Monday, February 25, 2008


One of my most memorable encounters at university was not with an academic but with an administrator - a very intelligent and learned administrator nevertheless. He was a mentor to the Christian Union executive. One day we were discussing things and he said to me, 'Peter, you can sum up the Anglican Church in one word.' I looked at him very expectantly, awed that such a complex church could be reduced to one word, and wondering what on earth this word could be!

'Accommodation', he said, and I have never forgotten that word. Some thirty years later 'accommodation' still seems as good a one word summary of our church as it was then.

In terms of my series of posts on difference in the Anglican Church (Athens v Jerusalem etc) I am wondering if 'accommodation' could be a guiding theme in our discussion which might take some of the heat and sting out of current debates. For example, could all sides agree that all Anglicans 'accommodate' the world, surrounding culture, and prevailing mores, taboos, and fashions to some extent or another? An oft-made point, as an instance, is the accommodation virtually all parts - including conservative - of the Anglican Church have made to divorce and remarriage. Or, to take a slightly different matter, its frequently observed that classic exposition of liberal theology (at least circa 1960s) as well as classic exposition of conservative evangelical theology (at least circa 1950s) owes much to 'modernism' even as such theologies present themselves as drawing on deeper wells from the past. If we could agree that we all acommodate then our debate might be a softer and more diplomatic one around the proper, warranted extent of accommodation. Currently however the debate is a rougher and more bruising one along the lines of 'we are pure biblical Christian Anglicans, you are heterodox or worse' and 'no, you are blind fools who do not realise how selectively biblical you are, and we are just as orthodox as you, probably more so 'cause we wear robes according to Anglican rules'.

A debate around the proper, warranted extent of accommodation at the least would involve more respect for each other. No dissing each other from some moral high ground of 'we are pure' or 'you are deceived'. Rather, mutual recognition of the difficulty of living as Christians 'in' the world but not 'of' it should lead to a genuine listening process: 'tell us more about why you think the way you do ... we are genuinely interested in how your reading of Scripture and your reading of the world has led to the conclusions you have drawn'.

Increasingly as I reflect on current Anglican debates, especially in the peculiar countdown of 2008 towards Lambeth and (now) GAFCON, I recognise that the two emerging forms of Anglicanism - for convenience I will simply call them, without intention of pejorativeness, liberal Anglicanism and conservative Anglicanism - are here to stay. Our question is not whether one will triumph or not. In the short to medium term neither will triumph - and perhaps not even in the long-term. Our question is how we can live together with our difference. The tempting answer is 'let's separate, if not divorce, for then we do not have to live with our difference.' But this is folly. It assumes, on the basis on one reading of Anglican history, that our church is a marriage of convenience. In fact the Anglican Communion is better understood as a 'family' than as a 'marriage'. Families can break up, members can stop talking to each other, but families remain families. In particular, so long as we claim the same family name, we Anglicans are linked together, not least in the eyes of the world to which God sends us in mission. And broken families always come under pressure over time to reconcile their differences.

No, better for the Anglican Communion to get over itself: we are divided by our difference but we need not separate over it. Our energy should be focused on how we can live with that difference. Naturally that involves some accommodation from each side of the division. But, if we are honest, we have already learned to accommodate ... can we apply that lesson to accommodating the other side?

No comments: