By Fr. Glenn Spencer
Editor's note: Fr. Glenn Spencer warns about forming ecclesiastical alliances in an atmosphere of urgency. To provide some background, he first gives an overview of other attempts towards union from Orthodox and Anglican perspectives.
A Short Eastern Orthodox Narrative
In 2010 the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, aka SCOBA, met in its final session. SCOBA was formed in 1960 as a first step to bring together the various Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions that had canonically resident bishops in the Americas who were in communion with the four ancient Orthodox patriarchates — the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul); the Patriarch of Antioch; the Patriarchate of Alexandria, Egypt; and the Patriarch of Jerusalem — as well as the Patriarchate of Moscow. Membership in SCOBA quickly identified a jurisdiction to be Eastern Orthodox and in full communion with member-jurisdictions.
Additionally, SCOBA became a hub of activity and cooperation between the member jurisdictions, for developing best practice standards for charitable activities, education, and missionary work in the Americas. It also provided an instrument by which grievances between jurisdictions might be adjudicated among brethren. And lastly, SCOBA became the instrument which provided one mouthpiece to the several Orthodox jurisdiction in the USA and one voice in ecumenical conversations. As I said, SCOBA’s last meeting was in 2010 at which time it was replaced by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and South America. The Assembly assumed all the committees, dialogues, and ministries of SCOBA, and it has established four goals: 1) To promote administrative unity for the Orthodox in the USA. 2) To fortify the practical pastoral care for all faithful Orthodox in the USA. 3) To function as a common witness for the Orthodox Church in North America. 4) To work toward the organization of a Church in the USA, in accord with the ecclesiastical and canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church. Unlike SCOBA, the Assembly understands itself to be a transitional standing committee that will make itself obsolete once it goals are achieved. At that time, the Assembly will develop a proposal for the canonical organization of an autocephalous, Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States.
A Short Continuing Church Narrative
On October 6, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia, the Anglican Province of America entered into full communion with the Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Church in America, and the Diocese of the Holy Cross. The concordat of intercommunion accurately cites our shared line of apostolic succession, conveyed to the Continuing Churches at the Denver Consecrations in 1978, through what is known as the Chambers Succession. The Denver consecrations were in response to the call for a new jurisdiction from the Congress of Saint Louis that met in 1977. The fledging jurisdiction was provisionally named the Anglican Church in North America. Almost immediately, this Anglican Church in North America began fragmenting, and new jurisdictions were formed along the lines of affinity and churchmanship; albeit, observers at the time said personal ambition played a large role in the splintering as well. Over the years that followed, Bishops, priests, and laymen of the Continuum attempted to rebuild trust, and reunification strategies were devised and attempted, but reunion was elusive.
And then came Deerfield.
The Concordat signed in October 2017 accurately states that the Anglican Province of America shares apostolic succession, through the Denver consecrations, with our three ecumenical partners — but the Anglican Province of America was not a jurisdiction of the original Continuum. The APA was largely composed of the clergy, laity, and parishes of the jurisdiction previously known as the American Episcopal Church (AEC). The AEC predated the Continuum by ten years and by the time the Denver consecrations rolled around, it was already a structured jurisdiction, with a House of Bishops and 18 priests doing all they could to serve over 20 parishes. In addition to that, the AEC had already experienced growing pains of its own, manifested by internal struggles over leadership, identity, and mission. In the early years, the AEC made overtures to the emerging Continuum, including our own Bishop Walter Grundorf who attended the Congress of Saint Louis, but their approaches were rebuffed because the clergy and lay leaders of the newly minted Continuum were occupied with the strain and uncertainties of leaving the old, well established and well-funded jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church. However, in addition to that, a handful of the leaders of the Continuum questioned the validity of AEC Orders. The upshot was that the Continuing jurisdictions, already fracturing, went their separate ways. The AEC continued coalescing, and it continued to reach out to different Continuing jurisdictions and other communions that more or less resembled the AEC liturgically and dogmatically like the Reformed Episcopal Church. The AEC successfully avoided the divisions that were hampering the Continuing Church. Fourteen years after Denver, with the same old divisions ever-present, most of the jurisdictions of the Continuum were in decline and becoming increasingly brittle and isolated.
Then, in early 1990, the leadership of the AEC began talks with some leaders of the ACC and, after several months of planning, the AEC and a large portion of the ACC met at Deerfield Beach, Florida. Deerfield was the home of the AEC’s St. Peter’s Cathedral, one of the jurisdiction’s earliest success stories, having grown from a couple of dozen people to over 300 active parishioners. The public hope of Deerfield was the formation of a new Anglican jurisdiction that would overcome the divisions in the Continuum. Doubts concerning the Orders of the AEC were put to rest by conditional consecrations of all the bishops involved with Deerfield, and the Anglican Church in America was formed.
The atmosphere was electrifying as Anglican delegates from Canada, Europe, and England, as well as Eastern Orthodox and Swedish Lutherans observers and the delegates from around the nation arrived at Deerfield. It is probably accurate to say that most of the delegates and observers believed they were participating in something wonderful and even something holy. It was as though they were seeing God work right before their eyes to break down barriers that had kept traditional Anglicans divided for years. And over those few scorchingly hot days and nights in Deerfield, personal friendships were formed that have lasted throughout the years. But few people noticed or said anything about the fact that most of the delegates and observers were remarkably naive and inexperienced. And questions about canonical procedure, if many of the delegates even knew what that meant, could wait — after all, Deerfield was dealing with urgent business!
But Deerfield was not what it appeared to be. It took time — years — for many of the delegates and observers to face the fact that the Deerfield union was accomplished because of a facetious disregard for and violation of the Constitution & Canons of the Anglican Catholic Church. The formation of the ACA split the ACC, and, predictably, only four years later, history repeated itself and the newest union began falling apart. It appears that the jurisdiction was flawed from the start: it was born out of desperation, the fear of continuing failure, and reckless personal ambition. Rather than being an authentic union of two strong and conscientious traditional Anglican jurisdictions, it turned out that the initial leaders had only facile knowledge of one another. Nor had they taken time to grasp the truth that the ACC and the AEC had over the years developed separate and significantly different ecclesial cultures. Eventually, the unheeding and ungovernable will to power of some leaders emerged aggressively: Deerfield turned out to be largely an exercise in lawlessness. In the end, Bishop Walter Grundorf led DEUS, the old diocese of the AEC, out and formed the Anglican Province of America.
Learning from the past
Deerfield met twenty-nine years ago. Rather than ignoring the past or merely giving into despair over our failures, perhaps the unrealized promises and the debacle of Deerfield can serve our jurisdictions as a cautionary tale that offers some lessons to make the most out of this ecumenical moment:
1) Resist the tyranny of the urgent. The different jurisdictions of SCOBA took fifty years to live together and to cooperate in important matters before moving to the next stage of a single jurisdiction. What if Deerfield’s outcome had been different? What if it had morphed into something like SCOBA and the ACC bishops, priests, and delegates returned to the ACC and sought reconciliation within their own family, and what if they were able to persuade their brethren to join in fraternal talks and cooperation with the AEC that might lead to mutual recognition? And what if we were still in those conversations today, twenty-seven years later? But we have to live with the history we have made, not the history of our wishes. However, we know this: when a sense of urgency is driving a movement, very big mistakes will be made because very big questions will be ignored. We must insist on taking the time required to know one another in greater depth than we do at this time, and it begins by gathering facts.
2) Gather data. In order to gather an accurate view of the state of each jurisdiction represented by the G4 an audit committee should be established to gather the facts: To produce a Full and Complete and Comparative Audit of the Four Jurisdictions beginning with a verifiable, full, and complete audit of our jurisdictions verified within the last six months, that would include basic information that may be published in one ecumenical document: the annual budgets of each jurisdiction, number of bishops, number of priests, and deacons and total membership. In addition to that we should provide basic information of each diocese including: the names and contact information of bishops and other officers of the dioceses and jurisdictional property; the diocesan requirements in terms of membership and budget for parish status; a complete list of all parishes and missions of the dioceses to include membership, Sunday attendance, the name and contact information of parish priests and deacons as well as lay officers. Clergy and parishes that are close enough to one another geographically should be encouraged to spend time together, including attending one another’s clergy meetings or retreats.
3) Be attentive to the culture. The Anglican Province of America has a culture that has been developing for over fifty years — two full generations. Our ecumenical partners, though younger than we, also have particular cultures, to which we all should be attentive as well. Though our cultures are not as different as a Russian Orthodox culture is compared to a Greek Orthodox culture, they are nonetheless real, and we are responsible to be attentive to our differences, as well as our similarities. Culture is notoriously difficult to define, and I am reminded of the Supreme Court Justice who remarked that he could not define pornography — “but I know it when I see it.” Although I have written least about the issue of culture, I think it may be existentially the most important one. Ask anyone who has spent time in the ACC and then in the APA what is the most noticeable difference, and you will hear a narrative of two cultures.
4) Consider the question of authority. We and our ecumenical partners have no single instantiated ecclesial authority to which we give our whole loyalty, outside of our Houses of Bishops. That has always been a peculiarity in Anglicanism, for the reality is that, even when communion with Canterbury was the objective definition of Anglicanism, that ecclesiastical see was never taken to be a Church Authority like the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the other Orthodox Patriarchies are to Eastern Orthodoxy or like Rome is to Roman Catholics. One reason that SCOBA has avoided schism is because all the Orthodox Churches in this nation, unlike Anglicans, are wholly loyal to the same ecclesiastical sees of final authority. I submit that it is a peculiar characteristic of Anglicanism that we have never historically functioned in that manner, but it is also true that what we loosely refer to as the Undivided Church also functioned in a manner similar to Anglicanism. Nevertheless, it is almost certainly the absence of such an external authority, one that has the power to bestow identity, that has fostered Anglicanism’s recurring cycles of splitting/reunion schemes followed by more splitting/reunions schemes. One great gift that we and our intercommunion partners could bestow upon our future children would be an exhaustive, intelligent, responsible and documented study of this question paying special attention to the structure of authority of the Undivided Church. That is the only way we may consciously, intentionally, intelligently, and responsibly, break, once and for all, the insidious cycle of destruction.
5) Be attentive to our Solemn Declaration, Constitution, and Canons. As I said above, “the Deerfield union was accomplished because of the facetious disregard and violation of the Constitution & Canons of the Anglican Catholic Church… Deerfield turned out to be largely an exercise in lawlessness” that justified itself because of a perception of urgency. Before we can speak intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly about going from communion to union, we have to spend time dealing with canonical matters. It is a matter of fact that the Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Province in America have no mechanism whatsoever for entering into organic, administrative union with another jurisdiction. It does not exist. Our foundation documents take it for granted that as we will successfully continue the work of the Gospel of Christ, our numbers will multiply, and we will double down on the work before us. There is no contemplation of failing our mission or ceasing to exist, and it is abundantly clear from the facts on the ground that our diocese is thriving. Our Solemn Declaration sets out our hope with regard to other jurisdictions: “WE declare this Church to be, and desire that it shall continue in full communion with all traditional Anglicans throughout the world…” In my opinion, “full communion” is the limit of the relationship that our Solemn Declaration, Constitution, and Canons contemplates for other jurisdictions. The APA cannot abandon its fundamental principles of self-governance, for to do so would be to enter into the same lawless experience of Deerfield.
And yet our Concordat pledges to “pursue full, institutional, and organic union with each other, in a manner that respects tender consciences, builds consensus and harmony, and fulfills increasingly our Lord’s will that His Church be united…” That phrase deserves our full attention and we need to grasp the full meaning. We are bound to sincerely seek a path of some form of union, but we cannot abandon our foundational principles and identity declared in our founding documents, nor can we violate our own laws and repeat Deerfield’s errors all over again. Furthermore we want nothing less for each of our partners. No jurisdiction or diocese, even for the sake of unity, should deny its own being and identity as Anglican.
6) Remember that God frequently redeems our misdoings. Perhaps, Deerfield was not entirely a debacle. Although the AEC never understood itself to be flawed with regard to her Orders before or after Deerfield, the bishops of the AEC, as well as all the other Bishops attending, for the sake of unity and for the sake of clear consciences, submitted to conditional ordinations. So it is abundantly clear from our Concordat that it is our shared line of succession, infused at Deerfield, that has made this ecumenical moment possible.
If we are going to carry out our bishop’s pledge to pursue some form of union, we have to begin by eschewing a crisis mentality or a sense of urgency as we attentively, intelligently, reasonably and responsibly attend to the issues we have addressed in this paper — and no doubt other issues that have not yet occurred to us. For those seeking full union — or maintaining full sacramental communion — full and complete attentiveness, understanding, and responsibility, for and of, what and with whom we are entering is indispensable. As I said above, “In my opinion, “full communion” is the limit of the relationship that our Solemn Declaration, Constitution, and Canons contemplate.”
That being the case, a SCOBA-like relationship, in which plenty of time is provided for growing together, provides our jurisdictions a fruitful model by which we may honor our commitments to one another.
Fr. Glenn Spencer is Rector at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.