Righteous Authority Brings Order

The following article from Bishop Bill Atwood is from the November 27, 2013 edition of the AAC’s International Update. Sign up for this free email here


We had taken off with a full load of combat Marines. Of course, all Marines are “combat” Marines, but this group was fresh out of the field of combat. They were seat-belted into the red, webbed seats on our plane. We were leaving one base headed to a second one close by to pick up a few more Marines. Suddenly, in the midst of lowering the landing gear, there was an explosion from the left side of the aircraft. Being in a combat zone, my first thought was that we had been hit. The annunciator panel lights started flashing indicating that the number two hydraulic system had failed. The number one system gave half the power to the flight controls-the ailerons, elevator, and rudder. The number two system also powered the flight controls, but also operated the landing gear and the main wheel brakes. There was an electrically powered number three system that could augment systems one and two as needed. Lots of backup. 

The plane was pretty noisy, but I could hear the voice of the Marine Gunnery Sergeant who was in charge of the troops we were carrying. He bellowed out, “Keep! Your! Seats!” 

I wondered what was going on. 

Without being asked, my favorite Flight Engineer, Master Sergeant Herb Stackhouse, came up and stuck his face over my shoulder. “Here’s the scoop, Boss. The number two hydraulic system has exploded. It has sprayed hot, sticky, hydraulic fluid all over the GI-reens.” (He always called the Marines by that combination of GI (for Government Issue) and Marine-giving them the name GI-reens.) 

“It’s amazing,” he went on to say. “Those young kids-burned and in pain-overcame their natural reaction to jump up and try to get the fluid off themselves. They really have discipline down. Good thing, too. We sure don’t want dozens of them jumping all over the insides of our plane. You gonna RTB? (Return to Base) I’ll try to lower the gear again manually.”

It was pretty amazing. I did not have to say a single word. The crew’s discipline kicked in and they all did their jobs without being asked. Shortly, over the intercom, I heard Herb’s voice in my headset. “Nose gear down and locked. Headed to right main.” 

Pulling the levers, he released the huge right main landing gear carriage. Each of the main gear assemblies had four giant wheels attached. I watched the indication on the dash that showed “Unsafe Gear,” then the green light indicating that the right main gear was in place. Crackling over the intercom I heard, “right gear, down, locked, and pinned,” indicating that they had opened the access door and installed the steel rod that would keep the landing gear in place even without any hydraulic pressure. 

“Moving to left main.” 

The gear indicator on the dash indicated “Unsafe,” that the gear had moved out of the “Up and Locked” flight position. Watching it intently and wishing it down didn’t help. It just stayed in the “in transit” indication. 

After a few moments I heard Herb again. “Trouble, Boss. Nose gear and right main down and locked. Left main stuck up. Sumpthin’s broke on the actuator and it won’t move. Hang on.” 

From the back of the plane I could hear pounding and shouting. If I could have seen back there I’ll bet the air was blue from the expletives that were flying from burned Marines and the flight crew battling the steel undercarriage. The situation was quite severe-one of the most dangerous things that can happen in this plane. With one main gear down and the other up, the plane would land in a dramatic tilt to the left. There was a huge danger that the plane could pinwheel as the left wingtip hit the ground since it was not supported by the landing gear. It would have been much better to land with both gear up instead of one down and one up, but with the number two system out, there was no way to raise the right landing gear. 

We were flying around, gently talking with the controllers and giving them an update on our emergency. Before long, Master Sergeant Stackhouse was back at my right shoulder. He was covered in black grease and red hydraulic fluid, but grinning from ear to ear, but otherwise without emotion he reported calmly, “Gear down and locked.” 

“Herb! How on earth did you get it down?” I asked. 

Holding up a six foot long steel bar that he had removed from the cargo, he grinned, “Persuasion.” 

We turned toward the field and landed, having to stay on the runway because we had neither brakes or nose wheel steering due to the loss of the Number Two system. 

In the midst of the flashing lights of the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, there were also busses to take the Marines back in to the terminal. Nursing terrible burns, but without a word of complaint, the young Marines were headed down the aircraft stairs. As the Gunnery Sergeant was about to deplane, Herb stopped him at the door and stuck out a grease covered hand. “Thanks for the help on the gear. Yer boys done good, too, Gunny.” 

The grizzled Marine paused while shaking his counterpart’s hand. “Yep,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You, too.” He paused at the door, looking back at the left side of the plane where he and his troops had been burned and where some of them had helped beat the giant landing gear into submission. Looking up the stairs to the cockpit, he spoke to me. “Thanks for the ride, Sir.” And descended to the bus waiting on the runway. 

It had been a very, very dangerous situation, but the word of authority, spoken in the midst of chaos had brought the order that was needed to be able to work through it. That’s often what authority does. It speaks order in the middle of chaos. 

Over the years in the Anglican Communion, there have been several times when a word of authority could have changed the course of history. One of the big arguments I’ve had since the Lambeth Bishops’ Conference in 1998 has been with Communion leaders who have said, “We don’t have constitutional authority to act.” 

I would often respond, “The guy in Tiananmen Square who stood in front of the tank didn’t have constitutional authority to act. The church did not have constitutional authority to act in South Africa in the face of apartheid. They did not need constitutional authority because they had moral authority. The church can speak in the current crisis because it has moral authority.” 

In 2003, I believe that a prohibition from the Archbishop of Canterbury would have stopped the affirmation of a man active in a same-sex relationship from being affirmed as a bishop. I also believe that the declaration by another Archbishop of Canterbury that the blessings of same-sex unions in New Westminster, Canada would set the diocese and the bishop outside the limits of Anglican faith would have stopped them. 

The same can be said about the February, 2007 Dar es Salaam Communique. In that document, the leaders of the Anglican Communion said that the Episcopal Church (TEC) had to “turn back from its course and return to Anglican faith and practice by October.” It would have netted repentance from enough bishops and other leaders; however, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave TEC a pass, the forest fire was officially out of control. 

Right now, in England, the pressure is on the current Archbishop of Canterbury. The issue of Women as Bishops is stirring up a great deal of conversation–even controversy. Even more important is the issue of the impending decision of the Church of England to attempt to bless same-sex unions. Senior leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury may hope that they can keep peace by drawing a line to not do same-sex weddings, but only do some sort of “blessings.” Sadly, that is not going to work. Same-sex advocates are never going to be satisfied with a different status than marriage. Conservative Anglicans will never be willing to accept blessing same-sex unions of any sort. While leaders may hope such a course is irenic, it is hope in vain. The problem is that it is an act which is out of authority. Its pursuit simply cannot result in peace. It is out of sync with God’s Kingdom and can never yield lasting peace or the fruit of the Spirit.

There are numerous other examples where something like “Keep! Your! Seats!” or “Everyone, out of the pool!” would have made all the difference in the world. Of course we can’t measure the effect that would have come from something that has not been done. We can only surmise that it could have helped. I believe it would have helped a lot. Maybe it would have even begun a turn around. It is not difficult to imagine how the Anglican Communion might have avoided some major white water rapids had the right word of authority been spoken. 

The absence of clarity from those at the most senior levels of the Communion has been tragic. Even though it’s Advent, Easter hopefulness rises from GAFCON. In Jerusalem in 2008 and then again in Nairobi 2013 came words similar to “Keep! Your! Seats!” In other words, Gospel rules have NOT changed.

Even though the conflicts are great and the dangers legion, I predict a safe landing. Authority is speaking.

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