Sleep-walking to breakdown

John Shepley has some pertinent questions for those who are cobbling together the current structures of the Anglican Communion

In a series of articles in New Directions I have sought to plot the trajectory of contemporary Anglicanism through the crises of the last forty years. My thesis has been simple: that Anglicans have been sleep-walking into an ecclesiology which no one wants, but which has a certain awful inevitability. That adventitious ecclesiology is now seeking formal expression through the Covenant and in a new understanding of the so-called ‘Instruments of Unity’ which goes with it.

Though decked out in often tendentious theological jargon (never call a thing ‘communion’ when ‘koinonia’ will do) the new ecclesiology is essentially secular. In his significant speech at the Gregorian University in Rome, Rowan Williams put the matter nicely: he described the emerging Communion as ‘a ‘community of communities’ that can manage to sustain a mutually nourishing and mutually critical life with all consenting to certain protocols of decision making together.’

From Body to protocol

That is about what it has come to: a ‘community of communities’ (when you hear the word ‘community’, said a social worker friend of mine, always suspect something nefarious) sustained by a ‘protocol’. The Body of Christ; the Bride of Christ; foreshadowed from the beginning of the world; perfected by the Holy Spirit; the universal sacrament of salvation; a priestly, prophetic and royal people; the household of faith gathered alike in every place around the bishop as its paterfamilias and image of the Father – has thus been reduced to a worldly entity, located on a sliding scale somewhere between the United Nations and Proctor & Gamble.

This was not, I repeat, what anybody wanted. It was simply the best that could be done under the circumstances. And, for the record, the circumstances were these: that the very character and terms of the English Reformation created what Colin Buchanan has lauded in these pages – the notion that national Churches are autonomous in doctrine, orders and governance.

Provincial autonomy

A residual Catholic instinct in the emerging provinces of what was to become the Anglican Communion made them wish to modify that radical inheritance (witness the calling of the first Lambeth Conference at the behest of Canadian bishops). But for a later generation of North American Anglicans that very autonomy became essential to the prosecution of their ethical a priori agenda of female ‘emancipation’ and gay ‘rights’.

They secured their position by the classic insurgent tactic of poisoning the wells. By the unilateral consecration of women and homosexual people in declared partnerships they alienated Holy Orders from their traditional function as a focus of unity and assurance of sacramental validity. Orders became, for them, a vehicle for the pursuit of a secular agenda.

This radical change in the nature and purpose of orders (and the inauguration of a sizeable province in North America independent of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada) has raised for the Communion a new problem: the problem of membership. What are the criteria of membership of the Anglican Communion?

Under the former dispensation membership had been determined largely in terms of interchangeability of orders; but the existence of entities with undoubted Anglican orders outside ‘official’ provinces, and the acknowledged impairment of communion between provinces, necessitated new means of discernment.

The proposed Anglican Covenant describes these new structures thus:

(4.1.4) Every Church of the Anglican Communion, as recognised in accordance with the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, is invited to enter into this Covenant according to its own constitutional procedures.

(4.1.5) The Instruments of Communion may invite other Churches to adopt the Covenant using the same procedures as set out by the Anglican Consultative Council for the amendment of its schedule of membership. Adoption of this Covenant does not confer any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion, which shall be decided by those Instruments themselves.

In the absence of any clear statement of the ‘procedures... for the amendment of its schedule of membership’ (the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council is coyly imprecise) it is difficult to decide what this entails.

Many more questions

Beyond that, other questions arise. Who authorised the ACC to erect its schedule of membership into a definitive membership list of the Communion as a whole? Who drew up and approved its Constitution in the first place? What is the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion (mentioned several times, and for the first time, in the proposed Covenant)? Who authorised it and named it? What is its constitution?

The conclusion of all this must inevitably be that an ecclesiology (or a substitute for an ecclesiology) is being erected in ways which are unaccountable to the membership of the Communion (however that is defined), in an haphazard and ad hoc manner, dictated not by principle but by piecemeal and pragmatic responses to emerging crises. ND

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