Can the Communion stay together?
Church Times, 1 April, 2016
Will the Anglican Communion survive? How will the views and actions emanating from a part of the Communion, regarded as heretical by others, impact the life of the Communion as a whole? These were questions hovering over the Primates’ Meeting in January as they met and struggled with radically different views about human sexuality : these are pressing questions around the agenda of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting in Lusaka in April. They were also the questions which prompted the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.
The Anglican Communion brings many blessings to the world as well as the Church, but it does need to rediscover its vocation of being a family of self-governing yet interdependent provinces in communion with the see of Canterbury. As such, members need to be trusted to discern the activity of the Spirit in their own contexts if the family is to remain united. This article reflects on the challenges confronting the Communion at present and argues that sexuality, significant as it is, is a presenting issue behind which lies something more contentious. But first, some clues to the future can be found in the past.
In 1865, it was, in retrospect ironically, the bishops in Canada who expressed their concern to the Archbishop of Canterbury about the views an of a bishop in Africa. John Colenso, Bishop of Natal, was promoting an understanding of scripture which many bishops found unacceptable. Colenso argued that Moses did not himself write the Pentateuch but that it was compiled later and attributed to Moses. Such a view rocked the fledgling Anglican Communion even prompting questions in the Privy Council. The fierceness of the debate provoked the writing of the hymn, ‘The Church’s one foundation,’ where the Church is described as ‘sore opprest’ and ‘by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distrest.’ A closer look at Colenso’s ministry reveals a deep commitment his people and a radical attempt to indigenise the Gospel, which did not rest easily with many bishops. Colenso’s views emerged from his study of the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of his struggling to reconcile Gospel and culture. These events of 150 years ago came at a time when, like now, the Communion needed to be clearer about its identity.
The recent Primates’ Meeting achieved a remarkable amount. Amid talk of mass walk-outs and schism, the Primates showed the world that it is possible for people from a wide spectrum of cultures and opposing views to be in the same family: their oneness in Christ and desire to live as a Christian family transcended deep differences. However, there were also some perplexing outcomes. The role of the PM is to provide space for ‘leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation’ and, regardless of where one stands on the issue of same-sex marriage, the action taken against the Episcopal Church (TEC) of banning their representation at various Anglican gatherings indicates that the Primates strayed from consultation into legislative mode.
Approaching the ACC in April, the consensus which looked so promising in January is dissipating. Storm clouds are gathering. Primates from Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria have said that their representatives will not attend: contrary to the Primates’ Meeting’s urging, representatives from TEC will be attending. The Conference theme, ‘Intentional discipleship in a world of differences’, could move the communion forwards in a creative way provided the differences withinthe Communion as well as in the world are explored and, where appropriate, questioned.
There is much talk about ‘living with difference’ but the different views around sexuality were too much of a difference to live with for the primates. Different parts of the Communion have compelling reasons for taking opposing views. Each claim their view is justified biblically and theologically. Similar struggles have taken place throughout Christian history. More recently it has happened at the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate and it happened 1500 years ago when the church sought agreement on the person of Christ. Some argued that Christ could not be fully human because he was God. Others argued that Christ could not be fully God because he was a human being. This was not a sterile theological argument but, like the current dispute around sexuality, it was fed by political and cultural differences. In the end, the Church was just about able to hold together what appeared to be untenable, namely, that Jesus was fully God and fully human and ever since Christians have asserted this in the creed. An agreed position seemed impossible, but, though painful and complicated, the Church found a way of living with difference, locating it within the horizon of God’s reconciliation of the world. What a stunning and prophetic statement would be made to our divided world if the Anglican Communion could do this.
But the biggest challenge is tackling the issue which underlies the disagreement about sexuality. This same issue prompted the calling of the first Lambeth Conference – interpreting the Bible. The Bible is interpreted differently within churches and its interpretation is determined by a variety of factors including the culture, politics and world-view of the readers. We need biblical scholars to help us all, local congregations and international gatherings, to read the Bible from an intercultural perspective. This means searching out, relating and engaging with those with whom we strongly disagree and listening respectfully to the way that God is speaking to them through the scriptures. This may not be the pathway to agreement, but, more importantly, it will lead us on a journey of reconciliation.