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Concerning Asymmetry

By George Sumner

Churches perennially need to maintain boundaries and guardrails for the faith. From the time of the New Testament, with the threat of Gnosticism, there has been an awareness that some beliefs and practices are not recognizable as aligned with the faith of the apostles. At the same time, it was also acknowledged that some differences of expression were within the zone of the allowable, the recognizable — what came, in the time of the Reformation, to be characterized as “things indifferent.” The Scriptures themselves were the primary means to draw these boundaries, though debate about the boundaries of Scripture itself invariably ensued as well. Eventually a constellation of traditions came to prominence in this guiding and protecting function: the canon of Scripture itself, the creeds, and the episcopate. They mutually reinforced one another. These were of different kinds: a list of authorized books, a concise summary of the faith, and a social institution involving leaders. The intention was that doctrine and structure would be aligned. Each subserves the other in aid of the fidelity of the Church. At various times in the subsequent history one or the other was seen to have been in need of correction, but this desire for eventual alignment continued. At the same time, the guidance of the Church has been understood as a “long game.” While “councils can err,” there is a confidence that “the gates of hell will not prevail” in the long run.

With the eventual division of the Church, different traditions have relied on different confections of doctrine and structure. Anglicanism has offered an amorphous and complicated solution. In the 16th century it had king and prayer book to turn to, but the modern era has rendered both more problematic, given that it is now a global communion prone to liturgical revision. It has a “dispersed” kind of authority (Lambeth Conference). This requires patience and a shared responsibility of discernment within the communion of churches. Sometimes this has worked well, though more recently it has proved difficult. Here too, the structures are of different kinds, bishops and synods inherited from the ancient Church, a common mission history from the 19th century, inter-provincial and bureaucratic institutions like the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting, and the Anglican Consultative Council of more recent provenance. To be sure, developing such structures in the midst of a heated disagreement they are meant to resolve — “building a plane while we fly it,” as a bishop of mine put it — is not easy.

Now there are structures and there are structures. Throughout the history of the Church there have been institutions growing up in the interstices between structures. Monastic orders did not “line up” with dioceses or arch-episcopates. In Anglican history, independent livings were often created as a “work around” away from prelates. In the 19th century the mission society and the seminary are but two examples of what we would call parachurch structures. In many cases they provided needed freedom and energy. But in some cases, such as in the birthing of younger churches, an awkward period ensued when the parachurch had to decrease in order that the national church might increase. In short, while there needs to be a discernable relation of doctrine and structure, the latter has rarely been a monolith. The parachurch introduces an element of what we might call “asymmetry,” a complexity beyond a straightforward isomorphism of doctrine and structure.

The idea that asymmetry might help with the conflict over the nature of marriage in the Anglican Communion is not new. Archbishop Rowan Williams wondered if the idea of a church society might be useful. Then, in the wake of the Windsor Report, he launched the Covenant Design Group. The resulting proposal of a Covenant for Anglicanism ran into strong headwinds. However, let us focus on the creative element of asymmetry found within it. It did not seek to eliminate the existing “instruments.” Rather it proposed a gathering of provinces which voluntarily chose to take on the mutual accountability it proposed. A new substructure would be created within and to some extent beside the existing structure.

Now, in the wake of the Covenant’s struggles, we have a situation in which a considerable part of Global South Anglicanism has produced their own covenant. It has emerged from the ground up. Its proponents say that their members alone conform to the recognized Communion teaching on sexuality. Its detractors say that they have arrogated to themselves the composition of this new structure.  We can see that there is some merit in the points both sides make. What if, implicitly, both sides recognized the element of asymmetry lodged in the original Covenant, and hence that a similar asymmetry will need to be part of the eventual resolution (at least temporarily) of the Anglican dispute? What if the best answer for the Communion is in “non-zero-sum” thinking that finds a place for both structure from the top down and from the bottom up?

In the midst of these disagreements the Archbishop of Canterbury is often found in the cross-fire. But throughout, we must remember that such an inheritance as the primacy of Augustine cannot simply be manufactured. In fact, we should see in the Archbishop of Canterbury another kind of asymmetry. While organizational structures come and go, ancient primatial sees are symbols of our apostolic tradition and mission across the centuries. While Anglicans are free to disagree with this or that view, the See is to be honored for this deeper reason quite distinct from the struggles of the day.

If we may indulge in a sidebar, there are other strong warrants for asymmetry. Our Lord calls on us to love our enemies, an attitude which complexifies a human zeal for truth. Call this moral asymmetry. More recently the ecumenical movement has advocated fellowship with brother and sister Christians with whom we still disagree: missional asymmetry. The dialogue movement advocates friendship and a posture of listening with members of other religions with whom we disagree profoundly. In each of these, for a Christian, is to be found a willingness to wait on the Lord’s sorting of wheat and chaff on the Last Day.

Another way to think of asymmetry is to observe that the asking of different questions elicits different answers. Often people are not so much disagreeing directly as speaking in a parallel manner. This brings us more directly to the global Anglican conflict itself. What if there is a difference between the question “Who is an Anglican?” and the question “What do we normatively believe?” What if Anglicanism is more like a Venn diagram in which each question can be represented by a circle overlapping with the other? What if the instruments of communion answer the first, in various ways, while the emerging Global South covenant contends, or claims, for those involved, to answer the second? What if Anglicanism is actually the interaction over time of a wider, messier, historically-rooted membership on the one hand, and a sometimes conflicted, deliberative pursuit of theological coherence on the other? The first should be defined by charity and the second by a diligent commitment to the common inheritance of the apostles’ teaching. They should not be altogether disconnected, but now, in the meantime, they present us with an element of asymmetry.

We can readily think of concrete expressions of asymmetry. Imagine a future like this. Anglicans gather with fellow Anglicans from elsewhere in the global Communion, around the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the symbol of a longer shared history. They share with those with whom they disagree as part of a wider and fractious family within which they find plots of common ground and advocate their position. But they may also have a share in the Covenant fellowship whose witness is to the norm of faith which should pertain in our Communion. The two koinonias overlap, in turns bumping up against one another, and striving for greater alignment.

From the perspective of the Communion Partners in North America, and probably other provinces of the Communion eventually, it would help if the Global South covenant made room, at least as fellow-travelers, for those in theological agreement who are part of a Church with whom they are at variance. Similarly, one could be a full and loyal member of a provincial church while maintaining theological friendship with a contesting ecclesial body. In all this we are simply following the faithfully asymmetrical example of the ecumenical movement, where koinonia with those with whom we do not have structural isomorphism was the very point.

Obviously, this rapprochement has its own doctrinal limits! One cannot be part of a structure which anathematizes the doctrinal view with which one caucuses. One should continue to seek to infuse structures with doctrinal fervor and coherence. But over such asymmetrical groups the Lord does rule and will prevail, and this, in this cracked and yet gifted clay pot we call the Church, is, like our daily bread and protection from the trial, enough.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

3 COMMENTS

  1. “…it would help if the Global South covenant made room, at least as fellow-travelers, for those in theological agreement who are part of a Church with whom they are at variance.”

    I thought the wording for this was already in place.

    “…one could be a full and loyal member of a provincial church while maintaining theological friendship with a contesting ecclesial body.”

    There is the challenge. TEC permits this? For individuals (lapel pin affiliation), parishes (nice banner) perhaps, but dioceses/bishops? It will be a sufficiently tall order to put in place ‘conservative’ bishops when the present handful retire. One can be dubious about that, leaving aside the idea of membership in a Global South Covenant in addition.

    It was very heartening to see the GS pick up the Covenant ball and run with it, something that ACI fought for. In the meantime things like B012 and +Albany trial have complicated matters considerably, as TEC continues on its present course.

  2. I would add. On the role of Canterbury. I believe many have fundamentally divergent ideas about the instrumentality of the See. Some — mainly outwith the C of E — judge the character of the role as very significant vis-a-vis the Communion. Those inside the C of E are not of one mind here. Some don’t want the role taken away, but do not see the Communion as much more than a vestigial Empire holding, and so do not want any kind of robust instrumentality. Others want the ABC to focus all labours on the C of E (where is plenty to labour at and plenty to be worried about, in an increasingly diminished establishment presence). Others outside the C of E look to the ABC in an enhanced role, but increasingly feel the job is too big or too prone to muddling along. And others have serious questions about any role at all, for varied reasons (will the C of E survive and in what kind of form; will it divide into blocs; of what practical value is an ‘historic see’ especially on a shifting cultural terrain in the 21st century). The days of Rowan Williams and frequent Primates Meetings was not very long ago, but it seems like a rear-view mirror shot now. Covid only lays bare the real financial and administrative fragility, always present and lurking. And what if, as many expect, the established character of the C of E is drastically adjusted, for all kinds of practical reasons. How will a next Monarch view the C of E? Etc.

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