Recently Archbishop Justin Welby fronted up to the public via media by way of an hour of talkback radio in England. Questions came in from the public.He responded. One response in particular has generated enormous follow up discussion, debate, perhaps even scorn. One line into the controversy is via a linked blog, Psephizo and a post entitled, What did Justin Welby say about gays and violence in Africa? The controversy, you see, turning on the extent to which ++Justin made some violence against Christians in Africa consequential on decisions in England about same sex marriage.
+Gene Robinson weighs in on the matter via The Daily Beast. It is a thoughtful piece which expresses thoughts I have read elsewhere, including concerns that the ++Welby approach kinda gives into murderers.
Is the matter, nevertheless, one that raises questions about what it means to be 'Anglican'? I have also been reading (but cannot now recall where) that if we go too far in the direction of (so to speak) local concerns trumping global consequences, do we not undermine understanding of episcopacy, with (as it happens) specific reference to the episcopacy of +Gene Robinson himself?
Anglicanism as a global phenomenon is a tension between the local and the global. The Anglican Communion is a communion of churches and not (it is often noted) itself a church. Thus the churches which make up this Communion are autonomous (they can make decisions via General Synods/Conventions without reference to higher authority) while the Communion when it meets cannot make decisions which the churches must implement. So far so good. And thus far we can certainly note that if autonomy means autonomy then local churches should be able to make local decisions about, say, gay marriage or blessing same sex partnerships, or, uncomfortably for many observers, about supporting draconian anti-gay legislation without acknowledgement of any consequences for other churches in the Communion.
But does autonomy mean autonomy?
I suggest that, in the peculiarity of the Anglican Communion, we do not have a straightforward understanding of autonomy, that, in fact, we have a sneaky version which amounts to 'when it suits, autonomous means autonomous, but when it doesn't suit, it doesn't.'
Bear with me.
When TEC ordained Gene Robinson to be bishop in 2003 it exercised its autonomy to ordain whom it saw fit to ordain. In that particular context in time and Anglican debate, the autonomous American church said, 'Global concerns about this mean zilch.' But when we fast forward to 2008 we found that +Gene Robinson was not invited to the Lambeth Conference that year. A snub on any reckoning. Effectively the Conference via its president, the then ABC, ++Rowan Williams, said 'You are not recognised as a bishop admissible to this global meeting of Anglican bishops.' A conclusion we may draw from that event is that sometimes autonomous Anglican churches acting on local concerns will effectively perform sacramental actions, such as ordination, with local but not global recognition of the action or actions.
If autonomy means autonomy then no snub would be perceived: TEC had the right to ordain +Gene Robinson; ++Rowan Williams had the right to not invite him to be a bishop beyond his diocese of New Hampshire.
But there was a perceived snub. Anglicans around the world were pained by the refusal to invite. Autonomy does not quite mean autonomy when we do not want it to mean that. A bishop, we say, ordained locally is available for ministry globally.
What makes this so? What makes for this less than straightforward state of autonomy? It is the fact that the reality of how we understand the Communion is that it is not actually a communion of autonomous churches but a communion of churches with a degree of autonomy and a degree of interdependency with other churches. That interdependency concerns entering into a series of common interests. Communion meetings of bishops, of primates, and of bishops/clergy/laity foster those common interests and do so in a form of theological speech which is laced with distinctive themes and memes derived from distinctively Anglican speech set down in documents such as the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Lambeth Quadrilateral, to say nothing of the writings of popular Anglican theologians.
Bishops chosen locally should share in the common interests of the global Communion. Meeting together at Lambeth is a way to deepen understanding of those interests and perhaps to develop new commonalities. When the commonalities are not shared there may be problems over meeting together (as there were in 2008, noting not only the snub, but many bishops who chose not to take up their invitation).
Perhaps ++Justin misjudged the 'consequences' of local actions on other parts of the world, and perhaps he misjudged the consequences of his own words, as +Gene Robinson notes. My own judgment is that he made an important note to all of us about connections across a global communion and the note works in various ways re a variety of actions at this time (cf. my comment on the Psephizo post linked above). Nevertheless there has been wide debate following++Justin's brush with radio and clearly a number of commentators are angry with ++Justin.
What ++Justin got absolutely right, however, is his underlying presupposition: the Communion is not a communion of completely and utterly autonomous churches. It is a Communion of semi-autonomous churches which should take care not to claim autonomy only when it suits. Further, this group of churches is a communion, a group with common interests fostered by interdependency which need affirming not disputing. For as long as we dispute common characteristics we run significant risks of destroying the Communion as the disputes highlight autonomy and undo unity. The key to our future is to find out what interdependence means, the balance between autonomy and dependence on one another. We set that back when we rejected the Covenant.
++Justin does not wish to be the ABC who finds himself without a Communion. He is working hard at renewing interdependence. He has his work cut out. His critics are zeroed in on his every word. Should he prove fallible he will be mercilessly criticised.