An American Visitation

The Americans have been visitated and they're not happy. Still, their unhappiness has been a good bit of the problem for the rest of us for some time.

The process is worth watching closely. It is an intimation of things to come in several respects.

It seems that 'Pastoral Visitors' received a briefing from people across a spectrum of opinion in The Episcopal Church in a seminar at the Virginia Theological Seminary. They flew in at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury and report back to him.

Official accounts are here: ACNS Press Release, and Episcopal Life Online. (Pastoral Visitors seem to be too new to have their own area on the Anglican Communion site yet, despite an improved front page.) Thinking Anglicans describes how they came into being but it is odd, see below, that they should be in action before their existence is revealed to the world.

A fuller account is by the conservative Baby Blue. She puts the context as attempts by TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada to form an Americas alliance opposed to the Covenant and, especially, opposed to the centralising tendency that the covenant represents. She also complains of the spin put on the visit by TEC. No-one ought to complain about spin as none of us have clean hands, but she is right to analyse the difference between the ACNS and TEC press releases.

Jim Naughton, on the liberal end, makes a very different observation:

If one were trying to make members of the Episcopal Church suspicious of the new "pastoral visitors" who have "named by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to assist in healing and reconciliation given the current tensions in the Anglican Communion," here is what one would do:

  • Have the visitors consist primarily of members of the Church of England.
  • Make sure that none were women.
  • Have them meet for a private briefing before their appointments are announced.
  • Include on the briefing team at least one former member of the board of directors of the Institute on Religion and Democracy [Ephraim Radner], who urged that the provisions of the Primates communique from Dar es Salaam be imposed on the Episcopal Church against its will.
  • Make sure none of the briefers are women, either.

I lose track of how often I've said we're getting closer to the end, but we are anyway. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there will be no end, just the continual process of disintegration and reintegration and continual jockeying to ensure that the new configurations serve my interests more than they serve yours.

For the future:

  1. If, as seems likely, an anti-covenant alliance is being sought, led by TEC, then we are talking about covenants (by whatever name) rather than a covenant in the Communion. I think this is a quite likely development, not least because it enables degrees of communion, just as we have now.
  2. By appointing and tasking these Pastoral Visitors the Archbishop of Canterbury has arrogated more power to himself and enacted a further step in the programme of centralisation. How many more provinces will have to be 'visited' before objections grow loud?
  3. Centralisation will be led by the existing elite and the people they know (and can trust to pursue the 'right' agenda). It will work against those already marginalised - such as women and lay people, let alone gay Anglicans in Mynmar. It's whole point is to concentrate power in the hands of the powerful.
  4. Therefore the whole project will eventually defeat its own ends: the focus is on internecine squabbles within the international elite of Anglicanism. Attempts to control will lead to the rejection of the controllers. And the Church is much bigger that they, and will follow social change in ways no-one will control, and will burst out of any attempt to predetermine how the church is church in practice (witness the Roman Catholic condemnation of birth control).

Church leaders are congenitally prone to believing in themselves. They might like to re-read Reinhold Niebuhr. He warns repeatedly that virtue, and faith in one's own virtue, are not sufficient grounds for action; in fact acting in such self-belief is most likely to lead to the most pernicious results. Furthermore:

Genuine community, whether between men or nations, is not established merely through the realization that we need one another, though indeed we do. That realization alone may still allow the strong to use the lives of the weaker as instruments of their own self-realization.

Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that "the other," that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.

The Irony of American History, p. 139

Niebuhr is talking about America in relation to the rest of the world. It seems to me to apply to the Anglican Church: real community entails (amongst other things) the deliberate curtailment of possible power to enable the self-realization of other members of the community in ways that the powerful would never have dreamed of or endorsed.

Incidentally, 'Visitor' is an interesting choice of designation. It comes with overtones of hospitality shared, but that's not its origin. The OED says ' One who visits officially for the purpose of inspection or supervision, in order to prevent or remove abuses or irregularities: a. An ecclesiastic, or a lay commissioner, appointed to visit religious establishments, churches, etc., for this end, either at regular intervals or on special occasions.

I also note, in passing, the South Africans have said they're in favour of a covenant, in principle, and with much work still to be done.



  1. In my naivety, I had just assumed that the reconcilers would be from outside of the Anglican Communion, possibly including non-Christians. In the good old days of industrial unrest in England, the arbitration services did not consist of people from the unions or CBI. The chief negotiators at the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland weren't from the British government. As Rowan Williams would have been perfectly aware of the impartial option these visitors can only be an instrument of control. They cannot be bringers of peace.

  2. I think 'reconciliation' is here being used in a technical sense, meaning: to persuade people to stay on our terms. Not unlike the prodigal son.

    Impartial negotiators have to persuade both sides to change. Can't see that happening.