Ten Years and a New Anglican Congregationalism

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Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

It is ten years since Anglicanism’s current travails were formally inaugurated with the formation of an alternative “Communion” church in North America, the Anglican Mission in America.  Not the cause, it was nonetheless the first major sign that “communion” was no longer a given in Anglicanism, but something to be variously asserted, antagonistically claimed, and built up or torn down as the case may be.  And after ten years, I think it necessary to say that most of the work thus far has been one of tearing down.  Tearing down, but also of exposing new things and clearer lines of calling, so that what had been emerging as a communion might now be seen as demanding deeper commitment for its flourishing than anybody had imagined.   The work that many of us have been doing out of a commitment to the traditional Christian faith as Anglicans (and others) had received it has been worth the effort, and continues to be demanded.  But what we are seeing, especially as Christian communion is being assaulted not only from within the Church, but more importantly by a rapidly dissolving Christian culture in the West, is that there are deeper roots to put down and nourish than we had perhaps first thought.

The tearing down, in any case, is what is most obvious, perhaps, to outsiders or onlookers from within.  One by one, for instance, the so-called “Instruments of Unity” for Anglicans around the world have been eroded in their perceived integrity, and certainly in their effectiveness.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, over the past decade (from Lord Carey through Rowan Williams), has issued pleas, statements, constructive ideas, hopes.  But when, last month, a schedule conflict, not to mention in any case the ash of an Icelandic volcano, kept him from the South to South Encounter of non-Western churches in Singapore, the transient and quivering video image of his unfocused greeting was symbolically all that was left of his presence to an increasingly estranged majority of world Anglicans.  For whatever reasons – the constraint imposed on Lambeth’s voice by America’s money monopoly on Communion bureaucracy, loyalties divided between Britain and Communion, mixed convictions within his own mind, an under-appreciation of the demanded influence of his own witness? —  ten  years of people all going their own way has rendered the moral authority of his voice almost inaudible.

The Primates’ Meeting had already had several forays into declarative direction, but with each effort the mutual scorn of its members one for another, and their desire to play to their own constituencies, left their communiqués more and more gutted of persuasive substance.   So that now, to be an “archbishop” for many is to embody the antithesis to outreaching charity.

The Lambeth Conference, of course, needed only one meeting in 2008 to demonstrate its marginalization in leadership:  talking without decision, boycotted by a quarter of its most dissatisfied members, the great gathering of Anglican episcopal leaders became an inward looking and reflexive publicity opportunity for program coordinators.  It was astonishing to see how thoroughly and quickly one of the most august meetings in the Christian Church had lost its way.

And the Anglican Consultative Council?  A May, 2009 self-combustion over simple voting procedures left this “most representative” gathering of the Communion  without credibility as anything but an arena for political posturing and finagling.  The national church model that, primarily, lies behind the provincial ordering of the ACC, has instead poisoned the search for shared hope and mutual subjection among the council’s members, a subversion led by the most nationalistically aggressive of the all the provinces, the Episcopal Church.  Current attempts by TEC to manipulate its position on the ACC’s Standing Committee, seemingly abetted by the Anglican Communion Office, only underscores this sorry state of affairs.

Why mince words here?  For some years now – since even before the Virginia Report of the late 1990’s — it has been stated formally over and over again that the structures of the Anglican Communion needed redefinition and rebuilding, so as to be able to function fruitfully. Key efforts were made to give direction to such reconstruction.  A decade of failure, however, has simply borne out an already established and publicly stated fear.

But trying to set up alternative structures has not fared much better.  If the recent Singapore meeting exposed a ten-year lapse in credibility for existing Communion structures, it also put the lie to any attractive claim for alternative structures that, in the past 10 years, some portions of the Communion have so assiduously been at work to erect:  new provinces in North America; special “primatial councils” for common confessors;  extra-jurisdictional missionary fiefdoms; episcopal netwoks of alternative oversight.   Instead, the gathering proved to be what every other Anglican gathering has been in the past decade:  in addition to faithful witness and counsel, also a time for political maneuver, secretive changing of agendas at the last moment, North Americans coming in and grabbing the microphones and running meetings, disagreements over this and that strategy and doctrine.  That a common communiqué emerged at all was cause for surprise by the end;  that it expressed little tangible except a shared dislike for Communion structures and for TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada was probably the most one could have predicted, which isn’t very much, let alone particularly edifying.

There are some obvious conclusions to draw from these ten years.

First, that Anglican Communion “structuralism” – building offices and commissions and adjudicating bodies, in the wake of the 1963 Toronto Congress – is at an end, at least in its presently imagined forms.  This is true for the official structures; it is also true for the alternative structures.  The drift now between national churches and confessional bodies is too great to ensure their continued functioning and support in any energetic fashion.  Not that any of these structures, official or otherwise, are simply about to disappear; they won’t and they shouldn’t, given that they continue to provide important links to the wider Church and mission, and can, in any case, be renewed.  But fewer and fewer really care for them, no one really trusts them, no one really wants to let them have power over their lives.  If I were an employee of the Anglican Communion Office or of its shadow embodiments, I would look for a new job, if only for economic motives:  the money is drying up.

Second, the Anglican Covenant is both a product of this descending drift, as well as a response to it.  It is important to recognize both aspects and act and pray accordingly.   If the Covenant is viewed and pursued primarily as an extension of the desire to structuralize Anglicanism, in some new way or in some better way, it will go nowhere. Both liberals and conservatives have said as much, even as they try hard to control for themselves any new structures that might emerge. If, however, the Covenant is something that can grow up within such existing structures, not to destroy them but to make use of them as it is possible, and then go beyond them in their purpose, motive, and spirit, then perhaps it can flourish as a gift of renewal.  Certainly that remains my own hope. But we are currently paralyzed over the structural elements of the Covenant – Standing Committees, memberships, who gets to decide this or that, why my church can’t be a member on its own terms, and so on – that its promise for a new life based on common witness and accountability in Christ as a motivating desire is being held hostage by the old ways of self-interest.    I continue to wonder why those who are ready to live a new life together in this way do not simply go forward with the Covenant, maintaining all the while their place within the rickety scaffolding of the Communion as it is, and see what the spirit of Christ will accomplish among them and for the sake of others.  For the sake of others:  once Anglicans can realize that this is the purpose of their Christian calling and the authentic purpose of a Covenant – not self-protection – and that “obligations” assumed from and on behalf of others are not to be feared but are to be sought, then we will be able to speak of an emerging maturity among our leaders and our own ministry.

Third, the split between Global South Anglican churches and most Western Anglicans is obvious and growing, if unevenly so.  Ten years have squandered trust and fanned the flames of mutual manipulation; it has diluted mission, and loosened ties.  It has, in fact, broken communion in the most literal sense of recognized ministries, sacramental life, and shared sacrifice.  That is what waiting so long has done. For all the desire that at least “orthodox” Anglicans could gather as one, the desire itself was founded on practical fractures and pressures and political moves that could never sustain a coherent Gospel, simply because it was riddled with too much varied self-interest from the start.  And this has put a light upon the weaknesses of all – East, West, North, and South together.  Idealizations are never healthy, so it is good and proper that they be exposed;  but the shattering of perceived integrities, unless there is offered with it a means to grasp disclosed reality with hope, is hardly a form of redemption.

Fourth, in the near run, the Western and Global South ecclesial fates are simply different, and they should never have been coupled, as they were from 2000 on, as a means of ecclesial rescue or agenda-promotion.   Many Global South churches have taken their steps into full material independence, and their internal life, for all its struggles and sometimes because of the material demands that have drawn forth miraculous courage, has an intrinsic energy that will last them for the immediate present.  The Anglican churches of the West, on the other hand, are so weak that their internal connections are fundamentally unstable apart from structures.  But because the structures are failing, therefore so will necessarily unravel  the ability of Western Anglicans to stay connected in any formally effective way.

Fifth:  the failure of the national model for Anglicanism has become apparent.  and it has become apparent just when, as it were, the judgment of God has “given us up” to the very thing that is now shown to be unworkable.  But we wanted it so much, and we linked our Anglican identities so closely to our national pride – in Britain and in America at the least — that the idol has become a futile passion, much as Paul explains in Romans 1.  Since at least the 18th century, the press for a “national” church as somehow the charism of Anglicanism vied with an even deeper movement of emerging communion as a better way.  And while nationalism in the secular world left many bodies in its wake, the communion current grew yet more persistently, finally emerging as the brighter stream in the midst of nationalism’s spreading wreckage, from the late 19th century on.  And now, in the 21st century, as if in some great, final battle, the “national church” ideal – embodied in the pretensions of a sagging Episcopal Church and her self-proclaimed special grace —  now faces off with a communion vocation that Christians around the world have clamored after and ecumenical confessors have prayed for and missionaries have long witnessed to.   But it is an enfeebled sword that aging nationalism wields., and she will wither, God willing.

So, sixth, and most important practically:  for the moment the Western Anglican churches are being left to their own devices. And this is as it should be.  The Anglican Communion structures and anti-structures have proven impotent and, even if they do not disappear (and they probably will not, on both sides) they are weak reeds to lean upon.  Nonetheless, what is now emerging as a fact in our midst in the West is a kind of new congregationalism, irrespective of theology.

I mean this not in terms of ecclesiological commitment, but rather in terms of simple practice:  congregations are basically “on their own” now with respect to the ordering of their fruitful lives.  Perhaps it has always been thus to an extent in Western Protestantism (and now in Western Catholicism increasingly). We know that it was the case in pre-Revolutionary America for decades. But the new issue is that this is how it must be, in the face of the collapse of unitive structures or at least of their credibility, of their discursive force and persuasive resources.  Western Anglicans have been pressed into the same place as all their Protestant brethren in the West, and all their pretences to catholicity or “communion” are shown to be just that.  Anglican liberals in North America now claim this independence as their right – “locality”! – forgetting how once they fought for the opposite view; Anglican conservatives, while still fussing over international structures, have long been struggling with the practical inevitabilities of “being on one’s own” for some time, outnumbered by often hostile brethren and a larger culture inimical to their commitments. And to this extent, we Christians in the West are all in the same boat now – hence, if “congregationalism” is where we have been pressed, it is a shared condition that fits a historical and social moment.  And we must be Esthers here, “for just such a time as this”.

For all this represents a kind of historical-truth-telling:  you have insisted on your own way, now you must live it, as God proclaims to Israel through the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 8).  But because history is God’s, it is also a divinely historical challenge: what can you offer in return, He asks?   God took the Israelites’ rebellious demand for a king, and turned it into a transfiguring promise, all the while holding accountable the people for the very forms of life they had insisted upon – accountable, through the midst of a matrix of divine mercy and continual renewal that, for all its low gratings, its defeats and exiles, its discipline, turned into the “new creation” of an Incarnate Messiah Lord.  What will Anglicans do with it?

This is not a futile question issued in denial of a failure of grave sorts.  It is the kind of question Christians are called to ask because their hope is in the Lord and because that Lord is the Lord of heaven and earth and therefore not far even from the very forms of our faults.  While I am sometimes incredulous to meet and hear of young people who seek now to become Anglicans in North America, eager and inspired yet well aware of the troubles we are in, it is a sinful incredulity on my part.  They come – and there are many of them! —  because their eyes are open, and they can see with the prophet’s vision the surrounding armies of the Lord that the frightened servants cannot and will not (2 Kings 6).  And they can see that He is leading us to a greater promise.  We need to listen to these younger and newer brethren among us.

For it is just in this newly isolated and enforced congregationalism that Anglicans in North America do have resources that are peculiar, and that the larger atheizing culture secretly thirsts after.  One is never truly “on one’s own”, in any case, just as Elijah was pressed into recognizing (1 Kings 19);  and a demanded seclusion and wandering is given by God always for the building up of a people who do not otherwise know how properly to assess their gifts for the world, for others.

And so, indeed, Anglicans in North America have been well equipped for this time of pilgrimage.  We have our prayerbooks and forms of common life (locally!); our rhythms of corporate formation; most centrally, our sense of accountability to Scripture – which is given us first of all in Christ! —  and the larger Church (though we feel now so separated from them);  our vast storehouse of learning and reflection;  and practically, our long understanding that, however locally matters may be colored, their hue is given for a larger canvas, a “common” life that now needs to be discovered anew, but not for that less pressing.  God has become our Gamaliel (Acts 5) – to every Christian and unChristian congregation in North America – giving us the local space we demanded, and allowing us the room to have our true colors disclosed.

North American priests and lay leaders, faithful priests to the people of Christ,  will need to become, not simply “mission-minded”  — that is already an old saw, that has had its teeth blunted in the wake of now decades-long infomercialized marketing ploys – but minded and hearted towards a mission that is persevering and formational at its root.  The “conversion of the barbarians” is now a task renewed, and with the same long view (and scattered strategies bound to extravagant self-giving most of all) that we know, at least retrospectively, was necessary the last time round, in the 6th through the 9th centuries.   This is, after all, the refrain I hear over and over from younger priests who wonder at the vocation they have assumed in their often isolated cures or beleaguered church plants, within the encroaching confines of a forgetting and increasingly desperate atheistical culture:  how shall our people learn for the long haul? I realize now that I was not sent here for today or tomorrow, but for the Third Day, as it were, for the walk that reaches Jerusalem as its end (Lk. 13:31ff.). They will learn by a substantive, patient, and ecumenically engaged catechesis.  There will be no shortcuts to Zion.

And Anglicans have all the tools to do this, should they recognize again this calling.  Priests must come together, across distances as necessary, and work these kinds of programs out; they must recruit and form catechists from among their congregations as a first order of business; they must pray with and for each other;  and they must have the rootedness of a prayerful existence bound to God of their own such that they can live this vocation to its end, over the generations.  Daily office?  Any priest or lay leader who does not engage this in some form, is chaff for the winds. The Eucharist as the end of common prayer?  Without reaching that end, ever and again, and forming for that end, baptizing and raising up and serving for that end, and being formed through that end, there are left only the excuses of those who do not understand what a divine invitation really is (Mt. 22).

But do not bishops count, or their dioceses, and all the orderings of the primitive church down through the ages?  Is this not an essential part of the Anglican self-identity? Of course; nor has this ordering disappeared, and nor should we allow it to do so.  I am not suggesting a new ecclesiology here, but rather a way we must face into the one we believe is given by God for the ordering of our lives. Because, for the moment, in North America, the bishops have become the Levites singing before a God who seeks another sacrifice altogether.  Bishops will have to learn to be pastoral witnesses, rather than be reliant upon the expectations of an office (figuratively and in some cases, literally).  They will need to don their own white robes, so that their song at the altar is one with all the people of God who have gone through that tribulation we are called into. And this they will do; and this they can be helped at doing by the people who call them out and who have themselves been formed among the Lamb’s great throng.  The grand worries over bishops and their powers, the gnawing demands that our agreements or disagreements monopolize our energies, the nostalgia over integral structures – these have eaten away at the more radical calling that congregations, priests, and bishops all have to give themselves over to the task of Christian conversion and formation that is, quite frankly, capable of transcending such worries, demands, and nostalgias in the first place.  Ecclesiology is not the issue; what is at issue is faithfulness that will not be distracted, so that the forms of the Church can be truly seen and rejoiced in.

Many traditional Christians fear that congregations and priests are not strong enough to resist the onslaught of secular antagonists from without and ecclesial opposition and faithlessness from within.  How can we form a people in a converting and enduring faith when many of our own bishops will not support the congregational efforts this demands, or when their self-regard consistently undermines stability and credibility?  But this is a forgetful people who voice such anxieties!  John Henry Newman long ago pointed out that the Church survived the 4th century mainly through the witness of her laity and priests, even while her leaders proved, for years in many places, to be incompetents, idolators of greed, or heretics (“On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”, 1859).  It was an astonishing recognition for many in Newman’s time – and frightening to some bishops! — and it seems to remain so today.  But there is no reason to despair about such a task set before us, precisely because we can look back and see the challenges and triumphs of the past in similar and even more parlous circumstances.  The times have not changed, in many respects;  what is different now is perhaps the accepted dilution of a people’s courage and resilience, not to mention sheer faithful acuity.  And that, of course, can be met and overcome with the prayer and practice of renewal.  Such is our calling and promise;  and such is the history of the Church.

The Anglican Communion has, for some years recently, known all this in a way:  projects for catechesis (thus far taken up in the Global South), for theological education, for episcopal renewal are all on the burners.  And they should remain there and be stirred and served as long as there are ways and monies to support them.  These projects have emerged as important matters because in fact the life of congregations does move outwards and does actually live across often unseen networks of relation that do really form a  “communion” of divine life.  It is only that now, the foolishness of relying on such networks as the foundation of communion rather than as its fruit has been exposed.

To be sure, this is not a matter of giving up on the particular ecclesial goals we have worked so hard for over the past ten years:  more trustworthy councils; honesty and transparency in decision-making, unflinching patience bound to unswerving faith; a renewing covenantal self-offering to others. I for one wouldn’t dream of it, as if one could “go do ministry” (as one often hears) in ignorance of or by dismissing the necessary attempts to forge honest and fair councils, consistent and faithful discipline,  and a reordered ecclesial context that actually supports the work of a Western mission of reconversion in a credible manner.   This is work that must continue and never be disdained, in part out of a sense of hope for the future as much as out of a need for help in the present.  But it is, nonetheless, only a part, and an often modest part, to the larger task;  to have allowed it to represent the sole focus of our hopes themselves, so that their disappointment must mean the undermining of faith itself (as it has for many), has proven a destructive confusion.  The presenting, and enormously important, problem of our Christian sexual identities and callings will not be faithfully resolved, we now know, primarily through structural change.  Rather, such a resolution is founded on a reconversion to and formation in the Christian Scriptures through the life of the Spirit, that is a far broader and deeper task than we had imagined.  But it is also a tremendously exciting service.

So, after ten years (and more) we are thrust back to our roots.  The Anglican Communion is hardly dead, although she is demonstrably weak. But her weakness has as much to do with the immaturity of her vigorous branches as with the senescence of her original members.  The past ten years have shown that the younger churches need more growing up and steadied charity;  and that the older churches need to nurture their own children in their midst, rather than abandon them on the stoops of aging and pusillanimous expectations.  A good and necessary lesson!  If each could be free and brave enough – God give the grace! – to pursue such vocations without being drawn into the competitions of control, then the very thing that the Devil fears the most – that the scattered children of God might indeed be gathered (Jn 11:52) – will actually come to pass, here at the center of a rebellious people.  By all means, let the structures of the Communion carry on, honestly and humbly and faithfully, as they are able; but their full transformation cannot precede our own.

May 25 2010 08:41 am | Articles