The Future of the Anglican Communion

by David L Edwards

from Signs of the Times, No. 14 - Jul 2004

We can readily understand why the Anglican Communion can be expected by some to split up in the very near future. Any hope that the Eames Commission will find a formula which will preserve or restore bonds of unity virtually intact is slender. The disagreements between Anglicans are now more profound than those which are accepted in the World Lutheran Federation, for example. Both sides in this dispute knew precisely what they were doing when they caused an explosion where unity had always been unstable.

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA heard eloquent warnings from many of its own members and urgent pleas from outside, yet it resolved by a majority to go full speed ahead. Its House of Bishops was under pressure to exercise its power of veto but did not. A similar determination has been shown by the archbishops who have voiced the indignation of their provinces and have repeatedly demanded that ECUSA should be expelled from the Communion after a formal warning and a short period of suspension, unless it repents.

The very name of the Episcopal Church shows why it matters so much who its bishops are. It accepts neither papal jurisdiction nor the right of congregations to operate without being related to a bishop consecrated by other bishops and teaching the essentials in the Biblical proclamation and the Catholic tradition. That was why it seemed so important that when a diocese elected a homosexual with the intention to live in a faithful partnership but not as a celibate, its choice should be accepted. This would be a very definite and public declaration of a conviction that such Christians should be fully included in the Church because it is now known that their condition is unalterably natural for them and therefore may be regarded as within the Creator's own blessing on the creation - an attitude expected to spread as modern education spreads.

Another major factor in the decision was the belief that a democracy with a constitution and a system of justice for all is now the best form of government for Church or State. The USA was the first nation in the world to be such a society and its Episcopal Church was the first group of Anglicans to place itself under a synod which it had elected, including clergy and laity. Since it won its independence by a war, the USA has fought other wars which it has regarded not only as self-defence but also as crusades to spread the benefits of freedom within the law in a democracy. Such is the culture to which ECUSA belongs as it upholds the choice made according to its own canon law by the diocese of New Hampshire.

These are attitudes which surely deserve the respect of Anglicans in Britain. We too value episcopacy. We too value democracy with a constitution and the rule of law. We too usually think it wrong to bar homosexuals from jobs. And most of us would think it wrong to refuse Holy Communion to sexually active homosexuals, because we accept a modern understanding of what they are naturally. And we speak the same language.

But the critics of ECUSA's decision also deserve respect. The archbishops who have voiced the indignation felt in their provinces (by almost all of those who are aware of the issue) are themselves prepared for risks or costs. Almost all of them are worried financially: they know how badly their churches need money which ECUSA could give and how badly their peoples need American political decisions which ECUSA could influence. Yet they have given priority to faithfulness to the Bible, where homosexual 'practice' is condemned unambiguously in Leviticus and Romans as a perversion, and they are prepared to pay the price.

Why? They are spiritual leaders in countries where Christianity is under open attack or strong pressure from secularism, Islam or the local religious or superstitious tradition, and the Holy Bible has a unique value for them which it may lack in a society traditionally Christian and certainly more relaxed. This Bible was brought to their peoples by missionaries from the USA and Britain (among others) - men and women who had themselves accepted the Scriptures' demand for heroic self-sacrifice. To these bishops who in their prayers feel surrounded by a noble army of martyrs, American or British laxity about homosexual practice seems, very simply, a major sin which if encouraged could poison the whole life of the Church as a body of disciples called to be holy and very courageous. In comparison with faithfulness unto death, dollars are insignificant and conferences may be no more than temptations to compromise or to waste time and money.

Also relevant is the hatred or contempt for the USA now felt widely and strongly almost everywhere outside the USA. This attitude is common not only because American military or economic power is seen to be wielded in ways which are cruel but also because Americans who dislike or denounce such cruelty (and to be fair, many of them are vocal in ECUSA) can still be insensitive to the rest of the world, as this decision by ECUSA has demonstrated within the Anglican world. A reason for this insensitivity is that the USA is so large and so great that the rest of the world can seem marginal, but that reason is not accepted as an excuse. Just as Americans have no right to invade or exploit other countries, or to be exempt from laws or conventions designed to prevent excessive inhumanity during a war, or to pollute the planet's atmosphere, so ECUSA has no right to disregard the consciences of fellow Christians who take a more conservative attitude to the authority of the Bible.

And the defence of the American decision as democratic is also not accepted as an excuse. To most of the world any innovation is suspect and an individual or small group is not entitled to make one unless general approval can be secured quite quickly. Leadership is entitled to be strong but not if it, or opposition to it, causes disorder. In the churches bishops or independent prophets are encouraged to act like tribal chiefs, consulting but then acting firmly, and usually in the maintenance of the group's traditions. This whole cultural heritage lies behind the astonishment that the American bishops did not resist a highly controversial innovation proposed by one small diocese.

These too are attitudes which surely deserve the respect of Anglicans in Britain. We too must admire courage inspired by conscience and we too are often attached to traditions. We too must condemn insensitivity to other nations and we often use English to criticise Americans. We too must regard bishops as symbols and makers of unity and as defenders of the essentials in Scripture and Tradition, and we too must acknowledge that while there have always been disagreements about what those essentials are the idea of choosing a bishop such as New Hampshire's has been conceivable only in the last few years and only in a few parts of the Anglican Communion - parts not including Britain.

So what on earth can British Anglicans do?

We can insist that whatever may be decided about the institutional embodiments of Anglican unity, personally, locally and nationally Anglicans can and should continue to be Anglicans, for in practice neither the believing nor the behaving involved depends on any international institution. Anglicans are Christians who are helped by the example of the Church of England in history to worship in a form which combines elements which elsewhere have been thought of as either Catholic or Protestant. When deciding what to believe nowadays, they turn to a combination of three authorities: Scripture, Tradition and the knowledge or experience of the present day, and in practice it is the individual who decides which authority is most relevant at which point. Decisions about the conduct of church affairs, or the expression of opinions on behalf of a church, are made not internationally but by a synod, local, diocesan, provincial or national. International commissions, councils and conferences are consultative: they can be useful but they can never bind consciences personally, locally or nationally. They could be reduced in membership or frequency without fatal damage being done, and that slimming may be inevitable anyway for financial reasons.

The Archbishop of Canterbury for the time being is not entitled to veto or authorize any development whatever except in definitely restricted circumstances in England, although his advice ought to be welcomed. He issues invitations to the Lambeth Conference as he chooses after consultations. These meetings of bishops would retain much of their limited usefulness if, at least for a period, they issued no resolutions which are not unanimous. They are meetings of a family to deepen fellowship.

British Anglicans, acting through their synods, should refuse to be 'out of communion' with any other Anglicans, and should have as many contacts as possible. In John's Gospel the only mention of eucharistic communion at the Last Supper is between Jesus and Judas Iscariot (13:26) and no one involved in the current controversy has even expressed views which are treacherous. However controversial, their opinions are all held by some Anglicans in good standing in Britain. If other Anglicans decide to be 'out of communion' with each other, that will be a pity but it will not be the end of a story which history may judge as being significantly helpful for the whole future of Christianity. As the religion which accepts the revelation of God's loving purposes made in Jesus Christ becomes more and more deeply rooted in very different peoples around the world, other theological differences are bound to arise and the handling of them by Anglicans in our own time may become something of a model.

There would not have been any rejection of the authority of Christ. The gospels do not clearly mention homosexuality. The only possible reference comes when Jesus (who characteristically is not speaking in the style of a legislator) says that some who seek the Kingdom of God have made themselves like those who have been 'eunuchs', incapable of marriage, from birth (Matthew 19:12).

The Very Revd Dr David Edwards is former Dean of Norwich and Provost of Southwark.