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What Is ‘Impaired Communion’?

By George Sumner

In the weeks after General Convention, one could often hear criticisms of one of the most memorable results, Resolution B012, and behind it, the idea of a split decision, of impaired communion. Some would say that accounts of the results were too positive, as if this new state constituted an ecclesiological advance instead of making the best of a rum show. Well, of course the outcome is problematic — impaired communion is, after all, impaired!

Others have said that the arrangement being worked out was incongruous (e.g., in its distinction between things temporal and things spiritual in diocesan life). Again, of course: doctrine, authority, and jurisdiction oughtto line up. The very idea of impaired communion assumes a disordering we must come to terms with and find a way to live through.

Finally, some, both traditional and progressive, have opined that the resolution is but a temporary way station toward a full-bore solution. While these statements are less frequent now, they do remain, though perhaps in a more submerged way.

Given this state of contention and confusion, I would like to step back and reflect on the very idea of impaired communion. But first we need to be clear about where we are, lest there be misunderstanding.

We bishops remain in full communion with one another, and all Episcopalians enjoy eucharistic fellowship with one another. Whatever our impairment means, we are not saying that it puts us in a position of alienation in our sacramental life. This is our communion.

At the same time, we now have a more complex arrangement for oversight with some congregations. A meaningful distinction has opened between congregations with different teachings and practices on Christian marriage, and concomitantly between dioceses and bishops. Communion Partner bishops as a result have, in some cases, less impeded relations to some other provinces than with their colleagues. These represent impairment.

We know more about living with impaired communion than we might at first admit. As Anglicans we are accustomed to jurisdictions doing as they will, while we try to make sense of it. In our more distant memory were the church parties, high and low, whose residue may be seen in our diversity of liturgical styles among parishes. Furthermore, the great impairment is the division of churches, of which ecumenism is the great, constructive, and incomplete (i.e., impaired) response.

We all have considerable experience with this. We share baptism with the Roman Catholic Church down the street, but not eucharistic fellowship. We give and receive table fellowship Sunday by Sunday with baptized Christians of other denominations. At our best we engage in common mission projects as Christians together in the same place God has placed us. Even in the Episcopal Church’s relationships of full communion (with the ELCA, for example), the two churches retain their separate jurisdictions, hierarchies, and doctrinal distinctives.

This analogy is, like all analogies, partial, since we are not in a relation of schism within our denomination, but we are rather in a relationship of disagreement within communion. The family is not divorced, but there is an element of separation in how life in the house is ordered — precisely so as not to be divorced. To reiterate, Episcopalians have a strong disagreement, and yet we still receive communion side by side in the House of Bishops, in diocesan convention, and in parishes Sunday by Sunday. How are we to understand this?

In this moment, we are getting our heads precisely around the fact that we need to reach for an ecumenical idea to explain aspects of our internal situation. I want to offer seven observations about impaired communion in itself and as it pertains to our situation. The observations include the requisite virtues, assumptions, and imperatives for our in-between state.

First of all, at its worst, impairment exposes us to a danger, namely that it will decompose into a consumerist, different strokes for different folks notion. Since most everything lists this way in our culture, we should not be surprised. All we can do is teach against such ecclesiology du jour. Put another way, we are led back to the same challenge that has confronted conservative Episcopalians for the last quarter-century: to promote a distinct but non-divisive subculture. At the same time, there is a hard blessing to be found here, especially since what stands in the way of a mere pluralism of preference is the realization that what we believe matters.

Second, and equally offensive to our culture, is humility. As traditionalists we are not masters of our destiny, to say the least. When it comes to living within our impairment charitably and constructively, we need help. This is hard for Americans to admit. Bishops of different views act collegially, parishes once locked in political battle lay down their arms, our leaders rise to the better angels of their nature concerning “communion across difference.” These we need, would be appreciative of, but cannot compel. What we are after here is a logic of impaired communion, to discern the features entailed therein.

The third dimension might be called ramifications. These have been delineated well in editorials published by The Living Church or within here at Covenant, such as this one. Impairment implies differentiation — we remain part of one Church, but with complex internal relations that we strive now to order. This was anticipated some time ago in Archbishop Rowan Williams’s suggestion of the potential for “intensifying existing relationships” within “two styles” of being Anglican, in The Windsor Report’s “walking together” or “apart” (para. 157), and very gently in the primates’ distinction between being in communion and being able to speak on matters of doctrine. Differentiation at one level comports with something similar at another of our Communion life.

Is all this effort and complexity worth it? Here we arrive, fourthly, at the point of arrangements based on a logic of impaired communion. We live under several imperatives at once, to be one as the Father and Son are one (John 17), to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4), to be transformed rather than conformed (Rom. 12), and to wait on the Holy Spirit (Luke 24). Disagreements bring these into conflict and we must struggle imperfectly to be faithful at once to them all. The point of impaired communion is the witnesswe offer: as truthful as possible, as faithful to the Scripture as possible, as little divided as we can manage. Everything we are and we do as a church is for this witness. We would have the brokenness of the pot as little as possible impede the shining forth of the treasure (2 Cor. 4)

Impaired communion is by its nature an in-between status, a split decision, neither schism nor a fully aligned relationship. As such it has implications both above and beneath, as it were.

So, fifthly, it is a form of hope. It looks ahead from our moment of “seeing through a glass darkly,” from our disputation within the fellowship of love. As several of the Communion Partner bishops have stated, it ought to be accompanied by sadness for the distance within communion it implies. It ought, precisely as a witness to the gospel, yearn toward a goal of reconciliation. By this is meant something more than agreeableness; it must aim for restoration in doctrine as well as practice and mission as the horizon toward which we speak and act.

Impaired communion cannot be simply a settlement and separation of combatants. Its call to charity, amid a disagreement in the faith, must include the virtue of hope.

Impaired communion implies that we can live in one communion, now differentiated, even as we hope. The disagreement is important enough to require some differentiation, but not one that compels separation. As my friend and mentor Philip Turner has said, we can still recognize in one another a community of the gospel, though we think one another to be in error. Hence we can be part of the same church, though in a complex relationship. This doesn’t deny, however, that there are matters over which we would have to separate.

The category of impairment has its limitsWe all think the church to be foolish in this or that respect. But when we cannot even recognize it as church any longer, then we would have gone beyond the occasion of impairment. If the very name of God were lost, or if in official statements Jesus were to be declared not to be Lord, or if the Bible were declared not to be the Word of God, then the church’s very identity would be eclipsed. Differentiated communion does not assume we will end up there. God forbid! But impairment tacitly acknowledges the uncertainty of the future.

Seventh, and finally, is a question: How are we to proceed? An old saw said doctrine divides but service unites. The statement’s truth is itself impaired. Separate the two, and you are left wondering what service looks like, how you would know, even whose service it is. Still, we realize that hearing one another, and offering plausible witness to Jesus, will require friendship, an expression of which is common service. To be clear, I think we should get on with this, even while we cannot simply shelve our differences (as will be the temptation). Again, the hard and uninvited blessing of impaired communion is that it quietly raises such questions as But what do we believe here? and But is it really so?

As I like to say, my New England doctor father told us children that the worse the cod liver oil tasted, the better it was for us. What then is the shape of truly good disagreement? It will refuse to forget doctrine, will require constant reckoning, and will call us all to charity across difference.

I have offered a traditionalist table of virtues. There is surely a parallel table for progressives, which is for them to describe. Laid side by side, they would constitute as good an account of what the Church of England calls mutual flourishing as we will find. 


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