July 4 feels different to me this year thanks in large part to the efforts of Canterbury to rein in our Episcopal Church. I have observed the 4th by watching the HBO mini-series, John Adams, and it has renewed my appreciation of what a complex and life-tearing soul-twisting ordeal the American revolution was. It also led me to the following two, somewhat churchy somewhat political, reflections.
Reflection 1: The American revolutionaries appealed to a tradition of freedom and dignity which was their inheritance from England. The Declaration of Independence echoed the themes of Article 37 of the Articles of Religion, “The bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm.” Of course, the Declaration of Indpendence (and the Constitution after it) echoed the democratic themes of the Magna Carta and Elizabeth II’s policies of toleration and freedom of belief and conscience. How ironic that the source of our freedom-tradition had become our oppressor! More than ironic, this is telling. What startles me is that England declared its independence of the political-legal-ecclesiastical authority of Rome in the late 16th Century, then spent the 17th Century becoming a colonial power and wound up being, all too often, a force of oppression.
The American impulse to freedom, inherited from England, found expression in the Declaration of Independence and is heard today in the witty blog title, “The Archbishop of Canterbury hath no jurisdiction in this realm.” But we are no less human than our English brothers and sisters. We spent the late 18th Century claiming our freedom, then the 19th century buying and conquering our way to the Pacific Ocean, then the first half of the 20th Century establishing our own colonial dominion beyond our borders. The point: it is a tricky thing this claiming freedom. When we exert resistance to oppression, the energy of resistance can go awry after the oppressor is out of the way. That same energy can become oppressive. Freedom is good, but a spiritually vulnerable thing. It is guarded not by the continued assertion of the power that won the freedom in the first place, but rather by its restraint.
The defense of freedom with self-restraint was taught more deeply, wisely, and theologically by Reinhold Niebuhr and Langdon Gilkey. It was best practiced by George Washington after the war was won. His army was sick and tired of the ineptitude of the politicians in Philadelphia who had consistently failed to supply them or to pay them. The army officers decided to march on the city, impose a coup, and run this country right. Washington asked the privilege of meeting with them first which of course they granted him. He was after all George Washington. He took out his notes but was unable to read them. Fumbling for his glasses he said his eyes had grown dim in service to his country. And that was the end of the coup. Washington could and would have been the new king if he had wavered ever so slightly in his refusal. But he was adamant in resisting power and so became the American Cincinatus and we became a republic.
Reflection 2: The American identity is rooted in two wars: the Revolutionary War and the Civil War – one war to take a body politic apart; the other, to hold one together. “There is a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them together.” Ecclesiastes 3: 5. Ah discernment – knowing what time it is. One cultural legacy of Martin Luther’s bold stand of conscience is that we tend to make solitary stands of conscience heroic per se. We have a societal tendency toward secession. We like to stand up, make a heated statement, and stomp off. It proves we are brave and of sturdier moral stuff than the rest of the group. Churches, art councils, college faculties, and garden clubs fly apart with the centrifugal force of this self-enhancing assertion, a curious blend of conscience and pride.
Watching John Adams, I was struck by the divisions in the Continental Congresses. There were voices for independence from the get go (like Sam Adams), voices of conciliation and unity to the end (like John Dickinson), and folks who valued peace and unity but ultimately decided that authentic freedom demanded revolution (like Washington). The tension between peace and freedom, mutuality and independence, is a delicate dance performed in families, churches, and nations. Authentic relationship is not achieved by servility, dominance, or stomping out of the room. It starts with being our authentic selves and striving with care and compassion to find how we can be relationship with other authentic selves.
That point has implications for all our relationships. But in the limited context of the Anglican Communion, the question is how can our Episcopal Church be its authentic self and be in relationship with other Provinces that share our history but not all aspects of our polity or theology. Here again, it helps to remember our history. If the English bishops had been willing to consecrate an American bishop, Samuel Seabury, our relationship with Canterbury might be decidedly different today. But precisely because Seabury was an American believing in our independence, that is to say he would not swear allegiance to the king of England, they refused to consecrate him – a refusal echoed recently in the Southwark mitergate incident. Scottish bishops, who already did not swear such allegiance, consecrated him. Hence, we are not the Church of England in America. We are the Episcopal Church which shares history with the C of E, just as the United States shares history with the UK. The concept of a network of churches with this shared history (the Anglican Communion) was the idea of American and Canadian clergy in the late 19th Century. We began having periodic gatherings of bishops for prayer and fellowship, then more recently formed other ways to collaborate in mission. Having ourselves begun this informal spiritual network, constituted by “bonds of affection” not rules and power structures, I am confident we will continue to relate to our fellow Anglicans in a spirit of authentic care.