did other Protestant Churches. Indeed our National Cathedral in architecture symbolizes the overall commonality of the children of Abraham: Christians, Jews and Muslims; with all their differences.
Yet, in spite of this heritage, the Episcopal Church, the breakaway churches and many African Bishops have all failed the civility test at one time or another. We fully agree with the Winsor Report released by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004. That report chastised the American Church for not heeding the Anglican Consultative Council before advancing a gay bishop–something for which the American Presiding Bishop publicly expressed regret. But the report also chastised the breakaway churches for breaching established procedures and authorities. Now many churches in Africa have joined with the American breakaway churches in their defiance. Ironically, the Anglican Consultative Council was originally set up to deal decades earlier with the issue of polygamy in the African church. It was intended to create a civil and consultative way to deal with differences within the worldwide Communion.
In their op-ed, Yates and Guinness assert that the complaint of the breakaway churches is not the issue of female or gay clergy or Bishops, but rather the abandonment of the doctrine of “Sola Scripta,” the scriptures alone. They argue that “current Episcopal Revisionism” severs the continuity of centuries of faith.
However, even “Sola Scripta” in the Anglican Church, as in the historic Roman Catholic Church, does not mean literalism. Long ago, such an approach was most dramatically delegitimized as in 1543 when Nicholas Copernicus upset Church doctrine by asserting that the sun was the center of the solar system, and later when Galileo challenged the Biblical passage of Joshua stopping the sun in the sky. Furthermore, much of what Martin Luther meant by “Sola Scripta” was that Christians were redeemed by their observance of the scriptures alone, as opposed to paying monetary tribute to the corrupt 16th century church hierarchy, who promised favor with God in return. Luther was standing against corruption, not non-literal translations of the Scriptures.
The literal, rather than spiritual, content of the scriptures is stressed by “fundamentalists.” Such a focus emerged, when the word “fundamentalism” was coined by a Baptist minister in the early 20th century in the Twelve Tracts, published from 1910 to 1915 in response to the teaching of Darwin’s natural selection in schools. Later, this conflict was dramatized during the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. There occurred the famous vicious dialogue between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, who defended every word of the Bible literally.
It is true that the Third World religious revival has tended toward not only commendable Evangelism, but also worrisome Fundamentalism. There is a slight hint in this direction in the Yates-Guinness piece, hopefully unintended. Such indeed would not be based in Anglicanism, which embraces both faith and reason and a sense of proportion. In contrast, the Manifesto does largely contain this proportionality. Anglicanism favors the same kind of civility in dealing with differences as did the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention.
Yates and Guinness used President Gerald Ford’s funeral as the peg for their op-ed. The eulogizing Bishop recalled a plea from the aging President to hold the Church together, and Yates and Guinness cited its mention at Ford’s funeral as an example of the pervasiveness of the rift in Anglicanism. We thought Ford’s plea was quite moving as he clearly hoped the Episcopal breach could be healed as he had sought to heal the nation after Watergate. We think the Episcopal Church is well positioned to be a healer in national life, especially given the role of the National Cathedral.
Today, we feel that the Episcopal Church is viewed by the public through a blurry lens. Their view is distorted by the prominence given in the media to the dispute over wedge issues like gay bishops and female clergy. Press reports of the Lambeth conference or the General Convention inevitably play up these rifts. One might think that all mainstream Episcopal congregations spend most of their time in church discussing how to advance gay and female clergy. For the mainstream congregations that we are familiar with the reality is completely different. Our services focus on the Gospel and the life and teachings of Jesus. We feel that many breakaway parishes don’t believe this reality, which is an example of the sort of accusation of false motives and hidden agendas that Guinness decries in his Manifesto.
The rift in the global Anglican Communion can and must be repaired through civil dialogue. This dialogue is impossible when parties refuse to show up at the table as happened at Lambeth. The differences among the vast majority are not as great as portrayed. We and other prominent Episcopalians will release a “Statement of Beliefs” that explains exactly what the beliefs of mainstream Episcopalians are. Among these beliefs are, not only that the risen Christ is “the way and the truth and the life,” but also those values that Jesus lived out. He embraced the outcast and downtrodden, believed in inclusion far more than exclusion. He despised most hypocrisy and sanctimony. He believed in equity and justice and Christians making the most of their gifts in service to God. Surely, that represents a common basis for belief far greater than the sum of those points on which we differ.
David Abshire was U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 1983 to 1987. The Very Reverend Ian Markham is Dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary.