Unity before truth

John Shepley on the Anglican Communion's failure to address the problem of how to maintain truth and unity in the face of divergent opinions

 

ALHQEIA EAUQRQSEI HUMAS, ‘the truth will make you free’ is the motto around the Compass Rose, the symbol of the Anglican Communion. The irony is that freedom is hardly the pressing issue.

What has been exercising the minds of Anglicans in recent years, as the culture wars over human sexuality have raged, is the relationship of Unity and Truth. How to reconcile radically divergent opinions in a single communion?

Some have put a premium on Truth – and so have been prepared to take unilateral action or to cross ecclesial boundaries in order to uphold  it. Others have openly preferred Unity. Heresy, as one American bishop tersely put it, is to be preferred to schism.

Dealing with crisis

And there has been no respite. No sooner had the crisis over women in the episcopate subsided than another conflict took its place – over the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of practising homosexuals.

The strategy for dealing with this subsequent crisis was essentially the same as for the former: the establishment of a Commission to make recommendations. The Eames Commission began its work in 2003.

The Grindrod Report (1988), by its twin doctrines of ‘provincial autonomy’ and ‘reception’, had electively changed for ever the Anglican understanding of Holy Orders.

There was no going back. Orders could no longer function either as an effective sign of worldwide unity, or as an assurance and guarantee of the authenticity of sacraments. Whatever recommendations the Eames Commission might make, it could no longer appeal to the unimpaired communion which had once existed.

And there was a further crucial development. Taken together, the two doctrines sanctioned (encouraged even) unilateral, ‘experimental’ action on contentious or disputed matters. Grindrod had posed the old teaser about Unity and Truth in a new and acute form.

Avoiding the issue

The Windsor Report (2004), instead of addressing this pressing issue head on, chose by procedural sleight of hand to avoid it:

‘The mandate of this Commission has been to examine, and make recommendations in relation to, the formal results, in terms of our Communion one with another within Anglicanism, of the recent events which have been described. We repeat that we have not been invited, and are not intending, to comment or make recommendations on the theological andethical mailers concerning the practice of same sex relations and the "blessing or ordination or consecration of those who engage in them [italics theirs].

Having outlined the problems, and sketched the deeper symptoms we believe to lie beneath them, it is time to examine more fully, in this Section, the nature of the Communion we share, the bonds which hold it together, the ways in which all this can be threatened and how such threats might be met.’

Choosing to hide behind the precise terms of its remit, the Commission gave notice that the solutions it might bring forward to the Communion’s pressing problems would be political and pragmatic rather than theological and dogmatic. The Commissioners were probably in basic sympathy with the current usage of politicians, which takes ‘theological’ to mean ‘abstruse’, ‘abstract’ and ‘irrelevant’.

Windsor had two related concepts of its own: ‘adiaphora’ and ‘subsidiarity’:

‘The two notions of ‘adiaphora’ and ‘subsidiarity’ work together like this: the clearer it is that something is ‘indifferent’ in terms of the Church’s central doctrine and ethics, the closer to the local level it can be decided; whereas the clearer it is that something is central, the wider must be the circle of consultation.

Once again, this poses the question: how does one know, and who decides, where on this sliding scale a particular issue belongs?

Escalating conflict

‘In many cases an obvious prima facie case exists of sufficient controversy, both locally and across the Communion, to justify, if only for the reasons in the previous paragraph, reference to the wider diocese or province, or even to the whole Communion.’

How does one know and who decides? Windsor asks the questions, but gives no very substantial answers. The solutions it offers – a beefing-up of the ‘Instruments of Unity’ and the establishment of a communion-wide ‘Covenant’ – are open to obvious and very serious objections.

In the first instance (since it is an axiom that every province has the inalienable right of subsidiary action on any issue; since the larger and more influential the province the more ‘sufficient’ will be the controversy raised; and since proponents of a major innovation will always suppose it to be an a priori necessity) it is hard to see how this conjunction of the two principles of ‘adiaphora’ and ‘subsidiarity’ is anything other than a recipe for escalating conflict.

In the second instance, it is clear that any proponent of a major innovation who made concessions or acceded to demands for a moratorium would always be open to damaging accusations of rank hypocrisy (as was in fact the case with Rowan Williams over Jeffrey John).

 

Ineffectual instruments

No one whose ear is accustomed to the melancholy, long withdrawing roar of Anglican doctrinal certainty can have much sympathy with a report whose criteria for the seriousness of an issue are the noise and heat generated. But what is the alternative? Appeals to canon law, as American precedent has shown, are misguided and fruitless. Law is powerless to deal with circumstances not previously envisaged: all is licit which is not expressly forbidden.

The so-called ‘Instruments of Unity’ have shown themselves Ineffectual (and are, in any case, largely funded, in the present instance, by those who are fomenting disunity). No one, least of all the Archbishop of Canterbury (who might be expected to operate it), wants a centralized juridical authority.

It is hardly surprising that Windsor, by avoiding the main problem, failed to solve it. But one thing remains certain: that, sooner rather than later, Anglicans will have to address the issues of Unity and Truth. There can be no purely institutional solution. A church based on doctrinal indifferentism and private judgement cannot long survive. ND

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