Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Communion, Canterbury, Covenant (1 John 3:4-10)

Resuming a very irregular meditation series on 1 John and the Anglican Communion, our next verse is 1 John 3:4:

"Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."

The main message of 1 John 3:4-10 is straightforward. The one who abides in God, who has seen or known the Son of God, does not keep on sinning; thus the one who keeps on sinning, despite appearances and claims to the contrary, is of the devil and not of God. Right at the end the apostle adds a coda which clarifies that 'sinning' is lovelessness as well lawlessness: "whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother" (v. 10).

The challenge for the Communion is also straightforward: since there is no Communion with God and between believers where there is continuing sin, it is imperative to discern rightly what is sin and what is not, both in terms of 'righteousness' or 'lawfulness', and in terms of loving one another. Perhaps a particular challenge of this passage is to confront the question of discerning sin: some Anglican talk at this time is about 'listening' ... to one another, to Scripture ... hermeneutical projects and the like ... but such talk pulls back - for all sorts of understandable reasons - from 'deciding'.

Here I note, returning to verse 4 above, that the apostle John rigorously defines sin as 'lawlessness'. That interests me because John otherwise in this epistle appears little interested in the Old Testament (though shortly, in 3:11-15, he will recall the story of Cain and Abel). Invoking the 'law' takes readers back to the Old Testament. The coming of Jesus Christ has an appearance of 'newness', but his coming is in complete continuity with the past of God in relation to humanity (cf. 2:7, "I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning.") To go back to the Old Testament, through invoking 'law', also takes us back to covenant - God's commitment to fellowship with God's people - and from there we might consider aspects of current Anglican life.

One aspect is the apostle's insight on the importance of the past for understanding the present situation of the church. If we embark on a similar backward's look, thinking in terms of lawlessness, commandment, and covenant, we recall that the great moment in Anglican history of the English Reformation involved a quest to discern what was sin or not (Henry VIII's troubled mind on the lawfulness of his marriage to his brother's wife). This quest (however ambiguous and laden with sinful desire) brought forth to the light of day the gift of God of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Through Cranmer the Church of England re-formed itself in harmony with Scripture. The covenantal aspect of the re-formation took some years to 'settle', the vicissitudes of testing the spirits (1 John 4:1) of Mary Tudor's Catholicism and others' Puritanism needing to be passed through. Thus the post-Reformation Anglican church is a church embedded in a history, not simply based on an idea. There is therefore a case for any version of Anglicanism wishing to be a continuing Anglicanism to be an Anglicanism in communion with the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In such communion we testify to the peculiarity of our life as one shaped by history and not merely by an idea.

The temptation to break communion with Canterbury is strong at this time, for both the 'left' and the 'right' of current issues. From both sides, for example, a 'post colonial' critique emerges of Canterbury and the Church of England's role in the Communion. Autonomous Anglican churches founded in the colonies of England which bend, even slightly, towards the authority of Canterbury, are vestigiously colonial, and this should cease. But this would be a mistake. The peculiarity of our life as one shaped by history includes all that is unfortunate about colonialism. But the response to that unhappy history does not necessitate rupture with Canterbury or the Church of England. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, as we deal with the injustice of colonial disruption to Maoritanga, including currupt dealing over land and taonga, we deal between Crown and Maori. We do not dissolve the Crown and then, somehow, work between Maori and some new reality of government which has not historical continuity with the Crown.

At the heart of communion with Canterbury lies a thankfulness for what Canterbury has meant to the Anglican church, first in England, and then spreading through the world: in the vision of Cranmer the church was re-formed in a godly manner, with new strengths and without old weaknesses. In terms of 1 John 3:4-10, the lawfulness of the Anglican Communion flows from the great work of Cranmer (and, of course, many others). A clear and present danger of breaking communion with Canterbury is the possibility of lawlessness - in the sense, at least, of becoming a set of ever dividing churches claiming in various degress to be "Anglican".

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