Restoring Unity–First Steps
Beginning in June a number of Continuing Church leaders have met three times: in Victoria, British Columbia, in West Palm Beach, Florida, and in Brockton, Massachusetts. The bishops involved include the leaders of the three Churches that are in full communion with each other and whose first bishops were consecrated in 1978 in Denver (the ACC, the Anglican Province of Christ the King [APCK], and the United Episcopal Church in North America [UECNA]), but also include three bodies with which we are not yet in full communion: the Anglican Church in America (ACA), the Anglican Province in America (APA), and the Diocese of the Holy Cross (DHC).
The alphabet soup of initial letters suggests the problem we have. The Continuing Church groups are united by adherence to the Affirmation of Saint Louis and its traditional principles concerning doctrine, morality, Anglican worship, and Holy Orders. We have been divided by many other things. Some of these other things were unworthy, such as overly ambitious leaders and even the occasional ecclesiastical adventurer. Sometimes also we have suffered from the ‘sadism of small differences’. Once or twice we have even been divided by real differences of some theological importance.
Many of the dividing personalities and issues have gone away. In some cases time and stabilization of institutions have brought the departure of particularly difficult individuals. In other cases events have made clear that some things just do not work. So, for instance, those who decided to ‘stay and fight from within’ the old Canterbury Communion bodies now see that that effort has failed. So too those with a strong hankering to become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox have mostly now attained their heart’s desire. In general those now in Continuing Churches are here because we want to be, and our Churches now have some institutional character and stability.
The recent meetings constitute the first steps towards unification (or reunification) of the Continuing Churches. That is, we are meeting together and have decided to try to work patiently for unity. What principles should guide this effort and what steps should we take next towards the goal?
The Task Ahead
Within the ACC our first task is to honor and nurture and care for our own members and to grow our own Church by evangelizing the un-churched and non-Christians. You dance with the girl you take to the dance. It makes little sense to seek unity by splitting what is already united. What is true for us is also true of the other larger Continuing groups. So our dialogue with others should proceed with respect for tender consciences in our midst and should not include throwing existing members under, as it were, the ecumenical bus. Also, it should go without saying that no essential doctrinal principle should be sacrificed. Truth trumps unity.
With that much given, the most sensible and realistic task for the next few years is to reduce the number of self-described Continuing Church bodies. Rather than pursue an unrealistic goal of uniting all quickly, we should encourage the further coalescence of the most like-minded or of those already substantially united. So, it makes sense for the Anglican Church of America (ACA) and the Anglican Province in America (APA) to pursue unity between themselves, because they share more common roots with each other than with anyone else. Likewise, as the ACC, APCK, and UECNA are already in full communion with each other, it is sensible for them to work to draw closer to each other. The Diocese of the Holy Cross has given itself the task of disappearing within the next decade by sending parishes to other groups, so it already is committed to this kind of goal. These groups just mentioned comprise, I would guess, 90% of the older Continuing Church movement. If we can in the next few years reduce the number of groups from six to two or three, we will have made excellent progress.
In addition to reducing the number of groups through organic union, we all should pursue cordiality towards all and should seek the greatest level of cooperation that is compatible with what each understands to be essential. At Brockton several proposals for such intermediate cooperation were put forth. One sensible proposal concerns the movement of clergy and parishes among the main groups. We all share an interest in encouraging a level of good behavior and discipline among clergy and parishes. In the past too often clergy evaded the consequences of truly bad and undisciplined behavior by ‘jurisdiction shopping’ – by movement in and out of Churches as if they were flavors of fast food franchise. At the least bishops should check references and call the bishops from which a given priest or parish comes. It might be possible by mutual agreement to refuse to receive a priest or parish from one of the other main groups without the permission of the bishop concerned. Such limitations need to be discussed carefully, but the discussion is worth having. So too cooperation in publications, works of mercy, and some kinds of theological education might be possible short of institutional and organic merger.
All of the groups just mentioned need to begin to factor in to their calculations and considerations the ecumenical effects of decisions. If we limit new causes of division and work on eliminating existing divisions, time will become our friend. I think we are now on the right path. I see no reason not to hope that we might find ourselves moving solidly and fairly quickly towards a united – or at least much more united – Continuing Church.