Earlier this month, the Episcopal priest Jesse Zink posted an interesting article that encouraged rather low expectations for the now ongoing Primates’ Meeting (“On beyond Primates“). Some of it is based on a historical claim, that “calling together a group of bishops has rarely been a good way of resolving conflict.” Zink also downgrades the present “conflict” behind the Primates’ Meeting, claiming that “contentious matters” and “differences” do not actually prevent Anglicans from, at day’s end, coming together for “prayer, Bible study, and worship.” I’m not going to engage with these historical and sociological claims here.

What I find most interesting in Zink’s piece is the way he positions the reality of Anglican life against the apparent unreality of the Primates’ Meeting. A few years ago, Zink journeyed to a Nigerian village in which there is a noticeably small Anglican church in a humble room. The appreciative handful of Anglicans showed warm hospitality to Zink. With them, Zink read the Bible and talked “about what it means to us to be Anglican, and how we read the Bible.” The conversation was meaningful to those involved, and, indeed, I found myself wanting to know more about their discussion — how it manifested their “common baptism” and a “shared willingness” to follow Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition.

In decided contrast, we have the strange world of the Primates’ Meeting. Its distance from the humble room in the Nigerian village is not merely geographical. The Primates’ Meeting exists in a world of “posturing.” The players have fixed “views” easily identifiable with political taxonomy that need defense in the form of anathemas and likely “vitriol.” Worst of all, the senior bishops exist in gendered, hierarchical alienation from the “voices” of most Anglicans. Blessedly, whatever happens in the Primates’ Meeting — a “recent innovation,” after all — has little to do with the reality of communion in the local church. The Anglican Communion will survive in villages much like the one that Zink visited.

Is the Primates’ Meeting unreal? The question is impossible to answer in the abstract. Obviously, it is somewhat unreal to Jesse Zink. The question I’d like to ask is how the Anglican Communion might make the Primates’ Meeting more real to its communicants, perhaps including Jesse Zink. I think that there are difficult but useful lessons to be learned from two fellow Christian traditions.

Collegiality: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican

To begin with, we should remember that the Primates’ Meeting is supposed to show collegiality. It is meant to be the continuation of the apostolic college and those bishops of the early church who remained in communion with one another in charity and peace. In doing so, collegiality expresses the visible unity of the Body of Christ. In the Anglican Communion, such collegiality takes form under the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, “first among equals.” Resolution 18 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference urged that “encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates’ Meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury” (my emphasis). As we shall see, the Primates’ Meeting cannot assume such a role unless collegiality is real, not merely notional. To be real, collegiality must be manifested throughout the church. And that’s much easier said than done.

Collegiality is mentioned in the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium. But, as the late ecumenist and Roman Catholic priest George Tavard showed, collegiality is neither obvious nor easy to implement. When the Antepreparatory Commission to the Council consulted with church authorities and theological faculties, there was no immediate consensus on collegiality. The Catholic Faculty of Angers suggested that collegial authority had only been exercised in ecclesiastical history very rarely — only at councils. This minority position was represented in the Council’s debates by such formidable figures as Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, who claimed that the apostles never acted collegially save for possibly at the Council of Jerusalem. There were anxieties that collegiality and papal primacy, as well as bishops conferences and bishops, would be caught up in zero-sum games.

While the strongly held minority position did not prevail, the Second Vatican Council, as Tavard suggests, left open questions about collegiality. For instance, how would the bishops’ collegiality function so as not to derogate from papal primacy? (Years later, in 2014, the Pope still had to tell assembled bishops to speak “without concerns of human respect and without fear,” and some found the subsequent argumentation to be disturbing.) The authority of national conferences of bishops, whose writings were prominently if unexpectedly featured in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si‘, is still the subject of theological debate.

But the important questions for us have to do with collegiality in the local church, where it is most readily felt and seen. Tavard asks whether “the collegial principle extends to the governance of each particular church, the priests of a diocese sharing responsibility with the ordinary for the care of the diocese.” There are hints in other conciliar documents (and, elsewhere, Tavard notes that the French bishops were strong supporters of local collegiality), but he says that the question was really not debated.

And what of the role of the laity? Is the laity shut out from collegiality?

The Virginia Report (1997) of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission suggests that collegiality should extend to the local church in the Anglican Communion. The bishop gathered with his or her clergy shows collegiality. Collegiality exists at the diocesan level (3.23). Furthermore, collegiality exists together with communal and personal relationships, some including the laity in presiding roles, in a “web of interdependence” that effectively “serves to guard against isolation” (3.50).

In the Nigerian village, Zink certainly discovered an ecclesial relationship with the local congregants. The relationship was both personal and communal. If there was a felt “web of interdependence,” why didn’t collegiality, the motivating factor behind the Primates’ Meeting, enter into it? In the Anglican Communion, has collegiality meaningfully entered at all into the governance of the local church?

If the answer is negative, we can ask whether there is a missing spirituality of collegiality. The Orthodox theologian Nicholas E. Denysenko has suggested that collegiality is liturgically expressed in the Orthodox Church. In the ordination rite, the candidate is asked by the presiding bishop to make three confessions of faith. He — here, he — does so necessarily before an observing and affirming laity, showing that “collegiality is shared not merely among ordained bishops but is also extended to the laity.” Eventually, the presiding bishop will vest the new bishop and shout “Axios!” The cry will be taken up by the laity as well. Denysenko writes, “The presence and participation of the laity, who are given the final ‘Axios!’ in the liturgical rites, again demonstrates their essential role in ecclesial collegiality.” Thus, the new bishop’s ministry is never isolated from his fellow bishops or the laity.

Of course, Denysenko freely concedes that this liturgical vision of collegiality isn’t often the pastoral reality in the Orthodox Church. But does the Anglican Communion have similar liturgical manifestations of collegiality? Or has collegiality remained a notional theological concept, difficult to really feel outside of libraries and gatherings of the learned (and maybe this blog)?

If collegiality does not meaningfully exist in the local church and has no liturgical embodiment, it isn’t at all surprising that the Primates’ Meeting would feel unreal in a small church in a Nigerian village. And, in its unreality, the Primates’ Meeting would then inevitably feel like an internationalized part of what Rowan Williams, now over a decade ago, called “a third Church of England,” a “soap opera … [whose] life is about short-term conflicts, blazing rows in the pub, so to speak, mysterious plots and unfathomable motivation.” It sadly becomes a “virtual reality” that can never compare to the holy conversation to be had in small villages anywhere.

Neil Dhingra‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image comes via Canterbury Cathedral and Primates 2016.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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