Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Should we be preparing for a new Communion future?

Reading Archbishop Rowan's Presidential Address to the ACC at Jamaica (Lament would be a better descriptive title) I must ask whether we should now be preparing for a new Communion future, one which accommodates our commonality (there is still a bit), our differences (several and deep), and our intransigence (it will be a long time before this new future morphs into a better one).

The odd thing about raising this question is that ACC has proved that we do not have the institutional means to make any decision about real change in our life together. To prepare for a new Communion future will be about groups within the Communion showing initiative (a la GAFCON) and meeting together; it could also be about individual bishops and provinces withdrawing from some of the institutional bodies.

What might this new Communion future look like? Conceivably it could be a little like Eastern Orthodoxy with its patriarchies: Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Antiochene Orthodox, and theologically different from the first three, Coptic Orthodox. Thus we might have North American Episcopalian, North American Anglican, Global South (with Global South and North American Anglican, with others, meeting together for mutual benefit as GAFCON), an established Church of England and an Independent Anglican Church in England, etc. I do not want to hazard a guess where ACANZP might go - though we might well stay together as we are so small anyway!

We should be warned, of course, if not aware already, that the patriarchies of Orthodoxy are often riven with bitter infighting. Just as the patriarchies can and do meet together (I understand) for conferences about this and that on which agreement is likely, so one can imagine (as ++Rowan also does) that whatever the future, there is still a place for 'the Anglican Communion'.

But there is another question in the midst of all this, posed to me today by a correspondent. (In my own words) it is this: is there an Anglican future worth staying the course for, which today, at least, Archbishop Rowan is pessimistic about, especially in a day when denominations seem less and less important, and, if so, what form will it take?

This is my answer (briefly). One should be careful to understand that there is no 'pure Christian church, solely governed by Scripture'. Save for short terms of revival and refreshment of church life, all churches experience the challenges of difference over the interpretation of Scripture, training of new ministers, and the organization of church life in order to constrain the power of dominant individuals (if not the power of abusive individuals).

The Anglican church is an expression of church in which some elements of interpretation of Scripture have been resolved (e.g. there are bishops, infants may be baptized), some elements remain open to exploration (e.g. we include both protestant and catholic theologies in our midst), and other elements are controversial (e.g. over human sexuality and marriage). It has an established method, centred on its bishops, for calling, discerning, training, ordaining and appointing ministers, and it has a carefully worked out method through its canons and synods for organizing its life in such a manner as to minimize the damage and destruction of dominant individuals.

In short, the philosophy of all this, i.e Anglicanism, is worth believing and worth preserving unless one believes differently or one doesn't mind living only for the moment - and it may be an exciting moment - in which some pure Christian church, solely governed by Scripture captures one's heart and mind.

But that leaves open the future shape of the church in which the beauty and truth of Anglicanism is to be found: will it be in the church as we currently experience it, or somewhere else if the current church disintegrates? That question is very difficult to answer. In part it depends on what is happening in each parish and each diocese, as well as in each province and in each significant grouping within the Anglican Communion. Writing this from the centre of the Diocese of Nelson, especially with a reasonably recently ordained bishop and a new theological college, the future shape of the church looks good because, whatever happens in the wider world, I think we can keep going. But writing from the edge of (say) the Auckland Diocese (electing a new bishop in November), or in rural Southland (with no stipended clergyperson for miles around), or in the confused state of affairs in Pittsburgh or San Joaquin (different claims and counter claims being made about which is the true 'diocese') would feel very, very different! Nevertheless I would depart for nowhere in a hurry, wherever I was. Impatience is not a virtue. I would encourage myself and others to keep praying and to keep looking on the bright side. Most of the time most of our parish life keeps trundling along, no matter what silly or stupid stuff is happening over the horizon. The faithful ones who keep company with me in worship and fellowship, they are the ones who matter.

Yet if someone is motivated to work in a wider sphere for a new future shape for the Anglican church, I would encourage them to make this decision: work for the widest form of the church you can live with, and then a little bit wider. Do not give into the temptation to gather only with the ones you agree wholeheartedly with. It is not in keeping with Anglicanism to seek the narrowest and tightest of confessional bases for the Anglican church as we would have it. It is Anglicanism when we recognize that the person we disagree with may have something to teach us for it is our character to be humble in our estimation of our grasp of the truth. Yet this does not mean there are no limits to what Anglicans may believe ... but defining those limits is another story and I must stop here for now.

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