Recognizably Anglican
  • Friday, May 20, 2011

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

By George R. Sumner

The 1963 Anglican Congress in Toronto came at the high-water mark of Anglican prestige in the Global North, and yet it held up a much wider and deeper vision of the nature of communion in a prescient way. The Congress gave us the banner “mutual responsibility and interdependence” in which mission priorities in a parish in Canada or the United States should take into account the needs of partners in Ghana or Burma. The vision assumed the Communion to be a family of churches throughout the world, and church leaders throughout North America applauded it — no one complained that this sense of accountability was somehow un-Anglican (though getting churches to fund it was another matter).

The delegates who crowded into Maple Leaf Gardens to listen to Michael Ramsey had a vision of the Communion quite consonant with the Covenant.

Mission has loaned to the whole Church talk about “context” and the local (not to mention the notion of the “missional” itself). But if we stop to think for a moment, we realize that legitimate mission thinking always balances considerations of the local and the “catholic” (or universal), of “incarnational” strategy and the “recognizability” of one church’s beliefs and practices by its siblings. We might object that mission would be most successful when it considers the needs and circumstances of its own situation, unconstrained by the reproof of more distant neighbors. This may well be true, if mission were only another word for marketing, and all we sought were the adaptation of the most saleable product.

In fact, however, mission must balance both adaptation and a careful guarding of what is authentically Christian. Lesslie Newbigin, the great missionary bishop of South India, made this point eloquently, even as he stressed that it must be an ongoing and two-way process. At present North Americans are challenged by our brothers and sisters from Africa and elsewhere on the subject of human sexuality, but we can imagine future occasions when we might pose “lovingly tough” questions to our African or Indian or other neighbors.

Max Warren, honored at the Toronto Congress, stressed that churches are always at risk of selling out to the surrounding pagan culture, and that the line between the two is ever being redrawn. Churches need global partners because it is hard to see ourselves.

The Covenant is a framework for just this mutual sibling encouragement and admonition around the pole of “recognizability.” This responsibility is in fact entailed in the very idea of “oversight,” of episcopacy. That is why bishops are not merely local administrators, but also constitute a worldwide collegium of stewards of the recognizability of the Gospel in the Church’s life and teaching. This is why, in the patristic era, there arose a custom that three bishops, ordinarily from neighboring dioceses, would participate in consecrations. The ministry of vouching for the catholic and apostolic nature of life and teaching was held by them jointly.

In other words, embedded in the very concept of a bishop is a ministry of recognizability beyond the merely local. A covenant of oversight for the sake of communion is implied by episcopacy itself. This ministry, to be sure, is best exercised in a flexible manner that provides for discernment over time and gathering in council. (The Covenant presents such opportunities in abundance, which makes the accusations of quasi-Romanism so extraordinary.)

I have in this argument assumed the evangelistic importance of the local, but would do well to qualify this in a postscript. First, the noted mission historian Bengt Sundkler points out that often the most effective evangelists were people who lived in between cultures. Evangelism in a local setting involved seeing beyond the immediate. Second, our context in North America is not a single locale, but is itself variegated. In the Canadian setting, the innovation in teaching, and not the Covenant, introduces a stumbling block to West Indian, Chinese, Native, Inuit, and African communities. Third and finally, it should be noted that the “hot topics” in missiology are immigration, displacement, and refugee-ism and their effect on evangelism. By their very nature, these phenomena involve communication across cultures. In each case, “incarnational” mission in a context such as Canada or the United States implies recognizability and so communion.

The Gospel must be proclaimed in every locale, and it must be recognized as the very same Gospel committed to us by the Lord. If only we would see it, we are blessed to be members of a worldwide communion of churches who share with us in both. Slowly, sometimes painfully, the promise of Toronto is being fulfilled. The Covenant is the providential means, in our time, by which we as global Anglicans may together be stewards of the mysteries of God to the nations, the very Gospel itself.

The Rev. Dr. George R. Sumner is principal and Helliwell Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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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