In a sermon preached at Southwark Cathedral on Sunday 13th June, Dean Colin Slee described recent reactions to the visit there of the Presiding Bishop of TEC, the Rt Revd Katharine Jefferts-Schori, as a “kerfuffle”. And indeed ‘mitregate’ — so-called because Ms Jefferts-Schori carried her mitre down the aisle rather than wore it on her head — has certain ‘kerfuffley’ elements, not to say an air of petulance on one side or the other (or maybe both).
The problem with ‘kerfuffle, however, is that it can distract from serious issues, and in this case it is the Dean’s evening sermon, rather than the Presiding Bishop’s celebrations in the morning, that really matters in the whole affair.
The sermon begins with the background to the Presiding Bishop’s visit (and a little dig at the those who have since objected), in which the Dean points out, quite rightly, that this was arranged some time before the events surrounding the consecration of Mary Glasspool. Interestingly, he even says of the Archbishop of Canterbury, “I have kept him informed at all times, I would not act without courtesy [ie towards him], nor he towards us” — though these last words are somewhat at variance with the recorded reactions of the Presiding Bishop.
We also get an insight into the Dean’s own sermon preparation:
I have to tell you that I had intended to ignore all this kerfuffle this afternoon, until ... I read the lessons and the Collect set for the day and used by the Presiding Bishop at this morning’s Eucharist.
So not much advance planning there! But we must be grateful for the Dean’s change of heart, given the revealing nature of his subsequent comments.
The collect, with its focus on love, allowed the Dean to justify the invitation to the Presiding Bishop as an expression of love, but also as her due as “our sister in Christ”.
It is with the lesson from Genesis 13, however (what the Dean calls “the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures”), that we come to the heart of the matter, for Dean Slee sees in the account of Abram and Lot a parallel to what is happening in the Anglican church. “Disaffected Anglicans,” he declares, “have been threatening to ‘walk separate ways’ for many months.” Thus he goes on,
Abram and Lot travel together and their herdsmen bicker and fight, in modern translation there is ‘strife’ between them. They reach agreement to take separate paths and settle down and so their mutual belonging as members of one family is secured.
Thus he concludes (via a brief discursus on Sodom), in a similar way, “It may be that some Anglicans will decide to walk a separate path.”
Now, notwithstanding questions of exegesis, we should pay close attention to what the Dean is saying. For although his preparation may have been a bit ‘last minute’, we need have no doubt that his sermon reflects a carefully considered position.
The first thing to notice is the open recognition of the possibility of separation in the Anglican communion. Though Dean Slee does not specify who are the “disaffected” (perhaps he applies this to both ‘sides’), he acknowledges the threat that they will indeed “walk separate ways”.
In his application of Genesis 13, however, he seems to suggest this would be a good thing, for the agreement between Abram and Lot is presented as a way in which “their mutual belonging as members of one family is secured.” The reasoning would seem to be that by walking separate ways, the ‘disaffected’ members of the Anglican communion could similarly ensure an end to their own comparable ‘strife’, whilst remaining ‘family’. To recognize the possibility of separation, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has done, is one thing. Virtually to advocate it is another.
This, however, brings us to the most significant statement of all, for having acknowledged that threats of separation may turn into reality, and having indicated that this might be not only necessary but helpful, the Dean states quite clearly his own conviction:
I believe the Chapter and congregation of this church will walk the same path as the Episcopal Church of America, the links are deep in our history, especially here.
Thus, according to the Dean, the Chapter and congregation of Southwark Cathedral are ready, when the time comes, to separate from others in the Anglican Communion, and to do so in line with TEC.
And here we come to the crisis.
The Diocese of Southwark is currently without a bishop. When that bishop is chosen, however, he will either have to align himself with the public position of his Dean (which the Dean claims is the position of the cathedral Chapter and congregation), or align himself against it.
It should also be remembered that, although it is a mere formality, the Chapter of a cathedral is still required by congé d’elire to ‘elect’ the bishop chosen by the Crown, so that, at least on paper, the bishop has the Chapter’s ‘approval’. Thus if the bishop decides against his cathedral Chapter, there will be a difficult conflict for him at the top of the diocese. If the bishop decides for his Chapter, however, the situation within the diocese may become impossible, for there are others in Southwark who would undoubtedly find the ministry of a bishop committed to the position put forward by Dean Slee simply unacceptable — not least, one presumes, those who put their names to a recent letter criticizing the visit of TEC’s Presiding Bishop.
Something close to open warfare between either the bishop and the Chapter, or the bishop and sections of the diocese thus seems inevitable.
Yet what if the incoming bishop, by some diplomatic ingenuity, manages to put off the immediate confrontation? Even then we must remember that Dean Slee cannot be acting alone — indeed, he says he is not. On the contrary, he is confident of the support of his Chapter and the cathedral congregation, and undoubtedly he can also be sure of support from many of the Southwark clergy. But if my own experience is anything to go by, Dean Slee will also be networking (whether formally or informally) with others around the country. If he feels confident to say what he has done, and explicitly to align his cathedral with TEC as he has chosen to, we may wonder how many others are in the same position.
Indeed, we may actually be at the ‘tipping point’ where numbers of senior clergy, who can call upon a considerable degree of support, are similarly ready to declare their hand and to call the institutional bluff.
Dean Slee must know (or at least now be reflecting) that what he has said throws down something of a gauntlet to the Crown Nominations Commission. Either they chose someone who will conflict with his own cathedral, or they pick someone who will not — either because he is willing to compromise and allow the Dean’s pronouncements to go unchallenged, or because he himself is in agreement with the Dean’s own views.
If they choose conflict, the Dean undoubtedly has many allies, and who can tell how such a scenario would unfold? If they choose compromise, they will only buy a temporary peace and in any case will alienate others in the same diocese and elsewhere.
We continue to live in interesting times.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
21 June 2010
21 June 2010