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An ardent longing

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Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By Christopher Wells

I’ve found a remarkable bit of Victorian prophecy in a sermon, “The ‘Ardent Longing’ of the Anglican Communion for Peace and Unity” (1873), preached by the American missionary Bishop of Easton, Henry Lay, several years after the first Lambeth Conference. Lay had been present at Lambeth, and was moved by an agreed statement of those gathered, written as an introduction to the resolutions that were passed. “We desire to express the deep sorrow with which we view the divided condition of the flock of Christ through-out the world,” wrote the bishops, “ardently longing for the fulfillment of the prayer of the Lord that all may be one.” (The text is oddly absent from the archive of the official Lambeth Conference website, but may be found at Project Canterbury. See also Stephenson, The First Lambeth Conference, pp. 252-53.) The adverbial phrase, ardently longing, proposed by the Welsh bishop Ollivant of Llandaff, was especially precious to Bishop Lay. Riffing on the theme in his sermon, Lay says that Lambeth’s longing for unity grew out of a “new baptism of love and zeal” among Anglicans, initiated by the Holy Spirit. As a result, he continued: “We seem to be united in the conviction that a godly unity … must be a unity spontaneous, genuine, visible; a unity in charity and doctrine, in order and fellowship; a unity in affirmation, not in negation.”

Lay’s sermon sets forth a prophetic vision of how things should and could be, if God’s household were rightly ordered, and focuses on potential Anglican contributions and encouragements to this end. Has his summary of a peculiarly Anglican love and zeal for unity proven to be an accurate forecast of the future? Nearly 140 years on, we may have our doubts. But Lay’s sermon anticipates the contours and content of the proposed Anglican Covenant with a startling prescience, showing it to be not only a latter-day expression but fulfillment of the trajectory initiated at Lambeth in 1867, a trajectory that shaped a tide of ecumenical and liturgical renewal in the 20th century.

The Covenant self-consciously takes up and passes on this history, in numerous ways. The Introduction, for instance, speaks of an Anglican “charism” or gift, which we discover later is an Anglican “vocation,” an ecumenical vocation (2.1.5). How many Anglicans will recognize their own sense of call in this description, and how many, by contrast, will find it unfamiliar and even unwelcome? In all events, it seems uncontroversial to say that God gives all Christians a part to play in the constitution — the communion — of the Church. As her members, we preserve, and when necessary repair, what has been wrought, as an integral piece of our pilgrimage in obedient love.

Accordingly, the Covenant invites us to abstract enough from our current divisions to see the Church as it is and as it should and will be, the Church as both gift and call (Intro. para. 3). God is faithful. But how do we respond? How have we responded and how shall we respond?

The Covenant would have us imitate God’s love by giving ourselves away in turn, an unoriginal supposition. Consider the General Thanksgiving of 1662, enshrined in all Anglican prayer books: “Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service.” God’s gift precedes and orders our own. Similarly, Charles Henry Brent’s collect for mission in the 1979 BCP urges a passionate exemplarity: we reach forth our hands in love like Jesus, “on the hard wood of the cross.” The Covenant cleaves to this same pattern of prayer, the language of love. “We give ourselves as servants of a greater unity among the divided Christians of the world,” we read in the Introduction (para. 6). And the Declaration at the end returns to the theme: “With joy and with firm resolve, we … offer ourselves for fruitful service.” We pledge our corporate troth for a larger purpose.

Of course, we may still wonder whether the Anglican Communion really needs a Covenant. And what if the Covenant has itself become a tool of division, more or less unwittingly? Our present divisions preceded the Covenant, and the Covenant by itself cannot make them all go away, not least if various parties decline to take it up. There is, as St. Paul says, freedom in Christ (Gal. 5), and we ought not seek to constrain one another’s conscientious discernment.

The Anglican Communion as a whole needs the Covenant, however, because it sets forth the most plausible and coherent picture of the Church that we have seen, carefully knitting together our founding documents and the developed consensus of the last century about what it means to be a global communion (see 4.1.1). A catholic “concern for unity,” as the Archbishop of Canterbury argued at the Church of England’s synod in July 2006, “is not about placing the survival of an institution above the demands of conscience. God forbid. But it is a question of how we work out, faithfully, attentively, obediently what we need to do and say in order to remain within sight and sound of each other in the fellowship to which Christ has called us.”

It’s worth remembering that division is sin, according to the ecumenical movement, schooled as it has been by the inter-Christian carnage of two world wars. Few things are more obvious in the New Testament than that Christians are meant to proclaim one faith, one Lord, one baptism; to worship, care for the needy, and evangelize the world together (see Eph. 4, Acts 2, et passim). Christian unity is thus not an optional extra, an ideal, in the absence of which we not only should but can get on with the Church’s mission. Our mission is our unity; hence, negatively, “no house divided against itself will stand” (Matt. 12:25; cf. 1 Cor. 11:20).

No doubt the communion of Anglicans is severely strained at present. Disregard, careless speech, and pridefulness abound. Where, in the words of the bishops at Lambeth 1920, is our “loyalty to the fellowship” or our tempering of independence by “the restraints of truth and love”? How to speak honestly in this context while maintaining a Christian vulnerability? How to teach and confess boldly and at the same time forgive, turn away anger, and leave rage alone?

The covenantal call should be heard as an ardent longing for unity in love. If and as we heed it we will be giving ourselves away, to God and to one another, and so finding something “spontaneous, genuine, visible,” as Bishop Lay saw. We are free to do this. And we can surprise ourselves by doing so.

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.

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