September 08, 2004

A Blast from the Past

As I mentioned the other day, it's at interesting time to an orthodox Christian in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Some weeks ago, three L.A. area parishes chose to leave the Episcopal Church and place themselves under the authority of the Archbishop from the Anglican Church of Uganda, with whom all three parishes already had warm ties. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has responded by claiming that all of the property of the three parishes (including every candle and prayerbook) is the property of the diocese and must be handed over. The three parishes have responded that in fact the parish land, buildings, and accoutrements (I love that word "accoutrements" a whole lot) were purchased solely with money contributed by parishioners, with no money coming from the diocese or national church, and that moreover they hold legal title. Lawsuits have been filed, and eventually the courts will decide who is correct.

There's been a lot of talk around the relevant portions of the blogosphere about this--about whether we should, as Christians, have recourse to the courts at a time like this; most of the comments I've seen have thought that this reflects badly on Bishop Bruno. Now, I support the three parishes in this particular debate, especially as the property was purchased entirely with local funds. But I feel moved to note an incident I discovered in Eusebius' History of the Church.

In the middle of the third century, the Bishop of Antioch was a fellow named Paul of Samosata. After he'd been made bishop, it was discovered that he held unorthodox views; in particular, he denied the divinity of Christ, a constant of Christian doctrine since the apostles. On top of that, he appears to have viewed his position primarily as a way to make money for himself, and as a way to gain social status. Eventually he seems to have required his followers to pay him divine honors, and to have taken "spiritual brides", whatever that means (though one can certainly guess).

The Church as a whole responded by calling a synod at which gathered bishops from as far away as Alexandria; they were unanimous in declaring that Paul of Samosata's teaching was heresy, and excommunicated him, choosing another man, one Domnus, to be Bishop of Antioch.

Paul, for his part, refused to relinquish control of the church's property in Antioch; and so his successor and the synod called upon Emperor Aurelian to intervene. In effect, they filed suit. Aurelian (not a Christian himself) solved the problem simply and magisterially--he asked the bishops of Italy who rightfully represented the Christian Church in Antioch. They told him that Domnus did, and Paul was ignominously thrown out by the secular authorities.

There are two aspects of this tale that interest me. The first is that the leaders of the Church did not hesitate to appeal to the Emperor--and note that this was well before Constantine's day, at a time when Christianity was tolerated at best by the Roman authorities. Being excommunicate, the teachings against taking fellow Christians to court would no longer apply to Paul of Samosata. But on top of that, Aurelian based his decision not on what the local leaders said, but on what the larger church said (as represented by the Italian bishops).

Given that the majority of the world's Anglicans have declared themselves in a state of impaired or broken communion with the Episcopal Church, perhaps Bishop Bruno should be worrying about the Los Angeles Cathedral Center....

Posted by Will Duquette at September 8, 2004 06:05 PM

Lloyd Kilford said:

I think it's actually an interesting question as to what the majority of Anglicans/Episcopalians actually believe; does one count only regular churchgoers in England, or everyone who put "Church of England" on their census forms, or something in between? I would think that this will give radically different answers. (See the URL for the BBC's number-crunching).

Also, I thought that the issue was that different parts of the Church were not in communion with each other (for instance Uganda and N*w H*mpsh*re). My understanding was that the last Lambeth conference had managed to avoid an outright schism, so presumably Uganda is still in communion with England.

Will Duquette said:

The Church of England has fewer active members than ECUSA, which has IIRC about 2.5 million. On the other hand, membership in the Anglican Churches of Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria is measured in the many tens of millions, and these are all in a state of broken or impaired communion with ECUSA. So I think it's fair to use the phrase "the majority of Anglicans".

Lloyd Kilford said:

That's fair enough (although I believe Disraeli came up with the phrase ``lies, d*mned lies, and *church* statistics). Even with the usual fudging of numbers, the number of active Episcopalians in both countries is of the same order of magnitude, and I'm willing to believe that there are more in the USA.

I think that there were battles in Scotland after one of the Presbyterian churches split as to which was the ``true church'', and the court battles there were rather less clean than those over Paul of Samostata.

I was about to argue that the Anglican Church doesn't actually have any real central authority (the Archbishop of Canterbury has no power to tell anyone outside the CofE what to do) but then I realised that in the third century the same might have been true for the Church then. So that argument doesn't work.

(This reminds me somewhat of the women priests debate in the Church. History repeats itself over and over again).

Will Duquette said:

Now, it's certainly true that the Archbishop of Canterbury isn't anything at all like an Anglican pope; he's more the first among equals. And indeed the Anglican communion is rather like the British Commonwealth--it's a collection of churches joined together by bonds of sentiment.

But over the last fifty years or so, a stronger union has been taking shape, with the Lambeth meetings of bishops from all over the world, and the Primates meetings. And the one power that the ABC undeniably has is to disinvite provinces; this would effectively kick that province out of the Anglican Communion.

In the Third Century, too, there was no central church authority; however, there was the understanding that all Christian churches were to be in communion with one another. Note that I say "were to be", not simply "were". Being in communion means sharing an understanding of Christ Jesus as well as the celebration of the Eucharistic meal. Being out of communion--being excommunicate--means being barred from the Eucharistic meal. In addition, there was the understanding that bishops weren't simply bishops for their local church but were representatives of the Church Universal. This is why it takes several bishops to consecrate a new bishop. It's also why, when Paul of Samosata became a problem, a synod of bishops from all over the Christian world met to consider what to do about it, and why there decision was considered final.

With regard to the ordination of women--indeed, many did leave ECUSA over that. The orthodox who stayed looked in their bibles and thought about the theology of the ordination of women, and decided that a Biblical case and a coherent theology could be made for it.

The difference between that case and the current case is that when the orthodox attempted to discuss the theological issues with the revisionists, we discovered that we had no grounds for discussion--that we were using words in entirely different ways, that we held entirely different views about Christ Jesus, and that in fact we had almost nothing in common beyond superficialities. So the statements of the African bishops that they are in broken or impaired communion with ECUSA don't describe an action taken by the African bishops; rather, they are an observation about the facts on the ground.

Lloyd Kilford said:

From what you say, it seems that there is a more fundamental split within the church about how to read the Bible, how to understand Christ, and how to apply this to the world. This makes me even more gloomy, as even if some deft politicking by the Archbishops at Lambeth manages to hold the Church together, the next Big Issue will re-open the same debate.

The CofE has already pulled back from the brink once - a gay man who was Bishop-elect withdrew himself from becoming Bishop. This probably helped keep things together (although the CofE is used to not being theologically united on almost any possible issue; this is a feature of a state church).

I wonder where we go from here.

Will Duquette said:

The latest word is that the Lambeth Commission's recommendation is likely to fairly stern, along the lines of refusing to allow ECUSA representatives to participate in meetings of the Anglican Communion. Also, I understand that Queen Elizabeth has been leaning on the Archbishop of Canterbury, in favor of orthodoxy.

If you're interested, you might want to check out Titusonenine and Midwest Conservative Journal, both on my blogroll. Both of them are following the situation on a day-by-day basis.

Lloyd Kilford said:

That's rather harsher than I would have thought. Obviously the union is a bit stronger than I thought it was.

I can understand the desire not to tear the Communion asunder, so I think I would, extremely reluctantly, be willing to take measures against ECUSA to keep the Communion together. I am not happy about it (I think that one could make the case for gay priests) but I can see the political need to Do Something.

I had a quick look at your links. They looked interesting, but I must confess that I am somewhat uneasy with the zeal of some of the commenters to (in my mind) remake the Church in their image. Hopefully the CofE will still have room for diversity of opinion.

Will Duquette said:

I don't for a moment think that the members of the Anglican Communion will ever march in lockstep theologically. But what you're seeing is a renewed insistence of the importance of what's been called "mere Christianity". Bluntly put, a minimum standard of belief is needed.

You might find this link to be of interest. The "earlier paradigm" and "emerging paradigm" spoken of map pretty exactly to ECUSA's two camps.

Lloyd Kilford said:

I would agree that a certain minimum of belief is a good and necessary thing; if you cannot accept the Thirty-Nine Articles or (say) the Nicene Creed then you should probably ask yourself ``am I in the right place?''

In the other direction, I would also quote Article 38:

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word.

[I am also still uneasy about the idea of choosing a different geographic church to be under; this seems to me to be verging on making one's church a party or factional church, by choosing a more conservative or liberal diocese at will. It doesn't *have* to be, but it runs that risk. I am sure that they have considered this risk, but I want to mention it anyway.]

Will Duquette said:

I agree with both of your points here. The move to Uganda is an extraordinary measure, in response to extraordinary circumstances. I'm sure that all of the people involved in it are hoping that it is also a temporary measure--that in time there will be a orthodox American body to which they can return.

We shall see.