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OXFORD THEOLOGIAN: "Time is short, Archbishop Williams must act"

OXFORD THEOLOGIAN: "Time is short, Archbishop Williams must act"

Dr. Peter Walker talks with Anglican Communion Institute leaders in the Diocese of Dallas recently.

An Interview with the Rev. Dr. Peter Walker, Fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute and Lecturer of Theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

This interview was given after a presentation to the Diocese of Dallas on the Windsor Report, chaired by Bishop James M. Stanton (audio and DVD copies soon to be available from Christ Church Plano website)

What did you make of the comments following your presentation by the Bishop?

It was so good to have him speaking so strongly and personally. Bishop Stanton has done an incredible amount to keep the global communion perspective alive in his diocese and within ECUSA. Bit it's a hard task right now. This must rank as one of the most turbulent times in Christian history for a bishop. I'm reminded of the Arian controversy in the early fourth century, when the great Athanasius was exiled from his see no less than five times. Hopefully it won't come to that, but we certainly need to give as much support as possible to bishops such as Bp Stanton right now in this difficult time for keeping communion-faith alive.

It was also so good to see him going to the heart of the theological matters in this debate. I was glad he picked up on my brief comments about the gradual 'slide' in ECUSA's theology over the years. That slide has been well documented and argued by both Philip Turner and Paul Zahl and it was good to see the Bishop endorsing their analysis.

You spoke strongly in favour of the Windsor Report, but many orthodox Episcopalians did not like its perspectives on conservative 'dissenters' and especially its endorsement of DEPO.

That's right. This is probably the weakest part in the Report. However the early suggestions that Windsor was asserting a moral equivalence between revisionists and dissenters is quite clearly false. In Repair the Tear [page 39] we show, by paying close attention to Windsor's own wording, that it in fact treats these two 'breaches' of Communion in quite different ways.

As for DEPO, yes, Windsor said it was a 'reasonable' proposal' if operated 'reasonably'. But there is already considerable evidence that it is not being used 'reasonably'-it only seems to work where it is not needed. Windsor was perhaps a little too trusting in taking the assurances of ECUSA at their face value on this point.

Certainly the Primates have been given ample evidence that a different system of alternative oversight needs to be established, which is precisely why they have called as a matter of supreme urgency for the Archbishop of Canterbury himself to set up a Panel of Reference. Once this is established, this would presumably replace the need for DEPO and give conservatives the oversight they require and from the highest quarter. In which case, approving the Windsor Report need not now mean a wholesale endorsement of its affirmation of DEPO, since that has already been superseded by the action of the Primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But in fact the Archbishop of Canterbury hasn't yet set this up, has he-despite being requested to do so by the Primates as a matter of extreme urgency'?

That's right. It is apparently right now with the lawyers. We trust that does not mean endless more delays, or indeed legal concerns stepping in to make it unusable by the very people who need it-with all the legal authority being retained by those bishops in ECUSA whom Windsor has denounced as acting contrary to the mind of the Communion.

Indeed this 'extraordinary oversight' by the Archbishop of Canterbury has been far too long in coming. The Lambeth Commission was expressly asked in their official Mandate to give concrete recommendations on this point, but for some reason (perhaps they simply run out of time) they did not really cover this. The Anglican Communion Institute submitted a quite detailed proposal for this to the Commission [see ACI website]: and we do hope that the new Panel of Reference will take up some of these ideas and come up with a mechanism that can really be acceptable to those who urgently need this protection right now.

One of the tragedies of the present controversy is that churches (very understandably) have felt the need to seek episcopal cover from elsewhere (or, as it were, from a lower level than Canterbury), effectively by-passing or potentially undermining Canterbury. With this new mechanism that cover should be available through Canterbury itself. This should make a major difference and prevent the forces of fragmentation during this time when we wait for ECUSA to be internally realigned.

However, time is extremely short. Partnerships with other provinces are extremely tempting for ECUSA's orthodox. If the Archbishop does not act soon, then the shrapnel of a disintegrated ECUSA (with parishes being linked up to various provinces in Africa or South America) will literally be scattered all over the world, and no one will be able to put the Communion back together again.

So what would you say to conservatives who say they cannot wait any longer?-who say that they need to take some form of action to protect themselves and to safeguard their futures?

Well, I fully understand their impatience. Parishioners need urgently to know what their Church believes, and which Church they are supporting with their Christian giving. The Communion has been far too slow to respond.

Nevertheless, the Windsor Report, if you think carefully about its underlying tactic, is defining the nature of the Anglican Communion and then asking provinces (and indeed dioceses and parishes) to make an adult decision for themselves about whether they agree with this vision of Communion or not; in other words do people want to opt in to this Communion or opt out (because they do not like its family rules)? This then means that the most important thing that the orthodox can do is simply to signal their full agreement with Windsor and its vision of Communion, saying "we are the Communion-minded Anglicans in this part of the world".

Meanwhile, of course, revisionists will play for time, but their actions and direction are suggesting reasonably clearly that they are effectively opting out of this vision of Communion. And when that becomes manifest, the Communion should, even if reluctantly, let them go, letting them have that which deep down they seek-independence from the interdependent Anglican 'body of Christ', freedom to do "what is right in their own eyes" and courageously act out their so-called 'prophetic' convictions, and 'step out' in faith.

If they did so, they could establish a Church of their own. For, in contrast to the ordination of women, it may well be that the best way to 'receive' this innovation (and to use the 'Gamaliel principle', to see whether it is 'of God' or not) is for the innovators to pursue this vision independently and then come back in due course with evidence as to whether this has proved a life-bringing innovation. Instead at the moment this endless slanging-match between the orthodox and the revisionists (both convinced by their different Gospels that the others' views are unacceptable and intolerable within their church) is haemorrhaging the Church. As with any business organisation a clean 'parting of the ways' would probably make much better sense-given that there is such conflict about the identity and purpose of the organisation.

Anyway, to come back to the urgent issues now facing the orthodox, you might say (using a graphic image) that ECUSA as a whole is like the Titanic-committed to its course full speed-ahead but now irredeemably holed below the water-line. The orthodox need to get into lifeboats, put up a flag saying "we are the Communion-minded" and then wait for the Communion (ideally in the form of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, or at least from some Primates working with his permission) to eventually come to their rescue. Yes, it's been slow in coming, but surely it will come. If it doesn't come, then the Communion is lost to Canterbury and Canterbury to the Communion.

You have spoken movingly of your support for the Archbishop of Canterbury. What would you say to those of us who are anxious for a bit more decisive leadership from him at this moment-for just the urgent reasons you've just described?

Well, he's in the most unenviable position. One way of interpreting the present global controversy is seeing it as a fighting match between North America and Africa, both of whom are in pretty bullish moods; meanwhile in the middle are the British, trying through their gentle persuasive, diplomatic ways to effect a reconciliation. It's very tough being in the middle, and that's where the Archbishop finds himself.

It's worth remembering, however, that Rowan is first and foremost, what we might call, an 'ecclesial theologian'. For all his own incredible theological brilliance and creativity, he is also totally committed to doing theology from within the Body of Christ and that means painful listening. He is a great listener. Others may listen briefly and then take precipitate action. Rowan, some of us think, is far more likely to listen until the 'eleventh hour' and only then take action. So we must exercise patience and not confuse his commitment to listen with a refusal eventually to take the necessary decisive action.

He's also deeply immersed in the catholic and orthodox tradition of the Church, which means, when push comes to shove, that he's likely to be well able to discern the true nature of ECUSA's theology. Philip Turner has analysed what he terms ECUSA's 'working theology' as a kind of radical non-theological mix of inclusivity and selfish autonomy, lightly veiled by liturgical forms and catholic order. Others see it as not so far removed from Gnosticism (the great challenge to orthodoxy in the 2nd century). Although ECUSA might use the label 'liberal catholic', I'd be very surprised whether Rowan (for all his sympathies with the best of the liberal catholic tradition) cannot spot the difference and recognise catholic orthodoxy when he sees it.

Finally it's worth noting that he is someone who hates power-games. He won't play them himself (which may mean sometimes he fails to realise the power and authority which he has been given within the Communion), and he probably won't like it when other people play them-whether they are African or American, liberal or conservative. He is most likely to step in and help where he sees people are being taken advantage of by the powerful.

So, any final words to those of us in the Diocese of Dallas?

Well, yes as I hinted at when time was running out at the end of my talk, I think there are several key action points:

1. Take up your position as the Communion-minded in ECUSA, by receiving and affirming the vision of Communion as set forth in Windsor. Thereby you will aid and hasten the process whereby the subtle judgements and distinctions of Windsor begin to have their effect.

2. Identify, if you wish with the AC Network, whilst at the same time recognising and valuing that other orthodox folk (bishops, parishes etc) may find other ways of signalling their compliance with Windsor. Indeed pray that more bishops than just those identified with the Network now realise the 'score' (since Windsor) and show their determination to stay in this newly-reaffirmed communion. And pray that orthodox folk do not divide off from one another, recriminating each other because different people take a different strategic response to this shared, but unprecedented, problem.

3. See yourselves as the 'faithful in exile', with all its pains and paradoxes. Think of Jeremiah going down into Egypt with the very people whom he had prophesied against. Or think of Jesus identifying himself with the sins of his people at his baptism and in his death, bearing the very judgement on them that he himself had pronounced. So, having identified yourselves as the communion-minded, then resist any temptations to find another boat-stay identified within 'exiled' ECUSA, and wait patiently for the Communion's official channels to rescue you.

It's not easy (perhaps especially in an American context?) to realise you cannot save yourselves, but have to wait for another-it's very humbling, disorientating and uncomfortable, but there may be something in the Bible about being powerless to save yourself.

Meanwhile, of course, revisionists would be delighted if you left and will be looking for any chance to accuse you of abandoning the Communion (through leaving its official structures) when, of course it is they who have committed the far more serious error (abandoning the Communion's teaching). Your task is not to oblige them, but to stay like an awkward bone stuck in their throat. And by staying (and not too quickly teaming up with some province other than Canterbury) you effectively maintain 'pressure on the centre' and on Canterbury. If you remove yourselves, you lose something of your power-your power experienced paradoxically in your weakness.

4. Use what power you have got in a godly way. This might mean redirecting any monies away from 815 to support missions work overseas (especially in Africa where they are refusing ECUSA's dollars). Or it might mean spending time with books and people really seeking to understand more about the homosexuality issue, or supporting those orthodox Christian ministries which (often in unsung and non-political ways) are applying the redemptive story of the Gospel to bring God's grace to many. Don't forget the pastoral dimension to this issue. Despite the macro-politics, it's all about each of us as hurting human individual and our personal struggles for meaning and love in our lives.

5. And, finally, let's do some real praying: for humility and a refined trust in the Lord, our only refuge; for your bishop; and for the 'hearing' prior to the ACC meeting in June-that people will desire to hear not the clever words of 'man', but to hear what Jesus Christ, as Lord of his Church, is saying to His church in this critical hour.

Dr Walker, thank you very much for being with us.

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