Whither Communion?

In the wake of a majority of dioceses of the Church of England voting against the proposed Anglican Covenant, it’s appropriate to ask what this portends for the future of the Anglican Communion. In fact, it’s not clear what the fallout from diocesan voting will be. At the very least, it means that the Anglican Covenant cannot come before this particular General Synod. In other words, a best-case scenario would put enactment of the Covenant down the road at least five years. In the meantime, how would an approved Covenant work if the Archbishop of Canterbury were head of a national church in which it isn’t valid?

But these matters are for others to ponder. There’s a bigger question on the table, one the Anglican Covenant was meant to answer: “What sort of thing is the Anglican Communion?” Or to put it in slightly stronger theological terms: “What is the nature of our communion or unity?” The AC’s answer was to strengthen the centralizing tendencies in communion and to create institutions and means for creating boundaries and discipline. It is in the nature of human communities that there is a strong tendency toward centralization. There is also an almost impossible to avoid temptation to strengthen community by defining the limits of that community (both in terms of drawing clear boundaries and excluding dissidents or nonconformists). The Anglican Covenant, no matter how much some might argue the contrary, was an attempt to draw such boundaries and exclude dissent.

Are there other models for unity available? Tobias Haller cites one such possibility, located in the High Priestly prayer of John 17 “so that they may be one as we are one.”

As Haller points out, unity here is posited not in terms of some sort of agreement or covenant, but in the nature of God: the Church is one because God the Father and God the Son are one. Haller sees this as an ontological reality. God is by nature communal and relational–that’s what the Trinity is all about.

The fact of the matter, however, is that relationships of this sort are relatively easy to support theologically; they are rather more difficult to incarnate. Christianity has struggled from the very beginning with unity and difference. Indeed, the Gospel of John itself bears eloquent witness to early Christian difference and conflict.

Many of those rejoicing over the Covenant’s apparent defeat produce slogans like: “Communion, yes; covenant, no,” or express sentiments like “Now, let’s get back to deepening Anglican unity through bonds of affection and missional zeal” (as Bishop Chris Epting tweeted this morning). It’s not clear to me what the Anglican Communion will look like in the future, if the centralizing structures lose power and influence. How will such lateral relationships be created and nurtured? I suppose the companion diocese program is one such possibility, but one wonders whether dioceses divided by culture, language, and geography, can truly build strong bonds of affection, especially given the economic realities facing the church here and worldwide.
One other comment–perhaps it’s time to get rid of the notion of instruments (symbols?) of communion as well. Such things often lead to lazy thinking and help to avoid the hard work of building relationships. When people appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, I’m reminded of lessons I learned studying North African Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. We appeal to universal notions of unity when the reality we experience is far from unified and when we need outside assistance to press our point. Perhaps we would do well to focus our attention on the local, strengthening those relationships and bonds of affection, and let the global take care of itself, at least for a time.

1 thought on “Whither Communion?

  1. Too much time and effort have been wasted in arguments over the various drafts of the Anglican Covenant. Thank goodness the C of E has put a stop to it. It seems likely that most churches in the Anglican Communion will continue doing the sort of mission work they have done all along. Few of the linkages between provinces and dioceses owe their creation or development to the Communion “institutions of unity.” Some grew out of personal friendships fostered by Communion gatherings, but it was provinces and dioceses and sometimes individual parishes on their own that have maintained them over the years. That seems unlikely to change. On balance, the Covenant was judged to be more an instrument of disunity than a source of cooperation and was rightly rejected.

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