Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series
By Ian Ernest
Six of the seven dioceses of the Province of the Indian Ocean, because of their geographical location, permanently face the risk of devastation or destruction by cyclones. Like our islands, and because of its comprehensive nature, the Anglican Communion is always at risk of devastation or destruction. People throughout our province, islanders in this part of the world, have challenged these cyclonic threats with vigor, wisdom and a renewed sense of hope.
My native island of Mauritius was brought to its knees in 1960 after the passage of Carol, one of the deadlier cyclones ever recorded. Severe gusts of wind crushed down our most essential infrastructures and thousands of Mauritians became homeless overnight. It was unthinkable that, as a nation, we could grow out of this experience stronger and capable of giving ourselves new life and hope and meaning.
Today, as one of the leading African nations, we have overcome risky situations by our constant willingness to construct our lives on new foundations. These foundations have been built and secured because we have been willing to challenge the threats of nature. We would not have escaped destruction if we had unintelligently ignored them. So, with a sense of pride and patriotic zeal, we seriously set ourselves to start anew, by accepting what we learned from those realities.
We find ourselves in a period of Communion history when dark clouds, like the ones prevailing under cyclonic conditions, brood over the church. There is an urgency for all the stakeholders of this Communion to deal with the stranger within ourselves. This will sustain us in the next step, which requires us to embrace the stranger in the other. The stranger is Christ incarnate in the knitting of the Anglican Communion tapestry.
Christ will meet us on our way to Emmaus, whereby transformation may be experienced. This way of “Emmaus theology” will help us look beyond our structures, which at times limit the scope of collaborative unity. The structural nature of our polity at the provincial level tends to affirm one’s own identity and prevents the whole from being prominent in the part. It is imperative to shift from this particular structural mode to one that is all-embracing and relational. We are called, as Richard Hooker reminds us, “to hold together each to serve each other’s good, and all to prefer the good of the whole before whatsoever their own particular.”
The challenge now is to discover what is needed to foster such a mentality in the Communion. The Communion is another jar of clay, as expressed by St. Paul to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 4:7-10), holding a treasure which shows that the all-surpassing power is from God. We cannot afford today to supersede this power on our own. This is a time when we are hard-pressed, perplexed, struck down; but are we not imbued with the life of Jesus that gives life to our mortal bodies? Life is at work within us, so there is a need to bring restoration and renewal. With a desire to be more relational, yet structural, and to be faithful to the spirit of the Windsor Report, we have to mold ourselves as “ambassadors of reconciliation” if we wish to bring the Good News of God to the agora, to the alienated world, to the alienated Church.
I am firmly convinced that the proposed Anglican Covenant is crucial to maintain a worldwide communion of churches. It will help our Communion engage in a process of mutual consultation leading to a consensus on the basics of faith and order necessary to maintain communion. It will discourage churches from making radical innovations in a unilateral fashion.
The Covenant, as we assess it, is a comprehensive strategy which places on local churches the charge to decide whether they shall or shall not be a component of the Communion. The Instruments of Unity and the distinct elements of Anglican faith and practice, as expressed in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, have been unable by themselves to hold the Communion together. So, our distinctness as Anglicans needs a new consensus of faith and agreement which will act as an authority as we face theological disputes and try to hold together the various provinces.
We cannot afford to sacrifice global communion in favor of the decisions of local churches. This would lead to an intensification of the momentum toward schism. As we see today, some established provinces of the West are deeply influenced by the philosophy of pluralism and the theory that generates it. But as we analyze it closely, we have difficulty understanding the scope of tolerance that it conveys, according to which the Covenant is seen as exclusive, and on that count as endangering an authentic expression of apostolic faith. On the contrary, the Anglican Covenant enables us to build a consensus and a confidence about the essentials of Christian faith, an imperative for the life and order of the worldwide Church.
The adoption of an Anglican Covenant gives us an opportunity to renew our commitment to apostolic basics and to develop a suitably Christian and Anglican process for engaging and settling debates about the common boundaries of faith and order. Tolerance within such a framework is possible as church life is justly determined on mutually agreed principles. This will help us to discourage unilateral imposition and diminish the extension of a western cultural hegemony.
As the past is our teacher, the Mauritian experience of Cyclone Carol is one of transformation. The shattered houses made of wood and corrugated iron sheets have been replaced by concrete buildings. The Covenant is a concrete way by which we can consolidate our life as a Communion.
The Most Rev. Ian Ernest is Bishop of Mauritius and Archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean, and current chairman of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA).
The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.