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Dublin and the Art of Dishonest Conversation

Dublin and the Art of Dishonest Conversation

By Charles Raven
February 1, 2011

The Dublin Primates' meeting marks one more step along the road which is slowly but surely seeing the Anglican Communion evolve into two distinct groupings. As A. S. Haley observes 'The takeover of the Instruments of Communion by ECUSA, aided and abetted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is now complete' . For instance, in sharp contrast to the ultimatum issued by the Primates after their meeting in Dar es Salaam in 2007, no word of censure or rebuke was evident in the 'statement of purpose' issued by the Primates on Sunday Despite the fact that just weeks before this meeting, two senior female clergy of the Episcopal Church were 'married' in a ceremony at Boston Cathedral.

So if the official Lambeth institutions are no longer worth fighting for, should orthodox Anglicans now simply let history take its course, get on with evangelism where they can and hope for the best? I believe not, because the Dublin meeting makes explicit a theological shift which is even more significant than the predictable institutional changes made to enhance Lambeth's control, such as the establishment of a Primates' Standing Committee. The essential common interest of Rowan Williams and ECUSA/TEC becomes clear, whatever their differences over the pace of change, in the closing paragraph of the Dublin Primates' statement where they affirm that 'In our common life in Christ we are passionately committed to journeying together in honest conversation'.

We might well ask ourselves what sort of Communion we are in when the chief passion of the Archbishop of Canterbury and those still willing to work with him is for 'conversation'. Why this preoccupation with interminable and inward looking dialogue? What about a passion for reaching the lost, for faithful teaching and preaching, for the glory and honour of Jesus Christ? However sincere or even passionate the Primates may feel themselves to be, this is actually 'dishonest conversation' which displaces the gospel and is spiritually dangerous. Fundamentally, this is because 'conversing' has come to replace 'confessing'. In my book 'Shadow Gospel' I demonstrate how Rowan Williams' methodology amounts to a sophisticated redefinition of orthodoxy as a process of dialogue rather than faithfulness to a deposit of faith with its associated church order and morality. As long ago as 1983, Dr Williams' wrote:

We may need to develop an understanding of 'orthodoxy' as a tool rather than as an end in itself, a tool for discovery rather than control. Like any language it is unintelligible without some idea of grammar - necessary rules and regularities. But it is there essentially as something both functional to the life of the community, and necessarily bound up with - grounding perhaps - the identity of a community. (What is Catholic Orthodoxy?' in 'Essays Catholic and Radical' ed. K. Leech and R .Williams p13)

In retrospect this can be seen as something of a programmatic statement and it is very clever - too clever - because it allows Western liberals to use the same terminology as their orthodox colleagues from the Global South, but in such a way that the 'new truths' so beloved by revisionists can gain a foothold. The cumulative effect of immersion in such a church culture is a gradual increase in the ability to tolerate the spiritually toxic - as the careers of number of formerly evangelical bishops in the Church of England sadly demonstrates.

Part of the art of this debased conversation is to use the language of domesticity with words like 'family and 'table' in the foreground. So Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi of the Anglican Church in Burundi said that the absences from the meetings were "very understandable. But what we have to understand is that the Anglican Communion is like a family." In the same briefing from the Episcopal News Service, Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori comments "Conversations can be difficult with anyone. If we're not willing to continue in conversation, there's not much opportunity for healing or reconciling. We need to come to the table." But those who by painful experience have seen through the Lambeth enchantment realise only too well that the 'conversation' much lauded by the Presiding Bishop has actually been a pretext for inaction by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the unrestrained abuse of many members of the 'family' - for instance, the abuse of their trust by the unremitting pursuit of a sexual ethic opposed to the plain teaching of Scripture, as affirmed by the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and subsequent Primates' meetings, and the abusive use of litigation against those who have stood their ground within TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada.

Such is the dishonesty of the conversation that at times it leads to a level of self-deception which is quite transparent, such as Rowan Williams' statement that the presence of two thirds of the Primates 'means that two thirds of the Communion at least wish to meet and wish to continue the conversations they have begun.' This is very misleading. The Anglican Communion Institute, until recently supportive of Dr Williams, has itself pointed out that the reverse is the case - that those absent represent two thirds of the Communion in terms of actual active members.

Despite the inexorable process of separation that is taking place, this 'dishonest conversation' must be challenged. It matters very much that as many as possible end up on the right side of the emerging divide and it matters that the faithful majority of the Communion are not portrayed as 'schismatic' while the real schismatics get to keep the Anglican brand. A fitting way therefore for the absent Primates to follow through their principled negative decision would be by the positive action of sponsoring the GAFCON/Global South equivalent of the Anglican Ordinariate in England itself, mounting a challenge to 'dishonest conversation' at its source in the mother church of the Communion itself.

And this would be much more than a gesture because the need in England is very great, but the crisis of orthodox Anglicanism in England is persistently underplayed, especially by evangelicals, many of whom seem to be stuck in the mindset of the 1960's and think that they can somehow turn things round from within if only they can get enough votes or ordinands or bishops. This is not wrong, but it is inadequate - it is the past which has got us to the desperate situation of the present, with a failing Archbishop of Canterbury who has allowed false teaching to tear the Communion and the very real threat that those opposed in conscience to the consecration of women as bishops will be forced out of the Church of England.

For the future, it is important to listen to the rising generation who have the greatest investment in that future and I am increasingly coming across and hearing about young men who want to be ordained as Anglicans in England, but have serious reservations about committing themselves to the Church of England. They realise, in a way that those who are more acclimatised tend not to, that it is not a safe place for the gospel and if we care about the future of Anglican witness in England a safe place needs to be established for them.

So the appearance of some kind of separate but indisputably Anglican ecclesial body is urgent both for England itself and for the development of the Global South as a body able to give truly global leadership, as urged by Presiding Bishop Mouneer Anis at last month's 'Mere Anglicanism' Conference. But this is not something the Global South can just decide to do. There needs to be a readiness in England to take action and for the sake of the re-evangelisation of England it is vital that Church of England evangelicals are not inhibited by institutionally conditioned attitudes. Within the network of larger evangelical parish churches it may just be possible to sustain a future, at least nominally, within the formal structures of the Church of England, but for many it will not be feasible with a good conscience and as the Communion undergoes its present convulsions it must be wise to make provision for a faithful Anglican future that is not subject to the institutions which are now exposed as serving the wider Communion so badly.


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