Saturday, June 28, 2008

This is why Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Rowan Williams has many critics. In the past few days a notable fellow Oxonian, J. I. Packer has even said he should resign if he cannot wholeheartedly lead the Communion by the light of Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10. Amid the criticism one might forget just why the British church appointments committee and government saw fit to appoint him in the first place. Primarily he is a great theologian. We need bishops who lead, administer, and give good interviews to the media. Woe betide us if we have no great theologians among the ranks of the bishops!

Here is an excerpt of a recent speech written by (though not actually delivered by) Archbishop Rowan, as selected and posted by Sarah Hey on Stand Firm:

"At the most basic level, every local church has a 'mother church' except for Jerusalem, where the Risen Jesus first directly establishes the company of witnesses to his resurrection and pours out upon them the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit. From this point on, the church's mission moves outwards, and, as we see in St Paul's epistles, local congregations are equipped by the apostles with the essentials of belief and practice that allow them in turn to become in their own context communities of witness to the Risen Christ.

And one consequence of this is something to which St Paul more than once makes appeal: the life of the local congregation is founded on something received – not discovered or invented. The assembly of Christ's people, Christ's Body, in this place is the result of the active communication of tradition, in its widest and fullest sense (I Cor. 15). For a local church to come into being is for a community to arise that is part of a continuous stream of life being shared.

This may serve as a corrective to the idea that somehow each and every local church is complete and self-sufficient in a narrow and exclusive way. Understandably, the ecclesiology of recent decades, especially among those influenced by the brilliant work of Orthodox thinkers like Nicholas Afanasiev and John Zizioulas, has positioned itself in strong reaction against centralised models of ecclesial life and authority, against a picture of ecclesial unity that is ultimately somewhat secular – the unified organisation controlled from one focal point.

But the pendulum has swung too far if this means we lose sight of the interdependence of local churches and their bishops. The life of the local churches is constituted not only by internal communion, but by the giving and receiving of the gift of the Gospel between them and by the grateful recognition of each other as gifted by Christ to minister his reality to each other (as St Paul insists in II Corinthians). And the fundamental acknowledgement of having received the Gospel from elsewhere is a reminder to each and every local church of this dimension of its life, this gratitude for having heard and received and for being still involved in the economy of giving and receiving in catholic fellowship.

Hence the relation of local churches to a 'mother church' or a 'primatial church' is not a purely antiquarian matter. From very early in the church's history, certain local churches have been recognised as having had a distinctive generative importance. In the ancient Welsh and Irish churches, the great monastic houses from which missions went out were the mother churches for the 'family' of the saint who had founded the monastery; before the continental diocesan structures had arrived in Britain and Ireland, this was the usual form of church life. But this is only a more vivid example of something just as true across the Christian world. A local church is indeed at one level a community to which is given all the gifts necessary for being Christ's Body in this particular place; but among those gifts is the gift of having received the Gospel from others and being still called to receive it. Relation with the history of mission is part of the church's identity.

This, of course, has many implications for our understanding of the bishop's ministry. If it is true that, as Tertullian said, 'one Christian is no Christian', then by the same token we should be able to say, 'one bishop is no bishop', and so 'one local church alone is no church '. A bishop is not an individual who 'represents' the local church as if he is empowered to speak for its local identity like a politician for his constituency."

Spot some subtle points here about current Anglican difficulties?

The whole speech can be found here.

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