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Catholicity, apostolicity: Come on down

A truism of the last decade of inter-Anglican turmoil has been that a crisis concerning sexuality has provided the occasion for long-needed ecclesiological conversation and potential development. A cursory reading of The Windsor Report (2004) yields this distinction immediately. The Lambeth Commission carefully set aside discussion of the theology of sexuality, reporting simply that the Anglican Communion has a “consensus” on point, before diving into questions of authority, structure, accountability, and much else. In this, the authors recognized our moment to be primarily ecclesiological. Two years later, Archbishop Rowan Williams, throwing his support behind the Covenant notion mooted by Windsor, memorably wrote that

if we are to continue to be any sort of ‘Catholic’ church, if we believe that we are answerable to something more than our immediate environment and its priorities and are held in unity by something more than just the consensus of the moment, we have some very hard work to do to embody this more clearly.

What, for instance? We need, the archbishop said, to develop an adequate set of “structures for decision-making” in order to “cope with the diversity of views that will inevitably arise in a world of rapid global communication and huge cultural variety.”

Supposing that Archbishop Williams was right in 2006 that the Anglican Communion needs to develop decision-making structures in order to sustain and nourish its common life qua Catholic, have we made any progress in this regard? Of course, we gradually developed an Anglican Covenant, which about a quarter of the Communion adopted or otherwise tentatively embraced. But it failed to garner the interest of most and so sits neglected, unresolved. Ten years on, we are basically in the same place that we were, as the communiqué and accompanying addenda from the 2016 Primates’ Meeting make clear. Many Primates, at least, seek a common “doctrine” upheld by “Catholic unity,” but for now they concede that this is only the “majority” consensus (Addendum A, paras. 2, 4-5).

We remain unable to articulate and defend the basis of our faith and order beyond what Archbishop Williams called the consensus of the moment. That being so, the next natural question is: How long will the consensus hold? But the deeper and more difficult, essential question is: Why should this, or any, consensus be maintained? On what grounds?

Insofar as the communiqué and its addenda approach these last questions, they announce the majority position in the manner of a placeholder:

The traditional doctrine of the church, in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching. (Addendum A, para. 4)

This is an announcement because no argument is offered, and it is a placeholder because no means of prosecuting the argument are proposed. Would-be apostolic doctrine seeks sources for which the would-be catholic order of the following paragraph could provide structure.

Of course, not all Anglican parties seek intensified catholicity and apostolicity, at least in the near term. One vision for the Communion looks for relief from the more democratically structured Anglican Consultative Council and notes that there are no control mechanisms in the Anglican world. Communion itself is constituted by relationships rather than “structure and organization,” in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. At its best, this view might lead to the accountability and affection of family members, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and those with whom we most painfully disagree, on all sides. As children of God, we are all bound to “the high calling of love,” as Curry says. Less robustly, this line of thought settles for human striving — simply “Christians seeking to work together and build stronger relationships … so that we can have a stronger voice to take a stand for human rights and to work for justice,” in the words of Bishop Bill Franklin of Western New York.

An adjoining vision presumes that the progressivism of the Episcopal Church anticipates a very different but finally universal future: Episcopalians (and others) are leading the way toward what will, one day, be the new Anglican consensus, and if it isn’t, it should be. When Presiding Bishop Curry says that “it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us,” many will hear this as patronizing, and from powerful U.S. bishops and dioceses they will fear bullying. A cynical version of the view presumes, as in a Guardian editorial, that the Primates’ Meeting has achieved an inherently unstable and necessarily temporary “settlement.” The vacuum will be filled by more and mere politics in the habitual Anglican interim on the way to, thank God, generational change sans old-fashioned theological baggage.

Missing in both cases is the theological basis of the Church as a divine act and instrument of salvation: a single Body whose members are remade in the image of their Head, who is love, compassion, sympathy, joy, unanimity, humility (see Phil. 2:1-3). “To be in real communion is difficult,” writes Bishop Matt Gunter of Fond du Lac. “It requires dying and rising. It requires patience, perseverance, and endurance. It requires the power of the Holy Spirit.” Indeed.

You who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard. (Col. 1:22-23)

What does it mean for Anglican Christians to profess reformed catholicity in a visible communion across great stretches of geography and culture, and how can we seek and serve one another faithfully? In fact, collegial structures are essential to the vocation of unity because they are themselves evangelical. Wise counsel, good order, and prudent discipline protect and enable the primary work of preaching and teaching the good news of reconciliation in Christ.

Now is the moment — in the run-up to the Anglican Consultative Council’s meeting in April, in preparation for next year’s Primates’ Meeting, setting the stage for the 2020 Lambeth Conference — for the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order and comrades in arms to work carefully and collaboratively to cast a compelling vision and curriculum for our structural and doctrinal future. The objective: to grow, as Lambeth 1920 said, into “the unity of a universal Church” and so articulate “ideals” that are “less Anglican and more Catholic” (Lambeth Conference 1920, “Report of the Whole Committee on some important results of the extension and development of the Anglican Communion” in Ecumenism of the Possible: Witness, Theology and the Future of the Church, ed. William A. Norgren [Forward Movement, 1994], p. 99).

What catholic ideals? Those that express apostolic doctrine. The method unlocks a great storehouse of common and precious property. In his 2004 letter to Rowan Williams following the publication of The Windsor Report, Cardinal Walter Kasper praised the report’s commitment to catholicity but urged redoubled attention to apostolicity, “witnessed in the Scriptures, the early councils, and the patristic tradition.” Christians, Kasper said, have both “synchronic” and “diachronic” obligations, that is, obligations both to today’s “communion of churches” and to the historical “consensus” of the whole Church — beyond the inherent instability of merely contemporary agreement. The particular and universal together, across time, make possible the health of the one Body.

This year’s Primates’ Meeting set a successful and potentially profound precedent that should be built upon: a “unanimous decision … to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ” (Communiqué). April’s ACC meeting in Zambia and next year’s Primates’ Meeting will be upon us in no time and will provide fresh opportunities to speak about our shared faith, common commitments, and agreed-upon structures. As we take them up, we will move beyond meta-ecclesiological markings to speak again, pray God with confidence, of the reasons for apostolic doctrine, sustained and propagated by a visible Church.

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:23-25)

Christopher Wells is the Executive Director of the Living Church Foundation. His other posts may be found here. The featured image of the Anglican Primates comes via Primates 2016. 


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