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Governing grace and communion

Editor’s note: see also Ephraim Radner, “Liberal order and communion: a response to Timothy Sedgwick” (March 4, 2016)

By Timothy Sedgwick

The primates of the Anglican churches have addressed differences of teaching and discipline in the Anglican Communion in terms of right teaching. Because the Episcopal Church has changed its marriage canon to allow gay and lesbian couples to be married in the church, the primates voted that members of the Episcopal Church cannot represent the Communion ecumenically or on its principal elected standing committees; moreover, the Episcopal Church should not vote on matters of doctrine or polity. At the same time, as expressed in their communiqué “Walking Together in the Service of God in the World” (Jan. 15), the primates committed themselves to continue to walk together, to hear and support one another, and to discern what it means and requires to be a communion of churches given the mission of the Church.

As the churches of the Anglican Communion seek “to walk together,” the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) may be able to contribute to the process of discernment. To do so, the ACC, I argue, needs to lead the churches of the Anglican Communion to consider together models of governance. The questions we ask make all the difference in terms of the answers we get.

 * * *

Decisions on doctrine not only have relational consequences. Decisions on governance have relational consequences. What is needed, and has yet to be done, are broad discussions of models of governance that reveal how different forms of governance work in addressing differences. If you begin with the question What do we believe?, attention is focused on how to resolve differences in order to determine and honor the truth of doctrine. If you begin with the question How do we govern given unresolved and presently irreconcilable differences?, the focus shifts to questions about order, authority, and unity amid difference.

Questions of governance focus on how we live together and apart in order to pass on Christian faith in the midst of our differences. Questions of right belief and church order, of doctrine and discipline, need to be addressed, but each needs to be addressed fully in its own right. Different models of governance need to be developed and assessed in terms of how they will honor the integrity of each of the churches of the Communion and achieve the greatest possible communion between the churches.

Specific questions of governance include: Who decides who teaches, how teaching is done, and what is taught — especially where there are differences in understandings and judgments among members of a church? This question needs to be asked at every level of church — in congregations, dioceses, national churches, and in a communion of churches. Where there are differences, we must ask: Who speaks for the Church? Who has authority for determining membership in a church? And: What do you do in a communion of churches when different churches answer these questions differently?

Governance is a matter of the possible, involving a range of often-conflicting interests. No form of governance resolves the matter of unity and difference. Such is the nature of belief itself.

*  *  *

The meaning of Christian faith cannot be reduced simply to beliefs. Followers of Christ only came to express their understandings of life in Christ in terms of shared creedal beliefs in the second and third centuries following the death of Christ. Life in Christ gives rise to beliefs, and beliefs shape life in Christ. This is what is meant by the Latin tag lex orandi lex credendi, which is short for ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. Prayer grounds and shapes beliefs while beliefs inform and shape prayer within the context of the community of faith as a community of worship and life, life and worship.

Christian beliefs and moral teachings serve several purposes. They teach as they make sense of Christian Scripture, worship, and a way of life. They regulate expressions of faith and the behavior that form a community of faith. They bear witness to the distinctiveness of Christian faith to those inside and outside the Christian community. The Christian community, however, has differed over the meaning of beliefs and the demands of the Christian life.

Where Christians differ over beliefs and moral judgments, they may or should take counsel together so that they might understand each other, be reconciled, and bear witness to life in Christ in the midst of their differences. Where there are incompatible judgments within the Church, the community confronts several choices, whether it is a congregation, a group of congregations forming a diocese, dioceses forming a national or provincial church, or national churches forming a worldwide communion of churches.

Where there are divisions, in order to continue in shared worship, fellowship, and mission, a community of faith can require all members to agree or accept differences. But, no matter what, divisions require governance. Divisions require an order in which authority is structured to determine what is acceptable to teach, who has authority to determine who may teach, and who has the power to discipline through admitting and expelling persons from the life of the community.

Different forms of governing may be supported for different reasons that do not fall neatly into judgments about “who’s right” and “who’s wrong.” Persons may seek authoritative, official Church teaching for the sake of a clarity they believe necessary for teaching and for the sake of witness to the larger society. Others might see official statements of teaching as the starting point for local teaching but, in the end, eschew such official teaching as leading to a formalism in belief and moralism in judgment. Instead, they might seek to assure that multiple voices are heard in order that persons will make informed decisions about beliefs and actions that deepen their identity as Christians.

A further complication: questions of governance need not be answered in the same way in moving from congregations to dioceses to national churches to the Anglican Communion. At each level of the Church, governance is concerned not only with the ends of doctrine and discipline but with what is possible and manageable, what is sustainable and effective, and what focuses time and resources on mission.

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The churches of the Anglican Communion have many layers of relationships. Not least, members of the churches of the Communion worship together and pray for each other. They share together as a community of faith in the midst of travel, mission trips, and study, in partnerships in mission across the communion, and in conferences and consultations. Once formed, these personal relationships continue, especially with the advent of global travel and digital communications.

Formal structures have developed along with the Anglican Communion. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops from all the churches of the Communion have met at the Lambeth Conference every 10 years or so since 1867. The Anglican Consultative Council was constituted in 1968 with lay and ordained representation from the churches of the Communion. Subsequently, since 1978 the primates of the churches of the Anglican Communion have met together every two or three years. Altogether, the Archbishop of Canterbury, his offices, and these “instruments of communion” have sought to express and deepen the unity, life, and mission of the churches of the Communion. They support, consult, coordinate, initiate, review, report, and propose — all in the context of prayer and worship.

Although the present matter that divides members of the church is that of same-sex marriages, there are a range of matters that divide Anglicans: from the ordination of women and the adoption of different books of common prayer to teaching about the nature of revelation and the authority of Scripture to the nature of grace and nature, law and gospel, justification and sanctification. In forming a communion of churches, the churches of the Communion continue to confront the question of how they will govern as a communion.

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Three models of communion for constituting and governing Anglican churches may suggest the work that is needed in order to enable Anglican churches to discern how they may best walk together given their differences: (1) an ecumenical model of communion, (2) a differentiated model of communion, and (3) a unified model of communion.

In the ecumenical model of communion, churches forming the Anglican Communion would continue to gather together sharing in worship, prayer, study, and fellowship and for consultation and collaboration for the sake of common mission. In terms of doctrine and discipline, agreement on any particular issue is not a condition for taking counsel with one another in the context of worship and fellowship. Where there is agreement, practices follow. This model is reflected in ecumenical relations between historically divided churches: as expressed for instance in Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, adopted in 1982 by the World Council of Churches; and in agreements between churches, such as the full communion agreement, Called to Common Mission, adopted in 1999-2000 between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church.

A differentiated model of communion would provide for degrees of communion between different churches within the Anglican Communion. Churches within the Anglican Communion would form distinct associations that would govern the churches in terms of doctrine and discipline and gather with other associations of Anglican churches as in the ecumenical model. They would, in short, decide in matters of doctrine and discipline how much unity is possible and how much difference is tolerable among them. In this model, the Anglican Communion would be a communion of churches in communion.

The third model of communion, the unified model, would form structures of governance that would resolve differences in doctrine and discipline among Anglican churches that otherwise threaten division between churches. In a unified model of communion, individual churches have to agree and consent to a structure of authority that is clear about who decides what is the basis of communion and what are the consequences of failing to conform to decisions made by representatives of Anglican churches forming the Anglican Communion.

Together these three models of a communion of churches cast light on the trajectories that may be chosen when churches in communion confront what appear to be irreconcilable differences in doctrine and discipline. Each of these models is, however, something like a single frame in a moving picture.

The ecumenical model and the differentiated model of communion catch sight of the process between churches that differ. The unified model of communion is from one angle a picture of the governance of the Church of England before colonialization and the development that created different national and provincial churches apart from the Church of England. From another angle, the unified model of communion is the picture of a Church yet to be when churches with different forms of governance agree to a structure of governance as a communion of churches that resolves outstanding differences in doctrine and discipline.

As these models together reflect, some of those who disagree with the teaching and discipline in one Anglican church will seek to form new and more clearly defined Anglican churches for the sake of teaching and mission. This creates continuing questions of governance, who recognizes whom, who decides and on what basis, and what structures of communion serve to express, deepen, and support the faith that is shared for the sake of mission.

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The crisis confronting the churches of the Anglican Communion over differences in doctrine and discipline is not necessarily a tragic moment of division. It is first of all an opportunity to discern the ways to respond to Christ’s prayer to follow him faithfully that Christians may be one as he and the Father are one, that the world may believe (John 17:21). Instead of managing conflict, the Anglican Consultative Council can begin a broader process of reconciliation by looking at the crisis in terms of models of governance. To create a process so that decisions about next steps have the broadest support and the fewest possible unintended consequences would itself be an act of communion and the opportunity of grace.

Timothy Sedgwick is the Clinton S. Quin Professor of Christian Ethics at Virginia Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Sex, Moral Teaching, and the Unity of the Church: A Study of the Episcopal Church (2014).


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