High Stakes, Three Facts

On January 11-16, the Primates of the Anglican Communion will discuss its future in Canterbury. From their extremes, Martyn Percy and Peter Jensen want the meeting to choose between The Episcopal Church (TEC) and GAFCON, and fear that the Primates will find some centrist way to evade the dilemma. Archbishop Welby has countered such polarisation with a vision of Communion so accepting of disagreement for the sake of its mission to a complex world that no such choice need be made. In the missional solidarity that he envisions, New York liberalism, Durham open evangelicalism, and Sydney confessionalism co-exist among other poles of a multipolar community united in service and mission. Such a vision, neither the libertarianism of many liberals nor the confessionalism of many evangelicals, has not initially attracted support from purists at either pole. As Primates make their way to Canterbury, there may be some maneuvering to keep them trapped by the horns of the familiar dilemma, TEC or GAFCON.

But three facts remain--

(1) Space to disagree well is part of authentic communion. The question is: how do we think about that space in the Body of Christ? In a multipolar order, Primates may distance themselves from each other in some matters of practice, but all remain within the Communion. In contrast, breaking inter-communion to express disagreement over governance or discipline has never made very much sense, but so long as the Communion’s order has remained unipolar, it has been the only way for an Anglican church to dissociate itself from the General Convention. Where several churches believed that they could only leave the General Convention by leaving the Communion, an alternate communion such as GAFCON had a certain plausibility. However, the Primates in Canterbury could discuss two changes to the principles for bilateral relations that would open some space for better disagreement: they could distinguish canonicity from communion, and they could allow Primates to recognise provinces or even dioceses that share their canonicity apart from their national synods. With this differentiation of the Communion into a clan of families, the unity in diversity of Anglican Christianity would finally be expressed in its order.

To see how this might work, consider the recent case of Anglican refugees from Sudan and South Sudan (SSS). Persecution in their homeland has driven a diaspora overseas to chilly cities in the northeastern United States and the warm hospitality of TEC. Few Episcopalians are fluent in Dinka or familiar with Sudanese liturgical practice, but some dioceses have offered financial support for clergy and the use of worship space. A Sudanese liturgy with lots of chant and dance was the talk of a recent diocesan convention. However, despite long ties to TEC, the bishops of SSS and the refugees themselves disagree with the General Convention’s recent approval of same sex marriage (SSM). Therefore the bishops of SSS have recently broken communion with TEC, except for certain dioceses that they understand to be resisting SSM. They have also directed their people in America to sever their ties to TEC as soon as they can, and to accept the local oversight of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

As Archbishop Welby might point out, such global emergencies as forced migrations are among the reasons for being a global Communion in the first place. Quite apart from SSM, this particular migration raises several questions salient to the meeting in Canterbury-- Who oversees Anglican refugees in another province and why? Is the disagreement between the SSS and TEC’s General Convention about whether TEC is a part of the Body of Christ (communion), or is it about a shared system of oversight (canonicity)? Does it make sense that the SSS bishops broke communion with only part of TEC? Are the refugees still in the Anglican Communion? In a multipolar Communion, it makes sense that, while none of these parties should be out of communion with any of the others, the bishops of SSS might reasonably find all of their colleagues in ACNA and some of their colleagues in TEC to be in the same shared system of canonical oversight. Answers to the most subtle questions are to be found in the shared system itself.

That distinction between membership in Christ and ways of overseeing churches best expresses the communion in Christ that TEC and the Global South do have in common and the shared canonicity that they do not. To be clear, it also articulates both the unity as sinners in Christ of a liberal English bishop and a conservative African colleague, and the difference between fighting homophobia and advocating criminalisation. On occasion, liberal Anglicans will have some thoughts about canonicity of their own and some similar desire for dissociation from councils that have erred. But the important thing is that a false appearance of uniformity does not make communion in Christ seem inauthentic. If Anglican churches are free to acknowledge their real differences, and can dissociate themselves from synodical acts with which they disagree, the temptation to abandon the Communion is easily resisted.

(2) Liberals who care about homosexuals worldwide need the Anglican Communion. Yes, especially in England, they have angrily protested the idea that churches elsewhere, especially certain African ones, might influence their own enlightened understandings. But among those is the thought that homosexuality is an unchosen orientation that shapes lives in every society in the world, and that science will eventually make this clear even to those who now doubt it. Their advocacy for this view has changed few minds on SSM, but because of it, Anglicans have given the perspective of homosexuals more open public consideration than any other global communion. This costly re-education has disposed even those opposed to SSM to support other interventions important to many lives around the world-- advocacy for human rights, decriminalization of sexual orientation, prevention of teen suicide, helping educators and families to understand, etc. If this hard-earned social capital is lost to a broken Communion, it can never be replaced. And, fairly or not, the spectacle of Anglican liberals pushing their Communion to the breaking point makes it much harder for Christians to raise these issues in other communions. One should not be too hard on Martyn Percy for believing that the world would be better if all in it were English liberals. But on the planet on which we actually live, if one truly believes that unchosen homosexuality is a global phenomenon that science will eventually explain, then one has a duty to keep the global Communion together and play the long global game to help others to understand this.

(3) Evangelicals should not abandon the very provinces that most need to hear a fully scriptural theology of marriage.  Indeed, a moment in which Caesar is changing the civil laws on marriage is hardly the time for evangelical churchmen to abandon those who must figure out how to live with these laws. For the Communion to fail even to consider and critique the TEC and ACC reports on the scriptural basis for their initial responses to the legalization of SSM gravely disrespects the authority of scripture in the Church. What kind of evangelical does not want to share the riches of the scriptures with fellow Christians? The kind that would have disagreed with John Stott in 1966 at the National Assembly of Evangelicals. In the global village today, the Anglican Communion is the "fine boat for fishing" that the Church of England was then. Alas, brilliant Peter Jensen, whose rhetoric about the North grows stranger every year, is the Martin Lloyd Jones of our time, as Lloyd Jones himself was the Jonah of that time. In fairness, GAFCON's hard work on the little ACNA has restored some balance to Anglicanism on this continent. But if GAFCON Primates abandon the Anglican Communion, future evangelicals-- people who will admire house churches in China, persecuted Christians in Iran, etc-- will look back on them as the only evangelical body to trumpet retreat from a mission field out of sheer purple envy of Canterbury.

Under God, power in a negotiation flows to those with the best alternative to a workable agreement. The three facts above show not only that a workable agreement is possible, but that neither liberals nor evangelicals have a better alternative to it. Less coldly, they also show that each constituency has a plausible motivation for long term support for the Communion. To realise its aspirations, however, each needs to press on past the outdated Percy-Jensen polarisation. Alas, there will always be liberals for whom the long eighteenth century was not nearly long enough and evangelicals so entranced by their doctrine of particular election that they have no imagination for ecclesiology or the wider society. In fact, these mindsets are twins. But there are also liberals with a vivid imagination for the new creation in which evangelicals believe, and evangelicals whose stubborn faith lets not the needy be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor be taken away. It is not too much to hope that the personalism at the core of liberal Christian ethics may yet meet the biblicism in Bebbington’s quadrilateral. The Anglican Communion needs some new leaders on both sides who are less embittered by past culture wars, more willing to work with the other side, and better able think realistically about the global village. Some of them may be arriving in Canterbury soon.

1 thought on “High Stakes, Three Facts”

  1. This is the most revealing account of the recent meeting of Primates in Canterbury, and a sensible reaction to the reaction that followed its communiques–


    Concisely, the Communion’s centrist Primates in the south hold the balance of power. TEC tampering with received doctrine on marriage was finally unacceptable to them. In response, they sought “distance with continuing dialogue” rather than punishment, and the communiques show that they had the votes to get what they sought. TEC erred in thinking that marriage was not core Anglican doctrine. TEC’s adversaries erred in seeing punishment as a proper response. The appointed task force matters more than loud voices on either side publicly acknowledge.

    The OP does not mention GAFCON as a factor in the deliberations. Even apart from it, a comparison of the communiques with the GAFCON statements about them reveals that they voted with the centre, and not vice versa. Because two further meetings of Primates and a Lambeth Conference are planned, the actual voting strength of the left, centre, and right will become ever clearer. Readers beware: as is often the case, the most influential voices have been the quieter ones.

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