True Christian Unity? Reflections on the Lambeth Conference 2008

True Christian Unity?

Reflections on the Lambeth Conference 2008

by Ephraim Radner

Anyone who has observed the Anglican Communion over the past few months knows that the outcome to the recent Lambeth Conference is not simply going to be smooth sailing for our churches. The press itself has veered wildly in its evaluation of the Communion throughout the Conference: first, there were declarations of Anglicanism’s imminent demise, then claims of dire victory for liberal or conservative forces respectively, then the crowning of Rowan Williams as the Great Peacemaker, and now, most recently, the stoking of new acrimony with stale “revelations” of the Archbishop’s long-known support of yesteryear for a positive consideration of gay inclusion (a support he has since significantly modified in a traditionalist direction). Even leaders and followers within Anglican churches seem to be caught up in the extreme oscillations of punditry emerging from what one theologian has called the “silly season” of the media’s church reportage, what with Primates, bishops, and “regular” church members issuing contradictory declarations of joy and doom, recrimination and self-congratulation. In all of this, one would scarcely guess that the Church, including the battered body of Anglicanism, belongs to God and not to the warring groups of ecclesiastical strategists.

What, then, would be a more realistic assessment of the road now opened up after the Lambeth Conference?

First, we should note that the bishops were greatly blessed in simply gathering, praying, worshiping, studying the Scriptures, and speaking with one another. This, despite concern over whether the cost was worth it or whether the exclusive character of the meeting, that seemed to forbid episcopal decision-making, was wholly responsible. The very fact that bishops “waited for one another” (1 Cor. 11:33), as it were, and thereby were able, each, to offer “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26) in a semblance of peacefulness and order, proved a willing opening to the Lord that most understood to be rare, not only for themselves but for the Church herself in this day. In addition, the place of the Bible at the center of their time together represented a crucial witness of the Church’s right ordering according to our Anglican tradition, on the one hand, and a deliberate submission to this order’s divine power on the other.

Such a blessing represents a kind of promise for the future, if freely received. But we should be clear that it does not, in itself, mark a way forward through actual and present conflict and threat. Thus, the Conference “Report” or “Reflections” that collected running threads of conversations from the smaller “Indaba” groups of bishops during the Conference, stands more as a series of undigested notes, helpful perhaps to the participants in reminding them of things said and shared, but without much coherent direction for the faithful at large. One can perhaps appreciate the window for the public eye that the Report opens onto the discussions of the bishops. But there is little in it to guide and inspire, and one might indeed wonder if the unique opportunity of the Communion’s episcopal college actually coming together at a time of undoubted ecclesial crisis had been substantively squandered in favor of a kind of preliminary relational work that should have been both pursued and presumed long before the frenzied and torrid few days of July.

Therefore, and second, we must look elsewhere in the Conference for some help to the Communion’s conflicted life and teaching. Fortunately, there were at least three elements that emerged to take up the slack left by the bishops’ own exclusive focus upon mutual conversation and prayer.

a. The Archbishop of Canterbury rose, by the end of the Conference, to express a clear vision of accountability for the Communion that was built on a solid ecclesiology. This is not to minimize his words and direction throughout the entire Conference. But there were those who heard mixed messages in some of his earlier reflections, and in any case, it seemed as if he took upon himself only at the end of the Conference the task of articulating a common mind that the Reflections only struggled, haltingly at best, to identify. The fact that much of what he said did in fact cohere with hints and feints within the Reflections, and, more importantly, that it jibed with what reporters were able to glean from discussions and even polls among the bishops as a whole, makes the notion of a “common mind” or “consensus” standing behind the Archbishop’s final remarks and later press conference probable. We note here that the Archbishop has promised a pastoral letter to the Communion that might restate some of this consensus from the perspective of further reflection, and we hope that it might in fact prove a useful and even authoritative distillation in this regard.

b. The presentations by the Windsor Continuation Group, that has been working hard since the beginning of the year to clarify the dynamics driving the current malaise of the Communion, provided several clear recommendations for the immediate future. (There were, to be sure, certain elements that were less clear, like the actual shape and function of the proposed Pastoral Forum, a rather important lack of precision.) These, in their particulars as well as in their more general theological rationales, did indeed seem to draw a majority of support from among the bishops, and were also positively and energetically taken up by the Archbishop in his final address.

c. Many of the Global South bishops present at the Conference produced, at the end, their own assessment of the gathering, its results, and future imperatives for common life within the Communion. Their conclusions cohered, again, with the Archbishop’s in several key ways and with the Windsor Continuation Group’s. In addition, however, they underscored the gravity and urgency of taking hold of these recommendations, and did so in a way that sought to emphasize the common commitments and concerns they shared, in this light, with their colleagues who chose not to attend the Conference. In doing so, they brought into profile the clear and continued vision of what now constitutes a large majority of Anglicans within the world. Inevitably, this puts behind the Archbishop’s own recommendations, both in their substance and in their less formed aspects, a strong and particular impetus.

What do these three directive elements emerging from the Conference amount to?

1. There is “no desire to separate”. Well, taken alone this was not notably newsworthy (although actions, speaking louder than words, might lead one to question the desire’s genuineness in many respects). But there was more to it than this. There is a desire and calling and willingness among the bishops, the Archbishop summarized, to live, not only in mutual respect or peace, but to live in “true” Christian unity. This he explained, briefly (and taking up a phrase from John’s Gospel that has been the focus of heated discomfort in recent Anglican argument, not least for the Archbishop himself), in a way that surprised by its stark and rather Reformed ecclesiology of discipleship and election: “We are one with one another because we are called into union with the one Christ and stand in his unique place - stand in the Way, the Truth and the Life. Our unity is not mutual forbearance but being summoned and drawn into the same place before the Father’s throne.” Unity as a common obedience to a life moving to and submitted to the Father, bound in the truth of Christ – the vision here is indeed very Anglican, and is tied to the normative place of the Scripture’s authority in this movement, one that was stressed not only by the Archbishop, but in the Reflections and through other expressions.

2. There is an acknowledged acceptance that this common discipleship in the Way of the Truth calls for particular and recognized ways of Life. Again, this is not particularly novel as a Christian self-expression. But when the Archbishop said that Anglicans, like all Christians, must “seek for consistent practices around the sacraments, so that the baptism or eucharist of each community can be recognised by others as directed in the same way, working under the same authority”, he was expressing how the bishops had embraced a form of obedience whose Christian identity sought out necessarily forms of mutual accountability in the Lord that create the recognizability of communion. Covenant, in other words – and “the” Covenant itself as proposed – is a form of faithfulness and discipleship, of “union with Christ”.

The “authority under which” the Church lives together, then, is the Truth and Way that is Christ’s own life, and this, furthermore, is embodied in the Scriptures and in the formative weight of the Church’s discernment and faith under the Spirit’s prodding from all time. We are “unwilling”, the Archbishop said, “to change what has been received in faith from Scripture and tradition” – as bold an expression of the authority of the Church’s teaching as tied to Lambeth’s previous resolutions regarding e.g. sexuality (a link he made explicitly) as he has ever asserted. And this he did, not simply on his own behalf, but more deeply, on behalf of the Conference. We are drawn, obedientially, into unity; and this obedience involves covenant; and this covenant will order our practices in just the ways (and many others!) that have been at the center of discussion over these past few years.

3. From this covenantal form of common following, the already called-for “moratoria” take force – no consecration of sexually active gay bishops, no same-sex blessings, and no cross-jurisdictional oversight. Obviously, these are already standing requests made by the Windsor Report, the ACC, and the Primates in various guises. But now, in a way that goes far beyond the Windsor Report’s general notion of communion order, the moratoria appear as concrete aspects of faithfulness and obedience to and “in” the Lord.

Furthermore, in restating the authority of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10, the Archbishop made clear the weight of accountability that the moratoria embody. There is “no supermarket of choices” given to the Christian church from which to choose possible paths of discipleship, even while legitimate and free theological discussion takes place concerning important matters of Christian teaching and witness; but “the practice and public language of the Church acts always as a reminder that the onus of proof is on those who seek a new understanding” and that this burden has not been met most recently by North American churches is abundantly borne out by the turbulence innovation has set loose.

The issue of boundary crossing is within the same “frameowork”, the Archbishop added, not because such violations of received order and unrestrained innovation are equivalent acts, but because a covenantal and consensual following takes place in walking together after the one Master with and over us, and not through asserting vying claims of differing Masters – that is, Anglicanism’s scandal is not just in teaching and practice, but in proposing to the world a vision of “confusion” among the Lord’s followers, now appearing as a house divided. Here is where “charity”’s power as an ensign to the nations is severely undermined, and the Archbishop’s later discussion of Zimbabwe’s Anglican witness as bound to the Communion’s life was, in this respect, far more than a passing example: permit and even further confusion, and the calling of the Gospel is ripped from the hands of the little ones for whom the Kingdom is given. It is not possible to separate the calling of such common mission – something else, less controversial, that was nonetheless reiterated by the bishops with force – from the calling of “true Christian unity” in its covenanted and discipled form.

Broadly speaking, then, the Conference, through its summarizing servants like the Archbishop, acted as a “closing of the circle”, returning to the issues it had unleashed in 1998, now refashioned by a decade of increasing turmoil: the teaching we offered, with whatever agony, a decade ago has now revealed to us, not only matters of limited moral practice, but they have unveiled our calling as a church of Christ, and thereby exposed both our weaknesses and our gracious drawing forward at the hand of the Lord. New information and strategy here? Not really; but a new realization of the Communion’s foundation and promise.

More specifically also, a number of concrete realities have been identified by the Conference that derive from these broader realities and that either inform them or point to a potential future: the Communion may need a Faith and Order Commission with the training, energy, and focus necessary to engage expeditiously and unperturbedly in common discernment over matters of teaching and witness on behalf of the Communion; a Pastoral Forum has been proposed and will be set up that can act swiftly in the mediation of conflict among and even within Communion churches, for the preservation of the truth, the reconciliation of brethren, and the protection of mistreated members and “minorities”; associations and partnerships of Communion-committed dioceses and congregations has been encouraged; the Archbishop himself clarified what a same-sex “blessing” involves, and it is far more basic and encompassing than the parsing of “public liturgy” that the North American churches have argued; diocesan covenants were affirmed; a quick succession of potentially important meetings was outlined; a positive outreach to GAFCON was made, on the basis not only of good will but of shared evangelical commitments. Although none of these added up to a “plan”, they pointed to the fact that the broad direction of the Communion’s bishops discussed above carries with it a logic that might be expected to involve practical action.

The operative word, however, is “might”. For what can we really expect? So much depends on the focus, energy, and faithful will of participants in this committed vision: not just that of bishops as a whole and in their various locales, but that of those leaders charged with the responsibilities of particularized response to the reality of a Communion that is, as the Global South bishops noted, “on the brink of collapse”. Are the Pastoral Forum, Primates, Joint Standing Committee, GAFCON, and Archbishop not only, by the grace of God, in theory capable of carrying the Communion forward into integral healing and mission, but do any of them desire it with the yearning of God? There lies before us a very real set of dangers: that the proposed Forum will devolve into the impotence of the past Panel of Reference; that the infighting of the Primates will be coupled with their deferral of responsibility on the face of recent criticism; that the Joint Standing Committee of Primates and ACC will unite for a Joint Evasion; that GAFCON’s leadership will turn their backs on the good will and counsel of friends and enshrine their separation in the habit of rejection; that the Archbishop himself will insist on others making necessary decisions despite their refusal and the overwhelming demands of the moment; that all of us will cease praying and hoping before the Lord God of Israel, in whom alone there is plenteous redemption.

And what if churches and bishops and dioceses simply continue to “do what is right in their own eyes”, despite the consensus of the Conference’s voice? The Archbishop noted that “if the north American churches don’t accept the need for moratoria then, to say the least, we are no further forward”; indeed, we “continue to be in grave peril” and the hopes of the Covenant itself are undermined. ACI reiterates its view that there is a need for some concrete response of relationship now in the face of rejection of moratoria if the Communion is to get beyond its current morass, even in spite of the new clarities offered above. The rejections of the moratoria are already evident in some cases, and likely soon in others on all sides. Unless the Pastoral Forum, the Primates, the Joint Standing Committee and the Archbishop are willing to respond relationally, according to the reasonable and Christian parameters that a “communion” embodies and intends, what was seen as a way forward is no doubt only a glimpse before a backward fall.

Having said this, the “consensus” does point ahead if this is the way we would move. For not only is the covenantal character of Christian unity “under authority” and according to “recognized” practices of common discipleship in the Lord’s truth now seen as a standard to be sought, but its embrace provides ways in which previous critiques of the Covenant text itself can be rethought and new directions provided. That is, there is a new impetus that the Conference has potentially given for a less timid Covenant that can both incorporate the disciplined character of communion and do so with the freedom of ordered and dispersed decision-making that Anglicanism rightly cherishes as a gift of discernment and consent.

With this in mind, ACI offers some suggestions on revising the Draft at the Covenant Design Group’s upcoming meetings. Bearing in mind concerns from some bishops not present at Lambeth, the recommendations of the Windsor Continuation Group, and the clear sense that the faith and witness of the Anglican churches of our Communion require the common commitments that a strong and clear Covenant would provide, we propose the following revisions of the current St. Andrew’s Draft in light of the Lambeth Conference itself:

1. Regarding the authority of Scripture:

The authority of Scripture, is an Anglican fundamental, and distinguishes the special witness of our tradition from at least the 14th century. As a fundamental in this regard it even surfaced clearly in the Lambeth Reflections and deserves greater and primary emphasis in the Covenant.

We suggest breaking up 1.1.2 of the current draft into three separate paragraphs, dealing with Scripture, the Creeds, and the historic Formularies respectively. Regarding the first paragraph on Scripture, we recommend adding the following descriptions of Scripture’s nature to our common commitments: that it is the “Word of God”; that “nothing be ordained” by the Church “against” “God’s Word written” or taught in a way that is “repugnant” to it (Articles 20 and 34).

2. Regarding the “procedural” directions to be adopted in the face of Communion-conflict (3.2.5.c-e) we recommend the following:

a. Take up the Continuation Group’s proposal for a Faith and Order group for the Communion;

b. Be explicit in describing its composition, of perhaps 10 persons, as necessarily including bishops, clergy, and laity, with the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee of Primates and ACC acting as Chair ex officio, and members selected for a period of 10 years by a process of the Lambeth Conference or initially some other representative means.

d. Concerns regarding a province’s violation of the Covenant should be lodged with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who will refer the matter pro forma to the Faith and Order Commission. In the meantime, he may choose to address the matter himself pastorally if that seems feasible and desirable, and the Commission may later, in light of this, choose to table the referral.

e. The Commission will recommend a judgment to the Primates, who will provide a “provisional”, but authoritative decision; if the matter remains an issue, the Lambeth Conference will provide a final decision, without appeal.

f. The Faith and Order Commission and the Primates Meeting will provide a decision that includes i. a determination of the concern’s relation to the Covenant; ii. a recommended course of response that will either drop the matter, direct mediation, or request a change of teaching or discipline on the part of one of the respondents, with a time table.

g. The Pastoral Forum will be charged with implementing these decisions in a way that betokens Christian faithfulness and charity, while also seeking to understand and respect the laws and canons governing each local church involved.

h. 3.2.5.e must be explicated so as to specify that a failure to heed the directives of the Communion’s recommending bodies will result in a loss of participation in the Communion’s covenantal relationships and of membership in the Communion’s common bodies of counsel, until such time as a petition and process for re-establishing such a covenantal relationship is completed.

i. There be a time limit for this procedure that will not exceed two years.

3. Regarding the Instruments of Communion:

a. The descriptions of the Instruments (3.1.4) should be refashioned to include the duties described above, and in conformance with the positive recommendations of the Windsor Continuation Group.

b. In particular, and following recommendations of other reports, including the Windsor Report, the Lambeth Conference should be recognized as acting in an official “conciliar” role for the Anglican Communion on those matters that the bishops in conference themselves signal as bearing the full weight of their authority in prayer, counsel, and consent.

4. Regarding the Covenant’s adoption process we recommend the following:

a. The Covenant should be adopted, as currently envisaged, by individual provinces according to their particular processes. In addition, the Covenant must include the provision that individual Anglican dioceses may also adopt the Covenant separately when their province or national church chooses not to.

c. Individual dioceses who accept the Covenant apart from their provinces or national churches, or congregations whose bishops are not a part of the Covenant, are free to seek informal partnerships with other Covenanted Communion bodies, and, if there is no change in status in the meantime, are free to petition the next Lambeth Conference for recognition of their partnerships as formal covenanting dioceses or provinces. Matters relating to property, however, are to be resolved solely within the negotiations and parameters of local law, seeking where possible to mediating counsel of the Pastoral Forum.

c. We urge an expeditious timetable for adoption: that the Final Draft be considered at the 2009 ACC and Primates’ meeting, and forwarded to Provinces, for adoption over the next 2 years, serially as necessary, with final ceremony in 2011 or 2012.

In the midst of Covenant discussions, with whatever details of interest may emerge, we encourage our bishops and leaders to continue to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation in the Communion on all sides and also to further a positive way to keep matters from deteriorating further.

We give thanks for the example our bishops have given us of prayerfulness and attentiveness to the Lord during these last weeks. We ask His continued guidance of their ministries and protection of their persons and of their flocks. We yearn for the renewal of our common calling as we seek together to follow “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, who is Jesus, the Christ.

The Revd Prof Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto and senior fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute, Inc

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