Archbishop Justin Welby recently used his address to the Church of England’s General Synod to reflect on the Primates’ Meeting. Perhaps surprisingly, his reflection was quite, even if informally and non-exclusively, Catholic. For him, if there is a way forward, it will be liturgical. The liturgy shows us what togetherness really looks like, how structure may prove fruitful, and why we must be patient.

The urgent question is how a divided Anglican Communion may yet discern the Spirit. How and where, to use the archbishop’s language, is “the Truth demonstrated adequately”? First, there can be no reception without communion, and Archbishop Welby began by describing the willingness of the primates to attend a meeting together and the hospitality received at Canterbury. But the real evidence of communion, however strained, occurred in the shared celebration of Word and Sacrament, as well as in the recognition of a common (and ecumenical) tradition embodied in such holy objects as the illuminated Gospels of St. Augustine of Canterbury and the crozier of St. Gregory, and in the ability to see the presence of the Holy Spirit in a figure like Jean Vanier and in a gesture such as foot-washing.

Archbishop Welby provided us a “sense of what the meeting was like” because it is that liturgical “sense” that is even more compelling than any canons and procedures. The Eucharist itself gives meaning to the Lambeth Conference’s language of “interdependence.” The gesture of foot-washing reappears twice in the address to show us what real mutuality looks like and how we may perceive orthodoxy together.

Besides evoking a powerful sense of communion, these liturgical resonances are also important because liturgy obviously requires structure: embodied positions within sacred architecture, furnishings, and rites. Note how the archbishop described specific locations — “semi-circle,” “on the other side of the altar,” “before the altar” — as well as specific gestures. But the structure of the liturgy is always for the sake of relationship. “Many of us were moved to tears.” In fact, in Catholic theology, a Eucharist that does not result in mutual love is inauthentic. (“This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged,” said John Paul II in Mane Nobiscum Domine 28). In ecclesial life as in the liturgy, then, structure and relationship must not ultimately be opposed.

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Furthermore, the liturgy shows us that receiving the truth takes time. After all, if orthodoxy is always the fruit of communal discernment, it takes patience. Catholic theology, we might say, rejects the idea of an immediate, ahistorical authority embodied in specific agents or texts: no “quick fixes, magic wands, or perfect spells.” Likewise, Catholic theology dismisses the preemptive rejection of authority altogether. We wait for one another in patience because it is the “whole body of the faithful who have received an anointing which comes from the holy one” (Lumen Gentium 12; see also Ormond Rush, “Determining Catholic Orthodoxy,” here).

The danger of an impatient exclusivity has been seen in the bloody “religious wars” during which every church now acknowledges that it killed martyrs in the name of Christ. Archbishop Welby seems to warn of the dangers of mimetic longings for the functional capacities of the secular world. “The Church, confronted by modernity, sought power through order ….” We are still haunted by the shadow of “white, middle class” authority whose technological power, ironically, may now be drowning our forgotten brothers and sisters. (This might explain Justin Welby’s joke about Trump [an imagined demagogue?] and how it was thought that Archbishop Welby himself was controlling technology during the Primates’ Meeting.)

A clear sign of impatience is in an “over-realized eschatology.” The archbishop used the interesting phrase “Truth demonstrated adequately” in contrast with the seemingly more definitive and secure “laying down of edicts.” In Catholic theology, we may say, the truth is both contextual and permanent; it is a matter of orthodoxy being continually reengaged and faithfully reinterpreted in time by a community, as maddeningly ambiguous (if hopefully “adequate”) as that may seem.

Rowan Williams once said, illustrating this holy reinterpretation (quoted in Rush, “Determining Catholic Orthodoxy”):

The average bishop, struggling in a small market town in Asia Minor in about 350, did not know (I mean, really, did not know) what it would mean to accept the Nicene creed; did not know what it would mean to be orthodox by the definitions of even a few decades later on. It doesn’t mean that fidelity was not important to him; it doesn’t mean that the formulations that emerged were somehow accidental or marginal or unnecessary. Far from it. But that imaginary, rural bishop in 350 is a figure I return to constantly in my own imagining. I feel for him. I suspect he feels for me. And for all of us. For him, orthodoxy, in the sense I now mean it, lay in the future.

But what does this have to do with the liturgy?

Archbishop Welby names a single source in his address, Tim Jenkins’s essay “Anglicanism: The Only Answer to Modernity” (in this collection). Jenkins describes a historical process through which order, freedom, and human flourishing have been set against one another. The archbishop vividly describes the danger of an order that is anxious domination. But we can also imagine freedom that is really “enthusiasm” — a possession of the spirit that is directed against any ecclesiastical order at all. And, after we have been torn between the horses of order and freedom, we may merely settle for a very cold version of human flourishing — a kind of exalted pragmatism.

Jenkins claims that Anglicanism does emphasize human flourishing. At worst, this can be an inertial Establishment for the sake of Establishment. At best, however, Anglicanism offers the witness of a particular way of life. This witness, Jenkins claims, is embodied in worship. Now, this might seem to be a magical claim. But Jenkins will note that worship subtly transforms us over time. “The participants are altered as they pass through it, purged as it were of their own wills and desires, and opened to the mind of God.” We learn to read our own lives and the world around us through the Scriptures.

One example of this change in perception may come through foot-washing. As the philosopher Terence Cuneo has suggested (“Liturgical Immersion,” Journal of Analytic Theology, 2 [2014], p. 129), when we participate in a ritual like foot-washing, we act in a “target role”: we “act the part of being some way for the purpose of being that way, becoming like or identifying with that which one imitates” (emphasis original). We recite words and perform gestures with our bodies not in some sort of make-believe but so that we may subtly “inhabit” the narratives in a particular way. Cuneo states that “immersion in liturgical action is in the service of receptivity and appropriation.”

So, as time passes, liturgical actions may change our perceptions of ourselves and others and the Anglican Communion itself. Or, as Archbishop Welby said, “[I]f our expectation is that only in foot-washing, even of our enemies, is the Truth demonstrated adequately, then in beauty of relationship the grace of God will prevail.”

We will have to wait for it. For us, orthodoxy may lay in the future, and this may be the only way forward.

Other posts by Neil Dhingra are here. The featured image comes via archbishopofcanterbury.org.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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