A Glimpse into Williams' Ecclesiology

This letter from Archbishop Williams to Bishop Howe of Central Florida has been making the rounds recently with good reason--it is quite a remarkable fragment of ecclesiological thinking.

There is absolutely no question that it will serve to foment fragmentation and division, encouraging those dioceses like Pittsburgh and Fort Worth that wish to leave TEC intact to "get a move on". Williams' idea seems to be that Iker could take Fort Worth out of the Episcopal Church and remain in communion with the See of Canterbury, but a mere parish like Christ Church in Georgia or Truro in Virginia could not do so. I presume this explains why he has been reluctant to extend Lambeth invitations to Minns et al--the issue is not Carey's precedent so much as a more theologically substantive point.

Of course I would like to think I share ground with Williams here. Perhaps we agree that there is something fundamentally disordered about a parish without its bishop withdrawing from one diocese to join another; provided the bishop remains a bishop, it is impossible. The parish priest is a priest only at the behest of his or her bishop, and this is a matter of the parish priest being a priest. Thus, while Williams might not have a problem with Minns being a bishop, he might well have a problem with his claim to Lambeth attendance as a bishop of anything. He isn't a bishop of what was Truro parish anyhow. Then what exactly is he a bishop of?

The matter is different when one considers Bishop Iker taking the Diocese of Fort Worth out of the Episcopal Church. Ater all, for the time being Iker remains a bishop of a diocese.

Williams seems to me, in my limited knowledge, to be following Zizioulas here, a la "Being and Communion". The bishop of a diocese is the basic ecclesial unit on which provinces supervene--the provinces being no more than epiphenomena of their diocesan bases. For the bishop is the necessary precondition for the performance of the essential act of Christian being, namely the Eucharist. Thus we can say where the bishop is, there the church is, as if the church were instantiated wherever a bishop presided, and its "where" was the diocese.

Thus, there is no fundamental block to a province cobbled together of dioceses from England, the US, and Canada; there is no fundamental incoherence in a province continually changing its diocesan membership. The province is simply not necessary for the being of the diocese, and the Archbishop or Presiding Bishop is not at all to the provincial bishop as the bisho pis to the priest and deacon.

This is a very high ecclesiology, I think, and it portends a good deal of near-term chaos--if not long-term anarchy--but to his credit Williams appears ready to take a stand and let the dioceses fall where they may while watching provinces simply evaporate and reform like steam on a window. I had thought Williams was led by a need to keep the Church of England together; it seems I was wrong, as the CoE is just another epiphenomenal province. Consistency would require acknowledging that dioceses of the CoE could form provinces with dioceses of TEC. What might stop them? Tradition, legal problems, potential disestablishment perhaps: who knows?

Property issues are quite beside the point when we are talking the being of bishops and their dioceses. If Iker or Duncan were to leave TEC without property, it would be irrelevant to their standing as bishops of dioceses in communion with Canterbury.

Taking all this into consideration, it is clear what the Episcopal Church should do. It is clear that Bishop Iker cannot just take Fort Worth out of TEC ad hoc; he must, by his diocese's own rules, follow a process that takes time. When the process is completed--legitimately completed--there is no serious theological bar to his leaving TEC with Fort Worth--and of course remaining Anglican in good standing. If his fellow Episcopalian bishops do not like this prospect, there seems to be just one option. Secular law will not help. They will have to remove him and others like him from their positions as bishops of their respective dioceses. And they had better get moving; that process will take time to complete as well. Deposed, Iker and the others would have the status of a Minns: hovering in an ecclesial limbo. And faithful Episcopalians in Fort Worth and elsewhere will be safe.

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