Are we Anglicans or Baptists?
The Anglican Communion Covenant:
Interdependence or Independence?
by Revd John Watson
Picture 1st Century Jerusalem. In the heat of the day an equally heated issue is raised to the leaders of the Church. A council is convened to advise the way forward. The Jewish Christians faced with a cultural challenge of their own way of faith and worship being challenged by another culture, who bring a new perspective, dynamic and worship. Acts 15 tells the story of this first of many challenges this fledgling community faces. It is all about how to live with difference.
The result? Unity is better than division. Common ground in Christ is the cement that holds them together. And this cement is more than just pragmatic and surface glue that hides the cracks beneath. It is an attempt to faithfully and radically live out Jesus’ prayer “That they may be one”
It is a deep christological and ecclesiological response. For them the way forward is not to act in isolation, but being aware that their actions will have an affect on the other. This is a response that goes to the heart of what being church, being a communion is all about. We are tied to each other in Christ.
So an agreement is reached. Certain lifestyle choices will be restricted for the sake of the other. This is the cost of living in communion. Jean Vanier writes that unity “surges up from a life that flows within us and through us all together.”1
This is where the real test of communion is found - we can either seriously take into account the view of the other or we go it alone. This is everything to do with ecclesiology. Communion accountability is about making it real. We live life in the light of a brother and sister who may be different from us. How we express that is at the heart the Anglican ecclesiology and at the heart of the Anglican Communion Covenant.
Many years ago I trained and served as a Baptist minister in the UK. At the heart of Baptist ecclesiology is the independence of the congregation.
This is government by the whole congregation…The local congregation is the fundamental unit: no individual official or church body may exercise rights over it. All matters of policy are submitted finally to the judgment of the whole congregation in which the minister, deacons and elders (if any), are on the same level as all the other members. Each congregation is free to interpret the mind of Christ without interference from other congregations or bodies, though in practice most independent churches unite with others in matters of common concern.2
This is one expression of ecclesiology. Here you have a wide number of independent congregational communities who form a union or federation so that there is a common expression and identity among themselves. Fine if your Baptist.
Anglican ecclesiology is very different. Independence of a congregation is not the defining stamp. We are gathered into a communion of interdependent Dioceses, within a province which is interdependent with others, globally. This is how it has been expressed and chosen as the Anglican Communion has grown over the years. This is the gift we inherit. This is why we have four Instruments of Communion - not to be an exterior body of control - but to help bring union and communion with each other. Where we hold each other in high regard as each of us are sewn together into the fabric of life in Christ.
This is more costly in terms of what it demands - love is costly after all.
Yes we already have a Communion - and past actions have shown that difference of opinion, local (and regional) expression of difference have been held in the tension of being a Communion. The Instruments of Communion have helped foster that in the past; like for instance women priests and bishops.
But recent actions have seen an abandonment of that commitment to work things through together. Recent actions have shown that for some a Baptist ecclesiology is preferable in working out difference.
Back to 1st Century Jerusalem: what happened? did they declare their differences and decide to go it alone? Did they choose independence over interdependence? No they decided that a commitment was needed to express that deep unity and common bond of love.
So we too have reached a moment in our Communion history where a commitment is needed to define again our ecclesiology - we are in it together.
A No vote for the Anglican Covenant is actually a vote edging us towards another ecclesiology altogether, decidedly un-Anglican at that.
A No vote would see us rather than experiencing the joys and frustration of living in Communion, like a bunch of grapes, fragile and yet filled with the potential for new wine, we would in the end become, as Graham Kings said - a bag of marbles - scraping and jostling against one another.
A Yes vote is a Yes to the Communion.
A Yes vote is a Yes to Unity with diversity.
A Yes vote is a Yes to Anglican ecclesiology.
1 Jean Vanier, Drawn into the mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (London: DLT) 2004, 302.
2 Stuart Blythe, Baptist Practices: Being Church, (Baptist Identity Lecture Semester two) 2007, 3-4.
Revd John Watson is vicar of St Paul's Tupsley and St Andrew's Hampton Bishop, in Hereford Diocese, UK. He is also a member of the Fulcrum Leadership Team.
John is the Vicar of St Paul’s, Tupsley and St Andrews, Hampton Bishop in Hereford Diocese. He’s also currently doing Doctoral Studies at Kings College London.