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

II. Three Sub-plots in this Emerging Narrative

Sub-plot #1: the Nature of Personhood. First, let us consider the nature of this theology of personal communion that undergirds the Windsor process as well as the iterations of the proposed covenant. In book Being as Communion John Zizioulas has offered a massively influential argument which undermines some of the most deeply held assumptions that we have (especially in the West) about the nature of ultimate reality, or about ontology, that which is ultimately real, real in the case of God (of one believes in God) and real in the case of the world (or what theology thinks of as creation). We in the West tend to assume (and, interestingly for the purposes of mission, this assumption holds both in the Christian community as well as in the larger secular culture) that what God really is, and what the world really is, more than anything else, is being. And our understanding of being, in turn, is pervasively suffused by the thought of a thinker who lived 2500 years ago and whose name was Aristotle, who defined being as substance. What is relevant for our discussion is that substance is something which is fixed, static, or (to use one of Catherine Pickstock’s words and ideas) “stockpileable.”

The Zizioulian turn is to show how, implicit in the theology proper of the church fathers, is a rejection this fixed, static nature of being (including the being of God) in favor of something more dynamic, more fluid, more free, more relational. This “something” for Zizioulias is communion or koinonia, a primary Leitmotif not just in the thought of the church fathers, but in the New Testament documents themselves.

Why identify communion, however, as that which best describes ultimate ontology? Zizioulas’ answer is that it is because God is a person who freely begets the Son and who freely brings about the Holy Spirit, and who thus enjoys a personal relationship with the Spirit and the Son. In short, God is a loving community of persons, and what “connects” these three persons is not static, undifferentiated being-as-substance, but rather free love, in which each person participates in the others, mutually indwelling (with) them in (voluntary, loving) interdependence.

Communion becomes an ontological concept in patristic thought. Nothing in existence is conceivable in itself, as an individual, such as the tode ti of Aristotle, since even God exists thanks to an event of communion. In this manner the ancient world heard for the first time that it is communion which makes things “be:” nothing exists without it, not even God.”

So what we see in the patristic understanding of the life of the Holy Trinity might be thought of as “personhood kata holos,” or “personhood according to the whole,” or perhaps “catholic personhood.” Each person of the trinity reaches into the others. In the life of God, there is so such thing as a solitary individual, not to mention the thought, even, of unilateral action. Everything touches all, and everything is “decided” by all. The whole truth or reality is “known” by the whole community. This communion is what we mean by “personhood kata holos,” and this communion is what we find in the very life of the Triune God. (Note, importantly, how this theology of personhood is providing rigorous theological grounding for the concept of communion we have seen articulated in The Virginia Report.)

What Zizioulas goes on to show, and what the Windsor Report and other major Anglican documents we are looking at in this paper develop, is that if this personal communion characterizes God, then it also characterizes his church.

One such official Anglican document is The Cypress Statement. Building on the contrast we saw earlier in our discussion of The Virginia Report between communion and competitive individualism, this text states that

… the person exists not in possession of its own nature in opposition to others, but in giving itself wholly into the life of others. Thus the person is not part of some whole, but the place where the wholeness of nature is real and concrete.”

This explicit articulation of the “personhood kata holos,” or “catholic personhood” finds its analogue in the church: “St. John makes it clear that the fellowship or communion (koinonia) of life in the Church reflects the communion that is the divine life itself.” To bring human beings into this living relationship between the divine persons is “the ultimate purpose of the church…. This is what the Greek fathers and the Orthodox tradition have called theosis.” This analogy is made more explicit:

The Church is both a local and a universal reality. As the one God is a communion of three persons, so the universal church is one communion in Christ of many churches. She is not a federation of many parts. The relationship between the local church and the universal Church is determined by the revelation of the life of the Holy Trinity.”

I cannot avoid calling attention to paragraph 26 in the statement, which analogizes from the personal causality of the Father in the Trinity to the necessarily personal arche in the church: “all forms of primacy in the Church … being personal … cannot but be relational.” For those such as bishops and primates and archbishops who exercise authority, this is an important reminder. In this in many other ways, the theology of personhood kata holos pervades the entire text of The Church of the Triune God.

Sub-plot #2: the Decline of the Modern Nation-state. In our late modern age, characterized by what Alistair MacIntryre calls “emotivism,” humanity seems less able than ever to inhabit a peaceful politeuma or commonwealth.

It is, by now at any rate, clear that following the age of Luther and Machiavelli, we should expect the rise of a kind of moral-cum-political theory in which the individual is the ultimate social unit, power the ultimate concern, God an increasingly irrelevant but still unexpungeable being, and a prepolitical, presocial timeless human nature the background of changing social forms. The expectation is fully gratified by Hobbes.”

It is no coincidence that, as MacIntyre points out, the rise of the modern-nation state requires that the ultimate social unit, in direct opposition to the social thought of the Fathers, be that of the solitary individual. This is the case because, in order for the state to be thought of (and worshipped?) as savior, all mediating groups which bind people together must, in principle, be disbanded, leaving the isolated individual in the position of a direct one-to-one relationship with the state. This is why, modern political thought presupposes the primacy of the individual, (and the concomitant privatization of the church) as for example in Rouseau’s social contract which is a vehicle to overcome violence between individuals.

Regardless of one’s view as to the extent to which the “founding fathers” of the US Constitution are complicit in this strategy to privatize the church and to individualize persons into discrete units, it seems impossible to deny that, 200 years after the founders, we live in a nation-state (the USA) in which religion / church is indeed privatized and hence power is relegated to the state. And the state, currently involved in a violent, grand effort to extend its modern project into the Middle East, takes full advantage of this situation. And we feel it in our bones: is it any wonder, to invoke a bit of anecdotal evidence, that so few people seriously sing the national anthem at sporting events? American patriotism is on hard times, and rightly so.

And that is why this writer cannot help but view our ecclesial opportunity in the Anglican Communion to bind ourselves together in covenant recognition of our true mutually indwelling personhood as a kairos moment not just for the church but for the world, and especially for the West, racked as it is by nation-state power politics and sophistic, manipulative rhetoric.

Sub-plot #3: Ecclesiology. How does this fecund idea of personhood kata holos inform our understanding of the embodied church? First let us consider the ministry of episkope. The apparent presence of divergent understandings of the episcopate between, for example, African provinces and North American provinces makes this question particularly weighty.
My point is that this communion ecclesiology informs the nature of the episcopate, especially since the bishop is seen as an icon of the whole church of God. It does seem to me that “both sides” have something to learn from the theological reality of communion. I quote The Virginia Report:

A ministry of oversight (episkope) of interdependence, accountability and discernment is essential at all levels of the Church’s mission and ministry, and for the sake of the Church’s wellbeing, must be exercised at every level in a way that is personal, collegial and communal. A bishop’s authority is never isolated from the community; both the community of the Church and the community and unity of all humankind.”

And again:

The episcopal ministry is no authoritarian ministry above and separate from the community, but is a ministry, based in the grace of God, always exercised in relation to the community and always subject to the word of God.”

The first quotation above stands as a warning to those in the North America who conceive of the bishop along the same lines as an elected official in the “democratic republic” of the USA. The term “representative” is often used, as if the “job” of the bishop were to simply “vote” in accordance with the will of the majority of his or her constituents. Such conception, however, cannot be sustained in light of our understanding of communion as personhood kata holos. A renewed understanding of episkopos in this light will greatly aid those in North America to see the bishop as one in whose person we all have a stake and a vital connection, and vice-versa.

The second quotation above, however, issues an admonishment to any Christian, including Anglicans in Africa, who conceives of the arche of the bishop, the ministry of oversight, in a top-down fashion. What personhood kata holos shows us is that the bishop’s relationship to his people can be no more hierarchical than the Father’ relationship to the Son. Mutuality and interdependence must be seen as real, and practiced as such.

Second, let us consider the nature of the Eucharist. One could easily mine the official Anglican Communion documents referred to in this paper and, just as we have done above in the case of the bishop, draw out many implications of communion theology to the Eucharist. However, I would like to think more ecumenically than that in this treatment of the Eucharist.
The Eucharistic theology of Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet is one contemporary instance of several which see the Eucharist as constitutive of human deification, albeit in ways which prefigure ultimate deification (e.g., Thomas’ beatific vision), thus radically calling into question what can be thought of as “traditional ontology,” which, again, after Aristotle, can be thought of as “being-as-substance.” Chauvet argues sociologically that the Eucharist can be viewed as an example of symbolic gift exchange, in which a “circuit” of community members share in gift exchange which is not simply bilateral, and in which gift givers actually give themselves to their fellow circuit members. In this community of (self) gifting, the upshot is that a superabundant economy of peace is created and sustained which truly binds people together in the fullness of human communion. In other words, Chauvet, in a very post-Heideggarian move, sees ontology as symbol, or even symbolic gift exchange. When the Body of Christ performs this action in Eucharistic synaxis, deification occurs, and the members of the Body participate not just in one another but in the very life of the Triune God.

Chauvet’s approach to the Eucharist presupposes not only post-Heideggarian metaphysics, however. It also relies on the “scansion shift” of the three-fold body of Christ documented among others by Henri de Lubac. No other development in the history of modern theology opens the door to ecumenical relations more than this recovery of the patristic understanding of the three-fold body, for it gets behind the high medieval doctrine of transubstantiation in a way that even Rome must be open to. To assert that the ancient corpus verum, the members of Christ gathered around the bread and the wine, is what is transubstantiated is precisely what The Cypress Statement affirms when it speaks of deification in the context of the Eucharist.

Such a reinterpretation of transubstantiation resonates deeply with this theology of personhood kata holos, for it sees that which is ultimately real as dynamic, free, and (above all) relational between persons. In addition to critiquing radical individualism as seen in the competition between church entities such as Anglican provinces, it also reveals the inherent individualism behind the medieval Eucharistic theologies in the wake of the three-fold body scansion shift.

Go back to Part I or the Introduction to this series.

Proceed to the Conclusion of this series.

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