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Seeking Communion in the Midst of Disagreement

Speakers from across the Anglican world gathered in Virginia in January to explore strategies for maintaining unity within the Anglican Communion in the midst of deep theological differences. Fifteen Anglican and Episcopal bishops and a larger group of church officials, seminary faculty and clergy met January 13 and 14 for a consultation titled “When Churches in Communion Disagree.”

The participants, who held a wide diversity of views, respectfully plumbed the depths of Scripture, church history, classic Anglican views on divinity, and contemporary ecumenical theology. The event was sponsored by the Living Church Institute, the House of Bishops’ Ecclesiology Committee, the Dioceses of Dallas and Texas, and Virginia Theological Seminary, which hosted the meeting. (More photos of the participants can be found on TLC’s Facebook page.)

Robert Heaney, the director of Virginia Seminary’s Center for Anglican Communion Studies and one of the consultation’s organizers, described the event as marked by “a spirit of generosity and deep listening.” The consultation, he added, “called the church to deeper and more patient and inter-cultural ecclesiological investigation for the future of the Communion. Amidst division there was real hope in the room this week.”

Canon Sarah Snyder, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advisor for Reconciliation, opened the gathering considering reconciled diversity in texts from John and Ephesians. John reveals Jesus as a careful listener and an advocate of mutual love. The Church, she argued, “is to be a community of love and service, modeled on how he loves and serves.” The cosmic scope of reconciliation outlined in Ephesians helps place our disagreements in the context of the deeper unity Christians share. “If you are in Christ and I am in Christ,” Snyder said, “then we must view our conflict through the Christ between us.”

Wes Hill of Trinity School for Ministry offered a close read of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, a text that has figured prominently in debates around human sexuality. He argued that the requirement of circumcision at the heart of the early church’s conflict was, in its own context, a moral matter, like those in dispute today. Hill urged disagreeing Christians to seek God’s purpose in the midst of conflict, recognizing, as the apostles discovered in Jerusalem, that “the Spirit is as able to make use of human conflict as he is of concord, and that the command to maintain the unity of Spirit, even in its breach, is able to be caught up in the Spirit’s work of judgment and purgation.”

George Sumner, the Bishop of Dallas, argued that the criteria outlined by John Henry Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine can help Anglicans discern about contested changes in teaching about sexuality. Newman’s model, he said, argued for patience and continuing dialogue. In a series of “guidelines in the meantime,” Sumner claimed that traditionalists, like the Communion Partners within the Episcopal Church, have a crucial “Newmanesque role” within churches that trend towards departures from historic norms.

Sumner said, “If doctrinal developments, to be legitimate, must be proven over time to be actual developments rather than wholesale rejections of what has come before, so that a body can change over time yet remain substantially the same — then it seems to follow that there should be no need to abolish traditional liturgies and communities that practice them, since those in favor of that tradition’s development must believe that their favored revision is in substantial continuity with what has come before it. It also seems to follow that adding new liturgies and new communities to the old, while allowing for both to coexist side-by-side for what may be a very long time, is simply what is required for the ongoing work of discernment to test whether or not a contested doctrine is in fact a legitimate development of the tradition.”

Katherine Sonderegger, Virginia Seminary’s Meade Professor of Christian Doctrine, urged Anglicans to revisit the 2004 Windsor Report, which remains relevant to contemporary conflict. “The truth is,” she said, “that the Windsor Report is right — or so it seems to me — that the matter of homosexuality is not closed, not behind us, not settled, and most certainly not forgotten in the Communion to which we belong.” Advocates for the full inclusion of LGBT people are called, she argued, like advocates for women’s ordination in prior generations, to practice a “grace-filled and demanding patience.”

Sonderegger proposed a model for contemporary Anglicans from 16thcentury Roman Catholicism, an intense and decades-long debate between followers of theologians Thomas Aquinas and Luis de Molina about God’s knowledge of future contingencies. Two successive popes, Clement VIII and Paul V, summoned theologians to present their arguments in a series of conferences known as the Congregatio de Auxiliis. Finding the contentious matter ultimately unresolvable, the papal decision was to declare a “difference of schools,” recognizing that, for the sake of unity, both opinions would be tolerated in the church’s life.

“We may never agree,” she said. “We may be left with baroque Thomists and Molinists who simply cannot countenance each other’s primary commitments. But the aim of this entire distinction is to find a way forward: to see a distinction that abides in unity. We are not there yet. And I think a very great patience is needed as we take up this work. But I believe if accord cannot be reached, we may still come to see that in one Church, one Communion, a difference of schools can be tolerated, even welcomed.”

Living Church Executive Director Christopher Wells turned to other 16th-century sources, parsing the differences in the ecclesiologies of Anglican theologians John Jewell and Richard Hooker in seeking a model for living faithfully in the midst of church divisions. Wells lifted up Hooker’s patient vision of a church that seeks the greatest degree of communion possible while trusting in God’s final judgment. “Hooker haunts Anglican Communion texts in their suppleness and talk of degrees of difference among Anglicans and ecumenically,” he said. “But once we’ve downloaded properly a non-triumphalist ecclesiology for Anglicanism, we need to come back to wrestling with visibility again, and full visible unity. This is the cutting edge of the challenge for Anglicans.”

The chief ecumenical officers for the Episcopal Church and the Church of England offered insights from recent ecumenical dialogue to guide the work of living together amidst doctrinal divisions. The Episcopal Church’s Margaret Rose advocated for receptive ecumenism; an approach developed by Durham University’s Paul Murray. “Rather than attempting to convince the other of the rightness of one’s own way, or to teach the other, one listens for what one can learn about the other. The question raised is whether unity or the beginnings of reconciliation might be found in seeking out and listening for the very differences that are believed to divide.”

Jeremy Worthen, the Church of England’s Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, addressed significant, if often overlooked, differences between agreement and communion. “In recent decades,” Worthen noted, “there has been a recognition that disagreement belongs within the life of the church — that it need not, in and of itself, tend toward conflict and division. There are some disagreements that can and should be borne.” Drawing on the Church of England’s recently thwarted progress toward full communion with the British Methodist Church, Worthen said a crucial factor is determining in advance how much agreement is necessary for establishing or maintaining communion.

Archbishop Mark MacDonald, the leader of the Anglican Church of Canada’s indigenous province, spoke of indigenous people’s struggle to gain a fair hearing for their own theological vision within the white-majority Canadian church, which suffers, he said, from “an incapacity to absorb difference.” The Anglican Communion’s current struggles unfold, he said, against a hidden background dominated by “the global culture of money” and the collapse of Christendom. The demands of the moment call the Church, MacDonald said, to “a radical reorganization of power,” in which the poor and lowly, “naked but for the gospel, emerge as exemplars of the world to come.”

Bishop Joseph Wandera, who serves the Anglican Church of Kenya’s Diocese of Mumias, interviewed half of his church’s 40 bishops to learn more about their willingness to continue in relationship with Anglicans who differ from them in significant ways. Wandera discovered a surprising amount of diversity.

Fellow Kenyan Bishop Samson Mwaluda, founding bishop of the Diocese of Taita Taveta, told Wandera, “Gafcon is growing. The liberals are shrinking. Here I can grow the church; here I can stand genuinely. My spirit is at peace. This is the faith I can die for. Your soul and pastoral work will be safe in Gafcon, not Canterbury.” Bishop Tim Wambunya of Butere, also in Kenya, countered: “Personally, I think the Gafcon axis has become obsessed with the matter of sexuality. Secondly, I think the Archbishop of Canterbury should try to steer the Communion toward the gospel, rather than simply discussing the issue of sexuality. No more resolutions on sexuality, please.”

Wandera said he spoke to many bishops who were concerned about a “lack of magnanimity toward differences in the Communion. This concern is framed as a need for extending pastoral care to those who may be different from ‘us.’ Such pastoral care is not seen, necessarily, as ‘agreeing’ with certain positions, but rather as a gospel invitation to forgiveness and reconciliation.” He also sees great promise in the way that Kenyan Anglicans so frequently describe worldwide Anglicanism as a family. Africans, he said, “prefer to think of those extended families that embrace a number of generations and are united by strong and enduring ties as a model for the church. The families we have in mind cannot easily be broken by circumstances. Even when two brothers are engaged in a physical fight, our culture provides for avenues of restoring the family relationship.”

Two Episcopal bishops, John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee and William Gregg, formerly of Eastern Oregon, reflected on different models for churchwide decision-making passed down through our Anglican heritage. Bauerschmidt surveyed the 1948 Lambeth Conference’s Report on the Anglican Communion, which emphasized dispersed authority and the central role of the episcopate. Though recent conflict reveals the limits of a model for unity based so heavily on “the common counsel of the bishops,” Bauerschmidt said he was wary of abandoning this emphasis in favor of enhanced power for a bureaucratic instrument. Gregg proposed greater authority in a fully empowered Anglican Consultative Council, believing that this instrument of communion reflects the best features of our common conciliar tradition.

Many of the bishops who attended said that they found the consultation’s deep and respectful engagement with diverse views strengthened their own resolve to persevere in this work. Brian Cole of East Tennessee noted, “I feel even more keenly the sense that as the Body of Christ, we cannot say to each other, ‘I have no need of you.’ The past two days were an opportunity to be together, even in the midst of deep disagreement, and hear from each other, share meals together, pray together, and give value to our need to practice ‘belongingness”…We react to each other more than we seek to be together, to respond to each other, face to face. After attending this consultation, I pray more of us will forego the rush to the printer’s ink and seek to be together, face to face.”

Bishop Cathleen Bascom of the Diocese of Kansas said she was drawn to overlapping themes in the presentations: “I was intrigued by ‘patience’ and ideas of ‘time’ that recurred. I heard in papers how the World Wars motivated past Christians to pursue unity, and it is my opinion that creation care issues like clean water, rising water, polluted water must move us toward unity on areas of lesser disagreement. I think that I will arrive at Lambeth more aware of the intricacies that make up the fabric – and possible fraying – of our Communion.”

Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh urged those who attend this summer’s Lambeth Conference to decide if they will approach the gathering with a sincere desire to listen to those with whom they disagree. He said, “The core question is whether Lambeth is going to be a repetition of the wooden dance of the past or some new way of engaging each other… [We need to be willing to say] ‘my salvation depends on others in the room with whom I must disagree.’ Then we have a clear call to our own repentance, conversion and amendment of life.”

“The take-away for me from the consultation,” said Bauerschmidt, “is that there seems to be a new willingness to discuss the differences that divide us in the Anglican Communion, and a spirit willing to repair relationships and to preserve and extend the communion that we share. There are hard conversations ahead, but maybe now hearts prepared to have them.”


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