Dear Friends in Christ,
First it was journalist Andrew Brown at The Guardian, then Ruth Gledhill at Christian Today and now John Bingham of the Telegraph, quoting the Queen’s address to the Church of England General Synod, describing the aim of the special gathering of Primates from all over the world scheduled for January 2016 at Canterbury. What is at stake in this historic meeting that some have described as a “make-or-break” meeting to heal the divisions in the Anglican Communion?
I think it’s quite evident what is at stake in this meeting: Will we have an Anglican Communion or an Anglican “Federation?”
One choice is for Anglican Churches within a Communion to find their unity in a common confession of faith and order-with “essentials” they can readily recognize in each other—plus relational commitments to strengthen and guard that communion and a commitment to a common good in and for the Church. Perhaps we could even find a scripture for that “common good”-perhaps something like Philippians 2:5 “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” A “Communion” with a commitment to having the mind of Christ in the mind of the Church.
The other choice is for a “Federation” of Anglican Churches who may have nothing theologically in common. They may be in impaired or even broken “communion” with each other, but will still share one thing: they will be in relationship with the See of Canterbury. “Aides” of the Archbishop of Canterbury have been quoted as likening this to having members of one family “living in separate bedrooms” and maybe not even talking to each other. But as long as they are ALL talking to “papa”—presumably the Archbishop of Canterbury—it’s ok to live with such loosened ties.
I just returned home from a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend with my own family and my brother’s family—eleven of us altogether, four of us “Boomers” and the rest “Millenials” ranging from 16-27. Republicans and Democrats. Pro and anti-gun control. Pro and anti-immigration. We live in different contexts—Georgia, Texas, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Many are still in school. All have different jobs.
What would it have been like if we had spent our time together at Thanksgiving in separate rooms, united only around our being able to talk to one “parental unit” (as my kids love to call us!)? Would you describe that as a healthy family? No. It would be a dysfunctional family, a broken family. A family in need of healing to be sure. That family should not allow the divisions to continue, sweeping them under the rug or allowing someone to continue to wound and offend the other.
Thankfully, this scenario did not play out in my family over Thanksgiving. Instead, we did the things families should do together—we hiked, played tennis, did a Thanksgiving craft (yes, we do!), watched a few football games and sat around table feasting and enjoying each other’s company. But of all the things we did, we focused so much of our conversation on that which we hold so deeply in common, all of us us—our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives, and the trustworthiness of his word as the ultimate standard by which we live our lives.
That common confession of faith came out in deep and wonderful ways in a new tradition we tried—sharing a poem, an excerpt from a novel, or a play, or a sonnet, and sometimes from the Bible itself—something that expressed what was true and just and right and beautiful and excellent that had impacted our lives. In every expression it all came back to Christ.
It was a wonderful gift that we were able to give each other, and it strengthened our “communion” as a family. Yes, we are plenty imperfect and different in our extended family. We still fight and disagree and hurt each other from time to time. But what I heard from my children and my brother’s children is how blessed they felt at the depth of sharing we are able to have with each other precisely because of that shared inheritance of faith in Christ.
What a fascinating “gift” the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to wish to give us this Christmas season, the thin gruel of institutional unity around himself. Deep, irreconcilable, theological disagreements on Christian essentials will be preserved side-by-side through the Anglican art of practiced ambiguity. Churches in the more secular and developed west will continue to compromise with the culture in ways that offend and even endanger Anglicans in the Global South while simultaneously sending money and Western-trained theologians to the Global South to help in “mission” and (re)education. And in the end, the Archbishop of Canterbury will be the center of this faux communion.
Can you imagine what it would be like if the mind of Christ were really the mindset of the Churches of an Anglican Communion? Is the mind of Christ “divided”? Is there not a consensus fidelium, an undivided mind of Christ around such issues as human sexuality? Is not that consensus measured both in time and space by the millions of Christians who have let that mindset of Christ shape their own minds, decisions and actions?
What would happen if the Anglican Churches of the developed West considered not their autonomy on matters of sexuality and Biblical faithfulness something to be grasped (see Phil 2:6) but rather emptied themselves (maybe even repented) for the sake of communion?
May we pray for such a change of heart- and if some hearts are too hardened, for the willingness of those Anglican Primates committed to the undivided mind of Christ as the mind of the Church to remain steadfast in their upcoming meeting.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey,
CEO, American Anglican Council