Web of Mutuality or Fragmentation?
by Graham Kings, Bishop of Sherborne
'Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly'. Martin Luther King wrote these words in a letter from jail in Birmingham, Alabama, on 6 April 1963.
On Wednesday last week a group of bishops of the Church of England, with Justices of the Supreme Court, pondered these words in our hearts. We were being shown round the new court in Parliament Square, London. The words are etched in glass, by Richard Kindersley, one of a series of quotations, in the library. I remember reflecting on their connections to current discussions about the Anglican Communion Covenant.
The Covenant was designed as a ‘web of mutuality’ across the Anglican Communion: a balance of provincial autonomy with world-wide interdependence and accountability. The Covenant sets out an orderly process towards the resolutions of conflicts to replace the chaotic, hastily arranged meetings of the past, which too often have led to a barrage of curses and contested statements.
Tragically, last Saturday, the Covenant was voted down in three dioceses of the Church of England and now cannot be debated and voted on in General Synod next July. It needed over half of the 44 dioceses to vote for it positively. So far 23 dioceses have voted no, and 15 yes. Interestingly, the total number of votes, so far, is slightly over half in favour and, amongst the bishops, nearly 80% were in favour.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of History of the Church at the University of Oxford, has accused the bishops of being out of touch with the rest of the church. There may be other explanations of our votes.
First, a foundation of our calling is providing a focus of unity in the dioceses and a web of connections across space and time. Thus a Covenant which reflects a ‘web of mutuality’ is attractive and nourishing.
Second, bishops experience the depth and challenge of relationships in the Communion through the Lambeth Conference, which meets every 10 years, and through regular visits to partner provinces and dioceses across the world. We have found that in encouraging clergy and lay people to join in with these partnerships, they are also invigorated with the vision of interdependence.
Third, bishops have followed the Covenant closely over the last 8 years or so and seen its developing improvements.
The English vote may have an impact on, but cannot bring to a halt, the Covenant movement in the Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as being ‘Primate of All England’ is also one of the ‘Instruments of Communion’. He presides at the Lambeth Conference, the Primates' Meetings and the Anglican Consultative Council (the latter has clergy and lay people as well as bishops) as an ‘Instrument of Communion’, rather than as ‘Primate of All England’, and so will continue to fulfill these roles.
The consequences of last Saturday’s votes are being discussed across the Communion. Andrew Brown of The Guardian has written about ‘The Anglican Schism’ and sees Saturday’s vote as a key date. Andrew Goddard’s Fulcrum article, ‘The Anglican Communion Covenant and the Church of England: Ramifications’ is particularly perceptive. He shows that the Covenant will continue to be considered around the Communion, that eight provinces have embraced it and the next Anglican Consultative Council (27 October to 7 November 2012 in New Zealand) will take stock, but cannot end the process. So, despite the English decision, other provinces are being encouraged to adopt the Covenant.
I have argued that the Anglican Communion may be described as a ‘bunch of grapes’ as opposed to a ‘bag of marbles’: personal interdependence, organically connected, rather than isolated autonomy, merely juxtaposed. Sadly, the majority of the diocesan synods of the Church of England, but not the majority of the voters, has opted for a bag of marbles.
It seems to me that there are three options for the future shape of the Anglican Communion. First, the ‘web of mutuality’ manifested in the Covenant, which provides autonomy and interdependence with accountability. This is the broad centre ground of those who vote for the Covenant, and includes the leaders of the Communion-minded Global South Anglican movement, based in Singapore.
Second, ‘confessionalism’, gathered around the Jerusalem Declaration of the conservative Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA), the follow up group to the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON). Based currently in Nairobi, FCA hosts a conference in London from 23-27 April, at which some members of the Global South Anglican Movement will also attend.
Third, ‘independent autonomy’, following the radically liberal current leaders of The Episcopal Church, in the USA, (TEC).
Following further likely controversial decisions of TEC’s General Convention in July, there may well be more fragmentation between the first two and the third options. These decisions, together with the English vote, may lead to the Anglican Communion declining into a Federation or Association.
To counter this doleful demotion, we need to hold onto the long term vision of interdependence and autonomy in the first 3 sections of the Covenant and find another way to express accountability.
This hope may be inspired by words from another letter written from prison. They provide a tantalizing mission, tantamount to a way forward amidst the fragments. Saint Paul, in Rome, wrote to the Church at Ephesus in the early 60s AD: ‘But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.’ (Ephesians 4:15-16)
The Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings is Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Ely and Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.