A Perspective on Two Conferences
Fr. Philip Eberhart
Resurrection Anglican (AMiA), Centennial, CO
As I fly home after a week of Winter Conferencing and Sacred Assembling, I have some time to reflect on, as Chairman Murphy says, "What I think I think." I am an AMiA priest of going on 11 years, a former network leader, and a careful observer and listener to both sides in this family squabble and potential "divorce." (I am a "world-class hopeful romantic" to borrow a movie line, but I fear the divorce may already have happened.)
That's what it feels like after all is said and done. I haven't actually decided if the divorce is final yet, but there are going to have to be some big changes for repentant words and reconciliation to turn into restoration. And there is alot more, as with any family dysfunction, that is not seen than is seen publicly. I am convinced however, that love actually does "cover a multitude of sins" so you won't find any expose' here.
NO DISSIDENTS HERE
What I have discovered by listening is that there has come upon us a "perfect storm" made up of human failing, spiritual warfare, and genuine ambition, more or less godly in its genesis. I've discovered an array of relational mis-steps over years, from the lowest to the highest levels, the cumulative effect of which has been to spoil our "alphabet soup." There are no dissidents - well, only a few that can actually be identified - who are pouring fuel on the fire for ends that I don't fully understand. As I understand it the "back door" of AMiA has always been as open as the front - maybe more so!
What I have encountered at both of this past two week's gatherings is truckloads of sincere grief and a kind of foggy lack of clarity that pervades every conversation. Most are still unclear even about 'what' happened, let alone how. When we play with time lines in hopes of finding an analytical way through, we come face to face with our propensity to assign motives that demonize and villify others in the process of our "discernment". Not that discernment is a bad thing here, but we must be careful to discern what the Spirit is saying, mostly about my own sin, not the sin of others. It's never been very helpful to confess one another's sins, as it is the antithesis of James' admonition, moving us away from healing!
A "DIFFERENT" WINTER CONFERENCE
With these words we were welcomed to Houston's posh downtown Hilton Americas for the 12th Annual AMiA Winter Conference, of which I am proudly an alum of all twelve. From just a few churches and lots of us "tire kickers" at the first Winter "Homecoming" Conference in '01, through twelve years of the blood, sweat and tears of slugging it out planting a church, through "building the bridge as we crossed it," through network formation, re-formation, and expansion, through an ever widening Anglican missional enterprise, through partnership with other Anglican bodies and always in relationship with our beloved Rwanda - to a very "different" Winter Conference. Very different indeed!
Winter Conference, sans our Rwandan friends, save former Archbishop Kolini and the other founding archbishops, Moses Tay and Yong Ping Chung. Our beloved leaders and founders are once again among us - consolation for a moment that we are still "on track." But on track for what and to where? Chairman Chuck is the ever diligent visionary, pointing to a new way forward, as a "Missionary Society," with appropriate and compelling slides, charts and graphs at the ready. But lingering and nagging questions bubble up in the 'anglican' part of me. What is our relationship now to Rwanda, and what does the presence of retiree archbishops signify? I want to give them due honor and heed their admonitions to press on, but how can this be? Is ++Kolini separated from Rwanda too? Apparently, and tragically I fear. What else can it mean? I remember sitting with him at a clergy convocation as he recounted the pain and sacrifice associated with his work on our behalf over the past decade, and weeping. Now I weep again to think - once again he chooses us over homeland and retirement security?
And the message we hear is new. Sorrow for what has happened, but a sense of calling to go on ... even a broader calling to global church planting! Awesome! But what of our Rwandan relationships? I am a personal friend of His Grace ++Onesphore RWAJE because of the sister-to-sister church partnerships begun in '02. A decade of trips, work, care and love. I don't want to go forward without this relationship. Do I have to choose between parents?
Repentance, healing prayer, God's presence ... and the nagging questions. What are we now? Where are we now? Whose are we now? We know we belong to Jesus, and there is great solace in that, but... as Anglicans we believe that its BOTH faith AND order. Don't we?
I told friends who asked that I actually came away from Houston with more questions than I had when I went! And I was not alone. On the Sunday in between my intercessors could only weep and the whole church arose to prayer for my wife and I personally and for The Mission.
A SACRED ASSEMBLY
Only two weeks ago or so we found out that there was to be a winter conference, part the second. Just a day in-between. Time to fly home, change clothes, do church and fly out again. The other half of the family was doing their reunion elsewhere. Even the thought was sobering, like a "polar bear" dip in an icy Colorado lake! I understand the need to convocate, especially at times like these, so I begged my bookkeeper and she found the needed denarii for this additional three days. Thanks, Cheryl and my board.
It's been important for me to hear and see all that was being said and by whom. The Sacred Assembly (a great alternative to "WC-the sequel") gathered two Archbishops, Rwaje and Duncan, six bishops, three Rwandan and two US former AMiA bishops with a guest appearance by Julian Dobbs, an ACNA/CANA bishop. The assembly was hosted by Archbishop Rwaje and facilitated by Bishops Barnum and Glenn, along with a team of clergy leaders and the gracious gifts of hospitality at Church of the Apostles in Raleigh, NC.
Representive clergy and laity from 109 parishes gathered in what I would characterize as a repentant, grief-filled, introspective time of worship, teaching, exhortation and prayerful communion. Bishop Glenn commented, "Personal pain robs us of perspective, but worship restores it." We heard encouragement from ++Rwaje - "You are still with us. We are still with you. We have not left you."
From ++Duncan a sermon with humble beginning, "His church is not yet a spotless bride;" "we have sinned against each other;" "God works in all things for good..." but then he also reflected his personal pain at The Mission's (read +Chuck's) choices regarding full jurisdictional inclusion and participation in the ACNA, calling our "Personal Prelature" (i.e., +Chuck's working directly under and for ++Kolini as "Primatial Vicar") unanglican. Really? Wasn't that what all the provinces who rescued us, prior to AMiA or ACN or ACNA did? Then he went further, inferring our prior TEC days of undisciplined, ungodly, rogue bishops, by saying "It's a cruel thing to have to send our problem of discipline 8000 miles away." What does someone from the AMiA take away here? Wow.
The rest of the messages were generally challenging and encouraging. +Terrell and +Thad led gently with an eye to those who were double-dippers, like me - who attended both conferences - probably 15-20% of the conferees I had seen in Houston. Others from the Anglican Mission Center in Pawleys Island were there as well, Canon H. Miller, AMiA's Exec. Director, Bishop John Miller of AMiA and Canon Kevin Donolan, the AMiA's canon law expert. All were treated well, at least by the leadership of the meeting. We ended with a eucharist that held the seeds of the most hopeful time I've been a part of all week: The Prayers of the People became prayers of repentance - individual voices, repenting for specific things aloud to God, and the company gathered responding, "Lord, hear OUR prayer." I wept again. All the players were prayed for from Archbishops down. The sense of grief and sorrow was tangible. Perhaps this is our way forward!
SO WHAT? ... SO NOW WHAT?
So we have convocated, and spoken our minds and listened and prayed. Now what? Is there a way forward? and to what end? Is the goal to preserve the unity of the Body or to preserve the work of the individual groups? Is the divorce final? Are we able to move forward ... together - or will it be otherwise? As one friend put it, "This is a tragedy of the first order, and we are behaving like its a wake - a mixture of a funeral and a party."
Having gone through the Episcopal Turf Wars (some are still in them), I remember the feelings I had. Betrayal, grief, profound sadness at having to choose one set of friends over another, but the choices were clear then, "gospel" or "other." Here the turf wars are not gospel driven, and the choices are not clear. There are no clean hands that I can see, save perhaps our Rwandan primate. I trust ++Onesphore, my friend of almost a decade. I trust my Bishop, +Sandy Greene, the god-father of one of my twin daughters, and a friend of 20+ years. Here I am torn again. I am canonically resident in Rwanda, and my church is a member of the Anglican Mission, an Illinois 501-c-3 non-profit, licensed to do business in South Carolina. What are my choices? Go entirely with Rwanda and leave my bishop and friend of two decades? Go with The Mission and ... well ... we don't know just yet. Its unclear what a Mission "Society" is, at least in this particular setting. Nor is it clear how we are going to remain under Anglican authority, or with whom.
I think the most hopeful star in the night sky is the "family intervention" that began in Nairobi a few weeks ago. Could we pay attention to that meeting and its requirements? (See the Nairobi Statement by Archbishop Eliud Wabukala). Is it possible that this perfect storm can be recovered from? I still have hope at this point, but it is a thin slice of bread. In my heart, I really want to say what Bob Newhart said in his "psychologist" sketch many years ago, to the woman who had an inordinate fear of being buried alive in a box... "STOP IT!" If repentance means turning around, if reconciliation means coming together again, if restoration could lead us to a truly, biblical, united and missionary Anglican witness in the USA and around the globe, why not stop moving in directions that will not achieve the completion of the work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we don't, God help us ... and that is where I'll stop it, as that is my sincere prayer and our only hope for the future.
Fr. Phil Eberhart