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There’s been a great deal of chatter about “provincial autonomy” of late. As is now common in public discourse some are now mixing their historical knowledge, American political theory of the late 18th Century, opinions about the Constitution and Canons and the powers of General Convention with dire warnings about a future in which the Archbishop of Canterbury meddles in our internal affairs. One can almost hear the cry: “The Archbishop of Canterbury hath no jurisdiction in this land of America.”

In this last respect lies an irony. TEC’s history as an autonomous province began with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York meddling in the affairs of the infant church by obliging its General Convention to reinstate portions of the Prayer Book omitted to satisfy a segment of American Episcopalian opinion. Certainly no archbishop has openly exercised such an authority since, at least in the North American context, although there have been instances elsewhere in the Communion.

I thoroughly agree that the issue before our General Convention next week and before the Anglican Communion is not the matter of human sexuality. Those who fear the strengthening of our “bonds of affection” and some slight diminution of provincial authority are on target. The question before us all is not new. Indeed it has been with us since the newly formed Episcopal Church joined the Irish, Scottish and English provinces in what would become an Anglican Communion. Just how autonomous is an autonomous church?

While the wording of various constitutional documents is important, in our tradition our doctrine, anchored in Scripture, has a more important role. We look also at “tradition” which is the experience of the Church through the centuries, and we look at both through sanctified reason.

In the Episcopal Church perhaps a good place to start would be with the doctrine of the baptismal covenant. No Province makes so much of this doctrine, now enshrined in the catechism and the baptism rite contained in the Book of Common Prayer, which is a “constitutional document”. At the heart of this emphasis lies the notion that we are all baptized into the Universal Church and not a denomination. The empowerment of the people of God through baptism into the Royal Priestly body is not primarily local but universal. There’s no such thing as Episcopalian baptism. The blessed company of all faithful people is not a description of devout, tithing Episcopalians but of the whole Church Catholic throughout time and space, the Body of Christ.

Similarly there is no such thing as Anglican or Episcopal Orders, except to establish provenance! Those ordained as deacons, priests and bishops are so set aside and qualified because they are in the community of the baptized through baptism. We believe that the sacraments, including the Eucharist are of the Church and not of any part of it. In this belief we part company with Christian denominations which “fence” the altar. These issues of fundamental communion are not minimal, somehow less important than theories of jurisdiction or autonomy, both of which are “accidentals’ in the life of the Church. They should illuminate our living into communion with all Christians and particularly with those who share a family history and origin.

The Scriptural authority for such a vision of the Church and the churches is splendidly set forth in the Windsor Report and needs no further comment except to say that once again the accident of how the churches have developed and how their jurisdictional theories have evolved must also be seen through the meta-narrative of what the Church is, and that fundamentally is anchored in our doctrine of Baptism.

As far back in our own history as St. Augustine of Canterbury, the idea that the local church has competency in the business of having a language and customs best fitted to local circumstances has been a feature of who we are. In a modern multi-cultural society there’s room enough here for robust conversation! Be that as it may, universality is a primary, credal theological description of the Church and the churches and not something to be minimized or blown away by defining “universal” either as something that once was and is to be hoped for in the future or in such fuzzy terms as to be meaningless.

The very worst objection to ecclesial universality is the fear that it might lead to a loss of local identity or of policies achieved through great struggle, but which have not met the test of reception. Reception doesn’t mean, surely, that something is finally ratified by the synods of a majority of provinces – a thoroughly secular idea – but rather that it takes hold of the consciences of believers as being one of the ways in which the changeless Gospel is applied at a particular moment in time.

Anglicans have something to say about universality or Catholicism. It offers an alternative to forms of universality based on the politics and polity of the Roman Empire, theories of universal jurisdiction by pope or some form of denominational super-assembly. It anchors its theories of dispersed authority in worship, a worship which is scriptural, traditional and reasonable, which not only enables the churches to be the Church in prayer and sacrament, biblical reflection and the Christian Year, but which also defines and limits all the most important aspects of Christian corporate life and responsibility. Worship tells us about the laity, the clergy, the Bible, the tradition, synods, councils, the Gospel and the Church. By so doing it views all doctrine, discipline and worship as prayer and all prayer as doctrine, discipline and worship.

It is difficult, may I say impossible? to structure a doctrine of the Church and the churches based on local theories of autonomy, however venerable and how ever close to historical cultural norms past or present. If it is so difficult so to do, and as we base what we believe and do on the so-called Hookerian triad, why are quarrelling about the Windsor Report? There’s plenty of room to discuss what interdependence looks like. Surely there’s no room to quarrel about its truth. “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

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