A Case for remaining in the ACNA
“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” —Romans 3:3-4a
The Bride of Christ is wounded and bleeding. She will not die, because the Life she has been united to — Christ himself — is immortal, but some of her limbs are weak and not working very well. Changing biblical metaphors: There are many branches on the Vine that God has planted that are bruised and infected, and are not bearing much fruit. They are truly still rooted in the Root of Jesse, but they are not doing well.
As a Christian, and as a priest ordained in the Anglican Church in North America, I find myself on such a limb: A portion of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that is wounded, and the wound is getting infected. In this age of airplanes, internet, and multi-ethnic migrations across our land, the question presents itself from time to time: why not transfer over to another portion of the Church; to a different limb of the Bride? Why linger here on this weakened limb? Why not become Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or join the Continuing churches?
I shall seek to give an answer to this question, but first let me describe the wounds that weaken us. It is surely possible to name the wounds that weaken the other limbs as well, but that is the burden of their conscience, not mine. We must first look at the log in our own ecclesial eye.
The wounds we have were made by our departure from the catholic faith and from the ancient disciplines intertwined with it. Like a good doctor, it is needful to name them all, if the patient is to be made well. Some wounds are more severe than others. There are some that were inflicted while we were still a part of The Episcopal Church, which would have been fatal to us had they not been treated and healed at our founding, e.g. the consecration of women as bishops, the consecration of openly gay persons as bishops, or the laity having authoritative voice in council on matters of faith, etc. By the mercy of God, these have been remedied, but there are some that are still open and sore. Like a good trauma nurse, let me describe the wounds that still stand in need of healing, in order of most-in-need of urgent attention, together with the year the wound was inflicted.
1976 — The ordination of women to the priesthood ratified at General Convention of the Episcopal Church in response to the irregular ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven on July 29, 1974.
1973 — All existing marriage canons are repealed; a “pastoral approach” replaced all previous canonical disciplines, and divorced persons were explicitly affirmed as having the freedom and capacity for remarriage (building on the GC 1946 which excised its prohibition, itself expanding the single “Matthean exception” authorized in GC 1904).
1970 — The ordination of women to the diaconate is authorized in the Episcopal Church (and the office of Deaconess was dissolved).
1930 — Artificial contraception is sanctioned by Lambeth as a useful tool permitted to Anglicans in ordinary circumstances.
1907 — General Convention loosed the ancient discipline that made ordination a required qualification for preaching a sermon in the midst of a liturgy.
These ecclesial actions need to be distinguished with great clarity from the people who have walked in the path they carved out. The bishops of General Convention of 1973 are morally responsible before God for effacing his teaching about marriage, not any individual person who got remarried after a divorce. If a sheep is led into a pit, it is the shepherd’s fault.
Just so with women’s ordination. Any woman who is presently in Holy Orders is not to be blamed for this alteration of catholic tradition and the historic consensus interpretation of the Scriptures. The fault lies with the bishops who gathered in 1976 who should have censured the ordaining bishops of the Philadelphia Eleven, not given them post hoc approval.
Each of these wounds, to date unremedied and unhealed, stunts the spiritual health and life of our Anglican Church in North America, but they have not been fatal. They can yet be healed, and when they are, the vital Life of Christ will flow more healthily in this portion of his Church.
It may be pondered, how do we know that these wounds were not fatal? Indeed, especially considering that the Continuing churches, rallying around the St. Louis statement of 1977, believe that they were. While they may get worse, and thus become fatal, I do not believe that they are so yet. Partly because a totally dead branch bears zero fruit, and the ACNA does seem to be still growing some fruit that gives evidence of the life within it. But partly because these errors do not forcefully affect the major artery that supports this limb: The Bishops.
A wound becomes fatal to a limb if the limb becomes gangrenous, and this happens when an infection works its way back up its vascular sources. In other words: when a particular error becomes a part of the mandated constitution of the Church, is enforced on all members of the Church, or severs the organic link between the Church of the living and the catholic Church of the past. For instance, when a woman is consecrated a bishop, the Apostolic line is broken, and any orders that she nominally confers are in fact, not conferred. In a similar manner, there have always been some immoral agents among the clergy (Judas!), so the Church was shocked by, but not disbelieving of, the 1990 report by Integrity made public by Bishop Spong that they knew of “50 priests who have been ordained since 1979 who…when they were ordained, the ordaining bishop knew they were homosexual and not celibate.” It is another thing when a Bishop who is homosexual and not celibate gets consecrated (as V. Gene Robinson was in 2003, following the affirming vote of General Convention of that year), since this established non-celibate homosexuality as a bona fide norm and good for the church, which of course it is not, according to the witness of the Bible.
To use a more remote example. In the 15th century I am sure there were many faithful of the clergy and the laity who were pained at the cheapening of the Gospel message of Grace through the profligate peddling of Indulgences. There is no question that — in its roughest form — selling absolution was a grave error in the Church. But it is one that many bore with. It was not till 1517 that the wound of error made its way up the trunk-vein to the very core of the Church’s constitution at the time: A decree from the Pope himself. Leo X brazenly offered indulgences for those who contributed financially to the new basilica in Rome. What had been an error that the Faithful had abided with, metastasized into an error that was itself enshrined and promoted. This was when drastic action was necessary, since it would make that limb no longer spiritually healthful, and indeed, the Reformation was sparked that very year.
The errors within the ACNA do not in the same way affect the entirety of the ACNA, as an infection that has gotten into the trunk-vein would do. There are dioceses that do not ordain women, for instance. There are bishops who exercise the ancient catholic discipline when it comes to the indissolubility of marriage and the centrality of procreation in a right understanding of married sexuality. There are many parishes without women priests, etc.
And so, for catholic-minded Christians in the ACNA, the errors in our midst are often tangential to our own spiritual life; they are not up-stream of us, necessarily. Even if one is canonically under a bishop who ordains women, one can still honor him as a bishop while recognizing that in this particular action he has fallen into error. More grave would be if the constitution of the diocese enshrines the ordination of women as normal, or, God forbid, if it was ever enshrined in our provincial constitution (as it was in TEC). Thankfully, most ACNA Anglicans are not committed to this error at a constitutional level. All it takes in most dioceses is for a bishop to cease from the practice, and the tincture of time (the retirement of the women clergy), and the wound is healed.
This is an application of the meaning of Romans 3:3 quoted above: The fact that some in the Church have been unfaithful (to the catholic faith, once for all delivered, and the disciplines that derive from it) does not nullify the faithfulness of God. We are a true member of the one true Body of Christ, and so we can be certain of the Grace that flows down through the Sacraments from our head: Jesus Christ. We have the apostolic succession of bishops. We have the ancient creeds. We have the ancient sacramental forms. We have the Scriptures faithfully translated. Our Church has no theological errors enshrined in our Provincial constitution. We can therefore be confident that God will continue to remain faithful to us here, in this ecclesial domain, no less than in any other portion of the apostolic Church (Catholic, Orthodox, Continuing, etc).
And so we can abide with error, but we must never abide error itself. This is a crucial distinction, and unless catholic-minded Anglicans remain vigilant, the former can slide into the latter.
For present wounds do pose a threat to future health. Wounds do not generally stay static; they either get better, or they grow worse. The history of the Episcopal Church since 1973 gives ample evidence of this fact. Therefore, since we in the ACNA are in one communion with all other dioceses and members of the ACNA, we must not put too much distance between ourselves and the wounds that mar the bride of Christ. Indeed, a silo mentality will only allow them to grow worse. Rather, all Christians who are worried about these wounds should be attentive to the errors in our midst.
This begins with remembering: By keeping in the living memory of the Church the dates and events listed above. By imaginatively remembering that things were not always as they are now; they once were different, and they could be different again.
And in remembering, we are to allow our hearts to feel the pain of the wound. How it has cut into the seamless garment of Christ; how it has pierced the shield of Faith, and severed us from our catholic brothers and sisters, living and dead. We are to yearn for their healing, as St. Paul burned for those who fell in the Churches he cared for.
And from that place of yearning, we are to pray. Only God can heal his Church — and he will do it, if we cry out to him, as the Prophets of old interceded for the People of God, even as they had given voice to God’s own condemnations. Pray for the changing of minds and hearts, among the clerics and the laics. Prayer can be supplemented with fasting. In particular, I intend to begin fasting on the 29th of each month, as an act of sorrow for the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven that took place on that day, and as a help to remember to pray that the Lord might turn us back from this error.
And lastly, if God provides the opportunity and the platform, we are to seek to persuade others. Or, for those who have a voice that could change the canons of a parish or a diocese or the province, to labor to use that opportunity and platform for the Lord’s glory. It may be the case that, in his mysterious purposes, the Lord will allow this limb to become gangrenous, as he did The Episcopal Church, and it will be a moral duty to abandon membership in favor of an alternative and living limb. But I am hopeful that this will not be the case; that the Lord has pruned and re-planted the ACNA from out of TEC, and desires its purity and wholeness, to be a radiant witness of her heavenly spouse: Jesus Christ our Lord. The hope is not only that the infection will not make its way to the trunk-vein, but that by God’s grace it will be cured and healed and the limb will be restored to full functionality. And until that day, I take comfort in the knowledge that God will remain faithful to us, even if some are faithless.