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The call to accountability: the parable of the AMiA

The call to accountability: the parable of the AMiA
by: Ephraim Radner

One of the most egregious failures of the ECUSA's recent General Convention, and of the many of the leaders and bishops engaged in its decisions, has been their demonstrated rejection of Christian accountability as an essential virtue defining the life of the institutional church. The actions of General Convention itself, in consenting to a non-celibate gay man's election as a bishop and in affirming the legitimacy of local same-sex blessings around the church, and subsequent actions by the Presiding Bishop and other bishops and dioceses in affirming these decisions, have all deliberately repudiated the constraining power of the common mind, pleas, admonitions, and moral persuasions of both the Episcopal Church's past commitments, her traditions and historic foundations, and her brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion around the world. The world stands and wonders, as do many Episcopalians, "what then are you accountable to, if not to the authorities of your common life?"

The rejection of Christian accountability -- mutual, charitable, ordered, and founded in the demands of Christ's own Body -- represents one of the great assaults upon the promises of God in our age. The press to ecclesial anarchy characterizes a common rebellion, in which we are all complicit. The current unraveling of the Anglican Communion, and the disintegration of the ECUSA itself stands as a judgment upon our shared desire to dispense with being held accountable and calling others to a reciprocal posture of responsibility.

In view of this spreading failure, it is important at least to note that a faithful response to its evangelical ravages cannot be to embrace some alternative autonomy and to add to the overturning of structures that hold us answerable to each other as a communion, however tottering they may now seem. The case of the AMiA (The Anglican Mission in America) represents an exemplar of succumbing to autonomy's encouragement and to communal accountability's subversion, all in the genuine desire to protest autonomy's attack upon the Christian faith. Having rightly identified the spiritual dangers of a disintegrated evangelical witness within ECUSA, and of the weakening of the "historic faith and order" that ought to be binding American Anglicanism's life with the larger Communion, the AMiA chose to move unilaterally to set up alternative parish and episcopal structures, only tenuously tied to and approved by a tiny minority of leaders of the larger Anglican Communion and positively rejected by most orthodox Primates, and to call this a form of "testimony" against the failures of the Episcopal Church. The clear problem in this response was that it set out to address ECUSA's rejection of Christian accountability through a process that itself refused to be held accountable to anyone else. The fruit of this project has, predictably, been to hasten the demise of the "historic faith and order" of Anglicanism in the United States altogether, a process whose ill effects are seeping into the international community itself.

To take but a local example, let us consider what took place in Colorado. In this moderately conservative diocese, already struggling three years ago to maintain some center of evangelical witness, the AMiA recruited and encouraged the defection of at least 15 clergy from ECUSA, and ended by splitting 9 congregations (closing one altogether). All of these clergy and congregations were in fact conservative in their commitments and life. Whether deliberately or not, the process involved in these splits proved divisive amongst friends and colleagues, led to mutual accusations and recriminations, and fostered a deep sense of mutual mistrust and even betrayal among former allies in the faith. In the midst of these discussions and arguments, meetings and counter-meetings, to what authority could one appeal? Not to the local bishop, of course, whose theological leadership was in dispute; not to existing bishops within the AMiA, because initially they had none in America, and were acting under the self-appointed direction of concerned priests ; not to the common mind of the Anglican Communion, whose body of Primates, among the conservative as much as anyone, refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the AMiA's self-ordering. And when the AMiA next chose to consecrate their own bishops, the question of self-justification was embodied in a process by definition of ecclesial and episcopal self-invention.

The fall-out in Colorado was predictable and, in many instances, devastating. The voting ranks of conservative clergy were depleted, conservative congregations were debilitated, and in several cases their clergy replaced with non-orthodox priests. Further, the image of the "conservative witness" was, in the eyes of moderates and other conservatives, deeply tarnished by what many regarded, rightly or wrongly, as deceit, manipulation, and the self-promoting tactics of AMiA leaders. In the space of 2 years, Colorado went from being a mildly conservative diocese, to being one with an effective liberal majority in terms of leadership and direction. There is no question but that the current ability of conservative clergy and laity to stand as a force of orthodox confession in the diocese is not only severely weakened, but considered fruitless by most, in large part because of the wreckage left by the AMiA's pursuit of the autonomous in order to punish autonomy. It is not clear what the force of the AMiA's own evangelistic witness is within the state, but it is not certainly visible as an alternative example of clarion success.

On a wider scale, the AMiA's effect on the dynamics of Communion decision-making are no more constructive. The AMiA's episcopal consecrations flew in the face of agreements made between Global South Primates and leaders earlier at Kampala, and there was felt by many around the world who were sympathetic with the doctrinal concerns of the group a deep sense of betrayal and division. What was viewed therefore as a refusal by the AMiA leadership and supporters to abide by the common mind of the Communion's sympathetic leadership - that is, a refusal to be held accountable - ended by rupturing trust among many Global-South Primates, and ruined the image of conservative/orthodox witness within the Communion in the eyes of more moderate leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose advisors have explicitly described the AMiA as a retreat into the impossibly autonomous. This remains the case, and stands as one of the great obstacles to a forceful response to ECUSA's current rebellion. There is a (mistaken) fear among some Primatial leaders, looking at what has happened with the AMiA, that decisive and courageous action now is equivalent to prideful self-assertion.

And all this for the same reasons as in the local compass of a diocese: the experience of a rejected call to mutual and responsible accountability -- with all of the interior resentments involved in such an experience -- has made many people around the Communion abandon confidence in the integrity and effectiveness of conservative witness as a persuasive direction for others to follow. In the name of maintaining Anglican unity in the truth, the AMiA has embodied practices of autonomous self-promotion to the detriment of communion, and thereby rendered suspect the very vision of a "common faith and discipline" that many have tried so hard to further.

Not all AMiA clergy or leaders, or certainly laity, can rightly be touched by this general evaluation - surely most are people of integrity of faith and vision, who made difficult choices, often sacrificial ones, for the sake of what they saw to be the substance of their vows before God. But the "general evaluation" still holds because of the overall direction of leadership that has refused to place its decisions within an arena of common accountability within the Communion, all of which encouraged and even upheld the many instances of perceived moral failure that mar the internal debates of Anglican conservatives now more than ever. In all this, the AMiA represents, therefore, one aspect of ECUSA's and the Communion's internal malaise. It is a symptom of spiritual disease, not an instrument of healing.

This is a parable of warning. Warning even against the paths we have already set down to follow.

Whatever happens to the Anglican Communion, or to Anglicanism within North America, or to individual Episcopalians who desperately seek some renewed clarity of witness to the Gospel that they can be sure is held in common with their church, the decisions and choices we make must be in favor of mutual accountability in Christ, and not against it. This will not be easy, simply because the choices we make in testimony of the historic faith and order of the Christian Church will be opposed by some, perhaps by a local majority; and the temptation will be to press our testimony into a realm of individual freedom, cut loose from the constraints of blasphemy and persecution we so acutely feel around us. The danger, however, is that we will soon find ourselves floating in a sea of competing testimonies and freedoms, and mutually assaulting claims. And the faith and order we set out to defend will be lost amid in the debris.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is rector, Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado

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