Two Communion Cultures
  • Friday, March 9, 2012

Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By Peter M. Doll

For much of this winter St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London was the reluctant host to an Occupy Movement encampment. On one side of the cathedral was a community of idealistic protestors angry about the way in which unfettered capitalism had brought a host of national economies to their knees and concerned about the impact of the recession on the most vulnerable in society. On the other side (figuratively) were the champions of global capitalism — unchastened, and apparently indifferent to the plight of those their mismanagement had ruined.

St. Paul’s was stuck in the middle of two cultures: one committed to controlling markets for the sake of community flourishing, the other committed to free-market capitalism. With the first it shared the values of the kingdom of heaven, to the second it was linked by years of financial support necessary to the maintenance of the fabric, worship, and mission of the cathedral. The Dean and Chapter’s long-standing commitment to fostering dialogue between the financial world of the City and the values of God’s kingdom were seemingly of no avail in the crisis in which they found themselves.

As it considers whether to commit itself to the Anglican Covenant, the Church of England likewise finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. It too is torn between the demands of two cultures. The communion theology of the Anglican Covenant is the fruit of the ecumenical movement that flourished in the 1970s and ’80s, when ecclesial reunion, particularly between Canterbury and Rome, seemed not simply an idle dream but a real possibility. The tide of ecumenism has receded, however, and after those heady days the prevalent ecclesiology has been more hard-headed, business-like, and inwardly focussed.

This business culture in the church followed in the wake of the deregulation of the City of London in the late 1980s, which sparked the economic boom that fuelled an orgy of business expansion, property speculation, and virtual prosperity. Government and society prized business and its values as the source of these benefits, and the church, lest it seem unresponsive to the signs of the times, also signed up to the business model. Sarah Coakley describes one of the products of this period as “a notable turn in priestly life to secular bureaucratic models of ‘leadership,’ ‘efficiency’ and mission-‘efficacy’ and an almost-unnoticed capitulation to the idolatry of busyness.”

One characteristic of this development was a devaluing of the distinctive theological language of the Church, a language which had only recently been such an effective tool of ecumenical reconciliation. There was a narrowing focus on certain cardinal issues — particularly women’s ministry and human sexuality — and on using political and bureaucratic means to fight the battles raging around these issues. Theological illiteracy led to an absolutizing of liberal and conservative positions based either on an unquestioning acceptance of developments in secular ideology as normative for the Church or on a dogmatic insistence on the inability of the Church to develop or change its mind on these issues. The traditional comprehensiveness of the Church of England, the conviction that it is a broad church that must be a home to a wide diversity of views, has been a victim of this narrowing of vision.

Just as the economic collapse has led to a recognition of the danger of unregulated markets, so the new climate has prompted a reassessment of the business model of ministry, a rediscovery of, as Sarah Coakley puts it, “the primary priestly roles of presence, prayer, and spiritual mediator-ship.” Archbishop Rowan Williams has noted that “there is something toxic about the way in which we currently expect clergy to work: we need, together, to liberate clergy not only from bureaucratic processes but also from inappropriate business models of completing tasks as opposed to engaging prayerfully with God and with God’s people.” I believe that the Anglican Covenant gives the Church of England the opportunity to eschew the winner-take-all, political approach to our common life and to re-prioritise prayerful and thoughtful engagement with God and with one another.

The Covenant is an expression of an approach to ecclesiology called conciliarism, originating in the teaching that the authority of councils of the Church is above that of popes. One of the seminal insights recovered by the Second Vatican Council, conciliarism has long been a foundational principle within Anglicanism: a conviction of the accountability of the local church to the faith of the universal Church. In contrast to a centralized model of Church authority, it speaks of authority as dispersed throughout the Body of Christ. The Body needs to speak in common to reflect its unity. This belief is developed in the Covenant document according to the principle that what affects the communion of all should be decided by all (see Windsor Report §51).

In contemporary ecumenical discussions, the tradition of conciliar theology is represented by the prominence of “communion” (in Greek koinonia) as the heart of the life of the Church. The fellowship of the Church is the life of God the Holy Trinity, the mutual self-giving love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God who creates human beings in his own image and likeness creates us for communion with him and with one another in the Body of Christ.

The communion principle is crucial for ecumenical relations for obvious reasons. If, as is commonly acknowledged, all Christians are united by baptism in the Body of Christ, then it is impossible for any denomination to dismiss any other, for one group of Christians to say to another “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). Christ has broken down the dividing walls of human sin and estrangement and made us one (Eph. 2.12-22). Therefore we have an obligation to listen to, belong to, be accountable to one another, to live as those who know themselves to be new creatures in God through baptism and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Communion ecclesiology is the foundation of the Covenant document. The Eames Commission Report of 1989-90 insisted on the need for a patient “reception” of developments within the life of the Anglican Communion. The Virginia Report of 1997 emphasised interdependence and mutual accountability in communion. The Windsor Report of 2004 looked to a structure that would enable Anglicans to live with difference. All the reports have agreed that communion principles are the only conceivable foundation for the renewal of common life in the Anglican family.

Reports are one thing. How can we live out these principles in our common life? Archbishop Rowan matched principles with deeds in his organisation of the Lambeth Conference in 2008. Gone were the politicking, the debating, the strategic voting and resolutions that had marked the format of recent conferences. In their place came common prayer, common study of the Scriptures, and listening to God and to one another. Here was a new way of living the life of communion that wasn’t new at all, but a Christ-like pattern that worked with the primordial image of God in which all have been created. Human beings are made by God not for the survival of the fittest but for communion.

Here is the challenge the Covenant poses to the churches of the Anglican Communion: to commit themselves to a deeper fellowship with one another. “Each Church freely offers this commitment to other Churches in order to live more fully into the ecclesial communion and interdependence which is foundational to the Churches of the Anglican Communion” (Covenant 4.1.1). Take away the wrangling over the particular political issues that divide us, and this is what we are left with: a conviction that through mutual openness, common prayer and study we can dispense with our proud, defensive, and individualistic autonomies and be led by the Holy Spirit into all truth.

The difficulty for the Church of England is that on the whole we seem to feel safer and happier holding on to the purity of our own convictions, dismissing the equally deeply held beliefs of those with whom we disagree, and relying on political structures to establish winners and losers. Engaging in dialogue and seeking consensus are apparently too protracted and too costly for us. The logic of market-driven theology remains deeply attractive to many.

The premise of the Anglican Covenant is that our Christian vocation demands that the churches of our communion need to grow closer in unity and mutual understanding with one another. It is about having the courage of our theological convictions. If God has indeed called us all in baptism into the eternal relationship of mutual love and self-giving that is the life of the Holy Trinity, then we cannot deny our belonging to him and to one another. If the Gospel calls us to love one another, to be subject and accountable to one another, then we must be obedient and patient, trusting that in the power of the Holy Spirit God will lead us together into all truth. This may mean that we won’t have what we want when we want it. But if this way is Christ’s way, then it is necessarily the way of the cross. If our journey in faith to unity is to be meaningful, then it will be costly and sacrificial when we are true to him and to one another.

The Rev. Peter M. Doll is Canon Librarian of Norwich Cathedral and author of Revolution, Religion, and National Identity: Imperial Anglicanism in British North America 1745-1795.

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.

Photo: Neil Cummings, Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons.


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