Walking Together?: Past and Present

Summary: The language of walking together to describe the current state and structures of the Anglican Communion needs more nuance and more detailed and theological analysis. This article attempts to begin developing the theme by setting walking together in a wider context than its recent use by the primates, including The Windsor Report’s language of walking apart, and by recognizing that the primates have also acknowledged impairment and significant distance even as they speak of walking together.

It then argues that the language is best approached from a wider, ecumenical perspective as a goal to be sought not just among Communion provinces. As such, within the reality of a fractured Church, we have to acknowledge degrees of communion and different ways of seeking to walk together that also recognize the reality of walking at a distance. By paying attention to this distance within Anglicanism we may be better able to find ways to maintain and even deepen the levels of communion we currently have.

After the Primates’ Meeting of Oct. 2-6, it is clear that “walking together” joins other recent sound bites — “good disagreement,” “mutual flourishing,” “radical Christian inclusion” — as a key but contested concept in contemporary Anglicanism. Like these others, walking together speaks of something no faithful Christian can oppose in principle, but the crucial question then becomes what it means and how it is used to interpret and help guide the church today.

Walking together became prominent after the last Primates’ Gathering in January 2016, but its origins in recent Anglicanism should be traced further back to the earliest days of the current crisis in the Communion. The final paragraph (157) of the 2004 Windsor Report starkly stated:

There remains a very real danger that we will not choose to walk together. Should the call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion not be heeded, then we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart. We would much rather not speculate on actions that might need to be taken if, after acceptance by the primates, our recommendations are not implemented. However, we note that there are, in any human dispute, courses that may be followed: processes of mediation and arbitration; non-invitation to relevant representative bodies and meetings; invitation, but to observer status only; and, as an absolute last resort, withdrawal from membership. We earnestly hope that none of these will prove necessary. Our aim throughout has been to work not for division but for healing and restoration. The real challenge of the gospel is whether we live deeply enough in the love of Christ, and care sufficiently for our joint work to bring that love to the world, that we will “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3). As the primates stated in 2000, “to turn from one another would be to turn away from the Cross,” and indeed from serving the world which God loves and for which Jesus Christ died.

This picked up language earlier in the report on the bonds of communion. Paragraph 66 described how the “very existence of the Instruments of Unity points to the desire of the Communion to work together, with bishops, clergy and laity all involved as fully as possible. This is where the ongoing synods, at all levels of the Church, express by their existence, as well as (it is to be hoped) by their actual work, the unity-in-diversity which characterises our life in communion.” It quoted Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1988 on the need to give “flesh” to how Anglicans are “being called through events and their theological interpretation to move from independence to interdependence” and the choice between bonding together and building unity or “the preservation of promotion of that particular expression of Anglicanism which has developed within the culture of our own province.” Runcie warned that “we have reached the stage in the growth of the Communion when we must begin to make radical choices, or growth will imperceptibly turn to decay. I believe the choice between independence and interdependence, already set before us as a Communion in embryo twenty-five years ago, is quite simply the choice between unity or gradual fragmentation.”

The Windsor Report commented on this:

What this bears witness to is the understanding that the churches of the Anglican Communion, if that Communion is to mean anything at all, are obliged to move together, to walk together in synodality. It is by listening to, and interacting with, voices from as many different parts of the family as possible that the Church discovers what its unity and communion really mean. Synodality as a characteristic of the Anglican Communion finds expression in Lambeth Conferences as early as 1867 (Resolutions 4, 5, 8 and 10) as well as in the Lambeth Conference of 1897 (Resolution 24).

The last Primates’ Meeting under Archbishop Rowan Williams in Dublin in 2011 saw a large number of primates absent on principle because The Windsor Report’s recommendations had not been accepted. Archbishop Justin Welby’s personal diplomacy and ministry of reconciliation enabled the 2016 gathering to take place, but there was high expectation that — given the failure to follow Windsor’s recommendations in relation to the threefold moratoria and the Anglican Communion Covenant and the further development of same-sex marriage in some provinces — it was going to mean the Primates had “to begin to learn to walk apart.”

Walking Together: January 2016 Primates

Much to everyone’s astonishment, the January 2016 gathering seemingly embraced not walking apart but walking together. But, crucially, it never defined this and even within the documentation of the meeting there appeared signs of the complexity, confusion, and possible incoherence in the terminology, especially when reduced to just these two words.

The primates as a whole agreed to a statement that spoke of “our unanimous desire to walk together” but the final communiqué expressed this (without it seems the same unanimity) by making the desire into a decision: “the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ. We looked at what that meant in practical terms.” In so doing it highlighted one of the major problems we now face with the language: Is walking together a high goal to be desired but not, in an important sense, a reality until there are certain changes (including repentance for doctrinal error and breaches of the bonds of communion)? Or is walking together a decision that establishes a reality in which we keep on meeting and set aside these problems for a “business as usual Primates’ Meeting, which hasn’t been usual for 20 years,” as Archbishop Welby put it at this year’s closing press conference?

Further tensions in the language of walking together were evident in two other features of the 2016 statement. First, the primates also spoke of actions that “further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.” This referred not to the continued rejection of The Windsor Report (though those problems remain for many) but further steps to accept same-sex marriage. Second, it was agreed that “given the seriousness of these matters” the primates would “formally acknowledge this distance.” They did so by implementing some of the proposals that Windsor described not as walking together but as a sign that we were no longer walking together but having “to begin to learn to walk apart.”

Walking Together: The Current Reality

The communiqué from October’s meeting continues using the same language of walking together and again expresses it in terms of a decision rather than a desire:

In our last meeting in January 2016 we made a clear decision to walk together while acknowledging the distance that exists in our relationships due to deep differences in understanding on same sex marriage. We endorsed this approach, which we will continue with renewed commitment.

It is, though, important to be honest about the current shape of this walking together. In particular, four features of it show the situation is much more complex and that in reality the walking together is also, at the same time, a widening impairment of communion and learning to walk apart.

First, as the communiqué also notes, “Primates from Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda declined to attend, citing what they believed to be a lack of good order within the Communion.” In other words, this walking together does not include the two largest provinces of the Communion. This is due both to a different understanding of what was agreed in 2016 (they, along with Rwanda, are clear that the desired walking together can only happen with repentance from false teaching about marriage) and different assessments on whether the consequences agreed for provinces accepting same-sex marriage have been faithfully implemented.

Second, despite the clear statement of the last Primates’ Gathering that actions redefining marriage “further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us,” the Scottish Episcopal Church has subsequently also decided not to walk with the Communion’s teaching on marriage. The seriousness of this is evident from the decision of the General Synod of Australia to show “support for those Anglicans who have left or will need to leave the Scottish Episcopal Church because of its redefinition of marriage and those who struggle and remain” and to commit itself to pray “that the Scottish Episcopal Church will return to the doctrine of Christ in this matter and that impaired relationships will be restored.” In addition, the Anglican Church of Canada, although it has not yet formally changed its canons, has a number of dioceses that have permitted the celebration of same-sex marriages and the Diocese of Toronto has a same-sex partnered bishop. The Episcopal Church (USA), far from seeking to walk together again with the Communion, is seriously considering changing its prayer book liturgy and catechism to conform to its new canon, a decision that would make it even more difficult for those holding the Communion’s teaching to continue to serve throughout the church, and would present special challenges for Communion Partner dioceses, to achieve some differentiated space as Episcopalians.

Third, as a result the primates have concluded that “the consequences for our relationships agreed in January 2016 would also apply to SEC after its decision on same sex marriage. This means that for three years, members of SEC would no longer represent the Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies; should not be appointed or elected to internal standing committees and that, while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they would not take part in decision making on any issues of doctrine or polity.” So, this walking together continues to include within it elements that Windsor, understandably, categorized as a form of walking apart. Once again, as with the response to TEC after 2016, the implementation of this is likely to be unsatisfactory for many in the Communion. For example, a lay member of SEC elected to the Communion’s Standing Committee was one of the partners in the first same-sex marriage within the Scottish church, a service at which the Bishop of Edinburgh preached. It seems highly unlikely that he will cease to be involved in this central body, and the communiqué implicitly recognizes this when it notes that the “Archbishop of Canterbury will take steps within his authority to implement this agreement.”

Fourth, following from the SEC’s decision, a missionary bishop (Andy Lines) was appointed and consecrated by the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Although the ACNA is not part of the Communion, this decision was supported by GAFCON and other non-GAFCON Primates. It was reported that leaders at the consecration “from outside North America were 11 Primates, 3 Archbishops, and 13 bishops.” This was despite a strong letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury against border-crossing. This Primates’ Meeting “discussed difficulties arising from cross-border interventions, agreeing that the principles were clearly stated from the Council of Nicaea onwards and in the 1998 Lambeth Conference” and “recognised that persistent and deliberate non-consensual cross-border activity breaks trust and weakens our communion.” Both these statements lack specificity (for example, it has been argued by Patristics scholar Mark Smith that the principles from Nicea do not apply in our current situation in the way often argued) and there is no evidence that the primates present at the ACNA consecration (many of whom were also at this meeting) have now altered their opinion and judged such interventions as incompatible with walking together.

In all these areas — non-attendance at meetings of the Instruments, doctrinal divergence, internal differentiation through “non-invitation to relevant representative bodies and meetings” (Windsor), and renewed border-crossings — this form of walking together looks less like Runcie’s unity and more like his gradual fragmentation or Windsor’s learning to walk apart.

Walking Together: What might this mean?

Given this reality, what might be meant by talk of walking together? It would appear that, if it is a reality being to some degree embodied in the current practice then it is basically a commitment to continue to meet together within the current Instruments. In order for this to be achieved it has been agreed to deal with provincial redefinitions of marriage by an established procedure defining consequences, to avoid addressing other departures from Lambeth I.10 in relation to ordination or blessings, to raise concerns about border-crossings, but otherwise to move on as far as possible from the divisions to focus on mission, evangelism, discipleship, the needs of the world, and return, in Archbishop Justin Welby’s terms, to what was “business as usual” before 2003. On this understanding it is a pragmatic, procedural phrase capturing a new way of crisis management that, by all accounts, has in many ways enabled a significant improvement. The Primate of Hong Kong, reflecting on his experience of five Primates’ Meetings, beginning with the very difficult Dar meeting of 2005, described last week’s as “the best” he had attended.

The problem is that this is far from a full Christian vision of what walking together involves and the use of terminology for this pattern risks hiding the much more complex reality and the much more challenging nature of Christ’s call to walk together.

Rather than using walking together to describe a new way of managing the Communion’s problems within the current structures, what if the phrase were understood in a fuller theological and ecclesiological sense? Then we would have to say that our desire should not simply be to walk together as the churches listed on the schedule of the Anglican Consultative Council but to walk together with all churches within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and all baptized believers who share faith in Christ. So, to take an example from the recent communiqué, there is clearly no doubt that “the Anglican Church [in] North America is not a Province of the Anglican Communion” and it seems unnecessary to state this. But this not only means we recognise that “those in ACNA should be treated with love as fellow Christians,” as the primates have stated. It also means that it should also be “our unanimous desire to walk together” with them and we should find ways to do so to whatever degree we can (the 2016 meeting was one such, their inclusion in the Global South and GAFCON Primates Gatherings is another), despite the real distance that exists. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it should also be “our unanimous desire to walk together” with the Roman Catholic Church. And there are, of course, ways in which, in contrast to the stark walking apart we commemorate, we now seek to realize some degree of walking together with them, such as sharing in non-eucharistic worship, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), including its recent shared episcopal mission.

These examples also embody the fact that our level of walking together is always limited and includes “acknowledging the distance that exists in our relationships due to deep differences in understanding.” The reality is that in a fractured church in a fallen world there is never going to be a full walking together. All patterns of relationship and walking together will to varying degrees fall short of the full communion to which we are called in Christ, but we are to seek to walk as closely together as possible and establish structures and patterns of relating that, even as they acknowledge the impairment and distance, support and enable the deepening of communion and the bringing together of those seeking to walk together rather than pushing them further apart.

The recent Church of England report Communion and Disagreement [PDF] addressed this reality. It drew on ecumenical work to suggest how we might assess and address the realities of our disagreements and distance as we seek to walk together by reference to “the five ‘ecclesial elements’ that are stated to be required for ‘full communion’ in the recent convergence text on ecclesiology from the World Council of Churches, The Church: Towards a Common Vision” (para 43):

communion in the fullness of apostolic faith; in sacramental life; in a truly one and mutually recognized ministry; in structures of conciliar relations and decision-making; and in common witness and service in the world.

The report described how this “means tracing the relationship between agreement, disagreement and communion in each particular case, in order to discern the character of the disagreement and therefore the kind of conversation that may be needed to address it.” The Anglican Communion as currently constituted has in recent decades experienced diminished communion in most, perhaps all, of these areas. Despite the decision to walk together, there is no sign that this is being reversed. Indeed, the characteristics noted earlier suggests there is the risk of this dynamic continuing in a vicious spiral with lower degrees of communion in the fullness of apostolic faith (in relation to marriage and the pattern of holiness and perhaps in other areas), in sacramental life (primates ceased all sharing together in Holy Communion in 2005), in one and mutually recognized ministry (given that “very many people in the Anglican Communion could neither recognise nor receive the ministry as a bishop in the Church of God of a person in an openly acknowledged same gender union” (Windsor, para 129) and the mind of the Communion in Lambeth I.10 on not ordaining those in such unions), in structures of conciliar relations and decision-making (given principled non-attendance at meetings) and, to a lesser degree, in common witness and service in the world (with refusals to accept financial support from some provinces).

It has been reported that, in fact, the primates at their recent meeting identified three patterns: “some aren’t walking together, some are walking together but at a distance, and some are walking together.” The danger is that focusing on walking together or seeking to embody walking together at a distance in a single process within the current Instruments (such as that outlined above as the apparent understanding of walking together) risks failing to tell the truth about the reality and, despite all good intentions, can also end up pushing churches further apart. The question needs to be asked whether a more radical solution is needed that draws on ecumenical experience and theology. Can we express better the degrees of communion and mix of walking together, walking apart and significant distance that are now to be found deeply embedded within the life of the Communion and, more widely, among those who identify and are widely recognised as Anglican even if not formally part of the Communion? Might we even, paradoxically, by paying attention to the “distance,” be able to find better ways of walking together than we have at present?

This question is particularly urgent because of the forthcoming Lambeth Conference in 2020, which has for 150 years been the primary way of Anglicans expressing our communion in “structures of conciliar relations and decision-making.”

As we approach that key event, the Archbishop’s Task Group has reported to the primates on the importance of common liturgy for helping us walk together. As we wrestle with our particular Anglican struggles, we need to consider them and pray for them in the context of “the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth,” beseeching God “to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant, that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity, and godly love.”

The is the first of two essays republished with permission from Covenant.

 

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