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Wanted: Field Guide to Adjudicate Communion across Distance

By Christopher Wells

I come to the conclusion of my series on the visibility and invisibility of the Church (part 1, part 2, part 3). How to draw things together? Let me propose three, programmatic points that build on one another.

Catholic visibility shared by all

First, it should be clear that the visibility of the one Church is basic to her identity, and so must never be surrendered, set aside, or forgotten. From the beginning, Christians have seen rising up around them a singular, God-given, God-formed Church, sent out like Israel with transformative good news to share with the nations. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23). To be sure, Jesus advises, “let your light shine before others” (Mt. 5:16). We have some agency in the Church; we are called to protect and propagate the faith and to take counsel. But first and finally the one Church is Christ’s own body, and the Holy Spirit will not be stifled. All tribes and peoples, and “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” will witness the Pentecostal illumination of the Church. God in Christ is “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). The promise is for the Jew first, but then “for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39).

In this providential, pneumatic light, the existential questions for Christians and churches in every time and place are: Where is the Church, what is her mission, and how may I share in it? Our ability to answer is complicated by besetting divisions, both between and within our churches — one proof of the mixed body character of the Church. But the vocation to visibility is not thereby abrogated. The bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference of 1920 grappled with this problem and left an influential record of their work, writ in a series of appropriately visual images. Adopting “a new point of view,” namely, “to look up to the reality as it is in God,” the bishops saw that “the one Body exists. It needs not to be made, nor to be remade, but to become organic and visible.” By this they envisioned not a “uniform” Church but an appropriately diverse “fellowship of one visible society whose members are bound together by the ties of a common faith, common sacraments, and a common ministry.” Beyond “vague federation,” therefore, and beyond the “self-will, ambition, and lack of charity” that have led to the “sin of disunion,” such a reunited Body could, “so far as this world is concerned,” show forth the “fulness of Christian life, truth and witness.” This, the bishops concluded, “is what we mean by the Catholic Church” (Encyclical Letter; Resolution 9.1 and 9.3).

The state of the question of the Church’s visibility has hardly changed in the intervening century, save in the unleashing of great ecumenical energies that re-made most churches, including the Anglican Communion. We Christians know what to do. We are called by God to “gather up the fragments, so that nothing may be lost” (Jn. 6:12). This is old-fashioned Augustinian Catholicism in the key of patience and penitence.

The inescapability of counsel

With Richard Hooker and St. Augustine, following our Lord, we cannot forget that the Church’s perfect unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are not apparent on this side of glory, as a divine accommodation to human sin and a divine goad to sanctification. Jesus says, “by their fruits, ye shall know them” (Mt. 7:16) and also: “Let both [the weeds and the wheat] grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers…” (Mt. 13:30). Thus, God forms the pilgrim faithful over time, those who are called and given grace to persevere to the end, and God will render final judgment. In such a setting, many Christian communities would do well to understand their life together as “transitional,” in the imaginative term of the 1930 Lambeth Conference (see Report IV). We are all waiting for more to be given — revealed and enacted — by God at the proper time. We will want to remain attuned to flexible forms of communion, both for ourselves and for the sake of others, in order to steward what we receive.

Given that our present disarray is, we trust, a way station en route to something better, how can we imitate today Christ’s having broken down the wall of division between Jew and Gentile “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Eph. 2:14,15)? What next steps will help us advance in faithfulness as Christ’s members made into “one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:16)? Such questions invoke the sacrificial character of ecclesial life in service of visibility as well as discernment about the fullness of the Church’s witness.

We Anglicans and others, who share a common baptismal faith across the numerous churches of post-16th-century western Christianity, need a field guide for adjudicating visibility and invisibility amid division. There can be no escaping counsel, that is, constant communication and consultation, which may take various forms, including traditional councils, synods, and so forth. As the bishops gathered at the 1930 Lambeth Conference reflected, perhaps their own decennial meeting “with its strict adherence to purely advisory functions has been… preparing our minds for participation in the Councils of a larger and more important community of Churches. Every extension of this circle of visible fellowship would increase the power of the Church to witness to its Lord by its unity” (Encyclical Letter). And since the members of the body cannot say to each other “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21), they must likewise face each other in love when hard things need to be said (see Paul’s confrontation with Peter at Gal. 2:11; cf. Eph. 4:15: “speaking the truth in love”). For Augustinian heirs, a critical question will be: How can our common counsel account for the hidden aspect of the Church, her God-ordained invisibility, and so proceed with proper reserve? How can we leave to God that which is God’s, while at the same time discerning, in St. Paul’s terms, the difference between sad-but-necessary divisions and salutary diversity (see 1 Cor. 11:19 and 1 Cor. 12:12ff.)? According to the apostle, each has its place, but they are not the same. The ancient and correct answer is: by the Church’s own gathering and deciding.

Imperfect communion across distance

Here, finally, we should sharpen the immediate challenge before Anglicans. Seeking to respond to the call of international communion, we have said for over a century that “intensified” life together is more faithful than federation (see the report of the unity committee at Lambeth Conference 1920; Anglican Covenant, Intro. §5). Unless we wish to renege on that vision so as to recast the Communion in a new image — either as relentlessly federalist, or in would-be post-Canterbury guise — our questions will concern the model of intensification and its timeline. Here, I see two proposals on the table, both covenantal in character.

Convened in 2016 by the 6th Global South Conference, a study group “on enhancing ecclesial responsibility” delivered a draft “covenantal structure” to the 7th conference meeting in Cairo in October 2019. As reported in The Living Church, the text is full of scriptural and historical riches and deserves careful study. Building on the 2011 report of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order, Toward a Symphony of Instruments, the proposed structure seeks to advance Anglican coherence first of all in a global south context, but with an eye to wider application “for the well-being of our Anglican Communion.”

From a classical Anglican-cum-Catholic perspective, the call for wider counsel and decision-making about the Church concerning controverted matters rings true; Hooker, and successive Lambeth conferences, would approve. The readiness of the text to set aside “mere geographical location,” however, so as to isolate pockets of putative “orthodoxy” signals something else — an over-realized visibilism without qualification, hence without needed restraint (see Executive Summary §4). Who, for instance, will determine when a given bishop’s jurisdiction has become “unintelligible” and “inauthentic” (1.6; cf. 2.1.6)? Likewise, was the 1552 text on The Reformation of Ecclesiastical Laws (cited by the Global South authors) correct when it supposed that “the coming together of all faithful men” is a matter that may be “perceived”? John Jewel would agree, but only by way of dispensing, as we saw, with the invisibility of the Church, thus also with her mixed body character, incorporating even heretics, as Hooker allowed. In this revisionist conception, communion becomes an all-or-nothing matter, either “full” or absent, as the text apparently concludes (2.1.6). Degrees of faithfulness, so helpful in the pedagogy of communion for distinguishing real progress from all that we are called to, are removed from the inter-Anglican ecclesiological toolbox (cf. 2.2.3(b)).

The Anglican Covenant avoids these errors by channeling received ecumenical thinking about the Church — that communion is baptismal in the first instance (Intro §§1-3); that even among Anglicans it is both “beauty and challenge” (Intro. § 4); and that, because there’s more to the Anglican family than meets the eye, we pray — in the subjunctive, of course — that God “will redeem our struggles and weakness” and “renew and enrich our common life” (Intro. §8; see more fully 2.1.3). This is a reformed summons for an ever-reforming Church. In turn, each section of the Covenant presents a gift and call structure. Affirmations lead to complementary commitments, finally regarding the form of “interdependent life” itself (3.2). When “situations of conflict” arise, “face to face meetings, agreed parameters, and a willingness to see such processes through” are prescribed, in a bid “to uphold the highest degree of communion possible” (3.2.6-3.2.7).

The “relational consequences” of section four of the Covenant (see 4.2.4, 4.2.7) were underdeveloped and perhaps broadly conceived as a kind of social distancing, in current parlance, when what we actually need is physical distancing in truth and love. Call it “walking together at a distance,” as Archbishop Welby described a 2016 decision of the primates. When we disagree on matters of importance without a ready solution at hand, some means of honoring the faith we still share without piling on expectations of fullness can be both attractive and coherent. We do this all the time with ecumenical partners, as with family members. Communication is maintained and cooperation encouraged, even as some slackening of business as usual is reluctantly accepted as an outworking of freedom and respect. In this way, boundaries may become byways that prepare the passage of pilgrims still learning how best to “wait for one another.” When we do “come together” again, we hope “it will not be for our condemnation” (1 Cor. 11:33,34).

Let us pray that Anglicans of all parties and persuasions may at least not seek to prevent the developing of structures for common discernment, so long as these structures also enable patient endurance (Jas. 5:10-11; cf. Heb. 10:36-39). Duly marking the great mystery of our having died in baptism, through which we were “hidden with Christ,” let us labor to build up the body in every good work, until the life of each one is “revealed with him in glory” (Col. 3.3,4). Walking together, even at varying paces, we can, please God, look together to Christ, who is first and last, and himself the way upon which the Church is drawn. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.


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