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A Broader Anglican Ecology

The following essay is excerpted from a chapter in “God Wills Fellowship”: Lambeth Conference 1920 and the Ecumenical Vocation of Anglicanism, ed. Christopher Wells and Jeremy Worthen (Living Church Books, forthcoming this spring).

By Hannah Matis

Are Anglicans called to unity today? If so, how might our behavior impact the wider Christian Church?

Ephesians 4 entreats all Christians to “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Of course, Ephesians goes on to describe the different functions of the various members of the body, in what Gregory the Great once called “unity in diversity” (see R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World). While I acknowledge the gift of authority granted to us in the historical episcopate, as a church historian and a specialist in the early Middle Ages in particular, I see diversity, even theological diversity, as the concrete reality of the Christian historical experience. The early Church developed in multiple urban centers simultaneously throughout the Roman Empire; the wholesale destruction of Jerusalem ensured, among other things, that there would be no one city that both claimed to be the single head of these various communities and could really make good on that claim. This regionalism is to some extent glossed over or concealed by modern western notions of what constitutes systematic theology. Any patristics scholar can tell you that even the great ecumenical councils of the Church are best understood as waystations along the road of ongoing Christian theological debate, rather than destinations wherein unity was fully achieved. In fact, councils such as Chalcedon were most destructive of Christian unity when their conclusions were imposed by fiat (see here the research of Rowan Williams, Lewis Ayres, Peter Brown, and others). In the work both of reconciliation and of theological debate, an easy trap is to hustle participants toward a happy ending or easy resolution that they cannot yet feel or affirm. Unity cannot be achieved by forcing a theological settlement on people prematurely. I refer the British to their own history in this regard.

So, should we give up? By no means! But let us at least be realistic about the nature and scale of the problem. At Lambeth 2022 the bishops of the Anglican Communion will be dealing with an unprecedented level of cultural and theological diversity within and without the Church, of a sort their forebears of 1920 could not have imagined. At the same time, Lambeth in 1920 had experienced the heyday of the international missionary movement and met in the wake of the Great War. Lambeth 2022 will be meeting in a world in which nationalistic political rhetoric appears to be more attractive and effective than it has for several generations. For these reasons, among others, the Church in the West now possesses a local, provincial — in the negative sense of the word — understanding of its place within the Anglican Communion.

I see some of the effects and affects of this in my professional situation. The Episcopal Church has always been a minority denomination in America, and in many places mimics the congregationalist sea in which it swims. Add to that the ecumenical pattern of the contemporary Episcopal Church. Case in point: a majority of my students at Virginia Theological Seminary were not born into the Episcopal Church, and many are very new to the Anglican tradition. As a faculty we often feel that we spend three years educating our seminarians into a basic, introductory understanding of the church they have just joined, rather than anything more advanced. In both the Church of England and in the Episcopal Church, many of our students are also significantly older — with a lifetime’s experience in their local area, but little sense of the wider Anglican world. If we as teachers do our jobs well, we complicate somewhat our students’ understanding of how to define “the church” or “their church,” to make it greater than their local community, their local diocese, or their national church. A week ago, I was at a meeting of Virginia Theological Seminary’s Center for Anglican Communion Studies, where without exception every student present begged for resources with which they could educate their local parishes that were, willfully or otherwise, clueless about the Anglican Communion and the Lambeth Conference. I found this both depressing and hopeful.

As the Anglican Communion heads into Lambeth 2022 and whatever will follow, I believe we are all called to explain, and even reinvent, our church as something beyond a gathering or a network of bishops and primates. Historically, the Church has of course always formulated its doctrine via gatherings of bishops, and such gatherings still potentially possesses great authority with which to do so. The Lambeth Conference has, however, never arrogated that authority to itself. To be sure, if it looks like a synod, and meets like a synod, and sounds like a synod, why doesn’t it operate as one? On the other hand, if it were a synod, how would it connect the congregationalist parishes of Virginia, the English Home Counties, and Sydney’s Western Suburbs?

If we are to have real communion, if real reconciliation between us is to take root, we need to teach a new generation of clergy and laypeople what the Communion is and why it matters. Given our recent acrimonious history, all of us need to explain how walking together is a positive good, even if something like a patient witness to brokenness is the best we can muster until a season for true growth arrives. A bishop brings his diocese, it was once said about the Lambeth Conference. How do bishops carry Lambeth home? And is it really just the bishops’ responsibility? How does the Anglican Communion properly claim the consultative and communicative role allotted to the laity in the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)? How might the laywoman bring her diocese to the ACC, and how can she bring the ACC home? As she does so, she will bring the Anglican Communion home as well, and thereby a part of the worldwide Church of Christ.

Lambeth 1920 suggested that the Anglican Communion should be a microcosm of the Church’s engagement with the world, as the cataclysmic effects of World War I drew the bishops together in repentance. With this as a guiding principle, many forces will, or should, draw us together again, across our many differences. Pragmatic, ecumenical practicums in the substance of walking together will, I believe, be essential, not least to show the world why the Anglican Communion matters. Here, I would highlight four forces that should inspire a united Anglican response.

Now and in the coming decades, climate change will affect all human beings, most notably in the Global South. But the greatest share of responsibility, and indeed repentance, must be borne by the North. For many of our brothers and sisters, drought, water shortages, harvest failure, storm damage, flooding, and rising sea levels, all of which we place under the umbrella of “climate change,” are the inescapable issue of our day. And when might it become the apocalypse of our day? The fifth Anglican mark of mission is to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. Up to now this has been hazy and largely aspirational. As western society comes under pressure to change its habits, even radically, for the next generation, climate change presents a pastoral problem in need of address. Can we congratulate ourselves for recycling peanut butter jars and buying Tesla pickup trucks? An honest reckoning with the problem can also help replace the provincial and isolationist attitudes of  both past and present with something more concertedly international and interconnected. Likewise, in the Global South, a green energy revolution could transform society in many unexpected ways, which in turn will challenge how the Church can support its people. This necessarily would open new opportunities for communication, mission, and pastoral care in remote areas.

A second, related force for change and potential unity among us is the plight of the refugee and the immigrant, whose numbers, we are told, will only increase in coming decades. The face of the Anglican Communion in the Episcopal Church is, overwhelmingly, the refugee and the immigrant. Our lone seminarian at VTS from the diocese of Nebraska — a historically very white, rural, agricultural part of Midwestern America — is a Dinka from South Sudan. The Sudanese refugee community, however, has maintained an ambivalent relationship, at best, with the Episcopal Church. Refugees and immigrants in our churches can potentially serve as cultural ambassadors between our different contexts. Both the Global South and the Global North should unite in their support.

The third force for change and potential unity is the experience of contemporary Christian martyrs. Christians are often the poor and dispossessed right now, including Anglican Christians, notwithstanding, and in some cases because of, our privileged imperial past. Let all Christians, and all Anglicans, tell the stories of the martyrs, grieve and rejoice together without vengeance, honor one another in the storytelling, and draw near in their sacrifice, remembering that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head.

The fourth force for change and potential unity is the teaching of our own Anglican tradition. There is an Anglican tradition of scholarship and teaching, and it is a tradition worth preserving. We almost lost Notre Dame Cathedral several years ago, through a sincere, but clumsy, desire to renovate. It required supreme courage from the firefighters of Paris for us to prize again what almost slipped away. Are we in danger of losing the good — as well as the bad, contradictory, and ambiguous — treasures of our tradition through similar neglect or misplaced desires to innovate? If we do not develop new educational structures by which to transmit and explain the faith, we will lose it. Certainly we will lose its range, depth, and complexity. To make an analogy with ecology, if we do not create the theological equivalent of a seed bank, what will survive will be multiple, disparate, vulnerable regional monocultures. From the standpoint of someone who designs and plans seminary curricula, I find myself constantly wanting to use more voices from around the Communion in my classes, and not always knowing where to begin. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a body of Anglican theology — Anglican theologians, lay and ordained — writing in their local languages, with facing-page English translation?

In the face of these serious challenges facing us, let me sound a note of calm. In his recent book Christ: The Heart of Creation, Rowan Williams notes, in a discussion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eric Przywara, that both “see the primary Christian calling in the modern age as a recovery of apostolic reticence — not a nervous self-consciousness about professing faith in public but in a sense the exact opposite, a confidence that God’s active indwelling does not need to be insisted upon either with exaggerated aesthetic gestures or with anxious political aggressiveness.” God’s indwelling does does not require grand gesture because, as Williams goes on to say, “Christian ethics is not about dramatic and solitary choices for individual good or evil but the steady building of a culture of durable mutuality and compassion.” In the world created and saved by Christ, we see God’s grace most clearly as “durable, attentive love.”

Durable mutuality and compassion. Durable, attentive love. What is fellowship, what is communion, what is Christian witness pointing toward Christian unity, if not these?

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