How the One China policy provides a model for thinking about women bishops and Christian reunion

Back when I studied International Relations—before I was introduced to the glories of theology—there was an aspect of American foreign policy I found perplexing: the U.S. supports democracy in Taiwan, arms the country, and makes it clear that a mainland take-over of the island is unacceptable. At the same time, the U.S. officially supports a One China policy. That is, the U.S. supports the reunion of Taiwan with the mainland. How can this be? How can a democratic Taiwan reunite with a Communist mainland?

It took me a while but I eventually realized that reunion can happen when the mainland becomes democratic. For the two to be reunited, both have to change: Taiwan by sacrificing its independence from the mainland, China by changing its political system. Such changes may seem a long way off, but the policy is at least minimally coherent.

One of the arguments catholic-minded types use in opposing the Church of England’s move towards women in the episcopacy is that it would harm chances of reunion with Roman Catholics. Basically, the argument goes, if we have women in the episcopacy, Rome will never talk to us again.

Readers of this blog will know that I take the unity of church seriously, and I take this objection seriously. There are profound historical, theological, and spiritual reasons why Anglicans should be seeking closer relationship with Roman Catholics, and ecumenical reunion is something for which all Christians need to pray.

But I’m not convinced by this catholic-minded argument against women in the episcopacy. There is an important and deeply true argument for having women in all orders of ministry, which I won’t rehearse here. It is one that needs to be affirmed by the church. Let’s do it already!

But what about Rome? Well, it’s kind of like China and Taiwan, Rome being China, and Anglicans being Taiwan. Reunion will come, but it will come when Rome comes to accept the validity of the argument about ordaining women. It’s not that the Anglicans need to knuckle under, sacrifice their principles, and reunite with an unchanging monolith. That monolith needs to change to make the reunion possible.

This points to a larger objection I have to the catholic types in Anglican circles, a tendency to deny the charism of Anglicanism. I don’t see the role of the Anglican churches to be to emulate Rome as closely as possible in the hopes we can rejoin them. Instead, I see that Anglicans have a unique role to play in the family of churches, one that, for instance, upholds a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and combines a catholic ecclesiology with an evangelical commitment to the faith. Ordaining women as bishops is part of that role and helps churches around the world see larger truths of the gospel, just as Anglican learn others of these truths from other Christians.

Some people see Anglicans as little more than warmed-over Roman Catholics. Rather than acquiescing to this view, I’d like to see Anglicans fill their role in the body of Christ and share their gifts with the greater church—Rome first among them. That way, we can all as Christians move towards a greater embrace of Gospel truths, first among them “that they may all be one.”

Remembering George Bell

The Church of England today commemorates George Bell, Bishop of Chicester during World War II. Bell is remembered, inter alia, as a bishop who opposed the Allies’ bombing campaigns in World War II and, it is thought, was passed over for the see of Canterbury as a result. You can do worse than read the Wikipedia entry for more on Bishop Bell.

Today I’ve been reading reflections from Paul Zahl and Rowan Williams about Bell. Both are brief and both worth reading, particularly for the way they connect Bell’s opposition to the war to elements of Christian witness in today’s world. Here’s a bit from Williams’

But Bell also knew that we could only be who we are at home with ourselves and with God, if we knew where our homeless and displaced brothers and sisters were; hence his concern for the refugees and the landless. And God’s challenge to us once again—’Where are you? Where are your brothers and sisters?’ —is a challenge about how we as believers in Jesus Christ answer for the lives of those who are being driven from their homes, their livelihood and their security by the terrible violence of our age.

At a previous commemoration of Bell a year or two ago, I remember mentioning him to a senior priest in the church. “Who’s that?” this priest responded.

So today I’ve been thinking about those who have gone before us, who (for whatever reason) were passed over for career advancement, and have now gone into obscurity. George Bell was a faithful minister of the Gospel in his context. How can we do the same?

It is appropriate, perhaps, that Bell’s commemoration falls as the Crown Nominations Commission makes it final deliberations as to who the next archbishop of Canterbury shall be. When that name is unveiled (whenever that may be), quite a lot of attention will focus on the person chosen.

But I hope that we also remember the long list of people who were considered and not selected, and, even more importantly, the long list of people who were never in a position to be considered. There’s lots of faithful witness at all levels of the church, forgotten, overlooked, and passed over for a variety of reasons. We do well to remember it.

The curious case of the bishop who didn’t celebrate the Eucharist

Here’s a picture of the Rt. Rev. Stephen Conway, the bishop of Ely in the Church of England.

By chance, I’ve been to two services in the past week at which he’s presided: one, a re-dedication of a refurbished church, the other, the installation of a new rector.

What was interesting to me is that at neither service did Bishop Stephen celebrate the Eucharist. I can’t remember the last time I saw an American bishop conduct a service at which he or she did not celebrate the Eucharist.

I was reminded of a comment my (English) liturgy professor once made in class: the American church, he said, had a case of “Eucharistic inflation.” That is, we celebrated the Eucharist at every possible juncture. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes it the “principal” service on Sundays and that thinking has spread to lots of other services such as, for instance, re-dedications and installations.

There are very good theological reasons for doing so and I do not for a minute want to minimize the significance of the Eucharist. Nor do I want to suggest that the Eucharist is not an important part of my (daily) devotional life. However, it occurred to me that if Episcopalians celebrated the Eucharist less, we might not be in such a knot about communion and baptism. We might also be able to lift up the many other significant services that form our life of prayer together. It seemed perfectly appropriate at the installation not to celebrate the Eucharist. There were many members of the community there—including the mayor and several other secular representatives—who were not necessarily religious types.

Perhaps the conversation about communion and baptism is, inter alia, a chance to think about opportunities not to celebrate communion and who we include—and who we exclude—when we do and when we don’t. What would Eucharistic deflation look like?

After all, if a bishop can happily conduct services without celebrating the Eucharist at every turn, can’t we learn something from that?