Hope for (the Anglican) Communion: part 1 of 2

I. Summary of the Windsor Report (and Underlying Documents) and the Covenant

First, however, it would be helpful to summarize and interpret the Windsor Report (containing four sections: A – D) itself as well as the proposed covenant. The Windsor Report makes it abundantly clear that it is not dealing primarily with issues of human sexuality or sexual ethics. Rather, it is dealing with the nature of communion, as clarified by a certain crisis (note that crisis or controversy is the primary way in which theology gets clarified in the history of the church) which has in turn been precipitated by unilateral actions concerning human sexuality on the part of certain ecclesial entities.

Therefore, when one turns to “Section A: The Purposes and Benefits of Communion” one can appreciate why the authors, after summarizing the rich biblical foundation for communion (the proleptic embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God in redemptive history) and the practical consequences of healthy communion (common pattern of liturgical life; mutual independence and responsibility in the body of Christ; solidarity in social issues of justice such genocide and racial enslavement), chose to spill so much ink in writing about the nature of communion, including how recent controversies in the global Anglican family of churches (the ordination of women to the presbyterate; the consecration of women to the episcopate) have impacted that communion. The upshot of this is that, in contrast to the groundswell of collective will regarding the above mentioned issues related to women – in which action was “taken in cooperation with the Instruments of Unity” – the actions recently taken by the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster (to authorize a public rite of blessing for same sex unions) and by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (“to consent to … the consecration of … the person elected as Bishop of New Hampshire, a divorced man openly acknowledged to be living in a sexually active and committed same sex relationship” ) were undertaken unilaterally, with apparent disregard for the Primates’ advance warning that such an action (in the case of the consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson) “might ‘tear the fabric of our communion at the deepest level.’” The primates, as the Report points out, had repeatedly reaffirmed Lambeth 1998 1.10, which rejects “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and states that it “cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”

It is because of this unilateral action, the report argues, that the Anglican Communion now finds itself in a condition of critical illness. And as so often happens in the case of illness in the human body, some attempts to bring healing have actually exacerbated the symptoms, especially the move on the part of some African bishops and primates to send “flying bishops” to North America to perform canonical Episcopal actions, including the consecration of additional bishops. Such transgression of Episcopal boundaries, the report points out, are a clear violation not only of resolutions from Lambeth 1988 and 1998, but also of “some of the longest-standing regulations of the early undivided church (Canon 8 of Nicea).”

Even if, however, the actions taken by New Westminster and The Episcopal Church have displayed symptoms of critical illness in the Anglican Communion, the report does stress that there have been and remain “deeper symptoms” of illness as well. The report identifies six “key strands in the story” which have lead to the current impasse: theological development, ecclesiastical procedures, adiaphora, subsidiarity, trust, and authority. In every case except for the last two, the report specifically states that the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of New Westminster have fallen short of their responsibility to the larger communion.

Section B of the report (“Fundamental Principles”) is a description of both the nature of the communion we share as well as the actual, concrete bonds, or one might say, cords, that bind us as Anglicans together.

Before turning to the concrete bonds which tie us in unity, however, consider the nature of the communion which the report suggests, which can be seen in three key ideas put forward in the report: “mutual interdependence,” “putting the needs of the global fellowship before [one’s] own,” and “corporate, ecclesial personhood, [existing] in and for [the] fellow churches.”

What is the origin of these ideas? We have already seen that in the first paragraphs of the report in Section A this idea of communion is rooted in the redemptive work of the Triune God as described in the New Testament in such places as Ephesians. However, it is the Virginia Report, which is referred to thirteen times in the main body of the Windsor Report, which provides the underlying communion theology for the latter.
It seems to me that the authors of The Virginia Report do three things which are hugely significant for the purposes of this discussion: they ground communion; they contrast communion, and they eschatologize communion.

First, they ground communion in the life of the Trinity:

The Commission has centered its study on the understanding of the Trinitarian faith. It believes that the unity of the Anglican Communion derives from the unity given in the triune God, whose inner personal and relational nature is communion. This is our center. This mystery of God’s life calls us to communion in visible form.”

Second, they contrast communion with “the competitive individualism” (which they also rightly point out is “no longer accepted without question” even in the secular world) in the “political, scientific, economic, and psychological spheres.” So whatever communion is for the Anglican Communion, it is not something that occurs between competitive individuals. As we will see later in John Zizioulas’ theology of personhood, communion is in fact antithetical to our normal conception of the solitary individual as such, since the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit so indwell and mutually penetrate one another that they cannot be thought of as individuals at all. Instead, patristic theology sees communion as rooted in the ontology of person, which is something quite different than that of the individual. All “injustice, racism, separation and denial of freedom” as well as individual and corporate alienation – all of which are rooted in the competition of the individual – are radically challenged and ultimately overcome by the communion we have with each other in Christ, his body and blood, his “passion, death, and resurrection.”

Third, they eschatologize communion. The communion of the Trinity is the telos of mankind as imaged in the church. Paradoxically it is present now and still-to-be realized in God’s future. The report in this context quotes Maximus the Confessor: “The things of the past are shadow; those of the present icon; the truth is to be found in the things of the future.” Two implications flow from this: first, that the church is called to embody the purpose of God’s future in today’s world ; second, that communion is something that we can only partially realize in the present, though it is the future goal to which we wholly devote ourselves.

In its articulation of the actual ties that bind us together, the two concrete cords discussed in The Windsor Report are Scripture (together with its interpretation, by the church of course) and the episcopate. Why does the Windsor Report exert so much energy in discussing the role of Scripture?

The answer to this question has to do with that final “key strand in the story,” mentioned above, which has attenuated the unity of the Anglican communion: authority. And it is not too speculative to suggest that the implicit contrast, or foil, in view in this discussion of authority is the Roman papal see. For, in Anglicanism (as has been made clear in diverse ways in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries ), authority resides in Scripture.

Here, however, another implicit contrast comes into play: the Protestant, or we might say “Reformed” or “evangelical” understanding of how Scripture is authoritative in the Christian Church. This conception tends statically to spatialize Scripture into a “quasi-legal” rule book of propositions to be appealed to in the case of controversy.

The report’s (and purportedly, the Anglican Communion’s) understanding of how authority works is neither papal nor protestant in the way just described. Rather, Scripture plays a vital role in the authority of God in Jesus Christ in the mission and life of the church as it seeks to bring about the inbreaking Kingdom of God in and for the world. This, the report claims, is how the earliest Christians thought of it, and this makes sense when it is remembered that, while the earliest Christians did not have the New Testament canon as we think of it, they did nevertheless gather in Eucharistic synaxis to be formed by the word of God (as the preaching of the Gospel) into the body of Christ for the sake of the world. To put it another way, it seems helpful to imagine (with a historically informed imagination, of course) how the earliest Christian communities made decisions in the era prior to the canonization of what we call the New Testament . Our use of Scripture must be consistent with theirs.

The point of this rendition of how Scripture is authoritative, however, is to locate authority not just “in the Scriptures” (as if texts can be without interpretation in any meaningful sense) but rather in the (whole) church’s interpretation of the Scriptures. Consistent with The Virginia Report’s articulation of communion above, the interpretation of the entire Church resides in each local (including provincial) church.

The second concrete cord that binds the Anglican communion together is the episcopate. After rehearsing the history the emergence of the shared historic episcopate in the Anglican Communion (reaching its settling point in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral), the report states that “… a bishop is more than simply the local chief pastor. Bishops represent the universal to the local to the universal and vice-versa.” Again, note how this understanding resonates with The Virginia Report’s concept of communion summarized above.

Because of this unique nature of the bishop, who, building on what we just said, embodies the catholicity of the Church in his person, “successive Lambeth conferences have urged the primates to shoulder the burden of enhanced responsibility for the unity of the Communion….” Interestingly, this move is grounded by the report not just in Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian as well as in “the great sees of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome, and Jerusalem,” but also in St. Paul, who wrote “with authority to various churches … he had not himself founded.”

An additional bond discussed in the report (in addition to Scripture and the Episcopate) which binds the Anglican Communion together is the way the Communion has answered the question, “How can we, being a diverse community, practice reception, or the making and receiving of innovations within the tradition?” The answer has been for the church to perform the following steps mediated through the Instruments of Communion:
• theological debate and discussion
• formal action
• increased consultation to see whether the formal action settles down and makes itself at home.

It is each autocephalous church which performs this process, in relative “autonomy” to each other province (ie, autocephalous church) but within a wider obligation to others, and in subordination to the whole. (Autocephalous churches can make their own independent decisions only at their own level, and so we can see how autocephaly is linked to subsidiarity.) This “wider obligation” and “subordination to the whole” takes effect particularly in potentially divisive matters about which the whole Communion has yet to make up its mind. Even “internal decisions [must be] fully compatible with the interests, standards, unity and good order or the wider community of which the [autocephalous] body forms a part.” This is particularly true in the church’s necessary task of inculturating the Gospel into different societies in mission.

The underlying principle of this entire articulation of the process of reception is stated in the ancient dictum, “What touches all must be decided by all,” an idea which, again, presupposes the idea of communion articulated in The Virginia Report (see above).

Section C of the Windsor Report (“Our Future Life Together”) makes specific recommendations for the Communion about how to mend the strained communion / relationships which have ensued due to the unilateral actions named above. For the purposes of this paper I will include only one such recommendation: that of a “communion law’ which would be inserted into each local ecclesial entity’s body of canon law. This action would “enable and implement the covenant proposal below, strengthening the bonds of unity and articulating what has to-date been assumed.” Such an communion law is needed, the report argues, because “informal agreement or unenforceable guidance is not enough.”

This is strong and important language to say the least. What is being proposed here is that each province in the Communion adopt and incorporate into its official documents (constitutions, canons, prayer books) a “law” which will commit it to submit to a covenant to be adopted by the Instruments of Communion.

Before summarizing and interpreting the (as of the current date) final version of the covenant, we note that The Windsor Report envisions that the covenant would “deal with:” acknowledgement of common Anglican identity; the relationships of communion; the commitments of communion; the excercize of “autonomy” in communion; the management of communion affairs.

The St. Andrews Draft of the proposed covenant is divided into three parts: faith, mission, and (maintenance of) communion. Each part contains both affirmations and commitments.

The scope of this paper does not lend itself to listing every faith-affirmation and every commitment adumbrated in the covenant. Instead, I would like to work with Phil Turner’s three “stances” which he has outlined in his paper “A Comment on the St. Andrews’ Draft of the Anglican Covenant:” the confessionalist stance, the pluralist stance, and the conciliar stance. Using these categories, I will “get down to brass tacks” and identify notable items in the covenant which bear on the current crisis or impasse.

The affirmations under the “Faith” section (Section One) include nothing which all stances could not agree on, all of the listed affirmations being traditional beliefs in the Anglican tradition that are commonly listed in historic Anglican documents and formularies (including common belief in the communion of the church, the worship of the triune God, reliance upon the Holy Spirit, the unique revelation of the faith in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation, the catholic creeds as that which set forth this faith, the significant witness of the historic formularies of the Church of England, the two sacraments of baptism and the Supper of the Lord, the historic episcopate, shared patterns of common worship and liturgy, and participation in the apostolic mission of God).

In the “Commitments” section of “Faith,” there is nothing that could not be affirmed by all three stances, except for possibly section 1.2.3 which binds each church to act “in accordance with existing canonical disciplines….” Specifically it seems to me that this provision would prevent pluralists from practicing open communion, or adopting a non-Trinitarian liturgy, since both of these are already stipulated in existing canons.

In the declarations of Section Two (dealing with mission) my only note is to acknowledge Phil Turner’s observation that language of “reconciling mission” (2.2.1) demands content about how “reconciliation is fundamental to God’s relation to the world.” While I appreciate this point, it does seem to me that the covenant does this very thing when, in the second paragraph of the preliminary remarks, it links itself to the Windsor Report, which speaks of God’s reconciling ministry in such places as paragraph 55: “God’s sovereign, saving, redeeming and reconciling rule over all creation.”

Among the affirmations of Section Three on (Maintenance of Communion), it seems to me that the affirmation of most importance for the purposes of this paper is that of the central role of bishops as “visible signs of unity, representing the universal Church to the local, and the local Church to the universal,” language which, as we have seen above features prominently in the Windsor Report. Why is this statement so important?

First, it implies that it would be contradictory for the bishops, say, of a particular province, not to participate in council with the bishops of the larger church. That is, for a bishop to be a bishop, he must be meeting with bishops from the larger church in an official Episcopal capacity. If this is not happening, then he is not “representing the local to the universal,” and thus he is not (fully) a bishop in the church. Second, the language here of “universal church” clearly implies ecumenical concerns. In other words, separated bishops would damage and rupture not just the Anglican Communion, but the catholic church in its full ecumenical sense.

As for Section Three’s common commitments (by its own admission, the Draft’s “most contentious” section ) on the maintenance of communion, my thoughts are as follows. First, what is said about the “constitutional autonomy of all the Churches of the Anglican Communion” presupposes all that the Windsor Report stated about subsidiarity (see this discussion above). Second, it is important to note (in light of those who complain about too much power being given to bishops and especially to primates) that the St. Andrews Draft modifies the previous draft (Nassau) to widen the circle of coordination beyond the Primates to all Instruments of Communion (including the Anglican Consultative Council). Third, the “procedural elements” outlined in 3.2.5 are implemented when “actions … either proposed or enacted … which … are … deemed to threaten the unity of the Communion” are identified and proceeded against by any appropriate ecclesial entity.

Fourth, a word about the “teeth” of the covenant. The document assumes that when an ecclesial entity (ie, a province) is understood to have “relinquished the force and meaning of the purposes of the covenant,” that this is tantamount to a suspension of communion. I do think it would be helpful, following the suggestion of Philip Turner, to include language something like “suspension of participation in the councils of communion,” or perhaps “… participation in the Instruments of Communion.” Nevertheless, what this covenant does succeed in doing, and this is what really matters, is to provide a way “of common belief and practice … sustained by the practice of mutual subjection expressed by forbearance and restraint over time within a conciliar polity.” This procedure, it seems to me, does flow validly from the theology of personal communion which undergirds the entire Windsor process.

Go back to the Introduction of this essay.

Proceed to Part II of this essay.

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