The Body of Christ or A Body Bag of Parts?
A speech given to Hereford Diocesan Synod
By Simon Cawdell
I stand before you this morning as a passionate supporter of the Anglican Communion its life, its diversity and the riches contained within it that we share. The links we share with our partner dioceses in Tanzania are a valuable testament to the insights that we can give to one another as we seek to work out the mission we share in this our worldwide Communion. Only last autumn I had the privilege of travelling with a team to two diocese in Madagascar in the company of Bishop Stanley Hotay of Mount Kilimanjaro to assist in teaching a discipleship course, and watched with joy as a new diocesan link was forged between Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Diocese of Fiarantsoa being from the deep respect of the two bishops for one another.
It has therefore been a deep distress to me to see the fallout in relationships in the Anglican Communion this past decade. Provinces refusing to listen to one another, or somehow believing that in their actions they do not affect the life of the whole communion. Provinces have been busy excommunicating one another, and representatives of some provinces have found themselves ineligible to speak for the whole in a way that has sometimes seemed random, even haphazard. There has been a significant amount of name calling and megaphone diplomacy between institutions as well as individuals which has stood as a testament of how not to live together in mutual harmony.
It is into this context that the idea of a Convenant for the Anglican Communion was born. It was conceived a document on the historic line of formularies that have evolved since the Reformation that describe, rather than define what we are as a church, and as such the document stands before you as probably the most concise description of the fullness of Anglican theology that has ever been written. The Covenant begins from the premise that that we are called to Communion in Jesus Christ, and that Communion incorporates us into the very life of the Trinity. It tells us that this is the faith we have inherited and that the Covenant does not seek to change this.
It goes on in Section 1 to outline our dependence upon scripture, and our lineage in the historic faith of the Church and in 1.2 how we reason together in interpreting these things into the context of today’s society. Scripture, tradition and reason are all affirmed therein, and in section 2 we see the mission agreed by all the provinces, and outworked through he five marks of mission, which only last year we in this diocese have studied together.
Section 3 turns to our common life together and affirms (in 3.1.2) the fact that the Anglican Communion is described as ‘a communion living together with autonomy and accountability. It acknowledges the central role of Bishops and the importance of the Instruments of Communion, that is to say the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council. It talks of the need for regarding the common good of the Communion, and the need to spend time listening, praying and studying together for the mutual discernment of God’s will, and where difficulties arise to pursue mediated conversations.
Thus far there is little or nothing that is not descriptive of the life we already live, and is therefore wholly uncontroversial. Section 4 turns to those moments when, being human, and therefore part of a human institution we disagree. Very often we can agree to differ, bearing in mind the contexts of our mission, but just occasionally an issue arises of such import that it threatens the fabric of the Communion. The last decade has been an object lesson in how not to deal with these, and section 4 proposes a means of enabling an exploration of differences that is Biblical, and careful. It does not lay down restrictions, nor does it impose anything. Indeed it recognises the right of autonomous provinces to carry on regardless if they so wish.
It does envisage a situation in which a church might be asked to delay a decision whilst it is thought through. It recognises that sadly there may be times when a church presses ahead with a change that others cannot accept, and at that point it places upon the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates Meeting and the ACC a requirement to spell out what the relational consequences of such a decision might be. It absolutely does not, anywhere suggest that it can prevent anything. As to the relational consequences, this is nothing new. We have seen relational consequences of unilateral action over the last ten years, and the Covenant merely seeks to bring about some order in discussion where previously there has been chaos.
Think of another Covenant relationship, that of a marriage, where neither party is in fact prevented from any action or decision, but they may hopefully choose to regard the wellbeing of the other before they proceed. If they do not there may be relational consequences varying from the dog eating dinner, to divorce. There is nothing novel in this, but a tidying of how we resolve matters. In essence we are moving to the model of Matthew 18 when we speak with one another, then before witnesses, and only then lay the matter before the church. In marriage preparation it is always my custom to exhort a couple that if they find themselves at an impasse, to seek a mediated conversation. This is healthy, and mirrors real life to us.
I have heard this is the language of pre nuptial agreements. I demur. That refers to contracts, this is a Covenant. Yes it may have moral force, but it is not legally binding. If you doubt it we have the word of the Legal Officers as well as the Archbishop to reassure us.
I have heard it argued that this will cause many unnecessary delays. Let me put it in context. The average life of a Measure’s progress through Synod is three years. In the case of a change thought by some (but not me) to be controversial like Women Bishops it has taken twenty years. The truth is that our own processes are so tortuous that any delay requested from elsewhere will easily be incorporated within the normal progress of our own proceedings. I don’t anticipate many in any case.
I have heard that it is judgemental, and punitive. That is wholly inaccurate. It provides a means of mediated conversation, and in extremis outlines the issues that may arise if, after careful conversation churches decide to walk apart. That merely defines fact existing now, when some provinces members are already excluded from representative functions because of the stance of their sponsoring church. It does however provide a rather less messy route than happens today, allowing for patient conversation and quiet diplomacy.
I have heard people call it unAnglican, which is a strange criticism indeed as it encapsulates our much loved heritage, it sets up no additional structure, but utilises present ones, and has been drawn together in many drafts by careful consultation across the globe, including a substantial contribution from our own church, and the strong endorsement of our own Archbishop.
I wish now to turn to the choice you have before you and its impact. If you vote for the motion today you vote to return the discussion to General Synod. It will be discussed in the House of Bishops and be brought to General Synod for final approval if found expedient. It is not a big thing, and you will not have committed the Church of England. If you vote against this motion you vote to prevent General Synod discussing it further, and furthermore you vote that discussion of the Covenant cannot proceed within the lifetime of this Synod. You will have committed the Church of England.
Your vote today allows the discussion to continue or not. John Saxbee, when he voted for this Act of Synod in one of his last actions prior to retirement described the need to keep talking. I agree with him. He had his reservations, and others may describe them, but he voted for it to allow the conversation to continue. If you are thinking of abstaining today, perhaps because you do not feel confident in the matter remember you are only voting for the discussion to continue. Allow your General Synod to conclude its discussions. They are careful, and they are robust. But I hope you will have more positive reason for voting for this careful most Anglican document, which above all sets out for us in the Communion how we can keep the conversations going as we seek God’s will for our life together.
You stand today at a fork in the road. Two competing visions of the Anglican Communion lie before you. The first, annunciated in the Covenant is a vision for a Communion that is enriched by its diversity, and covenanted to working with one another to build up the body of Christ, through our mutual mission, accepting that in the times we may disagree we will be careful with one another, cognisant of each others context and mission, and determined to walk forward as one body for the sake of the Gospel, fulfilling the outworking of the vision of the City of God in Revelation with walls but whose gates are never shut, a Communion that is bounded but not limited, enriched by one another and enriching the world in which we live.
The second way is of provinces living autonomously working out mission in their own place, each genuinely seeking to work out their mission, but without the need to care for one another, like those coming together for a festival, living for a while round a common purpose, and dispersing again, probably never to meet in the same way again. A co-habiting federation of squabbling churches, much like we have seen over the last decade, but whose disagreements only intensify with each passing year through lack of any mutual commitment, or vision for our future life together. It is a recipe for disintregration, acrimony, and mutual recrimination.
I urge you today to choose Covenant over Federation, communication over chaos, the Body of Christ over a body bag of parts. Please vote for this motion.
Simon Cawdell is the Team Rector, Bridgnorth Team and Morville Group, Rural Dean of Bridgnorth, General Synod member and the Vice Chair of Fulcrum
Simon is the Team Rector of Bridgnorth Team and Morville Group and a member of the General Synod.