In need of fresh basil a few days ago, I bought some at the market. It was a beautiful batch, heavy, green and fragrant, and it came in a clear plastic package touting that it was “living basil.” Sure enough, it was a whole plant, tiny little damp roots holding fast to a few grains of dark brown soil. I used it that night and cared for it as described, adding water and keeping on the kitchen sill. Still, after a few days, it wilted and faded and eventually had to be tossed away, once aromatic leaves now droopy, faded and soft.
I almost missed the news that the Episcopal Church decided at its annual convention to overturn the moratorium on ordination of openly gay clergy and to permit same-sex blessings. That didn’t particularly surprise me. Many of the conservatives who would have opposed such a move have left for any of a number of splinter Anglican groups in the US, and there just aren’t many left to fight. And those who are left have lost much of thier spirit; resistance is, after all, futile. The House of Bishops have made it clear that they intend to reshape the denomination in their own images.
What did surprise me--a little--is that the Archbishop of Canterbury clings to the notion that somehow he can cobble this ruptured communion back together by having two tracks of Anglicanism that are so different as to be different religions altogether, and keep them under the umbrella of a communion in which the members agree to disagree on fundamental issues of truth and faith. The Anglican communion is rent asunder and no patch the Archbishop of Canterbury puts on it can long disguise that fact.
Now come reports that The Episcopal Church is organizing liberal parishes in England to present a challenge to the authority of the the Archbishop of Canterbury. Because liberals are so effective at driving away the orthodox when they grab the reins of power, there’s a very real possibility that the Archbishop’s position in England may be rendered even more impotent than it already is by the actions of the Episcopal Church. Like it or not, the Anglican Communion is now involved in a civil war. The orthodox remaining would do well to recognize it and to understand what it means.
It is the inevitable result of a system that many centuries ago decided to abandon Divinely designated authority in favor of “orthodoxy” that would be maintained by the good offices of mankind in a loose communion, with a leader who was “primus inter pares”-- only the first of equals. It was an interesting experiment, to substitute mutual civility, reason, scripture and tradition for scripture, sacred tradition, and the fidelity of and to the Magesterium, shielded by God’s promise that He would not let His Church teach error. It has failed. And failed rather miserably.
If history is any guide, The Episcopal Church will soon lead its other Protestant brothers and sisters deeper in to error, just as the Anglican Communion did when it abandoned its historic opposition to artificial birth control. The Episcopal Church has gained headlines for its stance on homosexual clergy and the blessing of same sex unions. Less well covered are its radical and unorthodox stances on other issues-- abortion and marriage in general to name two. Sitting Episcopal Bishop Barbara Harris denied the sacramental nature of marriage, calling it a civil union to which the church only adds its blessing. The Rev. Carter Haywood, Dean of the Episcopal Divinty School in Cambridge, flatly declared abortion a sacrament. Hardly orthodox positions, but watch: they will both become mainstream both in the surviving bits of the Episcopal Church and in other Protestant churches as they increasingly yield to social pressure, abandoning the gift that Christ left in His Church for all those willing to listen and submit to its teaching.
I’ve been reading Catholic writers long enough to know that there are some nutty ideas out there that come from Catholic theologians and clergy and laymen. The difference is this: There’s no one who has the authority to tell a wayward Episcopalian that he’s wayward and to bring him to heel. And even when someone tries--and God bless him, Rowan Williams tried--there’s no way to make anyone listen. The Episcopal Church didn’t like what the rest of the Communion was saying, so they simply thumbed their noses, and did as they wished. The orthodox in the ranks didn’t like what the Episcopal Church did, and gave rise to untold splinter groups and unending lawsuits. The fissiparous nature of Protestantism on full display.
So be it. It’s the natural result of ditching authority. If you choose to abandon authority when it is uncomfortable to you, it’s no good appealing to it when your own position is in danger. The Episcopal Church, like all of Protestantism, sets each man up as his own Magesterium. Get enough of them together to agree on anything and you have a movement, and you can take over a church, then a diocese, then a denomination. And without authority outside of the individual, without a way to ensure respect for the teaching authority of the Church and the arms of scripture and tradition, anarchy ultimately reins. It make take 500 years, but chaos ultimately wins. It has to. The Episcopal Church turns out to be a house built on sand.
I am saddened by what has happened to a beautiful tradition in which I was nourished for twenty years. I am sadder still because there are those who believe that splitting off into a dissenting orthodox enclave will somehow preserve the traditional faith, or that trying to maintain a bastion of orthodoxy within the Episcopal Church will bring the heterodox home again to historic faith at some vague and future time.
The only way to get home to the Church Christ founded is to go there, hands empty, without conditions or desire other than to meet Him in the Church He founded, and with a heart open to His call. The only way to have orthodoxy at hand is to find its source, still healthy and nurtured in the firm, fertile and well-watered ground in which it was originally planted: The Catholic Church.
It may be a matter of years, it may only be months, but something will split the tattered remnants of The Episcopal Church and the remnants of the remnants, again and again, inside or out. It may the ordination of women, it may be abortion, stem cell research or euthanasia, it may be the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it may be inclusive language, it may be the meaning of sacraments, it may be rationing of health care, it may be something else But split it will because any disagreement will be like squabbling children arguing over a toy with no parent to step in to resolve the quarrel. The toy will end up broken and someone will end up crying.
When you get right down to it, once the Anglican church rejected the authority of the Church so many years ago, any man’s (or woman’s) opinion was as good as any other in matters of faith. The illusion that orthodoxy can survive when pulled from the ground that nurtures it--the Church and the Magesterium-- has proved to be just that: an illusion. Like beautiful fragrant basil pulled out of the earth, even with tender care, it will eventually wither and die, for at some point, there is no way to sustain it. And not liturgy, or architecture, or music or anything else that the Anglican tradition offers can make up for the fact that it and all its offspring are now plants with no soil clinging to the roots, rapidly wilting on the sill of society’s narcissism, pressures and pleasures. The Episcopal Church has found--but chooses to ignore the fact-- that it could not reliably have orthodoxy and all that it promises without obedience to the Authority that holds it together--which Christ ceded to the Church He founded. To the Catholic Church.
Not to The Episcopal Church. And not to any of its angry and disenchanted progeny.