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Archbishop - What kind of global communion do we want to be?

Thursday 12th February 2009

The Archbishop on the Anglican Covenant, General Synod, London.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's speech below, or click download on the right to listen [8Mb]

I wish to share with Synod a few observations on not only the covenant as a principle but on the debate as its evolving in the Communion. And the first thing I want to say is that the central question around the covenant has to do with what a global communion might look like.

We've heard, and we've heard this morning, we've heard a good deal about our responsibilities as a national church, and I think that that represents a set of very significant concerns. But as I think the Bishop of Durham was suggesting in his speech earlier on, we have never yet perhaps thought through fully what it is for us to be part of more than just a national church.

As it happens, we have become a global communion, we engage in international ecumenical discussions to underline a very significant aspect of this. We engage in international ecumenical discussions as if we were an international body with a degree of coherence. That coherence is not of the same kind as the Roman Catholic Church, let's say, and yet it's not simply that of the World Lutheran Federation. So what kind of global communion do we want to be?

I want to resist the idea that this is somehow a kind of innovation in our understanding of Anglican identity. There are already provinces of the Anglican Communion which are not simply national; we're often reminded that the Episcopal church covers several sovereign nations, likewise the province of Central America, of Jerusalem and the Middle East and of south east Asia.

But that is just at surface level, more importantly Anglican beginnings illustrate an awareness of being responsible to more than just what happens to be suitable or opportune in England at any given moment.

In a talk a few weeks ago I underlined the significance in early Anglican history of the fact that many people in the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries clearly thought that they were part of, what might be called, a Protestant international, they took part in international reformed conferences but also that they were responsible to the Catholic heritage of patristic teaching. Not simply what Henry 8th or Elizabeth the first or even Richard Hooker and I say that with some difficulty, even Richard Hooker I've decided is responsible to a bit more than that. So this is not somehow a sea change in the character of Anglicanism that we're looking at.

However, to balance that, it does need to be said I think that we mustn't have excessive expectations of the covenant. It's very tempting to think to think that a robustly phrased covenant would solve our problems, would give an instrument for, and the words have been used this morning, 'enforcing compliance'. Unless we had an international system of canon law, that would not be possible, and we're not there yet and I don't see us getting there very quickly, There is at the moment a canon law project within the Anglican Communion that is looking at appropriate forms of convergence for canon law within the provinces of the communion and the possibility of the canon law of different provinces embodying, as it were, communion related elements so that each local church would have in its constitution some expressed responsibility to the wider Church.

So I would caution against assuming this is in itself a legal instrument, or could be, the way it's phrased. It's part of this on-going enquiry as to what a global communion might mean, might look like. And at every stage, as the Bishop of Rochester rightly said in his introductory speech that every stage, it is something which churches are invited voluntary to enter into.

As to the instruments of discernment and decision, the most difficult area certainly in the covenant. Remarks have been made already this morning about the Primates meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council, the relativity appropriateness of them as arbiters of this, but I think it would be fair to say that at the moment in the communion there is generally an unease about how the instruments of communion are working, myself included, and a willingness to look again at how these might operate in better concert with one another. So I would want to put all those remarks about the Primates and the ACC and their role within the context of a more general review of how they're working and how they're working together so please bare that in mind as you assess this.

An earlier speaker used the phrase "handing over to the communion rights of decision". I don't believe that a process of shared discernment is a handing over of something that belongs to me to someone to whom it doesn't belong, because I have a rather more, excuse the word, robust doctrine of our participation in the body of Christ in that. I don't believe that when I invite someone else to share my own process of prayer and decision making I'm resigning something which I ought to be clinging on to. I believe rather than I'm trying to discover more fully who I am in Christ by inviting others who share my life in Christ into the process of making a decision.

And that I think takes me finally to two observations about again, the overall context in which this covenant proposal is working. I was grateful to Chris Sugden (executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream) for putting the question as he did about accountability to whom or to what, and I found that a rather challenging question and the answer I wanted to formulate was something like this: Accountability to Jesus Christ in his body but also Jesus Christ beyond and calling his body. In other words, the inseparability of trying to discover Jesus Christ in our fellowship with one another but also that understood as part of learning together how to listen to the Jesus Christ who is not imprisoned in, or exhausted by his body.

So, that's the accountability that I believe matters in this context and I don't think I want to drive a wedge down the middle of that and say that all that matters is accountability to one another, God forbid. But equally I wouldn't be happy in saying our accountability is to Almighty God and nothing else matters, because the way almighty god chooses to deal with us is though the life, death and resurrection of his son and the body of his glorified son which now incorporates us by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So, accountability, yes, lateral accountability, yes, and somehow all bound up with our learning together of how to listen to and to obey Jesus Christ. Which means to make my last point, that the word 'relational' is not a weak word for a Christian. Relationship involves sacrifice, involves thought, involves times suffering, patience, learning, endurance, and all those things. I don't think that's somehow less than a constitutional framework and so when the language is used of the covenant as essentially relational I would certainly say that's not some kind of second best. I would rather see it as a summons to - to pick up the language I used the other day - that deepening and intensifying of the communion we've already been given on the journey towards the deepest communion that we can possibly have.

I hope that if the Synod and the Church of England puts its support behind the covenant proposal again and is able to endorse a final form when it comes, I hope that it will see it in the light of that pilgrimage of relationship with all its costs and all its promises. Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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