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The missio Dei of communion: Anglicanism, change, and synodality

This paper was first delivered at the Living Sacrifices conference hosted by The Living Church and Nashotah House, June 6-9. 

Full and visible unity is rightly not only the goal of the ecumenical movement’s work, but the goal or end of the Church’s very life. But it is also the act of God, as Jesus’ own prayer in John 17 makes clear. Acts of God are not in the control of human beings.

We might wish that they were. We might also believe that such divine acts are given as a promise. Much recent ecumenical thinking has properly focused on the “dispositional” character of unity — on the fact that reconciliation in Christ is not only a matter of agreement on doctrine or polity, but that, more deeply, it is founded on a transformed way of life and relationship — what theologians variously ascribe to “virtues,” to the heart, to the will, in short, to the great transfiguration of human beings given in the great act of the cross and Resurrection, by which love is given over into the very soul of human life. Is not such a transformation of our hearts not a divine gift we can rely upon, wrapped up in the self-giving of Christ in the Spirit?

Yet we live in a social order that is structured to habituate us into the obscuring, subverting, and denying of such dispositional transfiguration. That social order is what we call “pluralism” — social, political, and religious. It shapes our habits and decisions from the ground up. The Pew Forum told us a few years ago that the average American has been a member of three distinct religious traditions — perhaps Christian denominations, perhaps actual religions — and is, in addition, constantly moving about from congregation to congregation.[1] Choice, conscience, and mobility protected and even encouraged by our social location means that there is no real possibility for full visible unity in the Church within this context of contemporary culture. After all, for all its evident problems, pluralism evolved as an ameliorative process in Western and now global societies, and all of us prize it and favorably live through its ordering. The pluralistic hedge against Christian unity will not change except through some massive social cataclysm. And that is something we should neither desire nor pray for, though it would be, in fact, an “act of God.”

Our churches exist in the landscape defined by the tension that exists between dispositional transformation (one kind of divine act) and social cataclysm (another kind of divine act). Concrete ecclesiology describes the navigation of this landscape. It is to this I now turn with respect to the Anglican Communion. The fact that full visible unity may not be a reasonable expectation for our Communion has been one motivation to dismiss the Communion’s integrity, or to minimize or reject its service of the wider Church for the sake of such full and visible life together. Yet I would answer positively — a Yes! to the Communion — in terms of such a “navigational ecclesiology” that has to do with our divine vocation. It is a vocation shaped in a certain way, which I will call “synodality.” I am going to speak about the Covenant in its relationship both positive and negative (or at least limited) in relation to this vocation. And I am going to speak in a way that, I trust, will end with something concrete to ponder. But first I want us to think about ecclesiology — our understanding of the Church — more generally.

A changing church and an ecclesiology of change

A great potential No to our Communion comes from the stark and factual reconfiguration of Christianity that is taking place today. It is a No born of the judgment that a new shape to the world and to the Church is one in which “Anglican Communion” makes little sense any longer. We can describe this reconfiguration of world and church in various ways. But one way, as with Andrew Wall’s notion of “serial” development,[2] is given in the terms of those major demographic shifts that have brought the Church to its present form: from a mostly Mediterranean phenomenon, the Church shifted its weight to Western Europe by the 8th and 9th centuries; then it moved to Northern Europe, including a key shift into Russia; then to the Americas in the 16th century, and on to Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and finally now to Asia. As these shifts have taken place, the centers of dynamism and even simple ecclesial membership have moved as well. And the latest shifts, in the last 100 years — to Africa, and now to Asia — are still open-ended, so that we do not know where they are heading. Furthermore, a brand- new shift is taking place right now in parallel with these last: the immigration movement from Africa and Asia, as well as Latin America, back into areas of former Western Christian life, ones now riddled by decline. The issue is not extent but demographic focus and energy, which also includes informing cultural orientations.[3]

If one surveys this series of shifts over the past 2,000 years, shifts still in progress, we see a complex set of movements unfolding: loss of faith, rise of faith, conflicts and intermixing of diverse expressions of Christian faith, all of which are also tied to types of faith and churches — Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental, Protestant, Pentecostal and so on. It is easy to look at all this, and simply say No to the specifically Anglican Communion as if it were but a passing moment that is now over — the trailing dust of a British Empire whose robes are now tattered and thrown into history’s heap. But my calling, supported by most of you, is instead to say Yes. So let me try to say why this positive answer makes sense, in the next few minutes.

There is much to say about these broad historical demographic shifts and movements I have just sketched, but the bigger picture says this: there is no moment, no person, no people who define or exhaustively describe the gospel as God announces and establishes its truth in human history. We like to think that there is such a definitive person or people or even church, and we often live and make our choices on this basis — not just Anglicans with their various party or local claims, but most Christians. “This is what the church is,” we say, pointing to ourselves, or even to something behind or beside us. Yet such claims, on their own terms, cannot be true. Rather it is God who moves and reorders so as to identify truth as he has framed it outside of himself, and then to sanctify it. Perfection is God’s, not ours. When Christ utters in absolute pain from the Cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he is not talking about the Christian or the Christian Church. The phrase — which is the only historically demarcating and indicating claim to perfection in the Bible — is about the act of God and it refers to Jesus Christ as the only one who is “perfect” and the only one who “finishes” our faith (Heb. 12:2).

If this is true, it means that the Christian and the Christian Church are historically always moving to, moving around, moving for the sake of the one definitive Identity who is Christ Jesus. As theologian Gregory of Nyssa famously said in his Life of Moses: as Christian and Church, in our finite and creaturely form, we are ever moving towards God, infinitely ordered to him in Christ, always going further and coming closer. Always. And thus, each church, the Greek or Latin, Goth or Copt, British or African, American or Indonesian — and with it, Uniate or Pentecostal, Reformed or Roman churches — each church cannot ever be the definitive referent of the finished work of God; they are only moments, and objects — living, graced, judged, and indicating — of God’s own perfected movement.

Ecclesiology, therefore, ought to be about this movement and service. In fact, however, it is more frequently about a claim to some “finished” reality that misleadingly is seen as pertaining to the church itself. What I am pointing to is embedded within something like Paul’s great vision in Ephesians 1, where the core Christian doctrine of “redemption through [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us” (vv. 7-8), is explained in terms of a larger revelation. That revelation is not about the Church in the first instance, but about what God is doing with and through the Church. Paul says that the truth of Christ is given in a revelation of “wisdom and insight” into “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (9-10). The ecclesiological move, then, derives from this, as Paul then explains that “in him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.” Our “destiny,” and hence the Church as an ontological entity, is defined by always pointing in praise to the One who unites all things in Christ.

When theologians discuss, that is, the famous “marks of the Church” that are given in the Nicene Creed — one, holy, catholic, and apostolic — we are properly talking about this movement of God. It is a divine movement whose singular reach, truth, embrace, and act — the God who is “finished,” or “complete” and “perfect,” and who finishes, completes, and perfects — gathers the Church and all creation to himself, like some great black hole, not of darkness but of grace. The marks of the Church are really about the shape of God’s act for the world, now articulated from the side of human life, human prayer, human praise. We can call the Church “one, holy and apostolic” only insofar as the Church indicates these realities as pertaining to God, describing how God works and moves to his unifying ends.

Can Anglicanism be faithful to an ecclesiology of change?

How to describe the Anglican Communion which we love in this light? There have been many individual attempts to flesh this out. But let us go directly into the center of the present, that is to the slow ferment of Anglican life beginning in the 1950s after World War II. It is then that the British empire waned and colonial churches became independent and began to grow rapidly. This ferment reached an astonishing level of turmoil in the later 1990s, for various reasons. It then issued in the moment of converged vitality, change, and disunity we see today, one reflecting some of the great shifts in the wider Christian world I mentioned a moment ago. The only common attempt to describe the Anglican Communion in this context of reverberating turmoil was the project known as the Anglican Covenant; and the written introduction to that Covenant stands still as the one place a commonly ordered — as well as questioned — Anglican ecclesiology was briefly enunciated.

As some of you know, I was directly involved in the work of drafting the Covenant. But the process of this drafting probably involved the widest and most extensive level of consultation anything in Anglican life has ever received. Nor was the work of articulating the Covenant itself the product of a single decision. Most people see it as the idea of Abp. Rowan Williams, who formally set it in motion in 2007. However, that idea came out of widely tapped hopes and decisions from around the Communion, first enunciated in the Lambeth Commission’s Windsor Report in 2004, and then encouraged by the Primates’ Meeting and then, as the Covenant’s writing was still ongoing, deliberately engaged by the bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 2008. Obviously, during all this time and subsequently to this day, the Covenant remains still the most widely studied and discussed — positively, negatively, and constructively — document in the Communion in the last 50 years. So, I don’t hesitate to use the word common to describe the source of its vision, however one finally judges its outcome.

And that common vision of our Anglican Communion, given in the Covenant’s introduction, puts it this way: The life of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one marked by a divine “communion” that is given form for creation in the incarnate person and acts of Jesus Christ. Human creatures are given a

“divine calling into communion […] established in God’s purposes for the whole of creation (Eph. 1:10; 3:9ff.). It is extended to all humankind so that, in our sharing of God’s life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God might restore in us the divine image.”

Here, of course, is where the Church comes in. The Church is granted a specific role within this larger calling, played out in human history through divine covenants and common life most especially given in Israel, which is fulfilled in the “new covenant” established in the sacrificed and risen flesh of Christ, whose body the Church is. The Church, in her life of serving the whole creation, is “spread throughout the earth.” In and as the church, “we serve [Christ’s] gospel even as we are enabled to be made one across the dividing walls of human sin and estrangement” for the sake of final communion, in the way Paul describes it in Ephesians.

This is all very broad. But the Covenant then describes the Anglican Communion specifically within this vision, and here I quote more fully: “In the providence of God, which holds sway even over our divisions caused by sin, various families of churches have grown up within the universal Church in the course of history. Among these families is the Anglican Communion, which provides a particular charism and identity among the many followers and servants of Jesus.” The charism in question here is one given for the sake of the “wider church” and world. It is marked by the very challenge to divine communion that human history, including Christian history, has thrown before us: how to maintain communion itself in our era! So, we read:

We recognise the wonder, beauty and challenge of maintaining communion in this family of churches, and the need for mutual commitment and discipline as a witness to God’s promise in a world and time of instability, conflict, and fragmentation. […] We give ourselves as servants of a greater unity among the divided Christians of the world. May the Lord help us to “preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

My question here is: How well this common vision of the Anglican Communion matches God’s actual identity as I spoke of it before — the “it is finished” identity of Jesus Christ by which God orders the history of creation? On the one hand, much of this divine identity is implied by the theological introduction of the Covenant: the great vision of creation’s Christ-embraced end, in Eph. 1:10; the providential shaping of time; the sense that there is a temporal history that marks the very character of the “wider church” and her particular “families” of identities, and so on. Much is helpfully implied in all this. But what the Covenant clearly failed to do was to take these brief pointers and flesh them out in way that could properly describe the divine movement implied in all this and demonstrate its ecclesiological form, as it were. When it came to the debated Section 4 of the Covenant — revised several times more than any other part — the question of how in fact to deal with one another in the Communion became an explosive topic: drawn-out procedures of requests, committees, recommendations all seemed laborious; a reluctance to give anybody “power” to make any final decisions — primates, joint committees, and so on — made the process even more intricate and undefinitive. It wasn’t that none of this could work; it has seemed, rather, that the purpose of Section 4 was only vaguely coherent in the preceding vision. “Too juridical,” as some argued, as if mission had given rise to committees, and not the other way around. But, for lack of a Covenant, committees have been all that we were left with.

In brief, the Covenant’s over-scheme could not integrate communion and change together in a concrete fashion. What are we to do with our declining Christian and specifically Anglican churches in the West and their eviscerating Christian cultural contexts? What are we to do with clamoring expansion of African and Asian churches — including Anglican ones — that stand in deep tension with the deracinated cultures of the West? How to disengage political corruption from ecclesial affairs, or reengage societies whose political form has left the gospel behind? These are all very real elements of historical change that the Covenant’s vision of communion, rich though it was, failed to engage concretely. (No one else, by the way, has done so either.) That failure was embodied in the great debate over the final section of the Covenant dealing with common life and decision-making. And that debate, although it has abated somewhat in public terms, is still with us, and has stymied in some ways the practical adoption of the profound theological vision of the Covenant that deserved to be assimilated into our common life.

The divine marks of a dynamic communion

Let me then return to the so-called creedal “marks of the church” — one, holy, catholic, and apostolic — and try to relate these more clearly to this challenge of integrating communion and change that the Covenant has left us with in the Anglican Communion. The church changes — that is at the center of today’s ecclesial realities, Anglicanism’s included. It is true that “change” is often viewed as a progressivist mantra, and thus a bugbear of traditionalists. In fact, though, nobody really likes change when it comes to the Church, if the change goes against personal certainties; and everyone is for it when it fits one’s vision of reform or revision, whatever the case may be. When I say that the Church “changes,” I am speaking empirically, as well therefore as, in a necessary sense, providentially. When the marks of the church are seen as permanent conditions, it is hard to take account of this change in this divine character. We fix the form of, say catholicity or apostolicity with a given historical instance of the church, and the actual work of God in history becomes a threat, not a calling: “catholic,” as embodied in this or that form that we have identified — usually as our own — cannot include, thus, Pentecostalism, or reformed Presbyterianism; apostolicity, bound to this or that fixed confession, cannot include Methodism or Ethiopian Orthodoxy; and holiness, bound to this or that cultural modality, often cannot include the Scripture. It is not that, in such a perspective of protective or self-justifying identities, nothing changes; rather it is the case that many changes fail to cohere, and in the consequent historical fragmentation of self-possessed ecclesial marks, communion is an impossibility. Everybody is the Church separately; no one is the Church together. To be the Church together means change, ultimately God’s changing of us.

As I said earlier, it is probably best, then, on the front end, to see these “marks” as primarily applying to God, God in his work within the world in which the church lives; and to God in his work with the kind of church that is itself part of an ongoing historical dynamic in which faith and faithlessness, geographical change, and diversely expressed life are part of divine grace’s drawing of all things to God’s own being.

So let me give some examples without doing anything more than hinting at the direction of this approach. In this light, the oneness of the Church is a reflection, that is, of the “all-in-allness” that is God’s life as it gathers creation to itself (1 Cor. 15:28; Eph. 1:23). It is an aspect of divine “embrace,” and the church is part of this movement to the degree that it is the church at all. Again, the church’s “holiness” is clearly a reflection of God’s holiness; but note that God’s holiness is always given in terms of truth, and the truth in terms of the word, as in Jesus’ great prayer in John 17: “sanctify them in thy truth” he prays (17:17, 19), explaining that “thy word is truth,” something building on the entire Old Testament, especially in something like Psalm 119. The Church is the Church, that is, as she is immersed in and ordered by, reaching after and receiving the word of truth given in Christ and the Scriptures — a truth-seeking and truth-abiding, even truth-sharing Church is the Church the holy God is taking through the world. “Catholic,” as we know, is a post-scriptural word used to express the extent of the Church, geographically and in terms of the nations, which joined to her oneness is nothing but the very movement of God to the “ends of the earth,” the God who goes to the “far country” (cf. Luke 15:13), the God who seeks out the lost (Luke 15:4; 19:10), who drives to the dead, to those in prison (1 Pet. 3:19), who descends and ascends (e.g., Eph. 4:9-10). But note this emphasis on “movement,” because “catholic” can only make sense as joined to the great divine “apostolicity” of God’s being, who “sends his Son” in the great movement of Philippians 2, a sending that is quite particular because it is bound to the form of the self-giving Christ, the great self-expenditure in truth and embrace that is God’s own.

I think you can see my point: the Church is the Church, even in its most traditional definition, only in terms of her divine mission. This is hardly a new claim: in the last 50 years, Christians rightly began to speak of the missio Dei, the mission of God as the orienting perspective in which to talk about Christian mission. The phrase has become debased, it must be said, by simply identifying that mission with a set of human programs. But the idea was right. In the context of my discussion here, if we take up the Church in this way, we must see this mission just in terms of the embrace, truth, extent, and movement itself that is God’s; and thus that the Church is not simply doing this or that mission that God somehow “wants,” but is in fact ever moving in the very particular lines of gathering, truth-consecration, extensive embrace, and self-expenditure that is the very form of God in Christ. Perhaps it is also easier to see here how communion is refigured in this perspective: communion becomes a common dynamic — an energeia in the New Testament sense of pneumatic “power” — that Christians follow together as they are in fact changed by God. Communion is a path, not a place; a “road,” not a locality; but of course, a “road together,” determined by its boundaries and its members.

The church as a road together: synodality

The Anglican Covenant stalled, I would suggest, because, on the one hand, it did not persuasively or perhaps concretely enough describe this “road together.” It seemed to many critics to lay out instead a kind of static “place” in which Anglicans would be in communion if they abided by this or that set of rules. While I do not think this is in fact what the Covenant was about, many people obviously did. On the other hand, there were many who also wanted to read the Covenant this way, because thinking and acting in terms of a “road together” — that is, the divine dynamic of communion — was too challenging. It would mean committing oneself to change, which is enormously risky. I might add, however, that the risk involved in this is hardly less — indeed, it is far more hopeful — than the most certain risk of change the current shifts global ecclesial life have embodied, dragging so many aspects of Western Christianity into its divine vortex, and leaving exposed so many other parts of the world’s Christians to frightful assaults.

In any case, conceiving of — or rather, living into — the Anglican Communion as a “road together” marked by divine gathering, truth-consecration, embrace, and self-expenditure seems to me to be the real way forward for unstalling the hopes of the Covenant, and finally putting into place the kind of communion-in-change that in fact characterizes the great missio Dei that is embodied in Jesus Christ, and hence constitutes “the body of Christ” that is his Church.

I want to be clear that the Covenant is in fact imbued with and driven by a sense of mission. The word occurs 39 times in this short document; and more than that it is at the center of the Covenant’s theological vision, as the ending to the introduction makes clear: “The mission we pursue aims at serving the great promises of God in Christ that embrace the peoples and the world God so loves. This mission is carried out in shared responsibility and stewardship of resources, and in interdependence among ourselves and with the wider Church.” But we need to find a way to articulate this mission so as to concretize not just an idea but the practical means of moving into the ecclesial center of God’s life in Christ. This means not just conceiving of our ecclesial communion as a state of being, but of ongoing common activity that leads ever more fully into what are, for God, his finished works, but what are for us a pathway that follows, that is given to us from God in the actual forms of Christ’s body and words and deeds. This is the movement of discipleship. Communion must be a way of moving closer and closer to the finish line, but more and more living like Christ through more and more Passion, more and more gospel, more and more Israel. This is the missio Dei, not as condition or set of principles; rather as a person moving in the world, drawing others with him. Communion, then, looks more like the great image of Hebrews 12:1-2, where the author writes:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

This “road together” that follows the finished form of Christ is what Christians have, from the start, called “synodality,” which of course, simply means “the road together.” I find it interesting that Christians very early on recognized that the koinonia of apostolic life — seen, for instance, in Acts 2:42-47 — must necessarily involve gathering together for the sake of counsel, prayer, and decision, instanced over and over again in deliberate ways, and eventually formalized in the synodical life that in fact characterizes, if in highly fragmented and separative ways, most churches today in one fashion or another. It is not simply that communion is helped by, or even “needs” synodical life; it is that communion is such a life.

Many of the considerations for communion among Anglicans — for the reality we call the Anglican Communion — have involved elements that traditionally have been associated with Christian synodality: gathering, prayer, and counsel, as the Lambeth Conferences were always viewed as being; but also truth-seeking and truth-telling, as every Conference sought after; along with the desire for common commitments and coordinated teaching and worship. All this was aimed to serve the extensive and embracive mission for the nations (as Lambeth 1920 especially articulated). Anglicans and Roman Catholics tested ideas of how communion as a “missionary” endeavor itself must engage ways of collegial decision-making. And in recent decades, Rowan Williams’ notion of “intensified” relationships of mutual accountability among those churches so called probed further into this reality; and, of course, the Windsor Report’s formal discussion of the categories of “walking apart” or “walking together” were concrete statements, in straightforward language of what “synodality” is all about. Finally, in the wake of the Covenant’s stalling, there has been much talk about the simple challenge of making decisions in common that have any meaning and use in the face of disintegrating change. Synodality — or the road together that is communion, as I have been arguing — takes all of this together, and embodies how Christians and their churches follow Jesus in common and hence are faithful in history and through the transient forms of temporal life that characterize the world that God has both created and is redemptively gathering in Christ.

The embodiment of this communion-in-change, or synodality, is quite concrete, it is describable. And this is what I want to present to you and invite all of us to consider and offer our sister and brother Anglicans in the days ahead: the actual forms of the “road together” mark the movement of the church in following the movement of God. These must involve the forms of Jesus: gathering, truth-telling, embrace, and self-expenditure. But this involves for us, therefore, the various ways of relating and acting that involve humility, repentance, forgiveness, forbearance, study, prayerfulness, and the deepest patience possible. This happens however, not as a state of being, but in the actual process of common life: coming together, taking counsel, praying, decision-making, and mutual submission. Has not the time come for Anglicans to move in this direction, rather than in a direction of variously personal rejections of such a path?

Anglican synodality

Now we have had our synods in this or that place — General Assemblies, General Conventions, and so on in each church of the Communion (and, we might add, in most other non-Anglican churches in some form or another.) We have something to learn from these local synods. But they do not represent the deeper thrust of conciliarity, a term I have pressed myself, but that has also become debased by parochial concerns. Councils are valuable only as they ever engage and set the stage for wider councils that track the pressures of God’s embracive work. Our national synods have often failed us precisely in their provincial and local constrictions. Communion and change, as the movement of God in the world, is about reconfiguring these localities, and frankly the walls they end up defending. What I am suggesting, in brief, is that we need something bigger, broader, wider, more comprehensive, more together: not a local synod, but an Anglican Synod, not as a one-time gathering, but as a way of life, a way together.

We can choose to build on the Covenant in this regard, or perhaps choose not to. But I am suggesting something more, in any case: a synod for those churches that are ready to make decisions together in an ongoing fashion. How we get there, and what exactly a synodical Anglican life would look like, and the shape of its continuing form are things we need to work out. But the suggestion itself is not new — it dates to the preliminaries for the first Lambeth Conference; it has been repeated over and over again, including most recently by the church historian Paul Valliere[4]; and its purpose is to engage the reality of what the church really is: a communion that is drawn towards God, moves in the wake of Christ, and changes together in the face of God’s ordering of the world.

The neuralgic “Section 4” of the Covenant, as we know, proved a major part of the Covenant’s undoing, its “stalling.” We have already heard in this conference, however, that perhaps the first three sections of the Covenant — on theological commitments, on mission, on the Instruments of Unity as entities — are not really that controversial, and that perhaps a ground floor for the Communion can be re-established by churches more widely adopting these sections formally. The sticking point, however, has remained: then what? Synodical existence assumes that such identity-ordering commitments lead one to a “walking together,” but that the walking aspect, the “road,” is something that goes beyond such commitments: it involves decisions, made over and over again and together, to do this or that, to say this or that, to teach this or that, to offer and receive this or that within the context of a changing world and changing — because growing or weakening — members. Synods require — because that is what they offer — what Hooker called “definitive sentence” at certain times, formal decisions that articulate a given path together in terms of direction and common form.

While many have assumed that this is impossible for diverse Anglican churches to pursue, because of their legally independent status, their diverse constitutions and autonomous decision-making processes, I beg to differ. Broadly speaking, a comprehensive synodical life cannot be impossible, if indeed Anglican churches are indeed Christian. After all, such synodical life is Christian — that is a definitional matter. Therefore, challenging Anglican churches to live synodically points them to the simple choice that confronts Anglicans: Shall we live as true churches, or shall we cease to be churches at all?

More practically, however, synodical life for Anglican churches is not impossible because it is simply and only about desire, will, hope, and thus self-ordering. In an era defined by pluralistic religious practice from the ground up, the only thing that local churches have ultimate legal authority over is property. We have seen this clearly not only in the divisions within Anglicanism in North America in the past 20 years, but in many other parts of the world Anglicanism that are less publicized: churches cannot regulate ordination; they cannot regulate teaching; they cannot regulate ecumenical engagement. All they can do is get the state to intervene over property matters. If they think they can do more than that, they are wrong: people simply leave this place and get ordained by other people; they simply move and teach what they want; they make agreements and offer recognitions with others as they choose. And hence synods are, with all their “definitive” sentences, always voluntary in any case: they depend on members voluntarily engaging and voluntarily submitting to a common set of discussions and decisions.

But a synod is just that way of engagement and submission. It calls itself that. Hence, those who wish to “walk together” are right to say clearly that this is what they wish to do and that this is what they are doing and that, when they no longer wish to do so, they have given up such a synodical way. Part of our Communion’s paralysis is located just here: we have not been willing to name our life together by its synodical character. I am suggesting that we need a Synod, in the sense that we need a place that is dedicated to and thus named as such for the gathering of churches eager to engage and, yes eager to submit in a common way. Because the current Instruments have quite explicitly chosen to avoid such a dedicated way — they are based on office, on a legal role, on consultation alone; they are not based on commitment (one can show up or not show up, it means nothing; one can ignore and contradict, and it is mostly without meaning) — these Instruments are not likely candidates to engage the synodical life I believe we are both called to and that the character of God’s providence requires. So I am suggesting something new, perhaps simply made up of those who desire it, a smaller group from within the existing Communion that, without abandoning their place within the current Instruments, would move forward together in a more “intense” way, as Abp. Williams once said. Those who did so, would frame their own synodical form and processes. And much like the Paris Climate Accord, such forms and processes and goals would continue — as they must, by definition — to be voluntary; and those who wished to leave them behind at a certain point could do so, even while the others moved on without them. The United States, for instance, will remain a member of the United Nations — just as Syria does — whether or not it is a member of the Paris Accord. So too those in the Communion, if they do not wish to follow the synodical way. But for those who go forward in synod, for all the voluntariness involved, over time, bits and pieces of local legislation will emerge, a patchwork of ad hoc responses to voluntary engagement and submission in common that takes place at the broader level, where consultation is taken for the sake of movement, of going forward, of being shaped together. A new life would indeed emerge, changing along the way, but changing.

And hence, such a synodical existence would respond together to what God is doing with declining Western churches and to the challenge of their immigrant Christian populations; it would respond together to the diversification and growth of African Christianity, including its independent churches, its often tense intersection with Islam, its press for civil governments cleansed of corruption; it would respond together to the Christian ferment in Asia, involving far different and steadier cultures than the West has known, including China itself; it would respond together to wider confusions and yearnings regarding the truths of Scripture, the shape of faithful life, the vocation of embodied human existence in a finite world, the hope for redemption from creation’s groaning, the thirst to touch Jesus and to see God, in brief, the desire of the nations. Synodality may only be optional. Yet with respect to life, the life of the Church and the life of the world, it is a divinely proffered Hobson’s Choice. You take it, or you squander all things.

The road together, at this stage of Christian history, begins in several places. But it leads and must lead to others, so that a convergence of ways can indeed finally include one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). Full and visible unity, as the 1961 New Delhi Report of the World Council of Churches emphasized over and over again as the necessarily and inevitable goal of Christian ecclesial life.[5] Benedict XVI used this phrase — “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” — to describe his pontificate.[6] But the vocation is Anglicanism’s as well, and so it must begin with us too. Both the vocation and the promise laid out by the Covenant remain real and compelling in this general way: we have been given a charism to maintain and extend the communion of God’s transformative life in the midst of a world of instability, fragmentation, and now, in its wake, of swirling meaninglessness. The charism is given for the sake of others.

I am certainly not an Anglican interested in ecclesiological issues for the sake of Anglicans alone, but for the Church of Christ. We have been thrust upon a road, dangerous in its potential pitfalls, but marvelous in its blessings. Let us run this road, with others, in a race that is laid out for the sake of the whole world, following as a people the One who goes before and brings all to its final fullness and perfection.


[1] For a revised 2011 discussion, see http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/;  for an update, on “switching” more generally (2015), see http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/chapter-2-religious-switching-and-intermarriage/.

[2] The larger thesis is laid out in Andrew Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, 2002).  See the engaging interview with Walls at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2052


[4] Paul Valliere, Conciliarism:  A History of Decision-making in the Church (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[5] The New Delhi Report.  The Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches 1961  (ed. W. A. Visser ‘T Hooft (New York:  Association Press, 1962).

[6] Benedict XVI, “First Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI at the End of the Eucharistic Concelebration With the Members of the College of Cardinals” available at http://www.vatican.va/holy father/benedict xvi/messages/pont-messages/2005/ documents/hf ben-xvi mes 20050420 missa-pro-ecclesia en.html


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