I have returned from the excellent conference, Living Sacrifices: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal, co-hosted by Nashotah House and The Living Church. Among other things, papers considered the Anglican Covenant, proposals for the further development of Anglican structures, and the ecumenical vocation of Anglicanism. Here are some of the things I learned.

We could do with more of the scholastic art of making distinctions. We talk about communion, but of what kind and with whom? Getting clearer on this actually makes a material difference as one tries to work out what life under the Covenant might mean. There is communion in the bread, and for clergy across provinces, and in teaching, and in praying and serving more locally. Communion might be intensified in one, impaired in another, maintained unaltered in a third.

Ephraim Radner offered the most compelling analogy for the Communion and the Covenant, one that illumines how a relationship of intensification, such as Archbishop Williams once cited, might go. In the political world, various countries are all members of the United Nations, but the Paris Accords are a voluntary fellowship for a stated goal. Being an Anglican Church in relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury is more like the former, and Covenant Churches gathering to deliberate on matters of teaching is more like the latter. Clearly the Accords are no less real or important for having this format and status.

One source of the difficulty in advancing the Covenant is a widespread suspicion of institution or structure.  Clearly the Episcopal Church is, from one perspective, a religious institution dealing with demographic decline. But precisely because this is so, and due to our culture’s suspicion of institutions and its pervasive individualism, we emphasize the contrasting theme of being a movement. On the other hand, evangelicals, including those in churches of the Global South, by nature deemphasize ecclesial structures. They see them primarily as means for the vigorous evangelization of individuals. In both cases, and for different reasons, we face a challenge in proposing structures, and so part of the task is to find the right terms to argue for them. We need rules if we are live together. Structure is what enables movements to endure. Structure is what keeps the family together and the message clear so that evangelization can proceed well.

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In this vein, everyone would be happier with a case for the Covenant that highlighted its missional usefulness. Here I was reminded of the watchword of the Anglican Congress in Toronto in 1963: “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.” How ahead of their time they were! The on-going struggle of the Communion is best seen along the trajectory set out there and then, so that its missional roots and direction are made clearest.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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