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“Communion,” Once More with Feeling
by Christopher Wells
6/9/2006

It will not surprise Lionel Deimel that, granting any number of conservative sins in the recent agony of our common life, I am not persuaded by his constructive vision for the way ahead—albeit his essay offers nothing like a full-blown ecclesiology, and perhaps we would agree about much concerning the Church’s proper worship and life. For Deimel believes that “Anglican diversity” must at least exclude would-be purgings of “falsehood” or “error” from the church (an odd suggestion that would render all ecclesial discipline otiose), and that current conservative promotion of the Anglican Communion “was a brilliant move designed to bring reactionary pressures to bear on the Episcopal Church from the outside” (pp. 4-5). Again, there is doubtless some truth in the latter bit of socio-political speculation; but since the Church is always already more than a joining of parties in battle, one longs for a statement of the point that would “place” our church theologically—a matter of scriptural and sacramental, historical and devotional exegesis, that very generally forbids hasty conclusions sans argument; for instance, that the Anglican Communion is simply “outside” of our provincial borders. For who, after all, are “we” trying to be? The question is relentlessly complicated, as I tried to show in my essay; and quick checklists of favorite, ostensibly Episcopalian or Anglican attributes—Deimel adduces at one point: (i) autonomy, (ii) ceremonial head without formal authority, (iii) no curia (p. 5)—superficially neglect the most difficult and interesting, legal and theological question posed by Windsor: Is the Episcopal Church committed to “interdependence as a member of the Anglican Communion to which its own Constitution and Canons make reference” (para. 129)? 

I remain convinced, therefore, that our hope must remain that of a renewed and ever-deepening embrace of visible “communion,” the promise of which was increasingly articulated and lived into by Anglicans in the last century, to great evangelistic, social-political, and ecumenical effect—not least via Lambeth Conference resolutions which were especially influential, already in the 19th Century, and again in 1920 and 1930, in the nascent movement of Christian unity (against Deimel’s odd claim that the Conference “has always been more about fighting the losing battles of the past than about articulating a meaningful Christian vision of the future” [p. 5]). We have much work to do, however; and we may look back on these painful days as the end of the Anglican Communion’s adolescence.

I would add here one point to the thesis of my essay, the truth of which I presumed (and “performed” by quotation), but did not render explicit: that the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular seems to hold a great promise of centrist reason for our common life, in such a way that might properly take the edge off the better part of Deimel’s worries—which, taken together, evolve around a fear that hostile, crusading conservatives are even now molding a fateful “communion” of coercion and repression with which, willy nilly, to beat into submission those with whom they disagree and for whom no love is lost (see, e.g., p. 5 for one hypothetical scenario). If this were true, however, and if we nonetheless wished to continue to try our hand at communion-as-Anglicans—incorporating a sacramental and doctrinal richness that are intrinsic to the Church’s catholicity and apostolicity—then it is hard to see how inter-ecclesial chaos and pugnacity could be challenged short of some common, bridge-building, moderating authority.

Just here, for instance, one notes gratefully the witness to truth by the present Archbishop in his balanced—catholic and evangelical—exhortation to follow Christ at the Third Global South-to-South Encounter in Egypt last fall;1 an address, progressives might recall, that was met with some unease by an ambiguous number of primates,2 who wrote a confrontational, open letter to Abp. Rowan that received a usefully succinct reply, concluding with these sentences: “If this letter is a contribution to [the] process of debate [to which all the primates committed themselves and their provinces in the Primates’ response to the Windsor Report], then it is to be welcomed, however robust. If it is an attempt to foreclose that debate, it would seem to serve very little purpose indeed.”3 And one recalls as well the ambiguous excision of references to communion with the See of Canterbury from the Church of Nigeria’s Constitution4—apparently in the face of Windsor’s advice (itself borne of decades of inter-Anglican consultations and recommendations), and also ACC-13’s “approval” last summer of Windsor’s suggestion that “the Archbishop of Canterbury be regarded as the focus for unity” (resolution #2).

In every case—facing tense argument, inter-Anglican suspicion of motives, and recrimination—Abp. Rowan has advocated and practiced patient, persistent conversation, ordered by the spiritual discipline of forbearance in love; and it is here that he has repeatedly insisted on the urgency of repentance by all. As he put it in his June 2005 address at the ACC, for instance:

When we call on others to repent, can we hear God calling us to recognise our own rebellion, whatever it is? If not, have we understood faith? We are always in danger of the easiest religious technique of all, the search for the scapegoat; Paul insists without any shadow of compromise upon our solidarity in rebellion against God, and so tells us that we shall not achieve peace and virtue by creating a community we believe to be pure. And these words are spoken both to the Jew and the Gentile, both to the prophetic radical and the loyal traditionalist. The prophet, says Barth, “knows the catastrophe of the Church to be inevitable” and he knows also that there is no friendly lifeboat into which he can clamber and row clear of the imminent disaster. [From sec. III.]

And again, further on:

The deepest spiritual problem is not resolved by separating ourselves from the sinner, whatever has to be done in the short term (and Paul of course exercises discipline robustly); God’s word to us remains the challenge of Romans 2.5 And what grieves me about so much of our current debate is that I see few signs of awareness of this deeper level, and a good deal of the effort to “distinguish ourselves” from each other, in [Karl] Barth’s terms, whether we call ourselves radicals or traditionalists. Even for me to say this in these terms opens me to the same charge—I am “grieved” by the failings of others. I too have to accept that I am part of this failing or “catastrophic” church. [From sec. III.]

Here is an example of Christian humility, joined to a conviction about the coherence of the church as an ordered community, that American Episcopalians might find exhilarating because it is life giving—patterned after our self-emptying Lord.


1 One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (28 October, 2005).
2 Since several ostensible “signers” immediately disassociated from the letter upon its arrival in the blogosphere (and subsequently on Abp. Rowan’s doorstep).
3 Press release from Lambeth Palace, 17 November, 2005.
4 For commentary, see Ephraim Radner, “Two Notes on the Church of Nigeria’s Constitutional Revisions” (12 October, 2005).
5 Quoted in the report of the Special Commission, para. 38 note 64.

 

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