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Why the Anglican Communion Matters

Friday 23rd February 2007

The following article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Friday 23rd February, 2007. It followed on from a meeting of Primates of the Anglican Communion that month in Tanzania.

In some people's eyes, keeping the Anglican Communion together as a worldwide institution looks like prolonging the life of a dysfunctional or abusive marriage; isn't it more honest and humane to head for the divorce courts? Why should we be mortgaged to other people's prejudices - if we're liberal - or other people's irresponsibility - if we're traditionalist? Isn't what matters the life and vigour - and indeed the integrity - of the Church on our doorstep?

There were moments in the meeting of Anglican leaders in Tanzania when I guess most of those present felt a bit like this. The fact that they weren't prepared simply to leave things there suggests, though, that more needs to be said. There remains a strong belief that this kind of worldwide Christian institution means we all agree to take responsibility for each other in some way and to recognise that none of us has ultimate interests and concerns that are exclusively local or personal.

The Anglican Church has always lived in a state of some tension about this. For a couple of hundred years, it was kept together by a single legally enforced form of worship and by sanctions against those who dissented from it. After about 1830, two things began to make an increasing amount of difference. It was no longer protected by the same legal sanctions. And its missionary enterprises produced more and more new local congregations and structures, which soon started to look for a degree of independence. By the end of the nineteenth century, you could not reasonably say that Anglicanism was just the state Church of England with a few overseas chaplaincies. It could not then and it cannot now simply go back to being something like the Church of Denmark - a strictly national body.

Gradually there has been something of a reinvention of what being 'Anglican' means. For most of the twentieth century, the Communion spoke and worked as though it were trying to witness to a model of church life that was neither just local nor highly centralised - a 'Catholic' kind of church life in which certain structures and doctrines were universally recognised, but one that depended on consent and mutual responsibility rather than a single administrative system. In a world of cultural diversity, this is bound to be precarious.

So what is the problem at the moment? When Anglicans in the USA decided in 2003 to appoint as a bishop someone in an open gay partnership, the widespread reaction was that there hadn't yet been the kind of discussion in the worldwide setting that might convince others of the rightness in principle of blessing same-sex relationships - and that this discussion needed to happen before anyone decided whether an active gay person might be a candidate for being a bishop. Not too surprisingly, most in the Communion felt that the conclusion had come before the argument.

This created two sorts of difficulty. One was about the question of limits. For most (though not all) Anglicans, questions about sexual ethics belonged in that category of teaching that was not up for negotiation as a result of cultural variation or social development. As with the central doctrines of the Creed and the biblical worldview, people could only say, 'This isn't mine to give away'. They needed more than an assurance that it had been thought about in the US and that a lot of people there had concluded it was all right. The other question followed on: if an issue just might be in the 'not mine to give away' category, how did the Church as a whole decide whether it really was in that category or not? How did it decide as a Church, not as a conglomerate of local independent bodies? And if it couldn't decide as a Church, how could it carry on talking with other worldwide Christian bodies on the same foundations?

Not a wholly new question: the often bitter controversies over women's ordination had already raised some of these matters. But at least on that, a conviction had emerged that it was possible to treat it as something people could disagree about and still leave intact the basics of common faith. For a variety of reasons, this current question has not felt like that for many. And - worst of all in some ways - the possibility of detailed and patient scrutiny of the underlying question about sexual ethics was rather derailed by the feeling that the outcome had been decided in advance by one group in the Communion. Trust suffered badly.

To digress for just a moment: one of the hardest things in all this has been to keep insisting on the absolute moral imperative of combating bigotry and violence against gay people, and the need to secure appropriate civic and legal protection for couples who have chosen to share their lives. These are different matters from whether the Church has the freedom to bless same-sex unions. A negative or agnostic answer to this latter question is frequently heard as a negative attitude to the imperatives of care and respect -and sometimes that perception is sadly accurate, judging from the postbag that arrives here. Yet they are different, and quite a lot of Christians know it and try to act accordingly.

What happened in Tanzania in the last week or so represents an effort to define what could restore trust - all round, since the point is made that interventions from overseas in the American Church also have destructive effects in some ways. What has come to be called the 'Listening Process' was discussed and strongly affirmed - the continuing work on finding means for homosexual men and women in the communion to speak about their experience in a safe environment. This work has not been restricted to the west, and shows surprising signs of vigour. The outline of a 'covenant' document for local Anglican Churches suggests ways in which we could commit ourselves to a future process where consultation was fully built in. The requests to the US Church for further clarification and a moratorium on certain actions while the covenant process is going forward are essentially requests to show that their desire to stay with the Communion is strong enough to cope with a halt for the sake of continuing to move and work together. The suggestion of a structure in the US to care for the minority tries to remove any need for external intervention.

Whether it can all come together remains to be seen. But the leaders of the Communion thought it worth trying - not because enforced unanimity matters more than anything but because the relations and common work of the Communion, especially in the developing world, matter massively. And also because the idea that there might be a worldwide Christian Church that could balance unity and consent seems worth holding on to, for the sake of the whole Christian family and even for the sake of human society itself. I think that those who gathered in Tanzania believed that their vocation was to look for a way of embodying this balance. Losing that possibility is not a small matter. Working for it (when I think back to the painful intensity of some of our discussions) is not looking for an easy option.

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