By Peter Carrell
The 15th Anglican Consultative Council which met Oct. 27-Nov. 7 in Auckland was a stirring occasion for the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. It offered an opportunity to showcase our “three tikanga” life, the way in which we express ourselves as church according to the cultural streams of Maori, New Zealanders of European origin, and Polynesia. That showcasing included significant opening events as well as wonderful and generous hospitality. ACC members fanned out across the country to participate in worship services in many parts of the North and South Islands. For the whole church, this was the first time Archbishop Rowan Williams was able to visit during his time in office. His visit to Christchurch, my home diocese, was a blessing as we saw and heard for ourselves this fine Christian leader and insightful, intelligent theologian.
But ACC does not exist to impress host churches every three years. It exists as one of the Instruments of Communion in the life of global Anglicanism. In recent years an emerging argument from some commentators has been that it is the most important instrument of them all, as it is the only one that involves not only bishops but other clergy and laity as well. The vital question to ask of each ACC meeting, then, is how it will affect the Communion. As best I can tell, ACC-15 will have little, if any, effect on the Communion.
Yes, it is true that such meetings represent opportunities to develop relationships between church leaders and enhance the quality of relational life across various committees and networks of the Communion, but those relationships and qualities already exist. The result we might rightly expect from such a meeting concerns the relationships in our Communion which are either not working well or have broken down. From that perspective not one of the 41 resolutions passed by ACC-15 touched on the urgent problems of our life together as a global fellowship.
Most glaringly of all, not a single resolution mentions the Anglican Covenant, which is the one element of present Communion life which might help heal our impaired fellowship. Dare we attempt to draw a conclusion from the cone of silence over the Covenant? Here is my supposition: ACC-15 wanted to give Archbishop Rowan a peaceful end to the international part of his archepiscopal role and prepare the way for a quiet burial of the Covenant when all the votes are in. I imagine the members of ACC15 colluded with the guidance of the Anglican Communion Office bureaucrats on this silence because they thought it smart to avoid controversy.
But there is a difficulty with the consequence of this approach: ACC15 effectively passed a “Resolution 42,” stating that ours is a better Communion if it has fewer participating member churches, finds as little as possible that it can agree on, and refrains from challenging autonomy. In this unhappy scenario, satisfied comments by ACC members at the conclusion of the event amount to little more than a de facto celebration of thin communion holding us together. Indeed, it’s striking that not a single one of the 41 resolutions engages with a difficult issue in the life of the Communion so as to draw us into a greater maturity in Christ. Some resolutions are of apple-pie and motherhood status. No one could possibly disagree with desiring to be a safe church (Resolution 15.09), lamenting the trafficking of persons (15.10), monitoring actions taken by churches to understand and end family violence (15.12), or continuing to talk with one another in Indaba (15.21).
Some resolutions drip with irony. ACC agreed to a “Charter for the Safety of People within the Churches of the Anglican Communion” and called upon all member churches to adopt and implement the charter and report to the next meeting on steps taken. Charter, Covenant: what is in a name? Here the ACC, without blushing, takes on a quasi-governmental role in the life of the Communion in precisely the way it is not prepared to do with the Covenant. A further irony is that aspects of the Charter make interesting reading if one is an Anglican in a church where hierarchical authority seems intent on making church life unsafe for those of differing convictions!
A significant impetus of ACC-15’s refusing to say anything about the Covenant may have been its resolution which received the report on “The Bible in the Life of the Church Project” (15.19). The opening part of the resolution sets the course of this particular ship when it “affirms the centrality of the Bible in the life of the churches of the Anglican Communion” and “affirms the importance of the continued study of the Bible in the parishes.” Again, the current difficulties in the Communion do not stem from the Bible being neither central nor studied. They stem from severe disagreement about the nature and extent of Scripture’s authority and from a division between Anglicans on the role of “context” in interpreting Scripture. Here is not the place to discuss the 674 pages of the project’s report, save for noting that the project seems comfortable with the determining role of context for understanding the Bible and blesses diversity of interpretation without setting an agenda for eventual resolution of hermeneutical differences.
That last observation points to the general theological problem of ACC-15. Communion is diversity in unity, people from many tribes and tongues coming together to share life in Christ as one people. The task of any Communion body is to deepen the unity of the diverse people making up the Communion. ACC-15 proved to be a dereliction of that duty by meekly accepting that the best we can hope for as Anglicans at this moment is diversity without unity on matters of consequence. Our common life has become very thin indeed, while the growth of our Communion into a greater corporate maturity in Christ is on hold.
The Rev. Peter Carrell is director of education in the Diocese of Christchurch of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia.