Editor’s note: this piece responds to Timothy Sedgwick’s “Governing grace and communion” (March 3, 2016). 

Professor Timothy Sedgwick has opened a window and let a breath of fresh air into the current Communion debates. Rather than dismissing the issues at hand, he insists we take advantage of this moment. He makes at least three important contributions. The first is his basic claim that “governance” not only needs to be addressed but that it is a specifically Christian calling to do so. Governance is a means of “grace,” he rightly says, in part because of its “focus on how we live together and apart in order to pass on Christian faith in the midst of our differences.” We cannot simply reject the topic of governance as irrelevant to our evangelical vocations.

Sedgwick then provides a useful typology of forms of communion life, each of which might imply different types of governance structures. By providing concrete shape to possible resolution, he challenges us to gain clarity about our vision of common life, so that practical decisions can be made. He doesn’t take sides or pre-empt the kind of careful thinking he calls for. Rather, finally, he issues a clear call to one group, the Anglican Consultative Council (soon to meet), asking that it grapple with just these issues and take steps to further their discussion and resolution.

This proposition is very important. In what follows I raise some fundamental questions that go to the heart of Sedgwick’s discussion. I do so not to set his discussion aside but to display more clearly the shape of the playing field.

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1. Maybe everything is working fine

My first question aims at whether we really need a “back to the whiteboard” approach to governance in the Anglican Communion. I have the sense that Sedgwick might like a kind of “constitutional convention” for the Communion to sort matters out. Maybe this is a good idea, given our current mess. But why assume that the current structures of governance already in place are not the place to start, and indeed to strengthen? Forgetting or setting aside the history of our life together may well be a big part of the Communion’s ecclesial problem.

In our present conflict, repeated actions have been taken or attempted regarding teaching and order that point to assumed forms of governance: the Lambeth Conference (e.g., in the 1998 Resolution I.10, still regularly cited), appointed commissions (e.g., that issued The Windsor Report), the Primates’ Meeting on several occasions, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. We should not, finally, forget the proposed Anglican Covenant, which, after lengthy drafting and commenting, including at the Lambeth Conference, went through a tumultuous passage at the Anglican Consultative Council, and is still on the table before the Communion’s churches, having been adopted by some.

The functioning of these governing bodies and their arms has not been haphazard or arbitrary: their rationale has been clearly delineated, approved, and widely (if not unanimously) accepted by Communion representatives. If the point is that these current governing structures have not worked, then the question first to be addressed is How have they not worked?

One could argue that the drift apart — impaired communion, practical estrangement, and “distance” — is the way a communion properly engages the disputes we now face. To be sure, the costs associated with current Communion responses have been high in certain areas (resources, goodwill, witness), but may need to be borne, for lack of more “efficient” alternatives. After all, it is unclear whether any framework can govern a set of churches now ordered by individual, local, and regional freedom of decision-making and association, within the context of an even broader order of religious freedom and pluralism. Lambeth 1998 was tense, yet clear. It still was not enough to prevent schism: dissenting views were free to ignore the Conference’s recommendations and chose to do so.

It is possible that the modern era is one in which ecclesial differences almost always issue in new alignments and “exit strategies.” They did so in 17th-century England, despite state establishment; and they do so in centrally organized churches today, including the Roman Catholic Church, which millions of disaffected members have left.

Given the kind of people we are and the social orderings we insist upon in our civil and personal spheres, what may not seem to work in fact works just as we have ordered it to do: If you don’t like something, you dissent. And if you cannot have your way, you leave. Hence, perhaps “not working” is a misunderstanding. The current governing frameworks may be doing all they (or any other framework) can, in this time and global culture.

Sedgwick is right, though: we should at least be asking these questions analytically and, as far as possible, in a shared manner. The values of difference and exit that have rendered the Communion’s governing structures as they are may not be the values we would consciously wish to hold, if given the opportunity for reflection. But is this a polity issue or something far deeper than agreed-upon modes of ordering diversity?

2. Is the current dispute sui generis?

Another assumption Sedgwick makes is that the current conflict in the Communion is of the same order as other past or potential conflicts. He speaks of disputes over “teaching” and puts the last decade’s divisions in the same category. But is the matter of same-sex marriage analogous to divisive issues like the meaning of the Eucharist, the interpretation of the Bible, or even women’s ordination? In some ways, it seems it is not. The issue’s civil and social consequences differ, as does the manner in which these are embodied in practices and relationships that are, in our present context, humanly “irreversible” and intrinsically conflictive.

Thus, same-sex marriage, now enshrined in the civil sphere in many nations, involves the reordering of families in their membership and of the biological conception of human beings in their relationship to parents. The “difference” of views regarding what Scripture says or the Church teaches about all this is frankly irrelevant to the actual temporal enactment of familial life among those concerned. Once same-sex families have children and raise them, new social worlds have been organized that are not permeable to traditional social worlds.

It is hard to imagine, let alone enact, “communion” between these disparities. Add to this the doctrinal notions associated with these divergent human societies, and one is speaking about “two cities,” not “theological difference.” With new families and forms of life set in motion, no changing of minds could alter these lived arrangements, at least in any predictable fashion. Parties face each other with the moral antipathies comparable to the disagreements over slavery and National Socialism.

This would be a strong view of the divergence. My point is that the current issue at the center of the Communion’s conflict is not amenable to “first-order” and “second-order” distinctions, like other issues Sedgwick raises. It is no longer susceptible simply to doctrinal or liturgical discussion. Rather, it concerns what we do with other people’s bodies in a world where bodies are tightly controlled by the state (not the Church) and by personal demands. Disagreement is now faced with embodied opposition.

Is there a Communion governance mechanism that could engage this opposition? Or is “governance” a category that applies to something different altogether?

3. The reality of communion

The character of communion, in a Christian sense, is raised by these kinds of questions. And Sedgwick usefully provides three types of communion from which governance structures might flow: the ecumenical model (e.g., that between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), the differentiated model (associations of churches, and degrees of communion among them), and the unified model (one visible church). It is important to place these communion models in a historical perspective, and not simply approach them as ideal types.

The ecumenical model of communion was put together on the basis of acknowledged failure and limitation. It was a response to division — post-Reformation especially — and a step toward healing, not an end in itself. In the face of entrenched division, some have thought of its possible normativity. But that has never taken hold as a vision, and Episcopal-Lutheran experiments offer little clarity on what normative communion in these terms might mean, given the divisions in each church, accompanied by their respective numerical declines.

The differentiated model, as Sedgwick describes it, is currently the de facto dynamic of much of the Anglican Communion. Structurally, it is similar to the ecumenical model, except that the differentiated model represents not a positive advance toward healing but a step backward in the face of conflict. It is unclear if it should ever be formalized as “communion” at all, since it may simply be a way of structuring division.

As for the unified model of communion, Sedgwick rightly says that it “would form structures of governance that would resolve differences in doctrine and discipline among Anglican churches that otherwise threaten division between churches.” It requires “consent” and “agreement” among churches about authority and consequences to common life. There is no question that this is historically the only model that Anglicans have understood to express Christian communion generally, whatever the actual way this understanding has been enacted. Anglican leadership in ecumenical life was driven by this vision. Is it the case that we have now lost the vision altogether?

More to the point, any form of communion that does not have “unity” as its central meaning has never had any semantic purchase on Christian thinking. To be sure, new ways of redefining communion, so as to loosen the parameters of Christian unity, have been offered, although only in the last few years as conflict among Christian has proven immovable.

What these historical observations suggest is that there can be no adequate deliberation about “models of communion” without some much deeper theological engagement with the topic. Such engagement, furthermore, already abounds, and Anglicans have been at the center of it! The question I would raise, then, is Why do we refuse in the current conflict to inform ourselves by this profound and broad discussion that is now our heritage? Why invent something new? We already have “agreed statements” on communion with other Christians. Must we assume disagreement now at every turn?

4. Who is responsible?

Sedgwick issues a call to the Anglican Consultative Council to “begin a broader process of reconciliation by looking at the crisis in terms of models of governance” and to “create a process so that decisions about next steps” on this matter can be made. It is a timely call. The ACC has every reason to want to “begin” a discussion in this way. It does not, however, have any authority to press this forward in a directive manner. Its original constitution from 1968, vetted and ratified by the Lambeth Conference and member provinces, emphasized “advice” and “coordination,” hence the council’s “consultative” purpose. A new 2010 constitution, however, was put in place for legal purposes, ordering the council as a registered local company under U.K. and applicable EU law. This constitution had no comparable Communion ratification, and its lines of responsibility and accountability are now locally constrained. It is unclear, in fact, what the ACC now is vis-à-vis its Communion status. Obviously, the ACC continues to have a representative function in the Communion, and one that should be engaged. But rather than directing discussions of Communion governance, the ACC is in a position of being the object of such discussions in a fundamental way. Nor, with all due respect, does the ACC have the robustness to do much with Sedgwick’s proposals, given the historical and theological questions they raise.

 *  *  *

I take a more sanguine view of the actual shape of the Communion’s present structures, and for some of the reasons hinted at above: with these present structures doing their often clumsy work, a current has been set in motion, a current of communion that will prevail, along with whatever sub-currents go off on their own, as they will, and with whatever result. Our churches’ vocation here, along with our leaders’, is to discern this current and to articulate it clearly. Professor Sedgwick is helping us do this. Then, in this world of seemingly free decisions, we will choose to row with the flow or against it, with eyes open, as all are taken into God’s purpose.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. Other Covenant posts by him are here.

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