To Live In Communion
My theology continues to tell me that it is in and through our widest councils that we will most fully discern both what we should do, and how we should go about it.This is the summing up of an excellent capsule history of the Anglican Communion, which, it turns out, is not that old, and yet not that new, either:
The word Anglicanism first emerged in the 1830s, and the phrase 'Anglican Communion' was first used in 1851, and by 1860 was recognised as referring to our fellowship of legally independent Churches, worshipping in the tradition of the Anglican Prayer Book, with a ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, and in communion with the See of Canterbury. In this sense, the 'Anglican Communion' was never established, as was the case of, for example, the Lutheran World Federation.What, by the way, does it mean to be an Anglican? Does it mean adherence to a doctrine, a set of teachings about Christianity, submission to an ecclesial authority? No, not really:
Until recently (with the conclusion of various regional agreements) it was the case that it was sufficient to be in communion with the See of Canterbury to be in communion with the whole of the Anglican Communion.Coming out of a congregational polity (where I still hold my ministerial standing and will have my ordination until I die), this is the air of the Reformation I breath most deeply. My profoundest understanding of Christianity is that, through Christ, I am in communion with all persons, with all of Creation. Which, yes, is a little grand and universal, but there we are. I am certainly more comfortable with a polity that understands itself to be bound fundamentally by being in Communion with the See of Canterbury. As much as Archbishop Akinola disagrees with my stance on homosexuality (if he knew it he would!), and I disagree with his, we can still be together in communion with Canterbury. And may that communion draw us both closer to Christ as we are drawn to see each other as children of God.
But of the parts I love in this speech, this is the part I love the most:
When we look back on the history of the Church, it has always been assailed with divisions to be overcome. The unity of Christ's people is one of the prime targets of the devil, who does not want the world to look at us and say 'See how these Christians love one another!' The devil's purposes are far better served when people look at us and see us fighting and quarrelling, and doing so in ways that fail to reflect the spirit of charity, tolerance and gracious magnanimity that has always characterised the best of Anglicanism! So whether it was the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, or the precise understanding of the Eucharist, or the various models of salvation, or slavery, or usury, or contraception, or women's ordination - or even questions over vestments, and whether, and how high, to raise up the bread and wine with the words of consecration - well, God is bigger! And the unity that he grants us is a gift of grace that can overcome all manner of human disagreement.There is a question of institutionalized ambiguity here. But ambiguity is at the heart of Christianity. What, for instance, does it mean to live in communion? The more narrowly you define that, the more tightly you nail down the boundaries of the answer, the more you exclude someone out. And when do you know that someone is not the Christ? When are you certain you have not put Christ beyond the pale? The more certain you are, the more likely you are to be wrong. That institutionalized ambiguity is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the Anglican Communion. The Most Revd Njongonkulu Ndungane attributes the forces of division to the devil; I would attribute them to power, to something my own theology practically raises to the metaphysical level of having its own existence. I recognized the awkwardness of that even as I advance it, and perhaps with another twenty years study of Derrida and Heidegger I will have the vocabulary for that understanding. For now, however, I can only point out what seems to me the obvious: that power is very seductive, that power always seeks its own ends, and that we who think we wield power are never more than its servants. Thus the importance of the power of powerlessness.
Of course, some may leave the Communion as a result of our current problems. But we must not take ourselves too seriously. As Joost de Blank once said 'God works his purposes out, despite the confusion of our minds.'
I began with the opening quote because that is precisely how I read the Bible. Too many people, I find, read that collection of books (it is not one book but many; "Bible" itself is the root of our word "bibliography," or "biblioteque" in French, which we call "library.") rigidly and sternly, when they are in fact bursting with life and humor and contradiction, and yet all held together by the revelation of God, by the communion with the Godhead, just as Christians are (or should be): "united in accordance with the will of the Triune God whom we seek to serve." Ecclesiastes is placed, in no small part, to respond to and rebuke some of the smugger sureties of Proverbs (the latter a favorite text of many, the former largely overlooked except for the first lines of Chapter 3). Deuteronomy is one text, Leviticus quite another, as DAS has pointed out to us. Jonah teaches us, not about the whale, but about human vanity and God's great mercy. There is a fight going on between Peter, Paul, and the author of Hebrews in the New Testament; John ignores Matthew and Mark, but picks up the bits of Luke he likes or that suit his purpose; the Pastoral letters ignore the concerns of the ecclesial ones. It's not all fight and conflict, but it is more communion than commonality and congruence. It is, in other words, a great conversation in which the common topic of discussion is the presence of God. Small wonder if it is also contentious and shot through with discomforting ambiguities.
The questions and concerns the Bishop addresses to the Communion are ones I agree with, and I agree are the most important for all the instrumentalities of the Communion to consider. I cannot improve on what he says, and there are other outlets with people who understand the details of this situation far better than I. In the particulars I am certainly nothing more than a student. Still, I think the Bishop's conclusion absolutely accurate, and absolutely applicable to any number of occassions when Christians, particularly Christians of one denomination, differ with one another:
I suspect that future generations will see this as something of a storm in a teacup, and certainly not as central to the Christian life. For the centre of Christian life is Jesus Christ. As I said at the TEAM conference, God's eternal Word did not come as a philosophical concept, nor as a political programme. Nor was the Word made text. But the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.Or, as has been said much, much earlier: our lives really should be lived so that others say: "Look at how these Christians love everyone!"
It is not where we stand on this or that particular issue which is definitive for our salvation - nor even our understanding of this or that passage of Scripture. What matters is our relationship with Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us on the cross, and who was raised to new life, so that we too might find new life in him.
After all, is communion enjoyed better when we can reflect on who is not invited to the table, and on who is not permitted to do the inviting?