10/31/2013

A break in the Anglican Communion? Does anyone care?

Over on Episcopal Cafe, the Lead section had this to offer the other day:

Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian that schism in the Anglican Communion no longer matters. He responds to the news that "...the evangelical wing of the Church of England announced – yet again – its plans to rebel against any open accommodation with gay people":
Once upon a time, this would have been a story. We heard threats to withhold money from the central bodies of the Church of England, threats to ignore the authority of other bishops, threats of defections to their grouping from the mainstream of opinion here. All these things will no doubt happen, as they have been happening in a small way for the past 20 years. What's new is that no one any longer cares. The split has happened, and it turns out not to matter at all.
Is he right?
Is there a "break" in the offing, and does anyone care?

Is there a break? 

There is a break, a schism, but only if one looks at what is happening in in the Anglican Communion as if the Anglican Communion were a church and the Church of England somehow its main branch office. If that's the way you see the Communion, then there is a break. 

But The Anglican Communion is not a church, it is a collection of national and regional churches that gather for consultation and mutual concern for the world on a fairly regular schedule. Every ten  years a Lambeth Conference is held, every three years the Anglican Consultative Council meets, the Primates meet irregularly but about once every 18 months, and various committees meet as needed. None of these meetings has jurisdictional power over the churches in the Communion.  None of these gatherings rise to the level of church council. 

Does anyone care?  Sure. If you believe the Anglican Communion is a church, then what we have is the same rot that pervades all of organized Chrisitianity, namely the rot of irreconcilable differences.  Breakdown becomes a parallel to divorce, not to be undertaken lightly. 

But even with the realty of being a Communion of churches, rather than a unified global church with branch offices in various countries, there are reasons to avoid breakdowns in communion. Even if we don't think schism is the issue, we are concerned that consultation breaks down and mutual concern suffers. 

For many of us the Anglican Communion is an outward and visible sign that the particular churches we belong to (in my case The Episcopal Church) is (small c) catholic, a church connected to a way of practicing Christian faith that is global in reach. Many of us see in the common practices of Anglicanism a sort of model for a world wide religious order, with communities in various regions and countries.

In 1998 I wrote a Vocational Manifesto for the Anglican Communion in a Post-Modern Age. It was published in my book, "The Challenge of Change: The Anglican Communion in the Post-Modern Era." (Church Publishing).

Here it is in full:

1. The Gospel, not the Church, as First Priority
 The Anglican Communion and individual Anglican churches find a common cause in the gospel of Jesus Christ and live that out in shared practice.  Our vocation is to place the gospel first, proclaiming it as well as  possible and as we have lived and understood it in incarnational context, honoring the common life as we are able.

2. Provisionality
The Anglican Communion is a provisional conciliar body, and Anglicans are a provisional people. We retain this stance in our vocation, knowing, too, that even this stance has its own provisionality.

3. Fellowship
The Anglican Communion is a koinonia, and Anglicans exist only in koinonia -fellowship - rather than as a separate church. Our vocation is to insist that we are not the church, but only a fellowship within it, and to act on that belief.

4.Restoration to Unity
The Anglican Communion lives conscious of the call to unity that lies beyond itself and all other communities of faith, and Anglicans pray for and identify with the catholic church. The vocation of the Anglican Communion is continually to live for that time when our separations dissolve in that obedience to Christ which is perfect freedom.

5. Mutuality
The Anglican Communion is a community rather than an organization, and Anglican churches are primarily identified as communities of prayer and mutual support in ministry.  The Anglican Communion therefore has a vocation to community life - to mutuality, to shared authority, to different levels of engagement among its members - rather than to a set organizational structure.

6. Common Prayer
The Anglican Communion has been informed and formed by the Book of Common Prayer, and Anglicans are identified with an ordered life of prayer and sacrament. The communion's vocation is to carry its liturgical and spiritual sense of common prayer into an ecumenical future, as one contribution to the building up of communities of he Way in an increasingly fragmented world.
 
If the Anglican Communion is about Gospel not church, provisional not final, fellowship not organization, concerned for unity not primacy, mutuality not hierarchy, common prayer not uniform prayer, then it is worth supporting in a world increasingly dubious of all claims to universality, domination and righteousness.  But to do so requires an ability to sit lightly on even this way of being. For this way of being Christian will die off if it succeeds.

At then end of The Challenge of Change I wrote, 

" There will be no enduring Anglican Communion, not if we can help it.  But that is not the point.  Being Anglican is simply the way some Christians have tried to work out the implications of baptism in specific times and locations. What we have will be of value to those who come after, and they will count us as among their ancestors...
The vocation of the Anglican Communion is to be a force for greater koinonia, for overcoming the fragmentation of life in a vision of the whole people of God, in a time when fragmentation is what seems to be the rule of the day."  (p. 180)

So, my sense is, for Anglicans in our various churches, the possibilities of a "split" in the Church of England, like the "split" in The Episcopal Church, or in any church in the Communion, ought to be nothing to celebrate. But at the same time it is not the end of either the Anglican Communion or the particular church in which the split occurs.

The reality is that the Church of England has suffered such break-offs before.  It will survive, although how long as the established church, who knows.

The Anglican Communion is not a church and who it is who voluntarily meets at Lambeth, in the ACC and with the Primates is entirely dependent on the level of graciousness and forbearance exhibited by those invited to attend.

The threat of schism in England is not a real threat to the existence of the Anglican Communion. But imaginary threats have weight to the extent that they are taken seriously by people who perhaps could do with a time out for breathing.

2 comments:

it's margaret said...

LOVE this! Thank you. (But, of course, I was always kind of keen to anything resembling manifestos!)

Lisa Fox said...

Well said, Mark.

And there's also this: Some churches within the Anglican Communion have decried and excoriated others, and yet we continue to share fellowship and common mission. For example, for all Archbishop Deng Bul's excoriation of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., we have many companion relationships between U.S. and Sudanese dioceses.

There are "breaks in communion," and then there are "political posturings."