Although I bought the book a couple or three years ago, it has been sitting on my shelf until this week: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s an account of the men who were rivals for the Presidential nomination in 1860 and who became members of Lincoln’s cabinet during the Civil War: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. (Incidentally, Chase was the nephew of the Right Rev. Philander Chase, who was Bishop of Ohio and then of Illinois during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and whom The Episcopal Church commemorates on September 22. Goodwin refers to him in passing, but obviously doesn’t like him very much.) I’m still early in the book — I’ve just finished the chapter about the 1850s. What I found very interesting, and I hadn’t really been aware of it before, was how the issue of slavery dominated American politics in the antebellum years. We often pick up on Lincoln’s stated position early in his presidency: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” That is, the Civil War was, at least initially, really about preserving the Union and not primarily about slavery. But the years leading up to 1860 make very clear that, no, it really was all about slavery. The South had been threatening secession for many years, and slavery was the issue. The strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Law by the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, made the Civil War inevitable.
“Gee,” I thought as I was reading these early chapters of Goodwin’s book, “this sounds a little familiar.” Are we not, in our Communion, dealing with issues of threatened secession over what we perceive as a major moral issue? Might we not think that +Rowan Williams is desperately trying to “save the Communion”? And would it be possible to save the Communion by moral compromise? (Whichever side of our current issue one may be on — and we might remember that there were self-proclaimed committed American Christians on both sides of the slavery issue in the nineteenth century.) Please let me be clear — I am not suggesting that there are any simple or immediate parallels between the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century and the Anglican Communion at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I am not comparing +Rowan Williams to Lincoln (though that might be an interesting exercise in “compare and contrast”!), nor do I know whether the Global South, or rather, more specifically the GAFCON gang, or on the other hand The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada, can be identified in any respect with either the Northern or the Southern States. It seems to me much more complex than that. Nevertheless, from a wider perspective, I am caught by the notion, “haven’t we been here before?”
I think secession or schism is a very real possibility — in fact in many respects it already exists. (Though whatever one may think about The Episcopal Church, we have not broken communion with anybody.) I certainly don’t suggest that killing hundreds of thousands of young men on the battlefield is a way to resolve our current strife! What if the North had just let the South go? In fact, an agricultural economy (primarily cotton) based upon slave labor had no long-term future, and southern American slavery would eventually have died of its own crushing weight, though at the cost of much human misery and injustice in the meantime. I would also say that homophobia, misogyny, and fundamentalism have no long-term future in faithful Christianity, anywhere in the world. But I do think we need to ask the question: at what price must the Anglican Communion be saved?
Is a puzzlement. Just asking.