The Archbishop of Canterbury stated in his remarks to the General Synod,
“… at the very least we must recognise that Anglicanism as we have experienced it has never been just a loose grouping of people who care to describe themselves as Anglicans but enjoy unconfined local liberties. Argue for this if you will, but recognise that it represents something other than the tradition we have received and been nourished by in God's providence. And only if we can articulate some coherent core for this tradition in present practice can we continue to engage plausibly in any kind of ecumenical endeavour, local or international.”
That comment was picked up by the Living Church online with the unfortunate title: “Archbishop Williams: Communion of Libertine Churches Unrealistic” The Living Church online has been often extremely helpful in providing timely news and opinion but in this case it has done a disservice to the Archbishop, or if it is an accurate read of the Archbishop’s position, he himself has done a disservice.
The phrase in the Archbishop’s comments that is at the core of this question is, “Anglicanism as we have experienced it has never been just a loose grouping of people who care to describe themselves as Anglicans but enjoy unconfined local liberties.” I believe I understand what he is getting at, and I think I agree. We are not “free-thinkers” in the sense that Denis Diderot, Anthony Collins, or even the citizens of Comfort, Texas are “free-thinkers.”
We Anglicans are constrained by belief and community in a variety of ways: By the centrality of the Holy Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments, and the governance by holy overseers, the episcopate. The character of such constraints is of course precisely what occupies us in the current struggles in the Anglican Communion, although I believe the actual basis of the current struggles lie elsewhere, in a more profound and dark corner of the religious psyche.
The problem with the Archbishop’s remark is that it supposes an either / or sort of situation: either there is “just a loose grouping of people who care to describe themselves as Anglicans but enjoy unconfined local liberties,” or there are the real Anglicans, who do not “enjoy unconfined local liberties.” If the either / or were indeed the choice, an all or nothing choice, the gang “describing themselves as Anglicans” would perhaps rightly be called, as the Living Church article announce, “libertine.”
But this is not the situation in the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church, acting in General Convention, our notion of a synod, does not “enjoy unconfined local liberties.” To think that that was what General Convention had in mind in its difficult and bloodied debates on the issues presented in the Windsor Report requests would be an insult to the faithfulness of that gathering. To think it of the Episcopal Church as a whole is simply false.
Unpacking “unconfined local liberties” takes a bit of doing. “Unconfined liberties” is pretty understandable. It means doing what you want without any sense of limits. “Local” presents a problem. Does the Archbishop mean by “local” the sorts of liberties exercised by autonomous churches in the Communion? Or by “local” does he mean the liberties exercised on a diocesan or even parochial level? “Unconfined local liberties” has something to do with the sense that liberty exercised by individuals or “local” communities drifts into license or libertine behavior unless somehow confined by a wider law, a higher law, or perhaps a higher authority. In the church I suppose it is another argument for confinement in actions beyond what a province can muster as a rule of law. But I do not think the argument is advanced by the suggestion that what we have done in The Episcopal Church constitutes “unconfined local liberties.”
In any event, the Archbishop, made it clear that “historic links to Canterbury have no canonical force, and we do not have (and I hope we don't develop) an international executive. We depend upon consent. My argument was and is that such consent may now need a more tangible form than it has hitherto had; hence the Covenant idea in Windsor.” I think he is right. And some sort of compact among the provinces, a compact related to common mission and common understandings of mission in location, is both realistic to hope for and worthy of our efforts.
The Archbishop touches on several things, some well, some badly. It is true that, “Some mischievous forces are quite capable of using the debates over sexuality as an alibi for divisive action whose roots are in other conflicts.” It is true that, “churches in disadvantaged or conflict-ridden settings cannot afford such distractions.” But the response requires that those be mischievous be held to account, and the distractions be removed.
If being part of the Anglican Communion is defined by membership in the Anglican Consultative Council or by invitation to the Lambeth Conference, such definitive declarations can be made and have already been made. Much of what we need to be cohesive in this sense is already in place. The problem is that the so called “instruments of Communion” are not equipped to deal with the question of whether or not this or that Province has correctly understood the Scriptures which we all swear contains all things necessary to salvation. In order for that to be dealt with, some instrument of unity which commands allegiance beyond the bonds of affection may indeed be needed. The problems with that are huge. How is that instrument to be produced, signed, mandated and obeyed? I am not sure that an adequate covenant can be pieced together in the present state of Christendom.
The primary problem with the Archbishop’s further responses on the reason for developing a covenant is that they present mostly fair and reasoned responses to a real set of problems having to do with coherence within the Anglican Communion. But the problem on the ground is that that coherence does not at present exist. We are beyond covenant.
Now we must be up for an even more difficult task: we must learn to accept the fact that the Episcopal Church will be rejected by, say, the Church of Nigeria and our kinship denied before the authorities. We may find that the Church of England is declared no longer kin by some Provinces. The question is how do we work beyond kinship?
I believe we must seek a compact beyond communion, in which it is the Resurrected Christ that calls us to common action beyond our divisions. The only way back to communion is through a sharing in the sufferings of the world, clearly distinguished from the sufferings of the church of the church's own making.