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Belonging together

Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By Geoffrey Rowell

As long ago as 1963 the Anglican Congress in Toronto produced a significant document, Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ.

All ecclesiology is about our belonging together, and our belonging together in Christ. The great images of the Church in the New Testament — the people of God, the vine and the branches, the living temple, the Body of Christ — all point in their different ways to the fact that to share in the redeemed life of the new creation is not something anyone of us can do alone, either as an individual or as a group or province. To be in Christ is to be bound together in mutual responsibility and interdependence.

That mutual responsibility and interdependence is expressed through the structures of the Church which flow from our common baptism and our common participation in the Eucharist. We belong to each other and what one does affects all. The four marks or notes of the Church — unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity — are all outworkings of this “belonging together.” They are expressions of the “belonging togetherness” — the communion, the fellowship, the koinonia, of the Holy Spirit, or, to use an image from today’s world, the internet of the Holy Spirit. In a divided Church seeking unity we have learned to be sensitive to how we tell our history, and how we can go back behind statements and understandings coming from past battles and entrenched positions, to learn what we share in common. The ecumenical dialogues have produced remarkable convergences and agreements in the statements of the ARCIC dialogues and the recent report of the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue, The Church of the Triune God.

This is the context in which the Anglican Covenant must be seen. Unilateral actions always, or almost always, lead to division. When John Wesley, as a priest of the Church of England, laid hands to ordain, that sacramental action, done out of conviction that mission priests were needed, led to a schism which has still not been fully healed. So when a particular province of the Anglican Communion acted in the consecration of a bishop who was divorced and in a same-sex partnership, this did not have the consent of the Communion. For historical reasons the way in which the Anglican Communion grew did not give the constituent churches of the communion a common canon law, though recent work done by Anglican canon lawyers has demonstrated 101 common principles in the canon law of the various provinces. As the Communion has grown, and global communications have increased immediate awareness of the actions of other provinces, so a need has grown for a more explicit commitment to a common faith and order which expresses our mutual responsibility and interdependence. The catalyst for this was a particular action in a particular church, but this was surely something waiting to happen, and if it had not happened in relation to the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, it might have happened in relation to lay presidency at the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of Sydney.

As vice-chair for a number of years of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations, I am aware of how divisions in the Communion pose challenges to our ecumenical partners in dialogue — who are we talking to? Do Anglicans affirm same-sex relationships as equal and equivalent to marriage, or do they uphold Christian teaching of marriage as being a lifelong union between a man and a woman? Behind the particular questions are questions about authority in the Communion, and our belonging together. The Anglican Covenant emerges out of this situation and is a result of careful consultation. If we can make ecumenical agreements with other churches we ought clearly be able to do so among ourselves.

So much of the Covenant expresses, largely uncontentiously, the common faith that Anglicans acknowledge and express. But if you propose a covenant that expresses how we are bound together you cannot avoid the question of what happens if one particular province wants to press ahead with an action that does not have the catholic consent of the communion — it is inescapable that there has to be first a process of dialogue, and then if the matter cannot be resolved, consequences. If there are no consequences then there is no point in putting anything at all in place. What is important is that there should be a recognition of mutual responsibility, interdependence and accountability, and that before potentially church-dividing actions happen, there is a commonly accepted process for dialogue, listening and clear consideration in a wider context. The Covenant does just this and we need to endorse it for both Anglican Communion and ecumenical reasons.

The Rt. Rev. Geoffrey Rowell is the third Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.


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