Looking backwards to a golden past is a theme of some Anglican pundits reflecting on the future of the Communion. It all got lost in Elizabethan compromises, some think. Others acknowledge fair development of theology and liturgy through succeeding centuries, but mark the rot setting in with failure to stop the rise of the modernism which made Newman so anxious he went home to mother Rome. In fact there is no golden past for the church to turn to for future guidance. Squabbles and quibbles were there from the beginning and while Paul is justly famous as the great missionary genius of the apostolic church, he spent a lot of his writing sorting out disputes. The glory days are yet to come. In working out what it means to be Anglican, whether that includes valuing an Anglican Communion, and what shape that Communion might have, we do well to look ahead. What we will become can shape what we seek to be now.
That, for me, is a starting point for thinking about what ecclesiology might shape an Anglican Communion in the twenty-first century. What might drive us forwards is a vision of the future rather than a picture of the past. That future, vividly captured in the Book of Revelation, is eternal communion with God: Father Son and Holy Spirit. An ecclesiology of this kind is a ‘communio ecclesiology’. It looks well suited to be the ecclesiology of the Anglican Communion. But at this time it is not obvious that this is and will be the ecclesiology of the Communion in the 21st century.
At the heart of communio ecclesiology, driven as it is by a vision of future communion with the Trinity is a profound challenge: will we conform our life together in Christ according to our future as one, holy, catholic, apostolic church in eternal communion with the Trinity, or conform our ecclesial life according to some other agenda such as present needs of the moment, or national, or ethnic, or cultural concerns? The furore in the Communion burning away since 2003 has exposed a desperate need for the Communion to come to a decision about what it is. Michael Poon, in his recent Global South Encounter 4 preparation paper, expresses the question well,
‘To be sure, all Anglican Churches are willing to belong to the Anglican Communion. That is not the issue if “communion” is merely a matter of social fellowship between autonomous churches. National councils of churches and even Protestant Christian World Communions are such instances of communion. “Instruments of consultation” would do for these forms of fellowship. They are sufficient for fostering spiritual and social bonds of affection. What WCG has in mind is whether the Anglican Communion is at the verge of a historic decision. Are the Anglican Churches that are “in communion” with one another able to affirm they are indeed a Communion of Churches with one ecclesial identity?’ (Poon: paragraph 6)
Just because we are named as a ‘Communion’ means nothing: there is no intrinsic or compulsory commitment to being shaped by a communio ecclesiology. We could be a Communion in name only, a ‘social fellowship of autonomous churches’ in reality. Here I suggest that such a reality is not in accord with Scripture because the vision in Scripture for the church is for one body of Christ, united heart, soul, mind, and spirit in Christ, participating in one communion through one baptism into one Lord, in accordance with God’s plan for all things (Ephesians 1:9-10) and Christ’s prayer for his followers, ‘that they may be one’ (John 17). In that vision for the church the predominant spirit is not of autonomy but of interdependence and mutual accountability.
The current draft (i.e. final draft) of the Anglican Covenant is embued with this vision: ‘The Covenant operates to express the common commitments and mutual accountability which hold each Church in the relationship of communion one with another. Recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion. Participation in the Covenant implies a recognition by each Church of those elements which must be maintained in its own life and for which it is accountable to the Churches with which it is in Communion in order to sustain the relationship expressed in this Covenant (4.2.1)’.
This understanding of the church, of how a communio ecclesiology might shape and direct the life of the Anglican Communion is concordant with communio ecclesiology seen through other (non-Anglican) eyes. Thus Poon cites,
“Conciliarity is not something which the Church has – it is what the Church is – an orderly communion of persons freely united in the Holy Trinity in truth and in love” (Thomas Hopko, "On Ecclesial Conciliarity," in The Legacy of St. Vladimir: Byzantium, Russia, America, ed. John Breck, John Meyendorff, and E. Silk (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1990), 224.)
But powerful forces are at work in the Communion arguing against the Covenant, not least because a vision for mutual accountability and interdependence could become a reality in which a member church has to account for its actions to the Communion. Characterizing such reality as “punitive” is unhelpful because it turns our eyes from a vision of becoming what we are meant to be.
There is an alternative at this point of decision. A social fellowship of autonomous churches is a distinct possible future for the Communion. In which case, we would likely be working with a silo ecclesiology: we are here, you are there; we live in this way, you live in that way; that is fine, so long as you do not expect us to leave our place for yours (though, of course, you are welcome at our place providing you share our common life within that place). Silo ecclesiology, incidentally, is often at work in the Anglican parish system, and is characterised in biblical imagery as me 'working in my corner of the Lord's vineyard'. A grave danger with ‘silo ecclesiology’ is that it leads to ‘salvo ecclesiology’: a rocket is fired from one silo to another!
But is this the way of God who is communion in Trinity, who creates out of Christ’s redeeming work ‘an orderly communion of persons freely united in the Holy Trinity in truth and in love’? Is not that way pressing the Communion to ask of itself, Are we evolving towards a worldwide church that is interdependent and mutually accountable? This worldwide church, within communio ecclesiology, would itself be a provisional step on the way to a true communion of all Christians, a becoming what we are intended to be on the other side of the gate of glory. Will we take that way?
Paul writing in 2 Corinthians 4:13-15 beautifully expresses communio ecclesiology:
"Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, "I believed and so I spoke," we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God."
Acknowledgment: this reflection flows out of a wonderful recent discussion with some local Christchurch theologians, that discussion itself being informed by their reading of communio ecclesiologists such as McPartlan, Zizioulas, Kasper, Ratzinger, Braaten, and Jenson.