One of the notable events during the meeting of the House of Bishops in New Orleans last month was the announcement by the Right Rev. Jeffrey L. Steenson, Bishop of the Rio Grande, that he intends to resign from his office and from the ministry of The Episcopal Church and to join the Roman Catholic Church. Accounts have been widely posted on the usual blogs; an interview with Bishop Steenson was published in The Living Church (http://www.livingchurch.org/publishertlc/viewarticle.asp?ID=3825).
I was very sorry to read his announcements, and I do hope he will reconsider. I do not know Bishop Steenson personally, but I believe he has given this matter long and hard thought and prayer, and if he believes that his conscience requires him to take this step, I wish him Godspeed and every blessing. His graciousness is exemplary.
However, I do have a question about his understanding of Anglicanism. He said in his Living Church interview that the meeting of the House of Bishops last March was “a profoundly disturbing experience for me. I was more than a little surprised when such a substantial majority declared the polity of the Episcopal Church to be primarily that of an autonomous and independent local church relating to the wider Anglican Communion by voluntary association. This is not the Anglicanism in which I was formed, inspired by the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival in the Church of England … honestly, I did not recognize the church that this House described on that occasion.”
I also was formed, I think slightly before Bishop Steenson, in an Anglicanism inspired by the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival, but not quite like what Bishop Steenson describes. When has The Episcopal Church not been autonomous? Granted, we speak better when we talk about “interdependence,” but ultimately we are an independent national Catholic church. If our relationship to the wider Anglican Communion is not by “voluntary association,” then what should it be? An involuntary association dictated by Canterbury, or the Primates (heaven forfend!), or the Lambeth Conference (something which the LC has never claimed to do)? I’m not sure what alternative Bishop Steenson is proposing to “an autonomous and independent local [sic] church relating to the wider Anglican Communion by voluntary association.” It is true that many Catholic Christians believe it is the esse of the Church that there be a central ecclesiastical authority with a clear universal magisterium. That is the position of the Roman Catholic Church. (Oddly enough, that also now seems to be the growing position of many self-identified Anglican “evangelicals.”) I believe it is not the position of authentic Anglican tradition. I believe we have (for the most part) taken very seriously the admonition of Jesus about the use and abuse of authority: “It shall not be so among you.” Does this mean that Anglicans may go wandering off in strange directions? Yes, and we have done so, and we doubtless will again. But we also find our way back, by God’s grace. We are, after all, not saved by our own theological orthodoxy. One problem in a church with Roman-style (or “evangelical”-style) authority is that correcting errors becomes much more difficult. Being an Anglican may often seem like being in a frying pan, but diving into the fire is not the solution.