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Returning to the Body

Catholic Voices

Golden Anniversary of the Anglican Congress, Toronto

The second post-war Anglican Congress convened in August 1963 in Toronto. It was a gathering designed to allow Anglicans of all orders to reflect on what the future held for them. The Congress came at a time of rapid social change. An empire on which the sun never set had been rapidly dismantled. New communications technologies were bringing people around the world closer together. These changes and others prompted Anglicans who gathered in Toronto to ask new questions about what makes for Anglicanism and what it means to be a worldwide church. Their response, in part, was “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ” (MRI), a manifesto issued at the congress that called for a new way of being Anglican. Now, 50 years later, as Anglicans continue to struggle with what it means to be a worldwide church, MRI offers an unmet vision for authentic global communion.

MRI originated in pre-Congress meetings of mission executives and Communion primates in southwestern Ontario in the summer of 1963. As they gathered, they sensed that not all was well with their Communion. The end of the British Empire meant that it was no longer clear what held Anglicans together. The growing significance of the church in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and elsewhere forced them to recognize that Anglicanism was no longer an exclusively Western church. Many saw this as an exciting new development, but there was concern that the church was unable to move beyond old patterns of relationship. “Mission” was still seen as “older” churches in Europe and North America sending money and the occasional person to “younger” churches in other parts of the world. It more often seemed motivated by charity and pity than any sense of genuine fellow feeling and common purpose.

Through late nights of meetings and drafting sessions, the pre-Congress meetings produced MRI, which declared: “It is now irrelevant to talk of ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ churches. The keynotes of our time are equality, interdependence, [and] mutual responsibility.” MRI was a vision of a mission-oriented collection of churches, bound together by their common membership in the body of Christ. The Pauline undergirding of MRI is self-evident. In the same way that St. Paul had seen that individual Christians in Corinth or Rome were members of the same body, the constituent members of the Anglican Communion were also joined together. One church could not say to another, “I have no need of you,” because, as MRI recognized, each member church brought unique gifts and talents that others needed to receive. St. Paul had not written, “You should be members of the body of Christ,” but “You are members of the body of Christ.” The challenge for Anglicans, MRI saw, was to recognize these relationships that already knit them together around the world — and then live fully into them.

The New York Times reported that MRI “electrified” delegates at Toronto, and it was widely hailed for the way it showed Anglicans honestly grappling with their future. But the vision set forth in the document languished in the years after the congress.

More recently, Anglicans have shifted their thinking about unity and now root their ecclesiology in the Trinity. The Virginia Report (1997) set forth this view: “the unity of the Anglican Communion derives from the unity given it in the Triune God, whose inner personal nature and relational nature is communion” (1.11). Subsequent documents, including The Windsor Report and the Anglican Communion Covenant, reflect this emphasis, as each discusses the Trinity far more than the body of Christ as organizing imagery for thinking about unity. There may be good reasons to link unity and the Trinity — Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers in John 17 does this — but by emphasizing the Trinity, Anglicans have lost the insights that the body of Christ might bring to us, insights highlighted in MRI.

“Mutual responsibility” appears, at first glance, to be uncontroversial. But the challenge of putting this into practice reveals some of its hard truth. One of the reasons MRI foundered in the years after the Toronto Congress is that churches interpreted its call for greater relationship as a call for financial transfers. But money has a way of undermining mutuality, particularly when some parts of the world have so much of it and others so little. Money, moreover, undermines responsibility — both for oneself and for others. If funding for projects in a diocese comes from elsewhere, church leaders have little incentive to take responsibility for them. If a church feels it can buy its way out of true relationship by writing a check, it has lost any sense of responsibility to its sisters and brothers. Mature relations in the body of Christ depend on individuals and congregations that can take responsibility for their obligation to honestly engage others in the body.

“Interdependence” seems equally anodyne. But it is loaded with meaning. In the last decade, many Anglican leaders have announced, effectively, “I have no need of you.” Yet the body cannot function as it was meant to without all its members, a fact St. Paul made the basis of his theology. It is a fact that is equally true of a worldwide Communion of churches. “It takes the whole world to know the whole Gospel,” said Max Warren, former general secretary of the Church Missionary Society and a key figure at the Toronto Congress. In spite of the ways in which it can sometimes be challenging to see what others have to offer, the central insight of the body of Christ remains correct. Each Christian sees through a glass darkly. As unlikely as it may seem at times, we need those with whom we are joined in baptism to help us see fully.

The Anglican Communion is again in a challenging position, one in which it is unclear how this worldwide collection of churches is to stay together. But the significance of the Toronto Congress should not be ignored. MRI reminds Anglicans that the body of Christ brings important insights to our search for unity, a unity that can only be revealed through the hard work of true mutuality and interdependence. In a near-exclusive emphasis on the Trinity, Anglicans have neglected the vision set forth by the body of Christ. Our life together has been impoverished.

It is no mistake that Paul moves from his most extended discussion of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 to his famous passage about agape in chapter 13. Agape is the ethic of the body of Christ, the actual, concrete life of those who are united by baptism with Christ and one another. Fifty years after MRI, returning to the body might remind us that what Anglicans need more than anything else in their relationships with one another is a little more agape.

Image: More than 17,000 people jammed Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, for the opening service of the Anglican Congress on August 13, 1963. Canadian Churchman photo from the Archives of the Episcopal Church


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