Summary Argument from the IATDC's 'Communion Study' - October 2006
Anglicans value being part of a world Communion, but successive controversies have made it increasingly unclear what it is that they have in common. The contention of this document is that Anglican ‘communion’ will be maintained and nurtured, not just by preserving existing ecclesiastical structures but through a renewal of the theological tradition which brought the Communion into being.
To speak in this way of ‘renewal’ does not mean just a reinforcement of that tradition. As will be seen as the argument progresses, Anglicanism has developed by way of faithful responses to the gospel by churches facing concrete challenges in particular circumstances. At critical moments in their history they have been inspired to draw resources from their theological and spiritual inheritance which enabled them to address seemingly new situations in new ways. Such moments of renewal were eventually judged to be consistent with the tradition from which it was drawn, and generally won recognition and support from others who shared its patrimony. It is that sort of response which is required by the Anglican Communion at the present point of its history, as it faces circumstances threatening to disrupt its life and call into question the tradition itself.
A theological crisis
Previous Doctrine Commissions have begun this task. The Virginia Report (1998) especially developed the notion of koinonia as an analogy of the Trinity. For various reasons the argument which TVR presented has not yet been absorbed into the way members of the Anglican Communion think about their relationships with each other. Further consideration needs to be given to two key points of the case which was made: the adequacy of the theological analogy itself, and its connection to the treatment of Anglican institutional order which it presented.
Regrettably, it has been the second of these, the institutional section of the report, detailing processes by which ‘instruments of communion’ could address disagreements and articulate consensus, which has been given most attention so far. Since then, the seeming inability of those instruments’ to deal with disputes over homosexuality (among other things), means that confidence in such institutional arrangements needs further underpinning. Theology, not just organisational considerations, must guide responses to this changing situation.
The argument which is being developed by the present Commission now supplements the Trinitarian model of communion with increased attention to how actual experience of ‘communion’ is grounded in the promise of covenant-love reiterated throughout the Hebrew/Christian scriptures. Ecclesiologically, this offers a description of the church more ready to cope with the realities of struggle and growth, conflict and change, in the life of the people of God. It was pointed out by the authors of To Mend the Net – among others – that too close an identification of the doctrine of the church with that of God in Trinity idealises institutional decisions made by particular ecclesial bodies. It runs the danger of confusing a theological is with an empirical ought. There is always a tendency for history to get lost in ideology, especially at times when the interpretation of a historical tradition is disputed.
As was asserted in the above introduction, Anglican ecclesiology has always been delineated in response to specific contingencies of history. It describes the self-understanding of a theologically identifiable group of particular, regional churches which embody reformed, catholic faith, and trace their original existence and inspiration to the mission or ministry of the Church of England, or churches closely associated with it. The Anglican Communion developed as a fellowship of churches which recognised themselves in that description.
The diversity of cultures in which these churches are now found, and their remoteness from the historical circumstances in which their fellowship was originally grounded, means that the tradition which drew them together in the first place is under severe strain. At some points it shows signs of breaking up. This situation is not only a result of particular ethical or doctrinal disputes; it also reflects major realignments which have taken place within world Christianity during the last decades of the twentieth century. The IATDC is undertaking a serious reflection on central elements of the Anglican tradition and the polarisation of opinion over key features within it. It has been drawn into consideration of the way in which the terminology of ‘covenanting’ is being utilised in current Anglican debate. It is especially aware of changes which are taking place as a result of the shifting ‘centre of gravity’ in the Christian movement towards the global south. It has also been conscious of the way in which, in a fragmented world, it is not only the church which longs for a deeper sense of koinonia. The scope of God’s covenant love embraces the whole of his creation.
The renewal of Anglican tradition
At its inception the Commission determined to undertake the Communion Study, with which it was mandated, through active conversation with the churches of the Anglican Communion. Its progress has been marked by the circulation of Four Key Questions to every diocese and theological centre in the Communion, and an ensuing debate on Six Propositions which developed from them. This process revealed deep divisions in approaches to many of the features which have traditionally held Anglicans together. A third round of questions sought clarification of that situation, and a consideration of some of the proposals made in the Windsor Report (2004) for resolving conflict and maintaining unity in times of dispute.
The major areas of discussion in the Study concerned:
In the third round of discussion, the question of how the Bible could be read ‘together’ by the whole church was highlighted. Major differences emerged between those who thought that in principle the ‘perspicuity of Scripture’ meant that a common mind could be reached about the meaning and implications of a passage, and others who felt that cultural differences between readers – as well as between readers and the text – meant that any such unanimity would be impossible to achieve. Current hermeneutical studies suggest that such pessimism is unwarranted and that the ideal of a church whose thoughts and actions are moulded by a habitual response to the message of the Bible is worth pursuing. However any expectation that interpretations of the scripture will ever be unanimous or uncontested is discounted by the experience of history if not the very character of the Bible itself. Knowledge of God’s purposes in scripture will always be partial in the church, yet sufficient for the patient pursuit of truth and holiness if there is a corporate willingness to respond to what is understood in particular circumstances. For this reason methods of cross-cultural and trans-generational reading of the Bible are worth promoting.
This tradition continues today with important Anglican contributions to thinking about international debt, justice and peace issues, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. There is no reason why similar attention should not be given to issues of human sexuality, including homosexuality (issues which are intellectual, social and political as much as personal in origin) under the present circumstances in which the Communion finds itself. This will involve more than theoretical considerations. A holistic Anglican tradition will seek to combine the best elements of traditional moral philosophy with the practice of theological ethics, involving spiritual issues of vocation and discernment. This will need first, an appreciation of the interdependence of ‘command ethics’ and ‘human flourishing’ (the debate between so-called deontologists and consequentialists). Secondly, attention must be extended to the way in which innovations in Christian belief and practice can be understood, evaluated and judged within an Anglican fellowship. What is not possible is that the discussion of belief and practice, doctrine and ethics, should be carried on independently of each other.
In the present debate on human sexuality many participants are looking for a list of fundamental doctrines which guarantee Anglican identity, or a catalogue of acceptable practices, ‘lines in the sand’, which define the limits of Anglican fellowship.
Despite its reluctance, a priori, to exclude any opinion or practice, Anglicanism is not in principle unable or unwilling to make costly decisions. Indeed decisive points in the establishment of Anglican ‘communion’ presume that the discernment of God’s will and purposes is a constant and ongoing process. Thus the historic standards of Anglicanism (39 Articles, BCP and Ordinal) can be seen as a covenantal expression of the way in which English Christians established their own identity among the controversies of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Lambeth Quadrilateral does not (as it is sometimes erroneously supposed) define the boundaries of Anglican fellowship, but it did commit Anglicanism in the 19th century to a series of normative practices whereby the wider unity of the church might be furthered: scripture is read, tradition received, sacramental worship is offered, and the historic character of apostolic leadership is retained. From this interplay the Anglican community is nurtured and sustained. It can be argued that the proposal for an Anglican covenant extends that process as a way of enriching the sense of an Anglican identity and vocation amid the tensions and disputes that arise from being part of a global community. A covenant, which rehearses the theological tradition from which Anglicanism has developed, and establishes clear commitments for the way it can maintain its cohesiveness, seems the most likely way to secure its communion for the foreseeable future. The one thing that Anglicans cannot permit at this time is for disputants to refuse to allow their opinion to be submitted to theological scrutiny. Those involved in disputes must not only listen to each other, but also attend to the wisdom of the wider Christian community.
For various reasons, some participants in the present debates seem intent on reducing the Communion into something more like a confederation – becoming ‘cousins, not brothers and sisters’ in Christ. Others have suggested that a constructive way forward may be to allow a sort of associate status within the communion for those who are unable or unwilling to adopt the theological and doctrinal stance implied by the Covenant. Politically, this appears to amount to a refusal to accept the possibility of external criticism; theologically, it dilutes Anglican fellowship from something grounded in covenant love, to a matter of administrative convenience.
Changing patterns of koinonia
The Windsor Report has pointed towards institutional or canonical ways to hold the Communion together at this time. If that is possible, the future stability of such agreements will depend even more on a deepened sense of commonality, and this can only come from a theological renewal of the Anglican tradition, associated with the elements outlined above. More so, the proposals it contains envisage not just the possibility of maintaining communion across divisions of opinion, but enriching it by resolving such divisions through a continuing process of drawing on and drawing out the implications of a vision of faithful response to the gospel to which the Anglican tradition aspires.
Part of the difficulty in sustaining that vision is derived from hierarchical views of power and authority, so prominent in social, managerial and political life, which are pressed on the decision-making bodies – both by an uncomprehending media, and by knowing manipulators of arguments within the church itself. An emphasis on covenant, Christology and the work of the Spirit seeks a different frame of reference. Attention is drawn to the classic discussions of the Anglican Communion at the 1920 and 1930 Lambeth Conferences. In the second of these, two prevailing types of ecclesiastical organisation were described: ‘that of centralised government, and that of regional autonomy within one fellowship’. It is the latter form which Anglicans share with Orthodox Churches and others. Self-governing churches of the Communion grew up ‘freely, in their own soil’. Even then the term ‘Anglican’ did not hold racial or geographical connections but was grounded in ‘the doctrines and ideals for which the Church of England has always stood’. The radical implications of this self-understanding need to be re-appropriated as an affirmation of Catholicity (and the claim to catholicity by a sub-tradition of Christianity) in the post-modern dilemma in which Anglicanism now finds itself.
It is for historical reasons (the formative experiences of the Church of England), rather than institutional order that ‘communion with the See of Canterbury’ is significant for Anglican provinces today. Attention to this history, with its associated doctrines and ideals, along with a re-consideration of the comparison drawn from Orthodox ideas of autocephalicity and communion, informs the IATDC’s thinking at this stage of its study. Orthodoxy offers a way of deepening understanding of what Anglicans have learned to call, somewhat unsatisfactorily, ‘impaired communion’. Theological tradition, ‘Orthodoxy’, not any form of institutional unity is what gives the Eastern churches their identity. Orthodox churches can be notably contentious. Severed relationships and even an excommunication of the Oecumenical Patriarch – Orthodoxy’s first among equals – have all been known in recent years. Yet the impulse towards unity within the tradition also holds out the possibility of the restoration of communion after a period in which it has been breached. It is the existence or non-existence of communion which is crucial for Anglicans. More is involved than establishing minimal conditions for a fraternal relationship.
‘The highest possible degree of communion’?
The rhetoric of schism must be avoided during the present time of uncertainty. Yet the possibility of serious disruption to the Anglican Communion has to be contemplated. The question must be asked whether existing ‘instruments of unity’ are capable of theological (not just managerial) development in such a way that they can utilise the possibilities opened up by the Windsor process to address questions about legitimate diversity. If there is not the time or willto achieve this, it appears that Anglicans will become increasingly marginalised and fragmented as a movement within world-Christianity.
Even if the worst fears of Anglicans who value their fellowship and solidarity are realised, the Anglican tradition will not disappear. Communion functions at a number of different levels. The IATDC has identified theology, canon law, history and culture, communication, and voluntary commitment rather than coercion, as essential aspects of communion. Yet real communion can exist in many of the elements separately. The Commission is persuaded that ‘thick’ ecclesiology, concrete experience of the reconciling and healing work of God in Christ, should take priority over ‘thin’, abstract and idealised descriptions of the church. Communion ‘from below’, is real communion – arguably the most vital aspect of koinonia with God and neighbour., and it is from ‘below’ that the Commission has worked in its conversations with the churches, and in the theological construction it is developing now.
What is needed next is a clearer understanding of how these different aspects of communion exist at different levels or horizons of the church’s experience. The obligation to seek ‘the highest degree of communion possible’ within the Church is a laudable ambition, a vocation even. Yet without specifying what sort of communion is anticipated for congregational, local, regional or global fellowship, the terminology can be used merely to justify higher level organisational arrangements without ever analysing how they contribute to communion itself. It may well be that communion at a local or congregational level (‘where two or three are gathered together…’) may theologically represent a ‘higher’ communion than an ideal expressed in merely institutional, canonical or juridical terms. At the same time it must be insisted that the experience and commitments of local communities will be enlarged and maintained by participation in wider expressions of fellowship (which the parallel work of this Commission on ‘The Significance of the Episcopal Office for the Communion of the Church’ advances) just as the life of dioceses, Provinces and the Anglican Communion itself pursues its fullness as a part of the koinonia of the People of God.
If Anglican fellowship at the level of shared doctrines and ideals or common participation in mission is unable to sustain the support of coherent, structural communion ‘from above’, then it will be a weaker and more fragile thing as a global fellowship than might otherwise have been the case. In the light of the gospel weak and fragile things are not to be despised. But the Anglican theological tradition cannot be content with any claim to communion which separates the gospel of Christ from the reality of his Church.