This paper was first delivered at the Living Sacrifices conference co-hosted by Nashotah House and The Living Church, June 6 to 9. It served as a response to Ephraim Radner, “The missio Dei of communion: Anglicanism, change, and synodality.”
As I considered Ephraim’s paper, it was tempting to avoid its sharp edge, which is its call for us to conform to Christ’s self-giving love, while considering the ramifications of change and an ecclesiology of change. Also, Ephraim called us to consider at least one practical response to the current moment, that is, a worldwide Anglican Synod — voluntarily joined, for the sake of common counsel and decision-making, to draw our churches closer together in the life of synodality that they have long sought.
Instead of avoiding that edge, it seems best to face it head on, and state as starkly and clearly as possible what seems at stake in most refusals to consider the proposal: I want to probe the wound at the center of the Anglican Communion, that is, the violent divisiveness that lurks in Christian hearts and our lack of “self-giving love.” My response focuses on three ideas, movements, or missions: first, the divine utterance or summons; second, the awakening of a human response or echo; and third, the graceful perfection of all things in the Passion and Resurrection. To each of these movements, I will add a question meant to provoke us to an answer.
The divine utterance
At the 1920 Lambeth Conference, the assembled bishops declared in their Appeal to all Christian People: “We believe that God wills fellowship” (Lambeth 1920). This is one of those grand Anglican statements that would be repeated “in many and various ways” over the years; since the 1980s, such statements have been grounded in a communion ecclesiology influenced by ecumenical dialogues. One such statement appears in the preface to the Anglican Covenant: “God has called us into communion in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9),” it says. “This communion has been ‘revealed to us’ by the Son as being the very divine life of God the Trinity.” Communion is the divine life of God, and God wills us to live in communion with him, with one another, with ourselves, and with all creation.
At the heart of all these statements is a vision of the God revealed in Scripture as the world’s creator and redeemer, who made all things in gratuitous freedom by the utterance of his word, establishing harmony and order in heaven and on earth, and who likewise redeemed all things by that same word again in utter freedom, “making peace through the blood of his cross” and reconciling things earthly and heavenly (Col. 1:19). At the heart of all these statements, then, is a sense of divine initiative, a sense that the life of the world is given its gracious limits by the God who “is before all things, and in [whom] all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
In other words, the very reason or purpose for the existence of anything is given; its purpose lies hidden in Christ, the wisdom of God. God has spoken; let the whole earth tremble before him. Or as Ephraim put it so well in his paper, in discussing God’s “unifying ends” and ecclesiology; we must speak of “a divine movement whose singular reach, truth, embrace, and act … gathers the church and all creation to himself, like some great black hole, not of darkness but of grace.”
The call to unity and communion is, as the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians tell us, part of God’s eternal purpose, in the display of his wisdom to the rulers of this age through the life of the Church in its conformity to Jesus Christ. This is, as the Gospel of John relates, part of the prayer of the Son to the Father on the night before he was betrayed:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. Acts 17:20-21
My first set of questions is simple: Do we believe this, truly? That God wills fellowship? That his movement in the world gathers and perfects? That the divine utterance of God constitutes the order of creation and the economy of salvation along the lines of harmony and unity?
The awakening of a human response
A little over a year ago, the primates of the Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury Cathedral to address the problems of the Communion. At the end of their meeting, after prayer and discussion, after exhortation by Jean Vanier, after eucharistic sharing and foot-washing in imitation of Christ, all in the presence of the crozier of St. Gregory and St. Augustine, the primates surprised us all. They stated: “It is our unanimous desire to walk together.” After years of acrimony, something perhaps miraculous happened. Whence came this desire?
The human desire to seek, extend, or preserve communion is a response engendered by the divine initiative in creation and redemption. At the heart of Genesis 1-3, for instance, is the creation of human beings in the image of God, male and female, bound together in the first compact of society, and commanded to be fruitful and multiply. In self-giving love, they were meant to extend life and well-ordered fellowship, filling and completing the earth thereby. Even after the Fall, the family stands as a font of society. We humans are all born and we all die, and all our striving and toil (whether noble or ignoble) is defined by this first extension and preservation of human society. The divine call to communion, God’s utterance, resounds here, provides the bounds for a human response, and constitutes the potential forms of that response; it awakens the human desire for communion. As St. Paul put it before the philosophers at Athens,
From one, God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from all of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
God’s prior action provides the ground for the awakening of human desire to find him and know him, however imperfect that desire may be, perhaps a “groping” and searching in the dark, though God is not far.
If this is so in creation, it is even more so in redemption, as God calls a people and a nation to himself, giving them laws and liturgy and life, as he speaks to them again and again by the prophets, but above all in the Word made Flesh, Jesus his Son. “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4-5). Jesus Christ hung on the tree that “the blessing of Abraham might come to the nations” (3:14). And “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal 4:6)
In this sending and awakening, as Ephraim put it, God has gone “into the farthest country”; he has descended into the deepest reaches of the sinful human heart, sending his Son to be incarnate, sending his Spirit to stir up within us the desire for communion, extending to all nations the blessing of Abraham. God’s movement, his energy, his mission, is the ground of all good desires for communion and for the Anglican missionary movement of gospel proclamation and service.
As Ephraim related well here, and as others have noted, the life of the Communion, especially in recent decades, may be framed specifically as this human response to that divine impulse to fellowship and unity. There is a missionary movement, from God to the ends of the earth, and the energy of this movement has not only created the Anglican Communion (among other churches) but also created the Anglican Communion’s desires for unity and harmony on the road to Zion. “It is our unanimous desire to walk together,” as the primates and so many others have said.
Many of the Communion’s attempts at responding well to God’s call have been halting or ill-conceived, though full of good desire. We have sought or “fumbled after” God, throwing up various things: missionary societies, Lambeth Conferences, numerous meetings and congresses, consultative or coordinating bodies of various stripes, commissions, task forces, and drafting groups, the Covenant itself — marked strongly by a sense of mission. The failures or shortcomings of these many efforts have been all too obvious at times, but they have also often embodied a divine zeal and love for the extension of communion and in service of the world and its own life and unity.
The question in recent years has been whether that motion of divine energy has ceased to move in our churches, amid declarations of impaired communion and the creation of alternative structures, amid lawsuits and bitter argument and slander, amid pastoral and theological confusion, amid much else that is too painful to name because of its violent or shameful nature.
I asked before: Do we believe truly that God wills communion? My second set of questions is equally simple: Has God stirred within our churches an enduring desire for communion? Does that continue within our very selves, within the hearts of those in this room? Or has it somehow stopped?
The completion of all things
The Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, in the Virginia Report’s section on “the communion of the Trinity and the Church” stated: “God’s gracious gift of steadfast loving kindness was from the beginning known by the people of God in the form of covenant” (2.1), that is, in structure, and agreement, and law. And the report said, “the very being of the Church is … dependent upon the outpouring of God’s gracious love, the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (2.12).
We see here an attempt to reflect well the fullness of the reality of communion as it is expressed in the midst of human life and sin, as well as hints toward what might make for communion’s perfection: we see a struggle to ground and develop communion both in the gift of divine charity and in practical structures and relationships. Communion consists not simply in “bonds of affection” to be discarded at any time, but in a wholehearted subjection of one to another in a total gift of self, modeled on the love of the Trinity as uttered pre-eminently in the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, and uttered again in the structures of the Church.
In his paper, as he addressed the possibility of an increased synodal form in the Anglican Communion, Ephraim focused strongly on the figure of Christ and his Passion. He said,
We need to find a way to articulate [the Communion’s divinely given mission] so as to concretize not just an idea but the practical means of moving into the ecclesial center of God’s life in Christ. This means not just conceiving of our ecclesial communion as a state of being, but of ongoing common activity that leads ever more fully into what are, for God, his finished works, but what are for us a pathway that follows, that is given to us from God in the actual forms of Christ’s body and words and deeds. This is the movement of discipleship. Communion must be a way of moving closer and closer to the finish line, but more and more living like Christ through more and more Passion, more and more Gospel, more and more Israel. This is the missio Dei, not as a condition or set of principles; rather as a person moving in the world drawing others with him.
That is, the perfection of the Church and all things lies within self-giving love, shown in the figure and person of Jesus Christ. This has been a consistent theme throughout Ephraim’s published work for the last 24 years, at least since his 1993 essay “Doctrine, Destiny, and the Figure of History,” with its evocation of a “singular form within which God embraces the conflicted life of the church.” Here, however, let me recall a few elements of these works, a set of sturdy buttresses surrounding the construction of his argument in his recent paper.
For instance, as someone about to be ordained (Lord willing) in only a few weeks, I have found few things more challenging than reading his sections in The End of the Church on ordained ministry in division, specifically Ephraim’s focus on a ministerial holiness characterized by divine charity, going to the utmost limits of human life, in love for another. Or, in Hope among the Fragments, he raised again and again the figure of a suffering love borne for the sake of the other, maintaining communion with the other, forgiving all things, bearing all things, hoping for all things, even foolishly. He returns again and again to the need for patience and charity in the face of seemingly intractable ecclesio-political disputes, and here he raises as particularly important a “larger ecclesial figure of mutual subjection in the image of Jesus” and Israel. That is, we model our engagement with bad leaders, heresy, and ecclesial sin on the example of Jesus in his subjection to the authorities of his day, going all the way to the cross and suffering under Pontius Pilate. As Radner suggests, through an evocation of Catherine of Siena, perhaps our vocation is not to split from, but to stay with and even die for the one we identify as a heretic in our midst. This would be a most excellent way.
I could go on in tracing in Radner’s thought the centrality of Jesus’ life and deeds, especially the Cross and “the form of a servant,” along with the prayerful life of communal “formative Scripturalism” that he outlines as the Anglican way in books such as The Fate of Communion, A Brutal Unity, Time and the Word, or in numerous brilliant essays. But I think the point is clear, and I would like to apply it in a particular way.
At the end of the paper he just delivered, Radner raises the possibility of an Anglican synod “as a way of life together,” and he does so in the teeth of an expected opposition. Many will say it is “not possible” to have an authoritative Anglican synod. After all, as many of us can testify, every time a Primates’ Meeting comes up, or the Anglican Consultative Council, or any statement is made at an international level, so many Anglicans around the world, and especially in the West, will spend hour after hour arguing about how they and their church cannot be forced to submit to the judgment of their Christian brethren. One hears strange paraphrases of the Thirty-nine Articles, suddenly deemed authoritative by those who otherwise demean them:
“Archbishop Welby hath no jurisdiction here.”
“Archbishop Okoh hath no jurisdiction here.”
“Presiding Bishop Curry hath no jurisdiction here.”
“All the primates together hath no jurisdiction here.”
In one sense, such claims are narrowly correct, as Radner notes. About all we can force each other to do in this pluralistic age is go to court over property. But here is where an engagement characterized by divine love must step in and promise to go further than what one can be “forced” to do. Here we must remember the perfective call of the Sermon on the Mount, to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to give up coat and cloak, to go the extra mile, to give to everyone who begs of us.
God does not call us merely to submit to the counsel of our friends. That would be too light a thing, and hardly cruciform. He calls us to submit to the oppressive, perhaps even arbitrary and mysterious, judgment of our enemies, even if they are our Christian sisters and brothers, baptized all. God does not call us merely to live within the constraints of communion. He summons us to come and die for those who would deny communion, in this way to give our Yes to every No — dying to self, dying to and for the world, dying for the sake of our enemies, taking up our cross and following him. Only then, perhaps, will he raise again the weeping ruins of our division.
And so I close with a final set of questions: How far will we go in pursuing communion? Will we go even to the cross?
 See Radner, Time and the Word, p. 89: “to experience time is to experience the divine self-giving, the ordering of God’s own being pro nobis, which is indeed eternity truly, but wrapped in its own suffered self-offering.”
 See Radner, “Doctrine, Destiny, and the Figure of History,” in Radner and Sumner, Reclaiming Faith: Essays on Orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church and the Baltimore Declaration (Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 46-84, at 48. See also, pp. 48-49, on the BCP: “our language of common prayer has instead continued to affirm a view of God’s historical rule that mirrors the New Testament’s own: that is, a conviction that the whole of history is revealed — apocalyptically — in the shape of Scripture’s texts, which individually and together render the figure of Christ. it is a stark view in its challenge to all forms of subjective privilege: the Holy Spirit exercises power as it historically conforms God’s gathered people to the images and shapes of the Bible. This initiative, this relationship, and these forms alone predominate in history.” Cf. the claim on pp. 49-50 that orthodoxy, even doctrinal, must suffer and be contested in order to be recognized.
 As he says in the chapter “Enduring the Church,” Hope among the Fragments, p. 208: “It is therefore facile and ultimately misleading for orthodox Christians to identify faults, and respond to their churches’ errors simply by saying ‘repudiate and separate’; it is ultimately misleading even if such a response is made only after long agonies of discernment. It is misleading for the single reason that this is not the shape of Israel’s history—which must ultimately be our own—because it is not the shape of Jesus’ own life. There is no other standard.”