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Spatial Catholicity

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

By Mark D. Chapman

In Anglicanism: Unity and Diversity in the Anglican Communion (Mowbray, 2007), the book I edited on the Anglican Covenant, I suggested that a “tepid constitutionalism” was what was perhaps needed for the Anglican Communion (p. 82). A modest mechanism for mutual accountability between the autonomous national churches was necessary if the Anglican Communion was to be a “catholic” body united over both space and time, rather than simply a loose federation of national and regional churches with a number of affinities. From my understanding of the Anglican tradition, I am clear that the traditional Anglican idea of national or provincial autonomy which emerged with the break from Rome in the 1530s cannot easily develop an ecclesiology of “spatial catholicity” — of how each autonomous church is an expression of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Over the past 200 years or so, the Anglican Communion has been working out how to be spatially catholic, how its autonomous churches relate to one another as local and universal. The spur to thought has frequently been that of conflict: the Lambeth Conference was born out of disputes on doctrine and the use of the Bible. As it developed from 1867 the Communion came to establish a minimal doctrinal system, but at the same time the notion of a fellowship of autonomous churches founded on Scripture and Tradition remained crucial for Anglican ecclesiology. Despite frequent calls for greater centralisation, it was not until the 1960s and ’70s that further structures were established with the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting. The seeds of an Anglican doctrine of spatial catholicity were sown.

In the past ten years or so, this question has become increasingly pressing: while there have been serious divisions, not least over sexuality and biblical interpretation, there has not been a generally accepted form of conflict resolution. The existing structures have shown their ineffectiveness at solving disputes. Where most of the time in the past churches have been respectful of others and have upheld boundaries and territorial integrity through their bonds of affection, following the election of Gene Robinson there was very little by way of formal structure to maintain spatial communion and national integrity. For this reason, The Windsor Report suggested that there might be some sort of Covenant to allow the different churches of the Communion to sign up to a common set of teachings as well as a method for conflict resolution. While there were some who sought an Anglican Communion canon law which perhaps would have resembled that of Rome, this has been firmly resisted. So too has a confession of faith or a subscription to a particular way of reading the Bible.

The opening sections of the Covenant provide a fairly clear summary of Anglican method from the first centuries after the break with Rome. The Covenant is firmly committed to the view that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and that the Catholic Creeds provide the sufficient summary of the Christian faith. Anglicans schooled on the threefold understanding of theological method of Scripture, tradition, and reason might well raise objections about the absence of any discussion of reason in the Covenant document. While there is some ambiguity about the use and status of reason, I think that the key point is that reason fills in the gaps where Scripture is silent. This did not mean that reason was a source of doctrine, but rather that it was necessary to supply what was missing from Scripture for the good order of the Church.

For Anglicans, the crux of the matter is, first, whether something is “revealed in Scripture” and, second, whether it is a matter of salvation, which is why Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10 (which ruled out homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture) was so important. It clearly pushed homosexual practice into the realm of first-order matters, at least on the basis of Anglican method. Different understandings of precisely what can be changed and what cannot be reformed in different parts of the Anglican Communion, and — perhaps just as importantly — within the various national and regional churches of the Anglican Communion have led to threats of schism and a number of separations and cross-boundary disputes. The key difference between the current situation and that (say) of 1662 is that there are simply no legal mechanisms to ensure conformity between the provinces or to decide under which category a particular action or change falls. The historic bonds of affection are not sufficient to uphold the principle of spatial catholicity in times of conflict.

The particular disagreements of recent years highlight this set of issues. Recent disputes have stemmed mainly from the extent to which developments in the recognition of certain sexual relationships are a first- or second-order matter. If they were universally regarded as simply a second-order matter, then provinces could legitimately disagree (as over the ordination of women). The reasoning behind the Covenant is to try to ensure that there are mechanisms which will allow communion to be maintained to the greatest possible extent between (and within) the different churches. How far does one province’s understanding of what constitutes a first-order matter affect another province’s, and what sort of mechanism could there be to ensure that there was some sort of respect and commitment to remain in communion even when there is disagreement on fundamentals?

While many in England may perceive little obvious need for the Anglican Communion, I think that there are good reasons for keeping ourselves in as close a relationship of communion as possible with churches which are often ministering in difficult and hostile environments. The principle of mutual responsibility implies a willingness to learn and understand across the divides of wealth, culture and status, which in turn should make us at least willing to acknowledge that our own understandings and actions may need to be restrained for the sake of the relationships of trust, respect and commitment.

This puts me in a real quandary. First, I am firmly committed to the belief that suitable candidates who are in a faithful and committed same-sex partnership should be eligible for appointment or election as bishops in the same way as anybody else. This I believe to be a matter of faithful interpretation of Scripture rather than simply adoption of current ideas of permissive freedom. I also believe that it is not a matter which affects salvation and that there is therefore legitimate diversity on this matter. That said, however, I am also aware that many will, and do, disagree with me profoundly on good and solidly Anglican grounds: it is a matter of fact that the regulation of human conduct and relationships solely in monogamous marriage between male and female or celibacy is regarded by most Christians (including most Anglicans) as a central and unchangeable aspect of the deposit of faith.

That being the case, there will inevitably be disputes over first-order matters between (and within) different churches. Conflict over what is necessary to salvation is part of what it is to be a catholic Christian. The local needs therefore to relate to the universal. Catholicity cannot be limited purely to one’s own context (Intro. §4 and sect. 3). My brother or sister who disagrees with me in Lagos is still my brother or sister and a member of one and the same catholic Church; and, provided that they are operating using the methods accepted as constitutive of catholicity, I have to take them seriously and they too have to take me seriously, provided that I too am adopting these methods. For Anglicans the universal is nothing less than all other Anglicans (and more widely all those who call themselves Christians). It is for this reason that I would acknowledge the possibility that the current Covenant proposal, which is very circumspect and which encourages dispute resolution and listening before legal recourse, may be better than the current situation of unregulated disagreement and schism, or leaving everything up to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

While I still believe the word covenant itself can be misleading in that biblical covenants in general are between God and human beings, nevertheless the idea of covenanting with one another as a conscious act is at the heart of the current draft. It seems to me that recognition of difference, and that the Church is bigger than any one province, are essential for a church to be (spatially) catholic. On the Covenant model, spatial catholicity is established on the notion of a freely entered agreement about the contents of faith (sections 1-3), and a regulation of those actions which might be controversial when there are no obvious and straightforwardly recognised answers to decide whether something is a first- or second-order matter. In other words, while I might be convinced that what I believe to be true for my context about the ordination of people in committed same-sex partnerships is not a matter of faith and therefore open to different contextual practices, I recognise that others — the majority — hold different views and for good Anglican reasons. Trying to decide whether something falls into one category or the other is never easy, and it is something that requires a great deal of listening and reflection. Under the Covenant there is a voluntary commitment from all churches to listen to others before acting. And there is also a recognition of the need for mediation and conflict resolution, which has been conspicuously absent in the past few years.

As far as I can see it, the Communion is only likely to hold together with some sort of mechanism for debate, discussion, and recommendation on precisely these issues. That is the role of the Standing Committee in the proposed Covenant. This does not affect the legal autonomy of each church. Each church retains the right and ability to act without recourse to other churches, and it may decide that what it regards as a second-order matter is really a first-order matter and thus so important that it cannot wait for agreement. Thus, where a church felt it was more in accord with its understanding of the Gospel to act despite the recommendation of the Standing Committee, nothing could prevent it from doing so. The only sanction would be to lose its representation on the various Instruments of Communion; excommunication remains solely a matter for national churches. What is proposed is a mechanism which would provide some sort of structure for dealing with change and possible conflict, especially over the differentiation between first- and second-order issues.

Overall, then, I consider the Covenant to be an example of “tepid constitutionalism.” While there may well be tough decisions and splits ahead, it seems to me that these are already happening in an unstructured and sometimes highly acrimonious way. Obviously it may well turn out that the Standing Committee will not be able to gain the trust and authority that is required for its decisions to be effective in conflict resolution, in which case the Communion will mutate into a much looser federation of churches rooted in a historical Anglican identity. For many, this may not be an undesirable development: Anglicanism would become identical to the national church idea. For the Covenant to work requires an attitude of discipline, obedience, respect, and tolerance, as well as a readiness to listen and learn. The Covenant will not work unless there is a desire to make it work, and that requires far more than any modest constitutional document can achieve: What I hope will emerge is a renewed consciousness of the importance and diversity of the Anglican Communion, as well as the desire to build up respect and trust even when there is serious disagreement.

The Rev. Mark D. Chapman, vice principal and lecturer in systematic theology at Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, is the author of Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2006) and Anglican Theology (T&T Clark, 2012).

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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