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Primatial Smack-Down

6 June 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pastoral letters released by the Most Rev’d Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the “response” of sorts by the Most Rev’d Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. But, this would require a lot of explanation for non-Anglicans and sometimes we’d rather not bother people with our messes–it helps up keep up appearances.

Diana Butler Bass, on her blog Christianity for the Rest of Us on Beliefnet, posted an excellent analysis of what’s going on right now that I found particularly well-written and well-thought.

She writes:

This is not a conservative/liberal argument (both Rowan Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori are theologically liberal). This is a fight between rival versions of Anglicanism–a quarrel extending to the beginning of Anglicanism that has replayed itself periodically through the centuries down to our own time.

Rowan Williams’ letter articulates “top-down Anglicanism,” a version of the faith that is hierarchical, bishop-centered, concerned with organizational control, and authoritarian.  It is an old vision that vests the identity of the church in a chain of authority in the hands of ecclesiastical guardians who agree on “a coherent Anglican identity” and then enforce the boundaries of that identity through legal means.  This version of Anglicanism stretches back through the Middle Ages and relates to similar forms of Christianity as found in Roman Catholicism and some forms of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Katharine Jefferts Schori’s letter speaks for “bottom-up Anglicanism,” a version of the faith that is democratic, parish-based, mission-oriented, and (even) revolutionary.  It is also an old vision, one that vests the identity of the church in local communities of Anglicans at prayer, who adapt their way of life and liturgy according to the needs of Christian mission.  This version of Anglicanism is rooted in both the ancient Celtic traditions of English Christianity and the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury circa 600.

As history unfolded, different cultures have picked up on one or the other of these two streams–for example, the British church remains primarily hierarchical (even referring to their bishops as “My Lord Bishop”); while the American church is primarily democratic (“God alone is the Lord”).


At its best, Anglicanism manages the polarities between these tensions–often creating locally innovative expressions of a church that is both hierarchical and democratic, bishop and parish centered, bounded and liturgically open at the same time.  Over the centuries, this has been called the Anglican art of comprehension, or the via media (the “middle way”).

But once every few hundred years, the tensions explode.  This is one of those times.

The argument isn’t really about gay and lesbian people nor is it about, as some people claim, the Bible or orthodoxy.  Rather, the argument reprises the oldest conflict within Anglicanism–What kind of Anglicans are we to be?  How do we relate to the world and culture around us?  And very specifically now:  What kind of Anglicans are we to be in the 21st century?  And how to we relate to the plurality of cultures in which we find ourselves?

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