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The Divorce is Under Way - by Stephen Noll

The Divorce is Under Way

by Stephen Noll

Let’s face it: the Anglican Communion is breaking up. Terms like “breaking ties” and “impaired communion” are commonplace in official statements of many Provinces since the election and consecration of Gene Robinson in the Episcopal Church last year. Even observers who try to stand above the present fray are admitting that the word “Anglican Communion” needs to be downgraded to something closer to reality, something like “federation” or “historical association.” Call it what you will, Anglicans throughout the world are going through a divorce.

Divorce is a painful and contentious reality, as is known today in almost every family circle in America. It has been so since time immemorial. God put the prophet Hosea through a divorce in order that his experience might testify to the overwhelming consequences of family break-up. “Rebuke your mother,” the prophet tells his children in God’s name, “rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts” (Hosea 2:2).

Divorce always involves matters of right and feelings of injustice. Even in no-fault societies, there is long-term resentment and guilt caused by the break-up of what was supposed to be a deep and lasting covenant. We glimpse this in Hosea’s conflicted feelings – his anger, his pleas, his false hopes – toward his wife Gomer. Gomer’s reported attitude - “I will go after my lovers,” reveals another essential feature of divorce – willfulness. It is common wisdom that it takes two to make a marital tangle, but it is also true that it takes one party to will a divorce. Seldom do divorces begin from calm calculations by partners that “our marriage has died.” Usually one party forces his or her will on the other – either by unfaithfulness or by forced separation. Indeed one party’s unfaithfulness often causes the other to separate.

Unfaithfulness and separation are the dynamic now at work in the current break-up of the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church – call her Gomer – has been unfaithful to the historic and biblical faith. Her husband, represented by the bishops at Lambeth and the Primates, has repeatedly exhorted her to turn back – but she will have her way and follow her lovers. She has formalized this unfaithfulness at General Convention 2003 followed by the consecration of Gene Robinson.

And she will not repent. I have been amazed frankly at the solid wall of defense thrown up by the Episcopal establishment in the past twelve months. Never once to my knowledge has any major official of the Episcopal Church suggested that the decisions of 2003 may have been a mistake and need rethinking. The Presiding Bishop has called for all kinds of dialogue, but repentance and reversal is one option that is clearly off the table. And let’s be fair to the PB: the Episcopal Church has admitted winkingly so many homosexuals to the ordained ministry over the past decade or so that changing course would be as difficult a decision as that facing Ariel Sharon to uproot all the Israeli settlers from the West Bank. It’s not going to happen.

Another thing about divorce: while the parents may indulge in denial, the children always suffer. Hosea’s children took on shameful names, “Unloved” and “Not My People,” and no doubt they suffered for it. The Episcopal Church is not a monolithic entity but a family of dioceses, parishes and individuals. Despite assurances from on high that all is well, the decisions and actions of 2003 have already forced many of these Episcopal children to make hard decisions. Many have become ashamed to call themselves Episcopalians; some have walked away from the church of their upbringing or choice; some have withheld their tithes; some have set up alternative structures looking to the day of divorce.

Divorce battles usually involve two things: reputation and property. As to the former, it used to be the case that faithful spouses and their reputation were protected by law from unfaithful partners. Under no-fault divorce laws, this is no longer true, but it does not change the fact that within the family one partner will bear the brunt of shame – and often rightly so. People know that the marriage broke up because Father was having an affair, or because Mother left home in mid-life to find herself. And denial is the bedmate of shame. The shamed partner will react by denying that there is a problem, or will even try to turn the tables and blame the innocent party. “Chill out,” he says, “you’re the problem, not me.”

While I have no interest in psychoanalyzing the Episcopal Church and its leaders, I cannot help but think that shame and denial are at work in the reactions to the Gene Robinson affair. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that church liberals would act liberally and say something like this: “OK, we admit that endorsing homosexuality is a radical innovation from the biblical and historical tradition of the Christian Church. We believe God is doing a new thing, which will be borne out over time. But we acknowledge that many Episcopalians don’t see it that way and in fact can’t live with it. So if you must, take your churches and go your way. Let’s trust that God will bring us back together in time.” But they don’t say that. They have stonewalled every attempt that would give true autonomy to the consciences of traditional Episcopalians. They’ve patronized us, saying “We’ll give you our form of deputed oversight – take it or leave it.”

This brings me to the second element in every divorce: disputes about property. “Go if you wish,” they say, “but don’t you dare try to take your property with you.” They dress up their objections in fancy language about canons and fiduciary responsibility, but the fact is, they won’t give up what they think they can hold onto. And like it or not, within the Episcopal Church they can hold on to most of the property because they wrote the divorce laws!

One irony of the present Episcopal Church situation is that the party that is always claiming to be siding with the weak and exercising the preferential option for the poor is callously denying to many of its children their basic inheritance. Where is compassion when a bishop says to a congregation which has built its own buildings and votes 95% to disassociate itself from the recent deviations: “You must leave it all behind. I won’t even consider selling you your own house”? He pontificates: “We’re not a congregational church, blah, blah, blah.” Come on, bishop, we know it’s just plain vindictiveness and power politics. And perhaps fear, lest his whole ecclesiastical house of cards come tumbling down.

Divorce in one house is bad enough, but the divorce we are facing is international in scope. The current Eames Commission may struggle to find a “middle way” around the crisis, but the problem is that the true Anglican via media has always held that there are biblical essentials – the substance of the faith once delivered to the saints - that cannot be tampered with. And that is exactly what the Episcopal Church has done. This simple truth may evade the loftiest theologians and cleverest canon lawyers, but it is transparent to the vast number of Anglicans worldwide.

Take Uganda, for instance. On 23rd August, the Archbishop of Uganda confirmed that parishes formerly in the Diocese of Los Angeles have been admitted to the Province of Uganda (Diocese of Luweero). In that same letter, he states that the Provincial Assembly reaffirmed the Statement of the House of Bishops (November 23, 2003), breaking ties with the Episcopal Church. Let me add that the original statement and the vote in the Provincial Assembly were unanimous and reflect the overwhelming conviction of Anglicans in black Africa.

The Presiding Bishop has objected to Archbishop Orombi’s position, citing a concessive clause in the Primates’ statement of 15-16 October 2003 to the end that bishops observe diocesan boundaries. While focusing on this splinter, the PB ignores the plank, which says:

if [the consecration of Gene Robinson] proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion and we have to conclude that the future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy. In this case, the ministry of this one bishop will not be recognized by most of the Anglican world, and many provinces are likely to consider themselves out of Communion with the Episcopal Church (USA). This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level and may lead to further division on this and further issues…

Bishop Griswold signed this Statement and two weeks later proceeded to officiate at Robinson’s consecration. Now the consequences forewarned are coming upon him and he does not like it. The point is this: radical accommodations to polity are required when a church deviates radically from the historic Christian faith. The final accommodation will be final and permanent division – no matter who ends up with the property.

Enter Dr. Louie Crew, member of the Executive Council, highly decorated representative of the Episcopal Church. I am going to assume that, unless specifically rebuked, he speaks for the national Episcopal Church. Dr. Crew reproaches the Church of Uganda for accepting grants from the Episcopal Church while simultaneously breaking ties with it. Louie has a point: he admits that a divorce has implications. If the PB and other bishops would grant as much, we would be making steps forward to end this messy affair.

I say messy affair purposely, because cutting off relations is no sterile operation. It is likely, for instance, that several entities in Uganda requested grants before the 2003 General Convention and received the funds afterwards. What is the proper cut-off point? More importantly, many Anglicans in the Global South have been accessing development money from the Episcopal Church for years. No doubt much good has been done with these funds, but they have also built up a dependency – one that Louie Crew would now exploit for political gain. What do you do if you are a bishop torn between loyalty to Scripture on the one hand and hungry mouths on the other? I can report that most bishops here in Uganda have answered: “Do what’s right and trust God to provide.” But that answer is not easy to make, and some may rationalize ways to continue receiving certain kinds of funding.

Louie Crew has a point, made with characteristic low cunning: divorce is upon us and we cannot continue with business as usual. Let me suggest to Dr. Crew’s Executive Council: admit that the fabric of the Communion is torn, and tell the Global South churches from what date they should cease to receive further grants. After all, it is the Episcopal Church’s “sovereign” decision to deal with its ancestors’ riches as it chooses. But if the Episcopal Church wishes to continue to deny that a break has occurred, why complain that some forms of support continue?

The Anglican Communion is breaking up. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, but not any particular branch of it. Will this branch ever be reconciled and reconstituted? I know of several miraculous remarriages of divorced spouses, but they have always occurred when one partner has been converted and crawled back on humble knee. Hosea bought his wayward wife back as a sign of God’s grace in the face of Israel’s stubbornness. Did she ever will to love him and not her Baals? We don’t know. So it is with the Anglican Gomers of North America: maybe in the mercy of God a remnant will turn back before this crisis is over. But it is also possible that God will raise up a new generation of Anglicans in North America. Maybe they will be black immigrants, maybe they will be (gasp!) fundamentalists who love liturgy. And it may be that this new group of Anglicans God may call “sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10).

–The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll is Vice Chancellor, Uganda Christian University; this essay appeared in the Church of England Newspaper, September 10, 2004, page 23

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