GlobalView from Bishop Bill Atwood
In the 1920s in Chicago, Alphonse Gabriel Capone, (known as “Al” Capone) was active in a whole range of illegal activities in Chicago. Though it was widely known that he used force to advance in the ranks of criminal enterprises in Chicago, law enforcement authorities were unable to get enough testimony together to convict him. He pursued alcohol production and sales and many other criminal activities during the period of prohibition when liquor sales were illegal. Unable to get people to testify against him for most of his crimes, he also dodged prosecution because of witnesses disappearing.
Eventually, authorities were able to send him to jail for tax evasion for failing to declare the income from his illegal activities. He served eight years in jail, but at the time of his release, advanced syphilis had produced dementia from which he never recovered. I’m sure that there were many people who were disappointed that he was never held to account for the vast array of illegal activities he had undertaken. His eleven-year sentence (of which he served 8) seemed like a small consequence for the life of crime he had lived. Ultimately, he died from pneumonia and a stroke, along with diminished mental capacity. At the time, there were only anemic measures in place to protect witnesses, so many people were not willing to testify. Many people viewed the tax-evasion conviction as being something of a joke, but it was sufficient to imprison the career mobster.
Last week in Canterbury, though many people were amazed that there were finally some consequences for the Episcopal Church, others were disappointed that the consequences were not more stringent. Certainly, after all the years of flouting Scripture, there is ample reason to be disgusted. Certainly, as more than a dozen Provinces recognized, there was ample reason to eject TEC from the Communion. Unable to win the day on the resolution for ejection, they moved to other expressions of discipline, focusing narrowly on last summer’s TEC General Convention decision to change the marriage canon and prayer book to embrace same-sex marriage. The focus turned to what was essentially described as a failure to consult and a decision to move outside institutional norms. There should not be, however, concern about institutional norms and practice. The greatest offense is that the Episcopal Church is engaging in activities that lead people away from Christ eternally. In other words, the Episcopal Church, rather than being the Ark of Salvation, is the instrument bringing spiritual destruction to people it is literally leading away from Christ and into Hell. Although they are more strident than some other Provinces, there are others doing the same thing. Soon, the focus of discipline needs to be on them as well. Canada is a great place to start the next round!
This Primates’ “Gathering” in Canterbury was the first one to gather a majority of the Primates in years. The reason is that since the Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam in 2007, a deadline was put to the Episcopal Church to return to Anglican faith and practice or “walk apart.” Sadly, following the meeting, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, unilaterally decided to overturn the hard-fought decision of the meeting and let the Episcopal Church completely off the hook. There is no way to describe gracefully what ABp Williams did. He simply unilaterally decided to declare that the deadline for conforming that had been given to TEC was “not a deadline.” Even worse, he invited errant TEC bishops to the 2008 Lambeth Bishops’ Conference, completely taking the teeth out of what the Primates had decided. From that point, it has not been possible to gather the majority of Primates because the Dar es Salaam decision had not been honored. Many Primates said that they would not attend until the Dar es Salaam decisions were implemented.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was able to get Primates to come by insuring them that they would have control of the agenda. That is an assurance that several of the Primates I spoke with believe was honored at this gathering. The Archbishops wanted to discuss TEC, and they got to. Sadly, the resolution to completely eject TEC from the Anglican Communion failed, but almost half the Provinces were willing to give them the boot. Though the ejection resolution failed to pass, it was obvious though that the vast majority of Provinces wanted to see TEC disciplined. After lively discussions, the sanctions that were put in place were overwhelmingly approved. I understand that the numbers were 27 voting for sanctions, 3 against, and 6 abstaining. ABp Foley Beach of the Anglican Church in North America refused a ballot on the TEC vote, saying that although he had been completely included in the meeting and all the other votes that took place while he was present, he did not think it was appropriate to vote on TEC, because the ACNA’s status has not yet been formalized.
Now the question is: Were the sanctions enough? The answer is another question: Enough for what? From a spiritual standpoint, both the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church (as well as several others) having pursued unbiblical activity without repentance deserve to be ejected from the Communion—at least until they repent and demonstrate suitable fruits of repentance. Is it enough that they have been denied voice and vote in some areas? I believe that it is extremely significant and sets the stage for more to happen with TEC and other Provinces.
This is the most significant time since 2007 that there has been an attempt to impose sanctions against TEC. If the measures hold and are not circumvented, then they are a start. As things stand now, the great pressure is on ABp Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. TEC and her allies will go to any lengths to try to keep from being held accountable. Twice in the meeting, ABp Welby assured the Primates that he would follow through on the discipline of TEC, going so far as to say, “I give you my word.” The pressure on him will be tremendous. Please be praying for him!
Of course, TEC will never repent. They are far too deep into the darkness to emerge from their rebellion. They have moved past the arrogance of “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes” (Lk 17:26), plunging further into the deepest darkness “calling good evil, and evil good” (Is 5:20). Eventually, there will have to be a separation. Liberals are holding fast to the hope that before three years are up, the culture will have overwhelmed the Church to the point that leaders will back down and will accept unbiblical behavior. While that is possible, there is a crop of young new Primates who are still going to be around in three years. The Provinces that are going to have changes in leadership (like Kenya) this year are not likely to elect liberals who would be soft on Biblical authority.
While there were disappointments, there are many things about this Canterbury meeting that are encouraging. Next week I’ll write about more of them, but for today, take heart that good things have happened. One of the greatest is the increased acceptance of GAFCON. I have been contacted by several “not yet” GAFCON Archbishops asking me to come to talk. After years and years of orthodoxy being institutionally thwarted, the institution came through and reversed that direction (however anemically) and held the Episcopal Church accountable. Given that TEC has been circling the globe for months with a fat checkbook seeking to buy support before this gathering, it is really quite remarkable that they were not able to insulate themselves from accountability. For today, rejoice in this: The institution of the Anglican Communion has shown itself capable of taking action to discipline a thoroughly heretical (and exceedingly ill-mannered) Province. Institutional strength grows when it speaks truth; that means that tomorrow, it’s possible for discipline to be even more robust. In a few months there will be a huge test. The ACC (Anglican Consultative Council) will be meeting in Lusaka, Zambia. TEC will surely mount a huge offense to declare that the Primates don’t have the authority to say anything to them. To that argument, I say look at what one committed person was able to do in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square:
Standing up is really powerful. It is a power that comes from being on the right side of a moral argument, and it is far more persuasive than just having institutional backing.
I’ll be writing more soon about other aspects of positive fallout from Canterbury, even in the midst of an ongoing battle.
The Rt. Rev. Bill Atwood is Bishop of the ACNA International Diocese and an American Anglican Council contributing author.