By Michael Nai Chiu Poon
Eleven Global South Anglican primates released a communiqué at the end of their China visit in September. The discussions in China clearly build on many exchanges and face-to-face meetings between these primates in recent times, especially in the Fourth South-to-South Encounter in Singapore in April 2010. These protracted meetings have taken much time, personnel, and financial resources. And much more resources need to be in place to carry out the plans in the communiqué. The China communiqué, therefore, raises urgent questions. The key issue turns on the ecclesiological nature of whatever Global South Anglican churches plan to do. Briefly:
- Can the Global South primates come up with a coherent ecclesiastical structure that can hold their “mission and networking” together, once the existing Communion instruments are deemed dysfunctional? This is all the more urgent since the primates have decided to withdraw participation from key Communion-level instruments. Alternative ecclesial structures (interim or permanent) need to be in place to give corporate expression to their Anglican identity.
- Will their churches adopt the Anglican Communion Covenant, in which the existing four instruments assume a central place? After all, Global South churches have played a key role in drafting the Covenant from the start. A Global South Anglican paper was commissioned for study in the South-to-South encounter in 2010 to defend the Covenant. Why the perhaps hesitant note on the Covenant in the communiqué, as if it is something new?
- The final words of the communiqué, “The Word of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures unites us,” echo Bishop K.H. Ting’s words: “The Bible unites us [i.e., the churches across China which do not connect to one another in a hierarchical manner].” Nevertheless, even the China Christian Council now sees the need to draft a constitution to give institutional expression to and to govern its common life. In what concrete ways then will the “orthodox” Anglican churches express their interdependence and accountability?
- This question becomes even more acute because the canonical status of the primates varies from province to province. Terms of appointment also vary. At present, the primates-in-council do not have the ecclesiastical status to be the “proper” moral and spiritual authority of their churches, even less for the inter-provincial common life. The provinces would need to do much more solid theological work on their ecclesiology.
All these mean the primates may need to be more disciplined and intellectually constructive to tackle the order and unity questions in their future endeavors. Their credibility is on the line, perhaps in the same way that they see Canterbury’s authority undermined. They owe this to the faithful in their provinces, and to Anglicans worldwide. To whom much is given, much will be required.
The Rev. Dr. Michael Nai Chiu Poon is director and Asian Christianity coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College. He is a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission for Unity, Faith and Order, and an Anglican member on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.