RECEPTION AND COMMUNION

A report on a recent Consultation at St George's House, Windsor

 

A CONSULTATION was held at St George's House, Windsor Castle, from 10 to 12 April 2000. The Consultation was sponsored by the Centre for the Study of the Christian Church and St George's House and was convened by Prebendary Paul Avis, the Director of the Centre. The Centre facilitates scholarly study of the Christian Church, especially its mission, ministry and unity.

This was the fifth Consultation at St George's House as part of the programme of the Centre and the second on the broad theme of the issues arising from the ordination of women and the Act of Synod. Twenty-eight people, representing a range of convictions and constituencies on the issues, took part. It was generally agreed that the Consultation, in bringing together individuals of diverse views to debate and discuss together, in the context of worship, had served a useful purpose and that the outcome had been constructive.

The Consultation heard papers from the Revd Dr William Rusch (Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches in the USA), the Right Reverend Christopher Hill (Bishop of Stafford and Vice-Chairman of the Faith and Order Advisory Group), the Right Reverend John Hind (Bishop in Europe, Chairman of the Faith and Order Advisory Group and member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches), the Right Reverend Paul Richardson (Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Newcastle), the Revd Canon Dr Martyn Percy (Director of the Lincoln Institute for Church and Society, Sheffield), and Dr Mary Tanner OBE (formerly General Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity and Moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches).

The Consultation was enriched by the contribution of ecumenical participants from the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran Churches in the United States and Scandinavia.

The purpose of this consultation was not to debate the pros and cons of the Measure for the ordination of women or the merits and demerits of the Act of Synod. Taking these as given factors in our present situation, the aim of the Consultation was to undertake theological reflection on the meaning of reception or discernment of the truth in this context and on the connection between reception and communion. In group and plenary discussion the following issues emerged:

* Reception is a permanent feature of the life of the Church. As the Spirit-filled Body of Christ, the Church is continually developing its fundamental appropriation of the apostolic faith in order to engage with new knowledge, fresh insights, and changes in the society within which it pursues its mission. Reception is thus related on the one hand to apostolic continuity and on the other to the inculturation of the faith. Reception is not a political device but an ecclesiological reality. The process of the reception of the ordination of women should, therefore, be related to ecclesiological principles, especially those enshrined in the four credal notes or attributes of the Christian Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

* Reception is, then, an essentially missiological concept and is grounded in the spiritual vitality of the Church. In reception the Church is involved in an ongoing process of assimilation and discernment, changing in such a way that it reaches out in mission to the humanity Christ came to redeem, while remaining utterly faithful to its foundation in the gospel. Reception is primarily the critical appropriation of what we understand to be the apostolic faith, but it also refers to second order questions of belief and practice. Anglicans do not tend to claim that the question of the ordination of women belongs to the fundamentals of the faith, but for some Anglicans it touches on matters that are fundamental.

* Reception is a neutral, technical term: despite a common misunderstanding to the contrary, it does not imply that a development in the life of the Church will ultimately be positively accepted as God's will for the Church. The fact that a particular development is subject to a process of reception does not imply a prior definitive judgement as to its truth nor any sense of inevitability as the outcome. This is what is meant by the expression 'an open process of reception' with regard to the ordination of women.

* Reception entails a process of study and evaluation in which the truth, or otherwise, of a development may be spiritually and theologically discerned. It takes place both before and after any decision of the Church has been taken. A formal process of reception normally implies that an informal process has already been under way. This is certainly the case with regard to discerning the rightness of the ordination of women.

* Without prejudice to the personal convictions of individuals, the ultimate outcome of a process of reception is known only to God. To participate actively in an open process of reception with regard to the ordination of women is therefore an act of faith. Integrity and maturity are required in order to handle contentious issues.

* Reception is not the concern of a single church or communion but should be seen in a fully ecumenical context. Reception is a matter for the whole Church, in which gifts and insights, vision and wisdom can be shared. All Christians share in the sensus fidei which shapes the process of reception. While new expressions of the faith are being tested, the interaction of differing, even opposing points of view plays an essential part. The decisions of the Church of England with regard to the ordination of women in a divided universal Church presuppose that an ecumenical process of reception is required. This wider context suggests that not only boldness but restraint may be called for. The ultimate context of reception is the reunion of the Christian Church, which is currently divided on a number of beliefs and practices.

* As an expression of the organic vitality of the Body of Christ, reception belongs at the centre of the Church's life. The milieu of reception is the Church's experience of koinonia, that sharing in the life of God through grace that creates and sustains a common life. Reception presupposes effective communication, mutual listening and sustained dialogue. Reception is by nature long-term. The analogy of family life, with its deep mutual commitment that can embrace passionate disagreements, is suggestive. There can be no reception without communion. We face Christ in facing one another. The stronger our bonds of communion are, the more confident we may be that the hand of God is at work in the process of reception.

* Communion with Christ and with our fellow Christians is grounded in the sacrament of baptism, in the context of the baptismal faith, whereby we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. The fundamental communion or koinonia created in baptism forms the basis for other expressions of communion, especially in the eucharist and in forms of conciliarity. Although our communion is imperfectly realised in the Church in via, the communion we already share contains an imperative to seek to strengthen and extend it. It is appropriate to speak of degrees of communion and we should never say that we are 'out of communion' with fellow Christians with whom we are united in faith and baptism. All Christians should earnestly seek to maintain the highest degree of communion possible with each other, to claim the communion that is already given. In the present situation, we should strive to preserve our common life and should identify and promote examples of good practice where conscientious differences are respected and a genuine exchange of views takes place. Views differ on whether sharing the eucharist should be seen as a proper means towards attaining the goal of unity or only as the prize to be gained when the process is complete. In communion, which is essentially relational, we are changed 'from one degree of glory to another'. To enable this to happen, we must be open and vulnerable to others who believe differently. Disagreements can be explored in an environment of courtesy and charity where we are united in a common quest for truth. What we are called to in this situation is not resigned toleration or coexistence but the vocation of love.

* In reception, a consensus, pointing one way or the other, may begin to emerge. At this stage, where there is some recognition of common concerns but no final resolution of the fundamental issue, views may still exist side by side in a 'directional plurality'. Consensus should not seek to be exclusive but should always allow for the possibility of dissent. Participants should feel able and obliged to 'put all their cards on the table'. A notion of 'differentiated consensus' enables us to do justice to the reality of agreement and the reality of difference. Boundaries will be drawn for security and distinctness, but these should never be erected into walls with no entry or exit.

* There will be different perceptions of what is occurring in a process of reception. This process is dynamic in its nature and the leading issues may change. We need to be receptive to the distinctive logic of the engagement. This is a personal and relational logic, not an abstract and theoretical one. Reception can lead to 'translation' where we find a new language with which to address one another and as a result the issues begin to look rather different. We should be prepared to recognise and affirm degrees of agreement and degrees of communion that correspond to that agreement.

The Consultation believed that the following imperatives had emerged for the Church of England:

* to promote dialogue between proponents and opponents of the ordination of women since the church has a responsibility to facilitate the process of reception/discernment;

* to continue to monitor the process of reception beyond the completion of the report of the House of Bishops working party on the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993;

* to initiate theological study of the principles and practice entailed in the possible ordination of women to the episcopate in the Church of England, including the scope of the arrangements that would be needed to supersede the Act of Synod;

* to undertake scholarly work on theological anthropology (the Christian understanding of human nature) with particular reference to gender, symbolism and the nature of the Church and its ministry;

* to encourage a more broadly ecumenical reception of the ordination of women.

The Consultation believed that future Consultations could profitably turn their attention to the above and related matters, especially:

* a deeper exploration of the theology of communion and the ways in which it can become impaired;

* an enquiry into the ecclesiological implications of the ordination of women, with reference to the four credal notes of the Church;

* a continuation of the attempt to find a language that could create a 'differentiated consensus' in this area;

* a study of theological anthropology, with special reference to gender identity

* issues of authority, power and decision-making;

* what theological issues and structural consequences would be entailed in a decision of the Church of England to consecrate women bishops.

This report has been prepared by the convener and agreed with representative members of the Consultation.

The Revd Prebendary Dr Paul Avis is Director: Centre for the Study of the Christian Church (General Secretary: Council for Christian Unity, Church House, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3NZ)

The Revd Canon Laurence Gunner is Directing Staff: St George's House, Windsor Castle, Berkshire SL4 1NJ

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