Communion on the Verge of a Breakdown: What Then Shall We Do?

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Saturday, February 19th, 2011

The Meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion just concluded in Dublin might well mark the breakdown and consequent breakup of what has been the Anglican Communion. Up to a dozen Primates who come from the most populous areas of the Anglican Communion refused to attend. They did so because the Archbishop of Canterbury, ignoring his pledge that there would be “consequences” resulting from the actions of The Episcopal Church (TEC), insisted nonetheless on inviting its Presiding Bishop. From an ecclesiological perspective, the meeting itself proved vacuous, producing little more than points gathered on newsprint by a facilitor. If Dublin is linked with the obvious failure of both the last Lambeth Conference and the last meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, one is forced to conclude that none of the supposed “Instruments of Communion” have been able to address the divisions in the Communion in a satisfactory manner. This series of failures has left the Anglican Communion with no effective means to sustain unity among its autonomous provinces.

Sadly, as things now stand, the Archbishop of Canterbury has lost his ability to serve as an effective symbol and focus for the unity of Anglicans. In effect, he now presides over a vastly reduced grouping of Provinces dominated by native English speakers who represent the liberal edge of what is a dominantly conservative body of churches. It is simply the case that the Provinces that contain the majority of the world’s Anglicans do not feel that they are adequately represented and respected in the councils of the church. They have chosen not to participate until this situation is remedied.

The good news is that the Primates who absented themselves from the Dublin meeting have pledged their continuing commitment to the Anglican Communion, yet at the same time have announced their intention to find means of their own to get on with the common life and ministry they share one with another. The problem is that these goals, noble though they are, present their adherents with formidable difficulties. On the one hand, the ascendency of a liberal agenda within the “Instruments of Communion” means the divisions within the Communion will become more and more prominent, while the prestige of the Archbishop of Canterbury steadily declines. On the other hand, the ability of those who dissent from the liberal agenda to dislodge liberal control of the mechanisms of inter-provincial order depends upon their ability to sustain their own unity and together provide a convincing counter example.

It is this last question (the question of the unity or lack thereof among the dissenters) that poses the greatest threat to any future re-establishment of actual communion among Anglicans. I grant that I look at relations within “the Global South” as an outsider. This is as it should be. I rejoice in becoming a more marginal voice among Anglicans. It’s about time Westerners assumed their proper place within a Communion whose health lies largely below the equator. Marginal though I may be, however, I have learned from a long time spent in Africa that it is important to listen to the voice of strangers. They see things about us that we do not see ourselves.

As a stranger, what I see is this. The dissenting Primates are united in their objection to the high-handed way in which TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada have ignored the request of all its Instruments to refrain from making changes in sexual and marital practice. They are not united, however, in what they believe ought to be done about it. There appear to be two parties with two ways of addressing the problem. One tends to work within the spirit (though not the details) of the proposed covenant. They have what I will call a “relational” view of church unity. When disputed matters arise, they favor mechanisms that will help the provinces to “recognize” whether a disputed innovation within a Province is or is not in accord with the witness of Holy Scripture. The other party has a more “confessional” view of communion. It is to be identified and sustained by adherence to a confession of belief and practice to which all subscribe. The intention is to exclude from the front end any Province that does not share these commonly agreed upon formulations.

Similar disputes among those in North America who have resisted the regnant view within TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada exacerbate these divisions. Communion Partners favor a more relational approach while ACNA tends to move in a more confessional direction. It would simply be disingenuous to say that these two parties have not added intensity to the debates within the Global South.

What then shall we do? If the parties to this dispute do no more than agree to disagree, they will further divide and in so doing offer no effective alternative to the rump communion over which the Archbishop of Canterbury now presides. If they come together in genuine communion (rather than a fragile political alliance) they will provide an alternative to the theological and spiritual bankruptcy of the rump communion that gathered in Dublin.

How can those in dissent provide such an alternative? From the outside I can only say that, as I have observed events over the past few years, the objections of the course TEC is taking are clear enough, but I have not seen an equally forceful account of either the Christian Gospel or the nature and mission of the church. We are all involved in a church struggle that cannot be won simply by saying no. A yes must be spoken for a more powerful account of Christian belief, practice and order if this church struggle is to issue in the restoration of communion rather than the ratification of “different integrities.”

Anglicans who opposed the actions of TEC from both above and below the equator have not done this work. The theological position of TEC and its supporters does not go beyond a commitment to inclusion that they share with citizens of liberal democracies throughout the world. Toleration and acceptance have replaced the cross as a test of orthodoxy. This is rather thin gruel, but those in dissent have not taken the invitation of those who wrote the Windsor Report to go more deeply into the vision of unity found in Ephesians and Corinthians. They have not placed their distress with the way things are within a view of God’s providence and his will for the church and the world to be found in Holy Scripture. It appears that the dissidents from both north and south of the equator have decided to play the game on terms set by the liberal leadership of the Instruments. They have rightly resisted the change in moral practice TEC has undertaken, but they have neither exposed the shallow nature of the theology behind these changes nor proposed a more robust alternative.

I have no doubt that an objection to what I have said will be lodged at this point. Some will say that the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans has done the necessary work and they will point to the Jerusalem Declaration as evidence that this work has been done. With but two exceptions, I could happily sign the Declaration, but from my perspective it does not exemplify the sort of theological work necessary if the Anglican Communion is to survive as a communion of churches. The Jerusalem Declaration is comprised of fourteen assertions having to do with things its signers hold to be true. The fourteen points are matters in which they “rejoice” or “believe.” They are matters they “uphold,” “proclaim” or “recognize.”

No doubt theological views stand behind these assertions, and many of these views I probably share. Nevertheless, all confessions (this one included) represent theological summaries designed to give a group identity and mark the boundaries of its membership. The theological work I have in mind is rather different. The present crisis has forced upon Anglicans questions the heat of the present struggle has led them to ignore. What do Anglicans mean when they say they belong to a communion of churches? What content do Anglicans give this word? Why did the authors of the Windsor Report use the notion of koinonia both as a way into the most essential of Christian beliefs and as a means of displaying the importance of unity in the church? Were they right to do so; and have they made clear why dissolution of the Anglican Communion might prove an unacceptable loss to the church catholic?

These are some of the questions presented to Anglicans by the turmoil in which they find themselves. There is, of course, a rich literature on the notion of Communion. The writings of John Zizioulas and Jean Tillard have exerted enormous influence on the ecumenical discussions Anglicans have had with Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. The ideas of these men and the reports issuing from ecumenical discussion influenced by them certainly stand behind the theological content of the Windsor Report and the proposed covenant. Further, Anglicans like Lionel Thornton, Stephen Sykes and Paul Avis have made significant contributions of their own to this discussion. This literature and ecumenical history has, however, been drowned out by the political struggles that gave birth to the Windsor Report and the proposed covenant. Thus, as the tensions within the Communion have increased, political wrangling has eclipsed the theological work that stands behind the original attempts by the Communion to address its divisions. With the eclipse of this tradition, many have lost sight of just how high the stakes are in this struggle.

In short, those in dissent have, like their opponents, abandoned theological work and given themselves to political strategies. They have failed to construct a theological rudder to carry them through this storm, and as a result resistance remains of a largely pragmatic rather than a thoroughly theological sort.

As an outsider whose ability to remain both an Anglican and a catholic church-person with evangelical zeal depends upon an alternative to what we all saw in Dublin I can only look on this situation with alarm. Is it possible to navigate the seas in which we now sail without a theological compass shared by those in dissent? Is it possible to prevail in this struggle without a clear vision of what one is struggling for and why? Pragmatic leagues always prove ephemeral. They wax and wane with circumstances. They cannot survive if they do not rest on common beliefs and commitments that stand on unshakable ground. Progressives with unwavering fervor hold the liberal gospel of justice and peace. Their position is wonderfully simple, and no one can be against justice and peace. Nevertheless, to make these goods the sum of gospel content is, like most heresies, a gross distortion of what Christians through the ages have believed about who God is and what God is up to. Those in dissent have yet to provide a clear and convincing account of their own of what the Anglican Communion is and why it is important. At its root this struggle is only in part about sex. In a more fundamental sense it is about the content of the Christian gospel and the nature and calling of the church. Only within this wider frame can the contested matters of sexual ethics be properly understood and addressed.

What then shall we do? The most immediate answer is to provide an alternative to the shallow account of the Christian Gospel and the nature and mission of church now proposed by the liberal rump. As the Windsor Report suggests, a robust account of “communion” will go a long way toward meeting that goal. Nevertheless, such an account will not appear apart from work yet to be done. If not done, the politics of compromise and deal making will take over the dissidents as it has their progressive opponents. In that case, the counter example of what it is to be the Anglican Communion will not appear, and we will be left with only fragments.

This is the moment the Global South has asked and waited for. This is their time to call the Anglican Communion back to its roots in Holy Scripture and the fathers of the church. It is their time to show us what communion is all about. That effort will require of all of us not only great theological effort but also all the graces Paul places at the foundation of Christian unity—lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearance in love, eagerness for unity along with kindness, tenderheartedness and forgiveness. Much will be asked of everyone, but it is these, my brothers and sisters in the Global South, who, in our time, will bear the heat of battle. Those of us in provinces controlled by the liberal rump of what once was our communion, though we may help in this enterprise if asked, now in large measure are called upon to wait, watch and pray rather than control. One thing we should wait, watch and pray for is a rigorous account of what it means when Anglicans claim to be a communion of churches. We understand that meetings are now being planned within the Global South to arrive at ways to move forward despite the terrible divisions we face. I pray that a meeting soon will take place. I pray also that it will appoint a body from throughout the Communion to forge a common vision of what the Anglican Communion is called to be. Finally, I pray that those who now resist the direction manifest in Dublin will prayerfully move forward and embrace a Communion ecclesiology that gives glory to God, who has so richly blessed the missionary extension of the Gospel throughout the world. This should be a time of fresh hope in that same Gospel and its Lord.

February 19 2011 04:38 pm | Articles