the way we live
looks at Archbishop Rowan Williams' views on
whether the Anglican Communion is 'a Church' and asks what he means by 'Church'
a Press Conference at Lambeth 2008, Rowan Williams was asked a very pertinent
question. Could the Anglican Communion be called a Church? Williams answered in
acharacteristicallyroundaboutway It was, he admitted, less of a Church than the
Roman Catholic Church, with its monolithic structures and authoritative
magisterium. But, on the other hand, it was more of a Church than, for example,
a loose grouping like the Lutheran World Federation. The implication (as so
often) was that Anglicans had wisely, if problematically, eschewed the two
extremes in favour of a via media.
I suspect that Rowan would not
give the same answer now.
His recent published
reflections (Communion, Covenant and
our Anglican Future] envisage a possible further erosion of
relationships, and the emergence of two 'tracks' (parallel, convergent or
divergent? - he does not say) along which future Anglicans will
travel. He is unhappy with calling this a 'two-tier model' with first and second
class structures, but that surely is precisely what it is: not the Lutheran
World Federation, but the European Union, with its Euro-zone, its Schengen
states and its wider penumbra of members.
The Archbishop, it is true,
sees the difficulties in all this: the intellectual problem of relating such a
melange to what he calls the 'church catholic,' and the difficulties of
ecumenical dialogue when internal disagreements may be as substantial as
external. But, whilst hope springs eternal, realism obliges him to admit that
such an undesirable situation is possible, even probable.
Rather donnishly (and
characteristically) Rowan passionately believes that, whatever the ethical,
theological and ecclesiological divisions, the dialogue must go on. Pas-torally,
he wants no antagonism or rivalry that would put an end to the co-operation in
mission and service of the kind now shared in the Communion.' All this is
admirable as far as it goes. But the question remains: how in the world does a
man of manifest Catholic sympathies wrap his mind round all this?
'A church' or 'The Church'?
One sentence in these
reflections gives a clue. 'The ideal^ says Williams, 'is that both
"tracks" should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling
them to be as Church.'
Coming close to the end of the
paper, this is clearly intended, in some sense, to be conclusive and climactic.
But I have to confess that I have not the slightest idea what it means. The
problem is the absence of an article, definite
'The Church' extends vertically through time and horizontally across the world, celebrating the same sacraments always and everywhere, bound together by a universally recognized and Apostolic ministry, placing upon its baptized members in every time and place the same obligations in faith and morals. It is (more or less), the 'church catholic' to which Rowan appeals. It is what the Church of England, in its formularies, claims to be no more than part of'
'A church' is
something quite different. It is a very much more self-conscious body. It is
what Americans mean when they talk about 'this church and what they mean when
they say that it has a distinctive polity! A church' not only presupposes 'this
church but of course requires the notion of 'that church' (over against it). It
implies an almost unconscious emphasis, not on what is held in common (with 'The
Church'), but on what is local, characteristic and distinctive. It is the
tragedy of a church' (as we are currently seeing with the Americans) that it
inevitably comes to see itself as 'The Church.'
The sole advantage, so far as
I can see, of the expression 'being Church' (as in the phrase 'new ways of being
Church') is that it is virtually content free. It means whatever the context
requires. 'What they believe God is calling them to be as Church' is gloriously,
splendidly open-ended - where the word 'Church' exists merely to claim some
tenuous and disarming affinity with one, other or both of the meanings above.
By his use of such a phrase,
with its content located in an as yet unforeseeable future, Williams is tacitly
abandoning both the possibilities he outlined in his answer to the Lambeth
question. Can the Anglican Communion be described as a Church? No; rather it is
an association of historically related but doctrinally disparate groups who are
exploring together what God is calling them to be as Church' It is, quite
literally, like nothing on earth, for the simple reason that it is not yet clear
what it is going to be. It is that thing most beloved of the liberal mind: an
This maybe ecclesiology; but
not as we know it, Rowan.
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