There is a version of the relationship between truth and unity in Christian life which goes like this, 'You cannot have unity and truth. We disagree on so much that unity means sacrificing the truth. Truth matters more than unity so let's either drop the pretense of being unified or forget talk of unity altogether.' Of course there are variations on this. For example, 'You can have unity and truth but only by recognizing that there are diverse understandings of truth. Thus unity comes not by agreeing on truth but but by celebrating the diversity among us.' Or this, 'Unity is the most important truth for Christians. Only fundamentalists/literalists with their fanatical pursuit of narrow-minded understanding of truth stand in the way of unity.'
My last posts of 2009, working on the theology of unity and truth in Ephesians, imply that a true Christian theology of unity and truth will never pit one against the other, never disparage those brothers and sisters who emphasise one over the other, and always inspire every effort to secure unity-in-truth and truth-with-unity. For the fact is that the mission of the church is both to witness to the truth and to live out the truth through our communion together. For the truth is the gospel and the gospel is the reconciliation of God and humanity, and of human beings, one with one another. Disunity is not just a sin of the church, it is a sign that we have given up on understanding the profound depths of the truth of the gospel. (However, we should be kind to each other when we find that we have given up: we are frail humans, and the challenge of human unity is beyond human strength. Only God's grace is sufficient strength for this weakness.)
Can we refind our mission as a church, as diverse and disunited churches expressing the one church of God in the world? Peggy Noonan has a challenging post on the loss of a sense of mission among the institutions of America through the past decade. She includes this observation of the Catholic Church in the USA:
"The Catholic Church, as great and constructive an institution as ever existed in our country, educating the children of immigrants and healing the weak in hospitals, also acted as if it had forgotten the mission. Their mission was to be Christ's church in the world, to stand for the weak. Many fulfilled it, and still do, but the Boston Globe in 2003 revealed the extent to which church leaders allowed the abuse of the weak and needy, and then covered it up.
"It was a decades-long story; it only became famous in the '00s. But it was in its way the most harmful forgetting of a mission of all, for it is the church that has historically given a first home to America's immigrants, and made them Americans. Its reputation, its high standing, mattered to our country. Its loss of reputation damaged it. And it happened in part because priests and bishops forgot they were servants of a great institution, and came to think the great church existed to meet their needs."
I wonder what Peggy would say about the Anglican Communion and its forgotten mission? Perhaps she would say this: 'The Anglican Communion offered the churches of the world a unique vision, to be a union of churches throughout the world, united not only by a common heritage but also by a common vision of a broad understanding of the width of the gospel combined with a patient determination to walk together in the proclamation of the gospel through deed and word in the world.
'It's mission was both sharing that gospel (like all churches) and working (unlike many other churches) for the reunion of the divided churches of the world, offering a living example of being a communion of diverse but not divided churches.
'But it has forgotten that mission. In part because some member churches have determined that other mission strategies should take priority, to the point where the future of the Anglican Communion will not be as a Communion, and certainly not as a living example of the communion of diverse but not divided churches.'
My continuing argument through the last posts of last year and the first posts of this new year is that the Covenant offers the Anglican Communion the possibility of refinding its mission as a Communion, remaining a Communion, and renewing an Ephesian theology of unity-in-truth and truth-with-unity.
But there are powerful and influential detractors abroad. Here is Louie Crew (of TEC):
"For example, those proposing an Anglican Covenant purport to promote unity, but do so at the expense of homosexual persons and their friends. Scripture can seem on their side: Scripture tells us to value unity. But not above all else."
Then Giles Fraser (of the CofE):
"I object to the Covenant’s very existence. I’d object to it even if I agreed with every word.
"Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with the expression of mutual commitment, and for this mutuality to have a formal aspect. The marriage service, for instance, is precisely that. But the Anglican Covenant isn’t at all like the commitments of a marriage service. It is more like the anxious and untrust ing legalism of that thoroughly distasteful feature of modern life, the pre-nuptial agreement.
"And no amount of Lambeth Palace spin is going to persuade me that, like the pre-nuptial agreement, this Covenant isn’t a way of arranging, in advance, the terms of some future divorce. The only people who are going to love this document are the lawyers."
Contra Fraser, the Covenant defines not the terms of our separating from one another but the theologically responsible limitations on the diversity which the Communion can sustain. Contra Crew, the Covenant determines that a Communion wide understanding of homosexuality should be a Communion wide understanding of homosexuality, not an American one. For both detractors the Communion appears expendable in the name of truth. In neither case is the unity of the Communion a requisite for confidence that we know the truth.
I may be wrong. They may be right. The future of the Communion based on a Crew-Fraser approach to truth-and-unity-but-no-Covenant would be interesting. My sense is that we would become completely fragmented. But I may underestimate the capacity of the unCovenanted Communion to continue in fellowship!
But here is something to ponder. The Global South is lining up to sign the Covenant:
"The Global South Anglican Primates Steering Committee met in Singapore on 1st to 2nd Dec 2009 to discuss and confirm planning details on the coming Encounter.
This 4th Encounter will build on the ecclesiological vision of the 'One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ' we shared at the 3rd “Red Sea” Encounter at El-ein-Suknah, Egypt in 2005. The coming 4th Encounter aims to further develop this in our common life and witness in and for the Gospel. We will explore how we may relate to one another in covenantal and communion autonomy with accountability in matters of faith and order; partnerships and networks in existing and new mission fields; and mutual capacity building for increased self-reliance for greater service.
We aim to affirm the Anglican Covenant as the basis in intensifying the ecclesial life between churches in the Communion, and explore ways churches should stand firm side by side in one spirit and with one mind for the faith of the Gospel of Lord Jesus Christ."
It troubles me that most of the support for the Covenant is coming from a rainbow coalition of diverse cultures across Africa and Asia while most of the criticism seems to come from one culture, and one segment within that culture (i.e. the liberal West).
On one scenario of the future after promulgation of the Covenant, there would be an Anglican Something which on closer inspection was composed of Anglican/Episcopalian churches in (say) England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, USA, Brazil, and New Zealand. To not be part of a rainbow Anglican Communion with African and Asian Anglican churches would raise (SHOULD raise) some searching questions for us Westies. What do you think?
In that rainbow Communion, incidentally, noting the careful language of the Global South statement which refuses to pit unity against truth, we will find a renewed vision of truth and unity!