Can the Instruments of Unity Be Repaired?

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Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

When the turmoil surrounding Gene Robinson’s consent and consecration arose in 2003, everyone knew that the Anglican Communion was in for some rough times. But even more pessimistic observers believed that these times would be relatively limited, and that somehow the Communion would muddle towards some stabilizing resolution. Few could have imagined how quickly and how completely the organizations that held the Communion together would fragment and crumble. Yet this is where we have arrived: a seemingly single incident in one small corner of the global church’s reach has managed to unravel centuries of common bonds and shared witness to Christ.

At this point, all the so-called Instruments of the Unity for the Anglican Communion are broken, some, it seems to me, beyond any hope of repair. What can be done about this? The four Instruments – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) and the Primates’ Meeting (in order of their founding) – have each, in different ways and together, been key means by which Anglicans around the world, drawn from their various migrational and missionary origins, have grown into a vital communion of churches. And this Communion has been characterized by elements unique, admired, and even desired still by many non-Anglican Christians. With the demise of the Instruments of Unity, the question of the Anglican Communion’s survival and vocation is necessarily raised.

I will discuss the status of each Instrument today; then ask what we have learned from these Instruments’ collapse; finally, I will address the question of what we can do about any of this.

I. The current status of the Anglican Instruments of Unity:

I treat each Instrument here in the order of their future short-term vitality.

Primates: The Primates’ Meeting, while the most recent in origin (first meeting in 1979), had taken the lead, after 2003, in seeking a way forward for the Communion’s unified life. They gathered quickly in an emergency meeting, articulated clear and seemingly consensual directives, commissioned what became the Windsor Report (still the most substantial theological discussion of the Communion’s common life and its practical imperatives), and attempted to carry through with a common vision for a disciplined reordering of global ecclesial relations. So successful was the Meeting in exercising this leadership – one that, after all, various official groups within the Communion had asked them to exercise — and in a generally traditionalist direction, however, that more liberal members of the Communion quickly denounced the Meeting as having usurped the authority that should properly be dispersed among the other Instruments (if even them). By 2007, when the Covenant Design Group initially proposed that the Primates’ Meeting take the lead in the resolving of Communion conflicts, this was too much for many; even one of the American members of the Covenant Design Group herself publicly rejected her own committee’s recommendations, stating that the Primates were acting in “unprecedented” ways that “ignored” and “made irrelevant” other processes of decision-making within the Communion.

Such concern proved ironically overstated, since the earlier 2007 Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam that had so worried some because of its sharply defined proposals for disciplining TEC, quickly proved to be a toothless tiger: the proposals were never taken up, nor did the Primates’ themselves seem surprised by this. Whatever the reasons – a failure to carry through on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the fact that the agreements from the meeting were only paper-thin and fundamentally mistrusted by many of the participants, or a combination of these and other factors – the Primates’ Meeting quickly sank into obscurity as a body. Its subsequent gathering in 2009 in Alexandria produced little beyond predictable boilerplate. The heart had gone out of it, and no one looks to it for leadership at present. It is uncertain if a proposed gathering for January, 2011 will materialize at all in a representative fashion.

Lambeth: Little needs to be said about the glaring failure of the 2008 gathering, boycotted by 4 Primates and about a quarter of the Communion’s bishops (who represented perhaps a majority of the world’s Anglicans), ostensibly over the invitations extended to the US consecrators of Gene Robinson. The agenda of the meeting, that sought to eschew decision-making by the gathered bishops in favor of discussion, meant that the Conference had little impact on the Communion’s public self-definition at a time of obvious confusion. But the missing bishops also meant that the discussion itself bore little constructive fruit vis a vis the Communion’s actual problems. The bishops were carefully sounded regarding their views of the proposed Anglican Covenant, and what data came from this was valiantly analyzed by the Covenant Design Group; but the ultimate sampling even here was so spotty and uneven in its articulation as to be statistically without bearing. In one fell swoop, the Lambeth Conference as the Communion’s must august and authoritative council (however one understands the term) lapsed into a marginal position, racking up a large debt in the process and further tarnishing its image (although the money involved here was far, far less than that spent in American lawsuits among Anglicans!).

Canterbury: Certainly, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role as a “gatherer” of the Communion’s bishops – at the Lambeth Conference and among the Primates – as well as his traditional profile of moral authority, rightly gave him the status of a bishop primus inter pares and “focus of unity”. Few Anglicans – even despite constitutional revisions in some portions of the Communion – are eager to see Canterbury lose this position. And the current incumbent has garnered deep respect for his piety and learning, as well as for his godly patience. But when bishops and archbishops no longer come to gatherings when invited by Canterbury; when they seek common vision in alternative groups; when they ignore the claims of Canterbury’s counsel – it is undeniable that the office has lost its stature within the Communion. It is impossible not to sense a drift into the eddies of the Communion’s missionary witness here. Does anybody listen to Canterbury anymore? What the present situation indicates is that the Communion herself, including perhaps the Archbishop of Canterubry, has become deeply confused and conflicted about the very nature and active demands of Canterbury’s “moral authority”, and that this confusion has come to color the office itself.

ACC: The Anglican Consultative Council was founded in 1968, at the direction of the Lambeth Conference. Its purpose was to facilitate mission and mutual support among the churches of the Communion, and this it did with relative success as the Communion exploded in numbers on a global scale through the 1970’s and 1980’s. The ACC became, along with its ongoing executive arm, the Anglican Communion Office, the place-setter for a range of common enterprises and discussions. As tensions in the Communion grew at the 1990’s and early 21st century, the ACC maintained a fairly representative profile, constrained by its Western-funded influences, but still listing in a direction that deferred – quite rightly! – to the growing strength of the non-Western churches.

The Robinson events of 2003, however, and their global impact made the ACC and its more diffuse decision-making structure a ready arena for political maneuverings. These were generally held in check by the sheer numbers of Global South representatives, if only just. The May 2009 meeting of the ACC, however, had as its brief the disposition of the proposed Anglican Covenant. Through procedural legerdemain on the part of certain Western representatives, coupled with unrestrained parliamentary confusion that was broadcast to a watching world, the Council managed to overrule the actual voted resolutions of the majority, and derail the Covenant text’s straightforward acceptance. Subsequent revelations regarding unpublicized revisions to the ACC’s constitution, as well as the contravention of her own existing Articles in terms of membership, left the group, by mid-2010 without any public or even private credibility: members resigned, questions raised were left unanswered, silence descended on the body like a shroud.

An honest appraisal of the Four Instruments of Unity must come to this conclusion: although to varying degrees and in different ways, none of them works anymore. They have collapsed as unity-enhancing ecclesial structures. Indeed, this is an appraisal shared, however less bluntly, by the Archbishops of Canterbury himself. But as the Instruments no longer function constructively, the Anglican Communion herself moves from ad hoc disruptions in her common life to de facto structural disintegration.

II. What have we learned from the Instruments’ collapse?

Before asking what can be done about any of this, we need to ask what have we learned in this rapid devolution. I would suggest at least four things:

1. Failure to be honest about what is going on erodes the credibility of the Instruments themselves. There has been a steady insistence by most leaders of the Communion, especially those speaking on behalf of the Communion, that matters have not been as serious as they appeared. The collapse of the Primates’ Meeting’s leadership has gone unmentioned; the missing bishops at Lambeth has been noted with an embarrassed hush and changing of the topic; the ACC’s procedural and constitutional fiascos have not only not been acknowledged, but have been positively denied, even as loyal members and supporters have simply left the room out of complete disillusion and weariness; constricted credibility has been met by shrugs of the shoulders. The various leaders of the Communion seem to want to go on as if nothing has happened, even while their vessel splinters beneath their feet and the rising waters swirl about their waists.

2. Continued gathering of the Instruments in a condition of worsening division subverts their credibility and authority. It has clearly been a mistake to keep carrying on with the gathering of the Instruments and their normal functioning under these circumstances. Accumulating ineffectiveness has led to absenteeism, which has led to a sense of the Instruments’ irrelevance at best, and to anger towards them at worst. The incentive to fix any of this is lessening with every meeting that takes place: they are being ignored.

3. Failure to engage in personal discussions is never good. Instead of carrying on with meetings that weren’t working, and then launching accusations about these failures, individual leaders should have been having not only regular but unceasing personal encounters, across lines of disagreement and even anger. Some of this happened secretly and behind the scenes. Much of it never happened at all – few bishops and Primates went the literal “extra mile” by taking the initiative to meet with their antagonists, let alone kept meeting in order to pray together and talk honestly but without the political pressures of constituency-appeasement. The settled hostilities, entrenched behind barriers, have been well-publicized and now long-standing.

4. Widespread misreadings of theological locale: It is obvious that many Westerners simply do not understand the nature of Christian witness and conviction elsewhere in the world, and instead have disastrously read it in terms of their own internal cultural and historical battles (liberal vs. fundamentalist, and so on). It is also clear that many non-Westerners do not apprehend the sheer complexity and long-standing roots of contemporary Western religious dis-ease, one that cannot simply be solved by assertions and rejections (as numerous traditionalist protests in the modern West have proven). These misreadings do not alter the substance and meaning of the deep theological and moral disagreements at issue over the past few years in the Communion; but they have fueled needlessly unedifying polemics and maneuverings.

5. Lack of leadership has left us drifting. There are many fine Anglican leaders. There have been few or none, however, specifically gifted for this moment: people who can inspire across lines of commitment and culture, persuade across divided hearts and mindsets, indefatigably and through their own initiative engage opponents and friends together, and move out beyond their own supporters for the sake of a larger good, bolstered by a faith in Christ that can remain hopeful in the face of failure – and do all these things at onc! But there have been many moments in the Church’s life when this kind of leadership was not forthcoming. So this is less a complaint, than a regretful observation: God has not blessed us with such people at this time, for His own reasons.

III. What can we do?

So, what can be done?

First, and as a prelude, I need to say that, despite the most evident collapse of the Communion’s structures, the value of the Anglican Communion has not been diminished. Many in the West seem to think so, to be sure. But the view is very different elsewhere – in Africa, for instance, or SE Asia, where precisely Anglicanism is understood to be and is lived out as being one of the most vital Christian ecclesial witnesses in the world, and a necessary and desired counterpart to Roman Catholic and Pentecostal versions of Christian existence that have their own profound and often negative challenges in the non-Anglo-European world. Anglicanism will not disappear in these areas, and for that there are strong reasons that bespeak deep divine purposes from which the West has much to learn – and for which non-Western Anglicans will be held accountable! It is the case that the current structures of the Communion are not serving these purposes well. That is the reason for their collapse. But the Communion itself, at least in its vital reordering, would appear to have much life in it, and a higher calling beyond this present morass that Western Anglicans have fallen into (and have sought to drag others with them). Much can be, and has been, said about all this; but the fundamental purposes of the Communion, it strikes me, remain secure. What will sustain them?

Second, a response to the failures of the past few years must surely grow out of some of the negatives we have learned, noted above:

1. we need greater honesty about our own conditions and our responsibilities for them. This is both an organizational, as it were, and a more profound spiritual reality: confession is required as a prerequisite to repentance and healing. Westerners, in our various theological and ecclesial configurations (Americans especially from all sides), have made a mess of things. Can we not admit this openly, liberals and conservatives both? But non-Westerners too need a little humility in the face of what has gone wrong here; and it would be good to hear a little from around the table as a whole!

2. having admitted our brokenness and sins, we should have the self-discipline to suffer our failures for a bit, and not keep charging ahead with things, not only as if nothing has happened, but as if we cannot bear the thought of being structurally helpless for a while. No Temple or kingdom: imagine that! (How quickly we Christians forget….) At least let us have a “moratorium” (a by-now abused concept, I realize) on big gatherings that we think will solve things, or move things forward in some final way: all we have done is disappoint ourselves, inflame antagonisms, and engender despair in the holy calling of Christian council altogether: just as there are times when Christians should not take communion, there are times when we are not in a condition to take definitive counsel.

3. but such moratoria only emphasize the need for more willingness to meet face to face, individually, as brother to brother, sister to sister, sister to brother, enemy to enemy. Broken relationships are a consequence of sin; but their healing is the consequence of a contrite heart: there is no virtue before God in making no effort to cross miles to engage an estranged, even “erring” neighbor. Meetings have failed to fulfill this need, because they are always driven by dynamics that, as we have seen, have overpowered human hearts: we are not ready for them; but we are always ready for one another, at least in Christ.

Third, the Instruments of Communion are clearly no longer capable of ordering our life coherently:

Primates Meeting: It is still possible, I suppose, that this group could take a fruitful lead in healing the Communion; but it is unlikely. Unless TEC’s Presiding Bishop (and perhaps Canada’s as well) voluntarily decides to forego the next gathering – or even less likely, Canterbury decides to tell her not to come – the meeting itself will be another version of Lambeth 2008, and the ACC-Primates Joint Standing Committee and so on: no-shows, broken, irrelevant. Perhaps leaders of the Global South can engage Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori directly and individually on this matter, privately and personally. If the Primates’ Meeting does take place with almost all present, something might come of it: they would be the only Instrument still standing at that point. But past experience is not encouraging on this front.

Instead of the Primates’ Meeting, the leaders of the Global South – whether they are Primates or not — along with their mutually supportive colleagues, need to order their lives according to some other provisional gathering point: the Covenant sits there waiting. Its adoption in some form under the auspices of a definable group would allow other non-Global South Anglicans in the world in less coherent or even friendly settings to join in and have some visible linkages and mutual relations that formally sustain their continued witness and mission. Should the current text be revised? In an obvious sense, yes: Section 4 is no longer rational, given the role it gives to the ACC and through it a now clouded “Standing Committee”. But a gathering on the basis of Sections 1-3 is possible (altering little), with a view to revising Section 4 in a simple manner by replacing the Standing Committee with some provisional group representative of the Covenanting churches’ leadership, however that is determined. Those who have already adopted or confirmed the current Covenant text have shown their ability to deal expeditiously with any such simple revisions.

Using the current Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Faith and Order, or some subcommittee of it, as a group to aid in figuring this out – not deciding but proposing – might maintain some links to the wider Communion that could be useful for the future. (Some Global South leaders have spoken about this.) And, of course, the reason for keeping the Covenant’s basic text (as opposed to rewriting it completely, or using something like the Jerusalem Declaration as a substitute) is precisely to maintain bridges between present and future (and past!), and to the fruit of a time when common discussion did indeed take place before the Instruments’ collapse. It is also important that any new groupings bound to this kind of reordering be seen themselves as decidedly provisional, such openness to change and looseness to permanency being itself a bridge to healing. Such a bridge would bespeak hope and respect, as well as a necessary humility.

Lambeth: This is the center of the Anglican Communion’s common life, in its episcopal pastoral rooting, and must remain so. There is no reason why, whatever the situation in 2018, everyone should not go, and do what those going wish (as opposed to leaving the agenda to some unrepresentative small group). This has always been my argument: the bishops of the Communion have nothing to fear in meeting with other bishops, even if they do not fully recognize each other’s integrity; they can pray and talk, if nothing else; and then come to some directive decisions as they are able (led by the Spirit of Christ, one hopes) But if that proves too burdensome, then it is better simply to put the Conference on hold, and wait to see in 10 or 20 years what happens. After a few decades, a lot of bishops will be dead; who knows what God has in store for those who replace them?

Canterbury: the current Archbishop has stated his desire to be in communion with both parts (or all parts) of the broken body that is the Anglican Communion. That may be possible for a bit, but it is probably unwise: first, such the constraint on clear teaching that could support such straddling would continue to feed into the office’s growing irrelevance; second, it is unlikely to be sustainable, given the coming divisions in the Church of England, that promise to be analogous to those in North America. The inability to maintain a straddling position will demand for Canterbury a kind of distancing from one part of the Communion, probably for a while. So be it (and I would assume that, for local reasons, that will mean a distancing from the Global South, although I pray not). What we have here, then, would be a “Babylonian Captivity”, as it were (remembering the exile of the papacy from Rome during the 14th century). What we hope Anglicanism can avoid is a parallel “Great Schism” (when, during the papacy’s exile, rival popes asserted their claims to leadership). There is no need to have some bishop elsewhere in the world claim moral leadership of the Communion, and the Global South should restrain itself from creating such a schism. The best way to preserve Canterbury at the moment is to demand little from it.

ACC: The Anglican Consultative Council is defunct. What is dead cannot be repaired in any normal sense. It has served a purpose, and for a while it did so well. No doubt, something else will need to emerge, perhaps using pieces from the past, that takes up the role of coordinating mission and discussion as in the past; but it is far too soon to consider what. But we should resist the need to rush too quickly after such a resurrection.

In sum, I see the Lambeth Conference as the only real continuity into the future; Canterbury as a possible, if hoped-for, resource for the future; the Primates’ Meeting as giving way to some alternative Global South-oriented gathering of episcopal leaders that can move matters forward into the future in a provisional way (which may involve several decades); and the ACC as altogether finished. And this is perhaps all the Communion needs at the moment: we are learning to be less demanding of immediate solutions; more patient with less structured relations; more open to a future that does not depend on institutional sturdiness, but on God’s provisions and leading; less trusting in an ecclesial politics of maneuver and control; more joyous in the face of the Cross and the Resurrection. And in the course of such learning, individual Anglicans and their congregations are going to be drawn into new forms of witness, ones they perhaps never imagined, in a sense more globally bonded because less tethered to structures whose strength lay in local orderings we have now outgrown.

October 05 2010 03:54 pm | Articles