End of the Canterbury tales
Posted by Guest Blogger on Thursday, October 21, 2004 at 05:32 PM
When I was an Episcopalian — that’s what we call Anglicans in America — it seemed to me the name summed up the core belief that held the church together: they believed in bishops. It was pleasant being a bishop, it should be pleasant being a bishop, and if you didn’t go along with that you didn’t belong and you should go someplace else. Of course, there was more to it than that. Episcopalians also believed in relationships. People should be nice to each other, and accept and affirm each other in their mutually affirming whateverness, so long of course as the various whatevernesses stayed mutually affirming.
The effect was that you could think and do whatever you wanted as long as you approved of everyone else thinking and doing whatever he wanted, and you otherwise didn’t make waves. The Episcopal Church was thus a religion formed on the model of the politically correct managerial consumer society. Everybody pleased himself by following his own pursuits, within a structure that ruled quite effectively without seeming to do so because nothing could ever become an issue. How could anything be an issue, after all, when everything was either private taste, amusement, happy talk about celebrating otherness, or arranged by higher-ups over whom there was very little control? The only real issue was how to redefine apparent issues as non-issues as smoothly as possible. To make anything else an issue was to show you weren’t really an Episcopalian, because you had violated “Anglican comprehensiveness.” And besides, it wasn’t nice.
All of which may be the true continuation of the traditions of a religious communion designed since the Tudors to quiet the people and make religion the unfailing support of the established order. Until there is a single order established worldwide, though, it’s going to be difficult to extend those traditions beyond native and affiliated societies. Hence the difficult problem presented by the dispute between faux-prophetic Americans, who believe that since “holy” means “other” “holiness” must mean “radical inclusion of sexual otherness,” and outraged Nigerians and others, who hold to the view that “holiness” must mean something beside “what somebody wants to do.” The dispute came to a head with the installation of Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. The blue-ribbon 2004 Windsor Report, which recently came out, was supposed to find some way to calm the resulting uproar and “maintain communion” — keep the worldwide organization stable and prosperous. It did what such a report inevitably must do: make noises intended to make both sides feel they’ve gotten something, and then treat the problem as one of personal relations and mutual sensitivity, and thus substantively as a non-issue so everything can go on as before. If you’re still annoyed, the idea is, it shows you lack sensitivity, so the problem’s really your fault.
That’s pretty much been the universal Episcopalian and Anglican solution for everything, but this time it’s not likely to work, and non-Western Anglicans are saying as much. (If anyone’s interested, there’s more info in the comment section of the last piece linked.) It will be interesting to watch how this plays out. The American bishops like the prestige of the Canterbury connection, and making things nice for the bishops is the main point of the American church. On the other hand, homosexuality is a non-negotiable absolute for them, and it’s not negotiable for third-world Commonwealth churches either. So the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose job it is to keep things together, very likely has a problem he won’t be able to solve. He’s almost surely going to preside over the dissolution of the Anglican Communion, and I’m curious to see what name he finds to call it. [UPDATE: A straightforward example how Episcopalian “niceness” means everything has to be nice for bishops and nothing can ever become an issue: a well-known religion reporter asked Frank Griswold “would you do it again.” She was told she was “so rude,” and that ended the discussion.]