Are we speaking to each other

or just shouting?

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 30 - Jul 2008

This issue of Signs of the Times is being prepared while the GAFCON conference is in full swing, spitting denunciations at the 'apostates' who tolerate homosexuality and savouring the prospect of splitting the Anglican Communion. Some of its bishops have declared their refusal to attend the Lambeth Conference on the ground that the bishops who consecrated Gene Robinson will be there.

This is indeed the stuff of schism, and it is worth noting why. Anglicanism provides structures, from parochial church councils to synods, Lambeth conferences and primates' meetings, in which Anglicans can pool their ideas, listen to each other and work towards a common mind. This is to say that the meeting itself is an occasion for influencing other Anglicans and in turn being influenced by them. Good committee members have the right balance between self-confidence and respect for the views of others.

What we are now witnessing is that people in senior Anglican posts are refusing to do this. They do their opening of minds, their proposing, listening and learning, outside Anglican structures - in their meetings of Reform, Forward in Faith or whatever. They arrive at the formal Anglican meetings with their minds already made up, and simply present ultimata. In effect the rest of us are being told: 'Do as I say or I shall refuse to recognize the rest of you as fellow-Christians'. They are using the Anglican system while their hearts lie elsewhere.

It has been on its way for some time. In the 1970s many young clergy expressed their disdain for Anglicanism by describing themselves as 'a Christian minister who happens to be paid by the Church of England'. Some of us wondered whether it was wise for bishops to ordain them; now some of them are bishops themselves and the chickens have come home to roost.

So Anglicanism has come to be treated, even by some of its leading figures, not as a shared tradition within which consensus can be sought on the basis of mutual respect, but instead as a battlefield where competing factions seek victory through ecclesiastical power politics.

The change is being trumpeted by the bishops who are boycotting Lambeth because of the presence of liberal bishops. If they are so utterly convinced that they are right and the rest of us are wrong, should that not increase rather than reduce the case for attending? Should they not be looking forward to meeting face to face with gay-friendly fellow Anglicans, in order to work towards a common mind? If they are so certainly in the right they should be able to convince them; but even if they do not, they may learn what the obstacles are. Or maybe they may even discover that they are not as certainly right as they thought. By choosing not to attend because of the presence of liberal bishops, they reveal that their true commitment is not to Anglican Christianity at all, but to something narrower.

When young children refuse to attend a party on the ground that someone they dislike will be there, the adults tell each other that 'they will grow out of it'. To the outside world it looks as though some bishops never did grow out of it. Tragically, many popular versions of Christianity promote an exaggerated sense of certainty and omniscience which encourages them not to.

If there is one principle which can, and should, hold the Anglican Communion together, it is that none of us has all the answers. This is why Anglicans through the centuries have refused to acknowledge a single authority supreme in all matters and have argued instead for a balance between Scripture, reason and tradition. As McAdoo's classic work The Spirit of Anglicanism puts it, 'There is a distinctively Anglican ethos, and the distinctiveness lies in method rather than in content, for Anglicanism... has declined to call any man master in theology'.

God is greater than all our conceptions. Therefore we need each other.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.