A Communion Optimist for VTS
  • Thursday, April 4, 2013

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

Anglicans have allowed internal arguments to define and separate them from one another. But for the Rev. Robert Heaney, who will soon become director of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary, that is not an acceptable status quo.

For the past three years, Heaney has seen Anglicanism from his post as a theologian and director of postgraduate research at St. John’s University in Tanzania. Heaney, a 41-year-old Church of Ireland priest, will cross the Atlantic Ocean with his wife, Sharon, and son, Sam, in July.

In managing diversity, Heaney sees a better future for the Communion through old-fashioned attention to friendship.

“Beyond all the controversies, we have not tended to friendship in the way that we should have,” Heaney said in an email interview with TLC. “We have institutionalized our walking together and our walking apart, [yet] we are brothers and sisters. We are friends. It is fellowship and it should be acts of fellowship which bring us together in Christ.”

Heaney’s background leads him to believe disparate settings of the church have much to teach each other. He values Virginia Seminary’s commitment to being “orthodox and open.”

“I have been a member of an evangelical ecumenical college, a liberal Anglican seminary, a Jesuit Pontifical Athenaeum, an English Baptist college and an Anglican and multifaith African university,” he said. “All of these experiences have challenged me to recognize and live into the expansiveness of God’s grace.”

The challenges Heaney sees facing the Communion are not limited to Western culture wars on sexuality or biblical interpretation. As one who has taught postcolonial theology in Africa, he sees a need to think about “globalization from below.” That involves making sure Western agendas, whether liberal or conservative, are not unfairly lumping people in developing nations into liberal or conservative categories that turn out to be inapt and unnecessarily polarizing.

“There is always the danger that our Communion may too readily mirror the power relations and power practices of globalization,” Heaney said. “One person’s experience of globalization and Communion is about being connected. Another person’s experience of globalization and Communion is about being controlled.”

After settling in, Heaney hopes to convene a vision group to discuss how the center might serve the Anglican Communion and the worldwide church in years ahead. He would like to see it offer low-cost or free theological resources, expanded cross-cultural immersion experiences, and consulting with sensitivity to local issues, he said. In addition to directing the center, he will teach and do research as assistant professor of Christian mission at VTS.

“There is always the potential for the Holy Spirit to lead us in new directions and create new opportunities,” he said. “As an Anglican Communion optimist, I am very excited about seeing what the Spirit is going to do.”

Image: Robert Heaney on break in Kenya, from the family weblog.

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