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Rebooting Anglican communication

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

By Michael Poon

In whatever ways we justify and reinterpret the Communion instruments of the Anglican Communion, it is clear the instruments no longer unite Anglican churches worldwide. Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meetings have become obstacles rather than means of healing the Communion’s wounds.

The reasons are clear. The Anglican Communion itself, understood as a Christian World Communion alongside the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other families of churches, is a novel idea in the post-Western missionary era. The instruments emerged in haphazard ways amid the devolution of metropolitan authorities from Canterbury and New York to churches in the southern continents. To be sure, they were useful to connect churches with one another in years surrounding the independence of the southern churches.

They have now become part of the problem, and have lost their legitimacy in the new conditions of the new century. For one, international conferences are expensive exercises, which are hardly sustainable in present-day economic conditions. More important, there is a worrying disconnect between what happens at Communion levels and what occurs at local levels. The faithful in their parishes are expected to remain loyal Anglicans week in and week out. To them, the Anglican disputes are irrelevant. Many of them perhaps have not heard about the Anglican Communion Covenant. Churches of weaker numerical strength and in more fragile conditions are sidelined as well in a high-stakes and wasting religious war.

The two watchwords of the Covenant — accountability and interdependence — are not merely policy matters between top clerics around the globe. They express our communal life: “one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father” (Eph. 4:4-6). They point us to the ascended Christ’s continuing sanctifying work in the Church: “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25-27).

This points to an urgent need to clarify the subtle movements of thought shaping the ways we approach communal life. Anglican churches worldwide are not merely confronted with a faith/moral issue (same-sex unions and homosexuality) and a question of order (compliance with The Windsor Report). Anglicans have dealt with explosive issues before. The 1948 Lambeth decisions against ordaining women to the priesthood deeply grieved Chinese Anglicans. Today’s issues, however, have become intractable, and are fast plunging the Anglican Communion toward breakup. Polemicists from different sides of the disputes have not really addressed the deep-seated powerful currents that are twisting the ways we connect with one another.

In brief:

  1. To Church leaders in sub-Saharan Africa: Do strong protests against Western decadence in fact reveal a deep anxiety about ecclesial identity? Jean-François Bayert, in his seminal essay “Africa in the world: A history of extraversion,” pointed out that African leaders are disposed to mobilize resources from their relationship with the external environment in order to legitimize their own authority and enhance their social status (see African Affairs, No. 395 [2000]: 231-237). External connections, therefore, are indispensable to African societies. The Church of England and the Episcopal Church have acted as chief reference points for African churches. Does not the perceived Western decadence provoke a deep identity crisis? Can African churches in fact use the present crisis as an opportunity to rediscover the sources of their inner security? African churches need to develop a more coherent understanding of their ecclesiology.
  2. Is GAFCON the only valid expression of Anglican evangelicalism, and especially the only way to keep faith with John Stott’s legacy in today’s world? Stott created many evangelical structures and helped to shape most of the present leadership in the southern continents. The formation of many top Anglican leaders worldwide can be traced to the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion, Langham Trust and related networks. GAFCON organizers Chris Sugden, Michael Nazir-Ali and Vinay Samuel merely inherited the infrastructures that Stott left behind. At the same time, did Stott not offer a more generous ecclesial vision, and a more charitable way to speak the truth in love, than does GAFCON? Deeply divided evangelical Anglicans worldwide, across the GAFCON and southern networks, need to meet and sort out their internal wars. They owe this to their fellow Anglicans, and to the memory of John Stott.
  3. Are North American Christians in fact using the churches worldwide as theaters for their domestic religious wars? In what ways should American Christians moderate their imperialist ambitions to set standards and offer solutions to the rest of the world? From the end of the 1940s, American Christianity has been exporting its religious quarrels overseas. The conflict between two Princetonians in the 1940s and 1950s, Carl McIntire of the International Council of Christian Churches and John McKay of the World Council of Churches, is a case in point. Since then, ecumenists and evangelicals have fought turf wars in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Do patriotic American Christians, with a huge suspicion of what is “un-American,” really want to come under church leaders from other continents? Or do many of the present ecclesiastical arrangements represent marriages of convenience?

Certainly these three undercurrents are not the only shaping forces at work. But they are a starting point. Such lurking movements of thought need to be brought to light, articulated, and confronted in public discussions. This reality check may well help the faithful from all sides to identify key issues, to be clearer on what they are in fact defending, to let go of vainglorious pursuits, and work out the way forward: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Christians worldwide need one another “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18).

Of course, communication lies in the heart of the mystery of God. But communication, and communion, are not intuitive in this fallen world. St. Paul prays that the Church “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 2:18-19). How can we recover the capacity of love, of growing in God’s love and ways, and of connecting our lives to those of the saints in heaven and on earth?

This leads us to the heart of the spiritual crisis among the Anglican faithful worldwide. Disputes about unity, faith, and order in the Anglican Communion have led to a pervasive corruption of speech. Repetitive rhetoric, words on words from different camps, have eroded communication. We have lost the capacity to receive what is new. We have lost the sense of wonder and mystery in communal life when words are filtered through ideological prisms regarding the Covenant, gay liberation, and GAFCON. Human words no longer point to the true Word of Life. Sound bites mask private ambitions and secular undercurrents that in fact shape our disputes.

Anglicans across the world must resist this corrosive development. The Anglican Communion Covenant, in the last analysis, is not drafted merely for the sake of solving the presenting issues — same-sex unions, cross-boundary interventions, and (to some) the apostasy of some member churches from the apostolic faith. These are serious matters, but the Covenant has something deeper in mind. It aims to lay a more secure ecclesial foundation on which the family of Anglican churches can express its common life and witness in post-Christendom times.

The sociopolitical order of the world has changed since the high points in the Church of England’s history. The social horizons have greatly expanded since the time of the Protestant Reformation, such that appeals to historic prerogatives and century-old traditions no longer work. More important, God is still working and doing new things, today and tomorrow, and so the character of Christian obedience needs to move on in response to the move of God. The Anglican family of churches needs to be open to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, who still speaks his sovereign word to God’s people today. This much at least we can learn from present-day charismatic renewal movements.

The third South-to-South Encounter was wise to set the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” as the theme of its 2005 meeting. The organizers could have chosen a more polemical theme amid many pressing ecclesiastical issues in the Anglican Communion. It is not an accident that Eastern Asian church leaders played a large part in choosing the theme. The Oxford Movement, mediated through the U.S. Episcopal Church in the 19th century, had bequeathed Eastern Asians with the vision of the one, Catholic Church. This legacy is enshrined in the name of Anglican churches in East Asia, whether Sheng Gong Hui in China, Sei Ko Kai in Japan, or Seong Gong Hoe in Korea.

But church leaders in southern continents have not followed up the 2005 initiatives. Although Anglicans in the “Global South” (a term that was first used in the 2005 meeting to refer to Southern Anglicans with more conservative outlooks) were among the earliest supporters of the Anglican Covenant initiative, and indeed produced a text that became the backbone of the Nassau draft, their attention quickly turned to other pressing issues, putting aside foundational and longer-term ecclesial tasks.

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians awakes us to the mystery of God’s love, and so to recover the capacity to love as he would, and to nurture a deeper spiritual union among God’s people across the globe that no ecclesiastical and clerical power can undo. Anglicans throughout the world are called to express new ways to love and to connect, in a time when social media and ecclesiastical arrangements have done so much to incite hate and division in the Anglican world. This is perhaps why Stephen Neill would say that “to be a good Anglican is an exceedingly exacting business, and to remain exacting through a whole lifetime.” Blessed are the Anglican leaders who dispose their lives to such humble service, as fellow citizens and members of God’s household.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Poon is director and Asian Christianity coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order.

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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