Thoughts on the Communion Partners Plan

A friend struggling along with us in the current travails of the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church wrote me this morning to ask what I made of two recently-posted essays concerning the Communion Partners Plan. He wrote as a sort of afterward to a conversation we had earlier this week about the plan, during which we agreed that, while it makes little ecclesiological sense, the plan might provide some way for theologically conservative/orthodox Episcopalians to remain within their revisionist dioceses (like the Diocese of North Carolina), at least insofar as their rectors signed on as “Communion Partner rectors” who aligned themselves in some way with orthodox, or conservative, bishops in The Episcopal Church. To be sure, there is a good deal to be said for mutual support.

My initial thoughts on the essays, both posted on the website of the Anglican Communion Insitute, Inc., follow. Bear in mind that these are only the initial thoughts of a first read-through on a Friday afternoon. They are not meant to be considered as developed critique or argument.

1) In his essay, “Reflections on the Communion Partners Plan“, the Revd Mr Russell Levenson writes,

“We remain to say that the orthodox voice IS an authentic piece of the Anglican/Episcopal tapestry.”

“An authentic piece”? I find that strange phrasing – shouldn’t we work to make the orthodox voice THE warp and woof of the Anglican/Episcopal tapestry? (To continue Levenson’s mixed metaphor of voice and fabric.) I think that is precisely what the Global South, San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, et al are wanting to do. And aren’t they right? Why should orthodox Anglicanism want to be part of a tapestry with pluralistic universalism, moral relativism and all the rest of the revisionist agenda? Shouldn’t orthodox Anglicans attempt to recover their true patrimony as heirs of the faith and practice of the undivided Church in England before the Great Schism? As the Revd Canon Arthur Middleton argued in his book, Fathers and Anglicans: The Limits of Orthodoxy, isn’t the true patrimony of the Anglican Churches to profess the faith – and to bear and to live all that profession entails – of the undivided Church, neither adding to nor subtracting from that faith?

This is not an argument for compelling anyone to leave, but rather an argument that, while individuals may dissent from that catholic faith and practice (as individuals so dissent in the Roman Catholic Church and, to a far lesser degree, in the Orthodox Churches), the warp and woof of the Anglican tapestry is catholic orthodoxy – and only catholic orthodoxy, generously understood in keeping with the patristic mind and the insights of later Christians theologians and their communities.

I admit that I still find arguments for remaining within The Episcopal Church at least intellectually compelling (if psychologically uncomfortable), perhaps not least because I also have no “plan B” and find myself strangely unwilling to leave a parish that is largely institutionalist, with revisionist and reasserter members who are quite cordial, all held together by a conservative rector who (unfortunately?) has no desire to rock the boat. However, there are significant silences in most arguments for staying. For example, none of the major figures advocating staying ever seems to want to address directly the issue that orthodox Anglicans who remain in The Episcopal Church will in the fullness of time find themselves without orthodox bishops (witness the struggle to get consents to Lawrence’s election in SC) and perhaps even without orthodox rectors (both because fewer clergy will be allowed in TEC from orthodox/conservative seminaries and because hostile revisionist bishops won’t consent to the election of conservative/orthodox rectors who might rock the revisionist boat). We could all go the way of Radner’s favored Jansenists, who admonished the Reformed Christians in France that it would have been better to have remained in the Church without faithful pastors than to have participated in schism.

It may well be that this is the more faithful path, though I have my doubts.

2) In “Communion Partners: A Means of Fellowship within the Anglican Communion“, the Revd Professor Christopher Seitz writes,

“Those anxious to signal their firm commitment to catholic Communion Anglicanism, and an alliance of differentiation and identification within The Episcopal Church, can avail themselves of this Plan.”

And I have to ask, “To what end?” In the first place, I’m not sure this actually is anything other than a psychological differentiation and self-identification within The Episcopal Church – in other words, will this plan really support catholic order and orthodox faith, or is it simply a dreamy fantasy of differentiation. Now that might be enough for a short time, but there has to be real substance to the differentiation for it to be sustainable. What ad hoc forms of resistance to the prevailing culture of TEC will this encourage or engender?

In the second place, what is the point of continued Communion alignment in differentiation from The Episcopal Church if TEC is never disciplined, if the communion-denying, independent and mutuality-denying actions of TEC are de facto accepted as part of “the Anglican tapestry”? I admit that if this were a holding position, something to keep us going until a communion-defining document (a covenant) were produced or a way of living discernment (robust conciliarism) were to develop that would bring the Communion together in a generously orthodox Anglicanism, while causing those who cannot profess and live such an orthodoxy to recuse or remove themselves from Communion membership, then that would be something. But the way that (the Most Revd Dr) Rowan Williams has acted, the way that Lambeth has been designed, the continued intransigence of TEC (with apparent impunity) and the various actions and pronouncements of other global northern Anglican Churches (and those global southern Anglican Churches dependent on the North, like Brazil) are leading me ineluctably to the rather pessimistic conclusion that The Episcopal Church will never be disciplined. What does remaining in communion with +Cantuar mean for conservative/orthodox Episcopalians when their revisionist bishops share precisely the same communion with the occupant of the See of Canterbury?

What sort of differentiation is that?

(Amended 6/07/08.)


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