Flexibility and change in the Episcopal Church: The Commemoration of William Reed Huntington

In the debate over a potential covenant for the Anglican Communion, you might see mentioned from time to time the idea that Anglicans already have a covenant of sorts: the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/1888. You can read all about it in your Book of Common Prayer (p. 876) but it has four elements:

  • Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation;
  • The creeds as a sufficient statement of the faith;
  • Dominical sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) rightly administered;
  • Historic episcopate locally adapted.

The man behind the Quadrilateral was William Reed Huntington, whom the Episcopal Church commemorates today. Huntington was a parish priest, long-time deputy to General Convention, and advocate for ecumenical reunion in the United States. In fact, it was his desire to see the church united that led to the Quadrilateral. These were the elements Episcopalians had to see in another church to be reunited with them. The Quadrilateral remains a factor today, explaining why the Episcopal Church can be in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but not, say, the Presbyterians, who have a much different understanding of the ministry of the episcope. (Huntington was also a priest for many years in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although the Diocese of Western Massachusetts didn’t exist then, it’s more proof that it may be a small diocese but still one that punches above its weight.)

Efforts to use the Quadrilateral as the basis for intra-Anglican unity are a category mistake. The Quadrilateral is about ecumenical relations. And there’s good reason for this. If we say that the Quadrilateral is essentially a proto-Anglican Covenant, then we’re saying that our relations with the Anglican Church of Southern Africa or the Anglican Church of Canada are no different than our relationship with the ELCA or the Moravians. We may sometimes feel that way but the whole idea of the Anglican Communion, as I interpret it, is that those churches that have a historic relationship have some sort of special relationship that is distinct from that shared with other members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Now you may think, as I largely do, that the proposed Anglican Covenant is unnecessary. But don’t say that Anglicans already have a covenant. Huntington had something entirely else in mind when he was devising the Quadrilateral.

Sometimes the Quadrilateral is seen as a bit too firm and an obstacle to reunion, particularly the part about bishops. But what I like about Huntington was his advocacy for  flexibility and change in other parts of the church’s life to facilitate ecumenical reunion. He thought, for instance, the church could be a bit more open to liturgical change. To this end, he spent a lot of time on prayer book revision.

Huntington’s commemoration, then, poses several questions to the church in this time of change: what do we think is worth preserving about our church? What can we more readily compromise on?

Committing to the Anglican Communion

It seems pretty clear that the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant will not be approved by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this summer. Having been rejected in Scotland, stymied in England, turned down by more conservative provinces, and approved by only a handful of churches around the world, the Covenant has had a tough row to hoe. It’s demise, I think, will be little lamented.

Several of the Convention resolutions concerning the Covenant politely turn it down but then use some sort of language about “committing” to the Anglican Communion. No one, it seems, wants the American church’s rejection of the Covenant to be interpreted as a step back from the Communion.

Actions speak louder than words, however, so here’s the question: what steps can this General Convention take to make it clear that its commitment to the Anglican Communion is more than nice words on a piece of paper?

Here’s a short list of ideas:

Fully fund the Anglican Communion Office. Congregations pay money to support the work of their dioceses because they are committed to work in their region. Dioceses pay money to the national church because they see that it does important work. National churches (or provinces of the Anglican Communion) should pay money to the international body that, on a bare shoestring, provides some sort of organization to the Communion and facilitates important projects like the Continuing Indaba or the Bible in the Life of the Church. The first head of the ACO (though it wasn’t called that at the time) was an American bishop named Stephen Bayne. Full disclosure, he is one of my Anglican heroes (yes I have those) and I think his legacy and his vision deserve all the support we can give them.

The budgets that have been proposed for Convention both slash (yet further) the Episcopal Church’s contribution to the ACO. I’m not sure how Episcopalians can gripe about dioceses that don’t pay the full asking when we don’t pay the full asking to the ACO. Other Episcopalians complain the ACO doesn’t do what we want, much in the way that Republicans in Congress are continually threatening to cut off funding to the UN when it “steps out of line.” Fully fund the organization and let it do its job.

Provide increased funding for the networks of the Anglican Communion. These are organizations, like the Anglican Indigenous Network or the Anglican Health Network, that bring together Anglicans from around the world to work on issues that are not, blessedly, the issues that have consumed the Communion for the last decade and more. Networks are important not only for the work they do but for the way they represent an effort to change the discourse in the Communion. The Episcopal Church used to contribute money to some of these networks as a way of bringing people together from different backgrounds to talk about important issues. That money is now gone. (Disclosure: I’ve been involved with the Anglican Peace and Justice Network.)

Challenge dioceses to be involved in at least one companion relationship. Many American dioceses, happily, have overseas partner dioceses. The companion diocese idea (which came out of work done by the Anglican Communion Office, incidentally, way back when) has been an important tool for building relationships across the Communion and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But not all dioceses have companion relationships. Some dioceses have relationships that need to be reinvigourated. We can challenge parishes to have web sites (Resolution A025); why not challenge every diocese to have a companion? (Or two: some of the most exciting companion relationships involve three dioceses.) Companion relationships challenge the dominant Anglican narrative of fissure with one of relationship across reconciled difference.

(Convention has passed resolutions in the past encouraging companion diocese relationships but to the best of my searching has not passed one establishing an expectation that every diocese have a companion.)

Encourage the companion idea to spread to parishes. The budget of many dioceses around the world is equivalent (or smaller than) the budget of a good-sized parish in the U.S. What if, in addition to diocese-to-diocese relationships, there were parish-to-diocese relationships? (We’d have to think about how these relationships might be complementary or competing in a diocese.) There are hundreds of Anglican dioceses around the world, many eager for companions, as I have learned. There’s no reason large, mission-minded parishes can’t take the lead in partnering with them. (The Diocese of Virginia has done some exciting things around this idea.)

Encourage better communications. Communications in the Anglican Communion is abysmal. As I have found in my travels around the Communion, there is exciting work being done in so many parts of the world that few people know about because no one tells anyone else about it. Instead, the dominant communications medium in the church is something like Virtue Online, a polemical, often-false source of “news” that drives a narrative of fracture and decline. This needs to be matched with, well, facts. Solving the communications problem in the Communion is not something Convention alone can do. It can, however, take steps in that direction, like increasing funding for the Episcopal News Service so that the organization can broaden its horizons and get more Anglicans talking to one another. Right now, Anglican Journal, the newspaper of the (smaller and poorer) Canadian church does a better job covering the Communion than ENS does.

Many of these ideas cost money (not much) but, again, actions speak louder than words. If we mean what we say in these resolutions, we need to back it up. These are some of my ideas to do so. Yours?