Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The View from the Bleachers

My memories of the many games of rugby that I played when I was younger were of the tackles, the bumps, the bruises, and those occasional wonderful moments when I could tuck the ball under my arm and run. Because I was on the field my experience of the game was just what my own eyes saw and my own body felt. When I watch a game today, whether live or on television, I have a much better picture of what is actually going on, and can tell you with far greater accuracy what is really happening.

I feel that having moved to ministry in the UK I am now watching the fate of North American Anglicanism working itself out from a seat in the bleachers. In some ways, because I am no longer involved on a day-to-day basis and experiencing the rough and tumble, I can step back a little and try and work out exactly what is going on. Obviously, it is a very personal set of observations, but they come from someone who spent many years, as it were, on the field of play.

When you have an opportunity to stand back from what is going on, you are better able to see all the players in action, and it is a little easier to measure their play against a common set of reference points. Quite honestly, it seems to me that denial of the realities is standard at both ends of the spectrum. The voices of those who ally themselves with the "establishment" and the National Church seem as determined to read the situation through their own set of colored lenses as those at the other end of spectrum to put their own spin on the realities. While those who want everyone to kiss and make up are more sentimental than realistic.

If Kevin Martin is correct, and I think he has been fairer in his analysis of what is going on than most, then for those who continue as part of the Episcopal Church a crunch point is fast approaching when declining numbers and funds will no longer be capable of upholding the infrastructure that presently exists. You might have been able to say until now that its only a relatively small number of parishes that are causing all this upset and, by and large, other than them everything is fine and dandy, but it is no longer just parishes heading for the exit. When dioceses start doing the same then you have to change your tune.

But then, those who are conservative, orthodox, or whatever other label you want to give them, have their own blinkers on when it comes to looking at the realities. It might be a wonderful sense of relief for those leaving to get out from under the antagonistic leadership of the Episcopal Church, but it is incredibly hard and grueling work to create a whole new infrastructure in which to be church. Having been at the front end of a number of new ventures in my time, I know from personal experience the grinding agony of having limited financial resources, relatively little land or property, and how incapacitating it can be to do pioneer work after you have got over the euphoria of getting the new ministry (or whatever) up and started. It requires guts and a special mix of gifts to be a pioneer.

If you look at those who split away from the denominations at the time of the Fundamentalist Crisis in the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1970s that they were in a position to move forward having put a complete new set of structures, seminaries, and so forth, in place. While the parallels between the 20th and the 21st Centuries are not precise, there is plenty of evidence from history that movements take at least a generation to take root and much longer than that to make a systemic difference.

What makes it more tricky for those who are attempting to plough a new furrow is that in many circumstances they are facing crippling legal challenges. I almost gagged when I heard the size of the legal bills facing the CANA congregations in Northern Virginia. If you are starting afresh sums of the size they are having to cough up to the attorneys are crucial in the launching of new initiatives and the firmer establishment of what is there already. It is very handy to blame these lawsuits on Dr. Schori and her legal advisors, but when you take the action of separating from the denomination, knowing what the situation is regarding the ownership of the property, then you have to admit that you walked into this one with eyes wide open.

It is handy to blame what has happened on other people, and certainly the disastrous decisions of the 2003 General Convention were the climax of a long build-up to this crisis, but scapegoating those who you believe caused the problem does not find a way forward, neither does it seem to square with the spirit of Scripture's teaching about finding reconciliation. There is a dysfunctionality on all sides, let's call it fallenness, that has intensified the depths of this tragedy. Put in the language of heaven and earth, the Devil has been having a field day and we have all cooperated with him.

Watching the Rugby World Cup in September and October, what struck me about the way England played was their ferocious determination after a terrible start in the tournament not to let their opponents score. They were dogged in their defensive play, but their problem was that instead of going out to score tries and goals, they tended to play to prevent the other side from scoring against them. When in the final they came up against South Africa, they encountered a team who played a different kind of rugby and knew how to sidestep England's defensiveness.

What I see in the American church right now is that same dogged defensiveness. Each side is saying, "We are not going to let those who are against us win." The result is unappetizing, a war of attrition, which ultimately no one can win, and from which only the lawyers and those who nay say the gospel are benefiting.

Right now the orthodox/conservatives are winning nothing, in the medium and long-term the Episcopal Church loyalists are going to be really digging a deep hole for themselves, and meanwhile the Anglican Communion teeters on the brink of division and, worse, extinction. Clearly, the Anglican experiment as we have known it is floundering in deep water and the outcome for the advance of the Gospel is hardly very encouraging. I am sure that those who are passionate that they are right are going to stomp all over me for what I have just said, but that is what the game looks like from someone who is no longer actively involved. All I can do is grieve and pray, and ask God that at some point he will raise up wiser heads whose voices will be heard above the din.

It is because there are no easy answers that I write as I do. The church as we have known it probably is way beyond any kind of repair, but the dynamics now in place seem to me to promise further rending, further parting of friends, and further bloodlettings. Such a course is one that only leads steadily downward. Each time through history that major crises have shaken American Anglicanism the result has been to further weaken the witness of the church. Isn't it about time that we started to learn from the mistakes of the past while attempting to create a Kingdom future? This isn't about compromise, this is about what does it mean to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...

The problem as you have aptly illustrated is that there is no agreement on what faithfulness is. As we know we have two irreconciable positions/understandings and while it would be great to find a reconciled way forward I don't see any strategem in this essay or any other essay that approaches something that both sides could embrace.

Tony Seel

robroy said...

What I see in the American church right now is that same dogged defensiveness. Each side is saying, "We are not going to let those who are against us win." The result is unappetizing, a war of attrition, which ultimately no one can win, and from which only the lawyers and those who nay say the gospel are benefiting.
It seems to me that those churches freed from their Egyptian taskmaster are growing quite nicely. There was a letter from Christ Church, Plano printed here which talks about how it is prospering since it was released from its shackles. And this is not unique.

laura said...

In my opinion, the churches that are prospering are the ones that did not fight for their property. Either they had a bishop that allowed them to come up with a plan to keep their property, or they just left the buildings and began again new. Regardless of the opinions of what belongs to who...and they are varied opinions, Christ did not call us to fight these battles in court. That is what is hurting the Gospal message...from both sides, sadly. I have always wondered what would have happened it a large, grass-roots effort had begun and EVERYONE that feels TEC has gone off the deep end had just walked away. One Sunday, all across America, clergy and lay people alike just got up and walked out and worshiped at the park or anywhere they could find. If no one fought the battle for property, no one would have to wait too long until TEC had to unload the vast amout of empty churches that it was left with with no one to pay the bills. Now that would have been a battle I would have liked to witness. Naive, maybe, but to the Glory of God...definitely!

The Frey's said...

There is not a strategy for winning, but there is a strategy for moving forward. When Christ Church Plano was released, it was a sensible and godly way forward. All people, congregations, and dioceses that wish that release should be permitted to go with a few compromise financial arrangements. One, it builds goodwill toward a future coming back together which at this point is too far over the horizon to see, but which in the providence of God could happen. Two it demonstrates charity, which is in short supply. Paul and Barnabas had sharp disagreements, and did not do mission together, but it certainly appears that they agreed to allow each other room to go forward in mission. May God grant us grace to to the same.

Paul Frey, Christ Church, Laredo, Texas

Ladson Mills said...

well thought out and stated.
Ladson Mills

Richard Kew said...

Let me respond to my old friend, Tony Seel. I didn't set out in writing these words to present a stratagem for the way forward, merely to report what the reality looks like as one who now sits in the bleachers.

If I were to present a stratagem, then the first thing that needs to be said to all sides is that a little grace and humility is needed because ultimately there is no end to war, war, until there is jaw, jaw, and everyone is so entrenched now in their position that they are not willing to do this.

The ABC has made some suggestions that are good ones, and is being jeered for doing so, which means to me that no one is ready yet and a lot more damage has to be done before anyone will sit up and take notice. And this is not only damage to the church(es), but also to the cause of the Kingdom.

The problem for the "conservatives" is that as soon as anyone attempts to engage with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount they are roundly condemned as compromisers and of selling out. The problem for the "liberals" is that they don't even seem to understand the hole that they are digging for themselves so they continue to heap scorn upon the "conservatives."

It will probably take some courageous men and women who are prepared to accept alienation from their own before things can be moved forward.

Anonymous said...


Would you contact me please? Sorry to use this means but I wrote to your old email address and didn't get a reply.