Steps toward Global Unity
  • Thursday, October 10, 2013

Eyewitness

By David Ney

While it would be unfair to dub the third Pan-Anglican Congress held in Toronto in 1963 Anglicanism’s version of Vatican II, it is hard to ignore the parallels. Toronto 1963 was organized by church leaders startled by the rapid cultural, political, economic, and religious changes that seemed to be revolutionizing the postwar era. They were eager to organize church leaders and to act with courage, creativity, and zeal. They produced a manifesto that they hoped would be Anglicanism’s answer to the new world context: “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ” (MRI). Toronto 1963 was a big deal, but it has been all but forgotten.

Back to the Anglican Future, a conference held September 18 at Wycliffe College and St. Paul’s Bloor Anglican Church in Toronto, was a noteworthy if modest step toward rectifying this problem of historical amnesia. The organizers were guided by what might be described as the principle of ressourcement. Like the architects of Vatican II, their desire was to look backwards in order to move forwards, to draw upon the resources of the past in order to address contemporary challenges creatively. And it is clear that this approach to Toronto 1963 readily bears fruit.

This being said, the speakers were circumspect in their assessments of the Pan-Anglican Congress and its manifesto. The Rt. Rev. Stephen Andrews, Bishop of Algoma, said they were an important expression of emerging postcolonial ideas about missionary activity, including equality, partnership, and reciprocity. He also argued that they gave expression to the missionary energy that accompanied the rapid growth of the Anglican Church in the Global South in the decades that followed. And yet, Andrews said, leaders found it difficult to establish clear means to promote the newly minted values. This acknowledgment led to the uncomfortable question of whether the structures of Anglicanism and the mindsets of its leaders retain vestiges of the idea that sisters and brothers from the Global South are colonial subjects rather than equal partners in the gospel.

The conference speakers were unanimous in their conviction that pausing to consider Toronto 1963 helps us see that mission is an essential strand of Anglicanism’s DNA. The very fact that Anglicanism is a global communion testifies to its missionary past and calls forth bold new missionary endeavors. The Rev. Ephraim Radner emphasized that MRI is important not merely as a historical example of such an endeavor but because contemporary Anglicanism struggles still to find structures that enact the missionary vision of Toronto 1963. “The missionary bloodstream” of Anglicanism, he argued, must continue to seek “new channels of missionary activity.”

Anglicanism’s missionary history, however, also calls forth repentance, and sets the agenda for the continued work of bringing north and south, east and west, together under Christ. In this Toronto 2013 set an important precedent. While leadership from the Global South was underrepresented at Toronto 1963, this certainly wasn’t the case at Toronto 2013. Six of nine plenary speakers were from the Global South, a clear statement that the organizers believe that if the principles of MRI are to take effect, if Anglicanism is to move into the future, northern Anglicans must be willing to embrace the posture of the student.

At Toronto 2013 the call for renewed dialogue and action came not from the North but from the South. There were — as there always are — important differences in the reflections and proposals. This, said the Most Rev. Bernard Ntahoturi, Archbishop of Burundi, is what we should expect because there is diversity in Africa just as there is diversity in North America. And he maintained, as did the other speakers, that this diversity calls forth clear modes of engagement.

For some of us, it seems more than a bit odd that the call for deeper fellowship should come from postcolonial contexts, from those we are taught to see as mere victims of colonialization and proselytization. We must not, however, miss the importance of this fact. It elicits a response: new efforts to live by the values of reciprocity and interdependence. But it does more than this. It also calls us to evaluate our assumptions about Anglicanism’s proselytizing past. It helps us to see that our missionary heritage has always been one of reciprocity and interdependence. Recent work in postcolonial studies has confirmed that the missionary encounter should rarely be described as an encounter between aggressor and victim — and indeed that to characterize it as such is to dehumanize the alleged victim. When missionary and native meet they are both changed forever, and the Christianity that comes to be practiced by them both becomes subtly yet importantly new — often in ways the missionary fails to recognize.

In our day, of course, there are important voices from the Global South that appear to have given up on visible unity with their brothers and sisters from the North. If they have done so however, it is certainly not on account of Anglicanism’s checkered history, but rather on account of a perceived repudiation of that history. Archbishop Justin Welby’s address to the conference seemed to challenge this type of logic, for he stressed that when Anglican leaders from around the globe meet together, they all come as sinners, and they inevitably represent not merely the aspirations but also the sins of their respective churches. It is evident that for those present at Toronto 1963 and those present at Toronto 2013 the sins of Anglicanism’s missionary past, though real, do not constitute insurmountable barriers to unity in Christ. Welby made it clear that his hope for the Communion is that today’s disagreements would be regarded in similar terms.

The events that transpired at Toronto 2013 would suggest that Welby’s hope is not ill-founded. The call for mutual responsibility and interdependence continues to come from the Global South. Fellowship, affection, and hope were the watchwords of the conference. The message that resounded loud and clear at Toronto 2013 is that the bonds forged in those first missionary encounters were familial bonds, bonds that cannot and must not be broken.

David Ney is a doctoral candidate at Wycliffe College in Toronto.

Image of the Rev. Ephraim Radner by Sue Careless


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