Wow! Whizzing around Anglicanland via blogs and Tweets this past week, the Primates' Meeting has stirred up the Anglican "Hornets' Nest" Communion.
They sure have stirred up deep feelings about what it means to be an Anglican/Episcopalian.
They have also provoked an outpouring of words, many of which are inaccurate, unhelpful, even hubristic, and imprecise. Quick examples:
- the word "suspend" figures in headlines and content, but this is inaccurate, as Bosco Peters points out;
- as Episcopalian bishops - seemingly every last one of them - make comment, there is a bit (or a lot) of hubris, such as +Marc Handley Andrus of Los Angeles claiming as one bishop that he knows the mind of Christ better than all the primates put together;
- then note Mark Harris rightly pointing out that even the ABC himself claiming that it is about "consequences" not "sanctions" is unhelpfully playing with words, as well as alerting us to the use of the word "punishment" in a GAFCON statement.
- Finally, on "imprecise," here and there I notice frequent criticism of the Primates Meeting along the lines of "38 men, who do they speak for, who are they to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us?" Precision, in this context, would be recognition that we are an episcopal communion of churches, led by bishops chosen through guidance of the Holy Spirit and set apart for leadership over us by the same Spirit, from among whom primates are chosen to be representative leaders of our episcopal churches. When the primates meet together it is imprecise to dismiss any decisions* they make on the grounds of gender or being mere individuals coincidentally present in one room. Precision would be to dismiss their decisions on the grounds that the collected wisdom of 38 Anglican provinces, represented and distilled through especially chosen and empowered leaders was of no account. (*Yes, I understand that from a canonical/legal perspective, they can only give advice to the Communion. Here's the thing: if we don't take their advice, the Communion (as a Communion) will be in even more trouble than it is.)
Let me offer a further few words to the thousands out there, as accurately, precisely, helpfully and non-hubristically as possible. In these words I want to argue that as much as the primates have delayed resolution of the deep division in our Communion concerning homosexuality, they have also (unintentionally) deepened the crisis of the Communion.
The crisis for the Communion concerns what it means to be a "Communion." Let's remember, at all times, that Anglican churches are free to make any decision they see fit, and there is no trademark on "Anglican" or "Episcopalian" so they can continue to use these words to describe themselves. Nor is there any crisis for individual member churches as churches if the Communion dissolves. Each member church can carry along fine, and they can relate to any other churches they see fit.
But there is a crisis for the Communion when member churches having formed an Anglican Communion then dispute what "Communion" means. Sociologically speaking voluntary groups such as the AngComm form. Groups argue, groups divide and groups dissolve. It happens. The peculiarity of the Communion as an arguing, fractious group is first that it keeps refusing to divide into two or more separate communions and second that it cannot decide rules or arbitration process which might (once and for all) settle what is divisive (cf. failure of proposed Covenant to gain unanimous support).
Why does the Communion keep refusing to divide into two or more separate communions?
We can advance reasons concerning historic ties, family resemblances, desire to be some kind of global match to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Perhaps also there is something about status involved too. On any reckoning, the See of Canterbury is respected and revered throughout the Christian world. While any church can call itself "Anglican", not every such church is connected to Canterbury as the member churches of the Communion are. Walking apart from communion with Canterbury is not a step to be taken lightly by those who wish to call themselves Anglican.
But I wonder if something deeper and more (ecclesiastically) earthy is pumping the emotions at the heart of our "bonds of affection." That is our catholicity. The four widely agreed marks of a true church of God are "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Catholicity speaks of universality, of the whole church gathering up all God's people in one extended family. Catholicity is the instinct of the local gathering of God's people to connect with other gatherings, and gatherings of gatherings so that the local belongs to the global (even as, yes, to be theologically correct, the local church always expresses the global or catholic church). Catholicity means the church is always more than what we currently belong - even the world's most globally embedded Christians belong to something they cannot see, the church of all the saints through all ages.
Catholicity for Anglicans pushes us to be parishes in dioceses in provinces in the fellowship of provinces known as the Anglican Communion. And it doesn't stop there: every conversation we have in local church ecumenical networks and in formal global church to global church dialogue (e.g. ARCIC), is the catholic pulse beating in our ecclesial hearts.
When we continue to appeal to Scripture, to say the ancient creeds, to cite the Cappadocian Fathers and so forth, we are also catholic: we recognise and affirm that the church is shaped and founded by shared belief, historically (through saints departed and present) and globally. Our universality is held together by a common mind even as our comprehensiveness incorporates our diversities. Where those diversities are substantive, the catholicity of the one church of God is fractured if not broken (cf. East and West Christianities, and the fractures within each of them).
It is catholicity which held the Primates Meeting together last week and catholicity which inhabits the communique. First catholic sign: it offers a sign of commitment to belong together:
"Over the past week the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ."
Second catholic sign: the sanctions (or, officially, "consequences"):
"However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years TEC no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity."
To belong to the catholic body of the church is a serious matter because commonalities express belonging together through shared beliefs (the apostolic mark of the church) and shared behaviours (the holy mark).
[Catholicity, incidentally, is not the same as general inclusiveness. Even the most inclusive statements of an extraordinarily inclusive church such as TEC do not pretend that (say) Mormon belief is compatible with doctrine in TEC].
That seriousness about being catholic means that differences may be indifferent (adiaphora) or they may represent a break in the commonalities, that is, a diminishment of catholicity. With respect to catholicity within the Anglican Communion and catholicity as the Communion engages in dialogue with other catholic communions, a question mark exists over TEC (see further below) so it is appropriate that neither TEC nor the Anglican Communion pretends that all is well concerning our catholicity as a communion. All is not well because unresolved difference has emerged these past dozen years or so. Thus for TEC at this time to contribute to either representing the Communion or leading the Communion would be to ignore a problem in our midst (or to make a pretence that it doesn't matter).
To give credit where it is due, catholicity is also enabling TEC leadership - as I read various statements being made - in a gracious and considerate way to voice their commitment to the Communion even as they voice considerable angst and pain about the disciplinary steps taken by the Primates.
The question mark over TEC's participation in the Anglican Communion as a catholic communion is given more precision in the Primates' communique that perhaps has been the case previously:
"Their work, consistent with previous statements of the Primates’ meetings,addressed what consequences follow for The Episcopal Church in relation to the Anglican Communion following its recent change of marriage doctrine."
That "recent change", Anglican Curmudgeon reminds us, includes a significant reworking of Scripture, as evidenced in these liturgical words:
"Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of N. and N. in Holy Matrimony. The joining of two people in a life of mutual fidelity signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and so it is worthy of being honored among all people."
Whether or not we agree with Curmudgeon's critical evaluation of these words, the words he emboldens highlights a significant departure from what the catholic church has understood marriage to be about, not only between a man and a woman, but with the man symbolising Christ and the woman the church, and their difference-in-unity expressing the "mystery of the union between Christ and his Church" in ways going beyond "mutual fidelity."
It is right and proper that a communion aspiring to be catholic, to walk together holding common beliefs, questions whether this innovative doctrine of marriage is consonant with the catholicity of the church (that is, with what the whole church believes or, in this case, at least what the Communion believes). Note that the criticism being poured out on the primates, by extension is poured out on all God's people, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox and Pentecostal who share their reservations about embracing this innovation.** The problem for the catholic Anglican Communion - from a liberal/progressive on homosexuality perspective - is not that it is dominated by a bunch of (alleged) homophobic fundy primates but that it has a majority of member churches which think and act as the majority of churches around the world do.
What kind of catholic future for global Anglicanism?
So, there is a kerfuffle, Anglican-style. Some voices post last week's meeting are stridently critical. In the face of the overwhelming cause of justice for the LGBT people, catholic considerations appear to matter little to some Anglicans. In that sense, the crisis (of catholicity) of the Communion has deepened this past week: by acting in a catholic manner, the primates have sharpened the battle for future of the Communion, a future which could be determined more by considerations of justice than by doctrinal coherency. Yet what is sought via the push for justice is likely to unravel the Communion as it is currently constituted. Delayed resolution could result in squaring the circle of justice - doctrine - catholicity. But it could lead - we might even say it will probably lead - to a new set of Communions claiming the "Anglican" (or "Episcopalian") moniker.
In charting the future, which the proposed Task Force will no doubt always have in the back of their minds even as they do and say everything to avoid formal fractionation, many Anglicans will no doubt be encouraged through the next three years by this part of the communique:
"4.The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.
5.In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion."
Here catholicity involves the whole church agreeing on (i.e. united around) doctrine and "unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine" break that unity and thus divide the universal church. (Remember: on the particular statement "traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union", the majority of the Anglican Communion is united with the vast majority of all other churches around the world, so the catholicity broken here is not just that of the Communion but that of the Communion as itself a branch of the whole catholic church of God.)
Now it is not rocket science to work out that in pretty much any debate over which church or Communion is living out its catholic character or not, the majority set of churches claiming to be catholic with supporting evidence re sharing the teaching of the catholic church wins over one or two or even six Anglican churches claiming to be catholic while departing from agreed doctrine!
In other words, beyond the weird, wild, wonderful and sometimes winsome reactions in Anglicanland to the Primates Meeting, there is a simple sign pointing to the future of global Anglicanism: the majority voice will determine the present Anglican Communion's direction. Those voicing the minority view (i.e. that doctrinal innovation should be accommodated irrespective of agreement or disagreement with it) will face a crossroads, either to stay with the majority, or to find another expression of Anglicanism, with a different understanding of what it means to be catholic.
To my way of thinking, the last few days since the end of the Primates Meeting has highlighted how deep the gulf is between competing understandings of what the Communion means, with special reference to what value is placed on its catholic character. I cannot see that gulf being readily bridged, let alone filled in anytime soon - though I will prayerfully hold high hopes for the Task Force the Primates Meeting has asked the ABC to set up.
In fact so highlighted has that gulf been that I suggest the Primates Meeting has, no doubt inadvertently, deepened the crisis in the Communion as much as it has enabled resolution of the crisis to be (yet again) delayed.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
**ADDENDUM: I very much appreciate a point made by Tim Chesterton here in recent days, in comments he has made, that whether or not we agree with Anglicans approving and undertaking same sex marriages, such marriages are now a feature of a growing number of countries and Anglicans need to have some way of pastorally responding well to couples married in this way and wishing to participate in congregational life. The Primates' communique is devoid of assistance and advice on this need.
ANOTHER ADDENDUM: Wesley Hill is well worth a read.
YET ANOTHER ADDENDUM: ACI-Canada has spoken, robustly.