Supranational Ecclesiology

By Ephraim Radner

History is not made up of revolutions, sudden wrenchings into new territory. It is made up of often subtle shifts built up over the long term. The present reality is always only the sum of the past. And the future can only emerge from within that past. In a way, there are no such things as “revolutions.” This is obvious only as we cast our eyes over the vast landscape of time, the longue durée, as the French say. Russia, China, even France: upheaval tends to settle down to previous structures, often little changed, though now clothed in new forms. Not that there are not drastic effects to so-called revolutions. But these effects are almost always short-lived and to that extent destructive — they make “life short.” If there are “real” revolutions, they are the often unexpected results of things that make “life long” — agriculture, new sources of nourishment, peace, sanitary measures, the sudden reduction of infant mortality in the early 20th century and so on. And the effects of these things do indeed show themselves only over time.

It’s worth thinking about this when it comes to the Church as well. For the Church has been and is filled with would-be revolutionaries of various kinds, almost all doomed to being swept away and under by the tides of the slow movement of deeper forces.

The Toronto Congress of 1963 needs to be understood in these terms. What was it? — 1,000 delegates, plus spouses, organizers, observers, 250 journalists — a total of about 2,000. And more than 16,000 came to the opening service and thousands to subsequent gatherings at Maple Leaf Gardens, like the Mass Gathering of Missionary Witness (cf. Whitely). Out of this gathering came a “manifesto” called “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ,” which proposed several principles of interaction among the churches of the Anglican Communion. The hopes and ballyhoos abounded, so we are told: the Toronto Congress was a “turning point” (Stephen Bayne), “radical change in the whole structure of Anglicanism,” “point of no return” (Jesse Zink), a new moment in the “history of consciousness” (obviously an American said this).

At the time, it should be noted, there were also doubts expressed at the Congress. The talks were of abysmal quality (Eugene Fairweather); the discussions were confused; the MRI plan itself vague. Subsequently, the Congress and its MRI document have been called a “failure.” The conference and manifesto were really, some have said, but the continuance by new means of Western domination and neo-colonialism within the Communion (Danaher), out of touch with the “new” realities of the world; or again, MRI gave birth only to fake “partnerships” of money-grubbing have-nots, in the face of disdainful “haves”; or to new bureaucracies — the Communion Office and its many commissions — run by unaccountable and unrepresentative “elites.” And so on. Even at the conference, someone raised the spectre of “Parkinson’s Law” being put into effect: useless work growing to fit the newly minted workers of the Communion’s new office.

So: success of failure? The Toronto Congress was neither. It was, rather, the well-profiled emergence of an already entrenched direction, a direction of ecclesial life taken within a continuous course of developing hope, challenge … and mission. And to see this is simply to see where God is still pressing us.

What happened at the Congress? Ten days of talks and discussions and worship, preceded by several meetings in Huron by representative bishops of the Communion and mission leaders, succeeded by World Council of Churches meetings. This was the third Pan-Anglican Congress in our history: gatherings of Anglican leaders, clergy and lay, from around the world, for mutual consultation and encouragement. There had been one in London in 1908, another in Minneapolis in 1954, and now in Toronto. These had no legislative authority, but nonetheless had been officially encouraged by the Lambeth Conferences.

The Congress itself was simply a large gathering to talk about the Anglican Communion, with set speakers, discussion groups, and worship. These were framed according to the tag of “frontiers” in the Church’s “mission” and “action.” There were talks on the “religious frontiers,” “political frontiers,” “cultural frontiers,” and, in this context, about training, action, and vocation. In the middle of the conference was a long set of presentations on the missionary witness of the church, with speakers offering snapshots from different parts of the world.

It was as a warm up to this “missionary interlude” in the middle of the conference that “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ” was unveiled. It was August 17, in an afternoon gathering in the Canadian Room of the Royal York Hotel, and Donald Coggan, the Archbishop of York (and former professor at Wycliffe College) was the spokesman. The MRI document, a few pages long, is not very interesting, to be honest. It speaks of mission, unity, obedience, and the need to help one another in phrases that are unimaginative and pat. The bulk of the document, however, is devoted to outlining concrete areas where such partnership is called for: a $15 million fund for training, church construction, and new dioceses; a call for new vocations, or “manpower,” for the church’s work around the world; the press for new interchurch “consultation,” and a few general suggestions for institutionalizing this; an exhortation for each church of the Communion to order its priorities according to missionary partnership; and finally, a general demand for “mature” and “non-sentimental” rethinking of the “nature of the Anglican Communion” as a “united” missionary “body”: “Mission is not the kindness of the lucky to the unlucky; it is mutual, united obedience to the one God whose mission it is. The form of the church must reflect that” (p. 121).

But note the enormous weight placed on practical engagement. The very phrase “Mutual Interdependence and Responsibility” held little special theological meaning. Its origins lie in 19th-century insurance and contract law, and migrated to social anthropology and, by the mid-20th century, international relations. Anglican bishops and others — including the Mennonite World Conference held in Kitchener the year before the Toronto Congress — had long used terms like “partnership” and “mutuality” to speak of proper ecclesial relationships, and others, as recently as the Diocese of Connecticut in 2012, have simply used the phrase to underline the financial responsibilities of parish assessments. MRI, that is, is a legal-social-financial category, whose concrete meanings tend towards concrete actions, rather than general attitudes.

So was all this earth-shattering? Not really. But it was deeply important, precisely because it tried to concretize an underlying orientation of purpose that had been long-standing. To this I turn.

The first thing to be said is that the Toronto Congress’s overriding tone was characterized by two qualities: crisis and mission. Indeed, we can call the peculiar tenor of the Congress one of “crisis missiology.” The word “crisis” was struck from the opening talk of Archbishop Ramsey, and repeated by him at the close. Over and over, speakers rose to address the grave threats hovering over both world and church: war itself in many places, the threat of nuclear devastation, political upheaval including Communism and revolution, and the struggles over racial justice in America and elsewhere; the vast numbers of refugees flowing out of these conflicts; poverty and hunger at staggering levels; the “resurgence” of various non-Christian religions, including Islam. Added to this, on an ecclesial and cultural level, was the sense of secularism’s encroaching power, fanning widespread materialist and soulless technological assumptions, moral chaos, and threats to family cohesion.

It is important to stress this underlying sensibility. Confidence was in short supply at the Congress, and all the talk about the “disappearance of the Anglican Communion,” although it had its origins in issues of church unity, was tinged also with enormous, and very concrete fears. In this context, MRI was a plea and a prayer, not a strategy, let alone a devious if ineffective plot.

Furthermore, the context of crisis colors the well-worn missionary thrust that had characterized Anglican Communion discussions from the start. For “Mission” was at the heart of this conference, as it had been at every other Anglican Congress. At the center of the program was a “mass meeting of missionary witness” held at Maple Leaf Gardens, with thousands in attendance, including addresses from India, Malaya, and Fiji. MRI stated that its purpose was to further “mission as our common task,” and Stephen Bayne, the Communion’s first Executive Officer, who had labored indefatigably to get leaders to think about the Communion, himself stressed that it was meant to facilitate “planting” the Christian Church “in every place” of the world (Anglican Congress 1963, edited by Eugene Fairweather, p. 192). The plea and the prayer, then, of MRI had to do with the urgent, perhaps even desperate, sense of missionary thirst, tested by the challenges of overwhelming crisis: how to respond concretely so that Jesus Christ’s overcoming of the powers of evil is visible and the Gospel touches the entire world? This was a powerful call.

I would add two further themes that emerge — unrehearsed — in the conference. The first is the diversification of the Communion, reflecting the world’s felt global life: cultural and political diversity was bursting forth on the consciousness and decision-making demands of governments, and the term “international” had taken on a new and burdensome meaning. Anglicanism had for a long time, after all, stressed the integrity of national cultures and polities. And we should note this was clearly being seen. At Lambeth 1948, there were, by my count, nine non-Western bishops and only one African. At Minneapolis in 1954, there were 12 native bishops, and now, from Africa, Islam was discussed with some concern. In Toronto, there were more than 25 non-Western indigenous bishops, and more than 161 non-Western delegates. It was a striking and accelerating drift, and one whose outcome we all know today: in 1998, 364 non-Anglo-American bishops came to Lambeth, almost half the total number. And at the Toronto Congress their voices were heard, and some, like Bishop John Sadiq of Nagpur, India, took prominent roles in the conference. But at the conference we also hear repeated notes of tension between the need to acknowledge and uphold this diversity and the now dangerous demands of proliferated and vying peoples, among which, somehow, the Church was to press for the Gospel. The Communion, alas, has simply mirrored the development of this fear into reality, as regional and cultural-economic differences have become dominant in our conflicts.

The second subtheme that flew into full view in MRI, was the issue of a lack of resources for mission itself: for training, education, schooling, hospitals, this and that. Churches needed to help one another. For Ramsey, this fact pointed to the simple “law of sacrifice” in St. Paul’s terms: “a church which lives by itself will die by itself” (Anglican Congress 1963, pp. 124-25), he famously said. Or, in Japanese Bishop Goto’s phrase: a “new era” of “common life” was being inaugurated, yes, even financially: the “dreary goal of autonomy and self-support” is now past (p. 125)!

But let us be clear: not only were the “crises” themselves long in the making; the concerns that crisis seemed to press to the fore were actually always central to the Anglican Communion. In this sense, the Toronto Congress simply shone a light on a Communion that was already well-formed in its commitments, challenges, and orientations.

The Toronto Congress, I have intimated, emerged as the tip of an iceberg from the depths of something much deeper and long-standing. What exactly? In the first place, and fundamentally, the reality that the Anglican “Communion,” simply as a concept, was primarily missionary in its origins and meaning. The idea of an “Anglican Church” with a peculiar “communion” derives from the 17th century and then took shape through the self-conscious missionary movement of the Church of England into America, and later elsewhere. By the early 19th century, the notion of “Anglican churches” in the plural — not just the Church of England — was well-founded, and by the mid-19th-century, as is well known, the actual phrase “Anglican Communion” emerges from a very specific missionary context: the Jubilee Anniversary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the SPG, which had been a leader, with all its foibles, in the Anglican spread of the gospel. There is a “communion” of Anglican “churches,” observers noted, precisely as it is the embodied expression of the missionary thrust of Anglicans to plant the gospel in all places.

Everything about a “communion” derived from this missionary thrust. Talks about a Lambeth Conference and so on in the 1850s derived from this, even before worries over Colenso and the rest; and once these conferences took hold, they devoted themselves mainly to missionary concerns. The first 1908 Pan-Anglican Conference was put together by the Mission Boards of York and Canterbury. And Lambeth itself worked synergistically and often through overlapping personnel with the long string of world missionary conferences that began in the late 19th century — London’s Anglican missionary conference in 1894, Edinburgh in 1914, Jerusalem in 1928, and Tamburam in 1938. At every step of the Communion’s life, it was the world missionary impetus that upheld it, justified it, called it forward. We must never, ever forget that.

So, the Toronto Congress was simply lifting its head up to be seen, in all of its world concerns, from this continuous movement of missionary vision. It did so, however, under new pressures. Until about 1950, almost all Anglican bishops outside of America and a few other places were British, even in the missionary areas, and all had gone to the same public schools and same (two) universities, following the same course of studies. These studies, furthermore, were mostly governed by the ancient classics, not by theology at all, other than the Greek New Testament and the formularies. What kept these bishops together, then — evangelical, high, and low, in England, India, and Africa — was a common social and educational outlook, and the default theological foundation that upheld this church that was basically without leaders trained in academic theology: the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. We cannot underestimate the cohesive value of this homogeneity, as well as the weight it placed on a certain fundamental theological outlook.

But by 1963, this had begun to crack, obviously: bishops around the world were no longer all British or American; local seminaries were now training more and more clergy, including bishops. By 1967, the short-lived experience of a Communion-wide theological college, St. Augustine’s College in Canterbury, had folded for lack of support. And the prayer book itself was fading as a means of unity, as Bayne himself admitted, and as, at Lambeth 1948, an important report had expressly worried. The result was that the Toronto Congress’s great call, emerging, as I have argued, from a consistent missionary energy, became mired in the incapacity to find personal and structural cohesion. Bayne’s “improvisations,” as he called the new configurations of the Communion Office, Anglican Consultative Council and its commissions, proved inadequate, and their missionary initiatives — Partners in Mission, Mission consultations, now Indaba — quickly slipped into the perceived irrelevant efforts of a few that masked highly centrifugal forces. Most startling and disorienting, however, was the withering of a missionary center within the now Minority Church of the West, that came into increasing tension with the Global South’s Majority churches’ evangelistic energies, which proved far more in synch with the long current of the Communion’s historical life.

Given that the Anglican Communion’s own genetic character was bound to evangelistic mission, the Communion’s structures have been pressing to escape the improvisatory bonds that Bayne left us with. That is, in part, the source of our present conflict, and where we are today: “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ” in search of theologically responsible ecclesial structures, and the Communion’s missionary bloodstream seeking new vessels through which to renew the body as a whole.

In this light let me suggest several possible new channels of communion:

First, diversity requires a clearer mode of mutual engagement. MRI was significant, because it put this reality and call squarely on the table. And we have seen its demand: not “partnership” in some kind of contractual mode, but “mutual subjection” in the body of Christ, as Paul speaks of it in Ephesians 5:21. That presses towards an ecclesiology that is more than the sum of its national parts, indeed that is explicitly “supranational” — something Bayne still could not countenance. We need “supranational” structures. MRI, in its deep sense, implies that the churches of England and of Canada and of Nigeria and of Ecuador and of the U.S. are not “whole” as they stand and act alone; they are whole only as they subject themselves to one another, in the form of spousal life, as Paul writes. We need to look at the ways that “sovereignty” can creatively and responsibly be broken down. Political scientists and legal scholars and policy-makers have been doing this, in the wake of things like the European Union, Kyoto, human rights law, and so on (see Anne-Marie Slaughter’s work). The Church, and the Anglican Communion of course, is not a political entity, though many of its decision-making forms function politically. But churches, we can be sure, are not “sovereign states,” and this whole idea that we are needs to be thrown away. Speaking personally, the Covenant is still the most creative means we have on the table in this direction. And I will argue this with anybody.

Second, it is true that a static prayer book cannot become a substitute for the revelation of Scripture and the priority of the gospel. But the prayer book’s scriptural structure, its formative application, and its embedded provision of the Church’s “traditions” are essential to Anglicanism’s missionary life. Prayer book revision has been driven by local incoherence. This is a central reality that must be engaged now, and not later. But working this out will require that the political issue be pursued first.

Finally, the missionary character of communion cannot be let go. It must inform both church politics and the prayer book, even as its own form must be shaped by them also. This is the deepest lesson of looking at the substance of the Toronto Congress and MRI. And it is why we are not political nations, but the body of Christ with a gospel to proclaim and share. Every decision about political structure and doctrinal form must be subordinate to this reality of Christ’s mission within and as his own body to peoples and a world that must be drawn into his embrace.

The Toronto Congress was not a revolution, clearly. Nor should anyone have hoped it to be such. But that also means that our approach to the present and future cannot escape the Toronto Congress and, with wisdom, has to incorporate it consciously or — as has been the case — we are imprisoned in the attempt to escape it somehow, even while its informing realities eat away at us. I will end with this: the Toronto Congress was not a revolution so much as a “destiny” — a “fact” that embodied and embodies “facts” that are simply given. It is a destiny that is our own, one in which we move today. But “destiny,” in scriptural terms, is lived either as judgment or mercy. And if mercy, in this case, then we are called to frame our Communion’s life in a way that is faithful to those long-standing evangelical gifts through which God has established this common life in the first place. They are not for tossing overboard, but for carrying through.

The Rev. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and a member of the Living Church Foundation.

Image of Ephraim Radner by Sue Careless


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