Thursday, October 11, 2007

Communion or Community of Communions?

At risk of over simplification, I suggest two movements within the Anglican Communion are driving the current crisis forward to its eschaton. One movement could be described as ‘Jude 3’ since it understands ‘the faith’ as that which ‘was once for all delivered to the saints.’ In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics were more or less settled with the final writings of the New Testament at the close of the first century A.D. When proposals come forward which appear novel, such as endorsing faithful same sex partnerships through blessing or ordination, or softening the exclusivity of Jesus from ‘the way’ to ‘a way’ to God, this movement is unmoved. What has been delivered once for all does not permit such endorsement or such softening. To be sure this movement is not completely united on some matters such as the ordination of women which is novel and unacceptable to some in the movement but is a flowering of that seeded in the apostolic age and thus acceptable to others.

The other movement could be described as ‘John 16:13’ since it works on the basis that ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ In other words ‘the faith’ was delivered to the saints but the saints did not receive all the truth. In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics are not yet, perhaps never will be settled. Novel proposals tend to be welcomed rather than rejected; the Spirit guiding into all truth, after all, is to be expected to catalyse such possibilities.

Whether either or both these two movements are legitimate developments of any preceding stage in Anglicanism need not detain us. These movements are entrenched in the reality of Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. Neither is going to be ruled out by denying its validity as an ‘Anglican’ phenomenon because it is (say) lacking coherency with Hooker or repugnant to the Thirty Nine Articles. Either, even both movements (‘a plague on both your houses’) might be dispossessed of membership of the Anglican Communion but that would not stop vigorous assertion of claims by each movement to be truly and thoroughly ‘Anglican’. Thus the question which will not readily go away is whether the Anglican Communion can find a way to live with both movements or whether it cannot contain what Anglicanism has become.

Between John 16:13 and Jude 3 lies Philippians 2:2, ‘complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’ (with acknowledgement to Ephraim Radner’s recent emphasis on this verse in relation to Anglican Communion troubles). What joy it would be if Anglican koinonia can be refreshed! Currently there are several strategies in the air concerning the goal of a common mind for the Anglican Communion. One strategy is the pursuit of a common mind through change of mind: those reluctant to embrace the Windsor Report, for example, are urged (even demanded) to commit to it; or, those seemingly unable to envisage communing at the same table of fellowship as the Bishop of New Hampshire are encouraged to enlarge their vision of the divergencies which Anglican comprehensiveness can include. Another strategy is similar but with a different focus and involves reaching a common mind through a process of agreement which probably (if not certainly) involves some change, though not necessarily a change of mind. Thus the proposed Anglican Covenant is envisaged as focusing the minds of current member churches of the Anglican Communion in respect of the issues contributing to the current crisis: might some change of mind be involved before signing? Might some lack of change of mind lead to not signing the Covenant and thus concomitantly to some new relationship with the signers of the Covenant (e.g. associate membership rather than full membership of the Anglican Communion)? Might signing the Covenant lead to some consequential discipline of a signing church? Another strategy seeks a common mind by calling together those of a common mind. In its own way the Lambeth 2008 invitation does this by stressing the importance of commitment to the Windsor Report and to the idea of an Anglican Covenant.

Without intention of preferring any one of the strategies outlined above (or any other strategy) we offer here some reflection on whether there is any hope for the wish of Philippians 2:2 to be fulfilled in our Communion troubled as it is by the movements of ‘John 16:13’ and ‘Jude 3’. One observation is that there is real distance between the two movements. Intrinsic to the ‘Jude 3’ movement is an intensity of conviction developed through 2000 years of contending for the doctrine of the church, both in external and internal contexts. With specific respect to issues of human sexuality, the ‘Jude 3’ movement’s conviction is intensified through the weight of history: for centuries before Christ and for twenty centuries since the people of God have known only one standard, monogamous marriage or celibacy, however many deviations from the standard may have occurred in the history of Israel (polygamy in particular). Conversely, the ‘John 16:13’ movement feels no such weight and feeds from a different reading of 2000 years of history. In that reading the highlights are the points of change in attitude by the church – to slavery, to women, to people of colour, and now to gay and lesbian people. A second, related observation is that each movement faces issues of the late modern and post-modern eras as different challenges. For ‘Jude 3’ the possibility of acceptance of same sex partnerships is revolutionary, for ‘John 16:13’ it is evolutionary. For the former a move towards Jesus as ‘a saviour’ rather than ‘the saviour’ is a denial of truth written with the blood of martyrs; for the latter it is an affirmation of truth consequential on dialogue with other world religions. Already we can begin to see that finding grounds for hope of Philippians 2:2 being fulfilled in the Anglican Communion may ultimately be elusive!

Yet it can also be observed that there is much to be lost by thinking we are justified in being party to the Communion fracturing. A first consideration is the question whether there is such difference that warrants a parting of the ways. Speaking personally, I have noticed over the years some considerable difference in theology between myself and brothers and sisters in Christ who otherwise inhabit the world of ‘conservative evangelicalism’, yet I have not broken fellowship with them. Sorely tempted though I may be in this present crisis, have I grounds for walking apart? A second consideration is the question what would be achieved in respect of (a) ‘ordinary parishioners’ and (b) ‘census Anglicans’? Someone recently observed to me that the current battles are largely between the ‘elites’ in our church! It is possible that the consciences of theologically-sensitized leaders will be salved by separation but the thinking of ‘ordinary parishioners’ become confused. Further, do we not run the risk that many ‘census Anglicans’ will be even less motivated to become active Anglicans, convinced that a church divided over sex is completely out of touch with society? A third consideration concerns whether there would be unity in any one part of a divided Communion? Let’s put this another way: having framed description of difference in the Communion in terms of two competing movements, as we have done here, there is a certain attraction in thinking of two new dynamic entities arising from the ashes of the old Communion, each fervently proclaiming the gospel of Christ, albeit with different content. This might not be a disaster … we could reasonably hope! But the fact is that, at least on the day of writing these words, there are grounds for believing that the Communion will not be neatly divided but fractured into several parts, if not splintered into many pieces!

In the end, taking a cue from a recent piece of Archbishop Peter Jensen’s thinking, we may find that the – inevitable – compromise is that the Anglican Communion can no longer be a Communion in the sense of one people gathered round one table with one mind but will develop different arrangements. Might we become an Anglican Community of Communions, a set of Anglican tables around each of which people of one mind unite, with the common mind of this Community based on shared appreciation for our heritage and not on shared approach to Scripture and theology?

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