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ON BEING THE CHURCH

During the last press conference of the Lambeth meetings, Archbishop Williams was asked whether he viewed the Communion as a church or not. I think it fair to him to say that he hopes and prays that it will grow to be a church or perhaps realize its vocation as a world wide church.

Immediately alarm bells sound. The more “liberal” blogs have been warning that there is a plot to create an international super church out of what they claim to be a federation of autonomous churches. Immediately the vocation to become a church is painted in terms of “papalism”, centralization, a process that strips the provinces and national churches of their autonomy.

All this is passing strange coming as it does usually from those who applaud globalization and would love to strengthen the United Nations. On the other hand those calling for a more centralized Anglican body, with tools to discipline errant member churches tend to be those who are fearful of any measures which strengthen world government and who oppose, for instance, the International Court of Justice. It’s a rum old world.

There was a time when Western Christians were split on the issue of congregational autonomy, with Congregationalists and Baptists affirming the autonomy of the local congregation and the rest for some form of wider church body, whether episcopal or Presbyterian in nature. Many in the Episcopal Church now seem to have settled for something in between the two. They don’t like the idea of congregational or even diocesan autonomy. They do like the idea of “Provincial” autonomy, an autonomy enforced if needs be, by force of secular law and internal Canons.

It may well be that having decided that errant bishops, dioceses and parishes should be disciplined by ecclesiastical and if needs be secular law, the proponents of total Provincial autonomy can envision no wider structure than their own because they fear that a world-wide Communion would wish to use law to bring them to heel. In other words they are projecting their own sins onto a larger Communion.

No doubt if some of those who campaign for a Communion with teeth won the day, the fears of those who champion Provincial autonomy in all things would be correct. Yet, at least to this reader, the evidence is that the driving force behind the movement towards the Anglican Communion embracing the notion that it is indeed a church is biblical, theological and ecclesiological rather than merely practical or structural.

Orthodoxy recognizes itself as being a Church in pretty exclusive terms and yet it has as far from the Roman Catholic Church in the way it practices being the church as is possible to imagine. One might as well say that one doesn’t want the Communion to look like TEC as to fear that it might look like the RCC. Indeed TEC is an international body and occasionally seems to be as much of a rival international body as GAFCON.

The Old Catholic Utrecht Union churches manage to be a global entity without being papal.

Unlike most other groupings within “Catholic” Christendom the Anglican Communion makes no claim to be the whole Church, but rather claims to be authentically “the Church” wherever its faithful gather around their bishop and other clergy in fellowship with other bishops and their flock. That is a good place to start.

The worst form of nationalism is that which breeds xenophobia and “nationalism”. The 20th Century bore witness to that as millions died in its name. The worst form of provincial autonomy is that which exalts the local and even the peculiarity of its mission above all others. Such ecclesiastical nationalism may not actually kill people but it does have the power to divide, alienate and drive people, many of them caught in the middle, away from the church. Our Lord had some pretty harsh things to say about those who cause “little ones” to lose their faith.

I am no fan of bureaucracy, of endless commissions and committees and fully realize that majoritarianism can be as autocratic as dictatorship. The pattern of prayer, Bible Study and Indaba may point us towards an older pattern of church governance, one rooted in faithfulness and consensus, a rediscovery of what is meant by “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Of course this involves sacrifice, on all our parts. That sacrifice of “ourselves, our souls and bodies” must be freely given, or should I say ideally is freely given. But some find themselves sacrificed not by their own offering, but by that of others, by cruelty or expedience. Such sacrifice is by no means demeaned by its involuntary nature. We call such people martyrs, or witnesses. It is the vocation of us all.

One Response

  1. Fr. Tony, I can’t disagree with your post in a Christian context, which is where we all prefer to operate.

    But frankly, in the case of TEC, it’s simply not applicable. Imagine, if you can, that it’s 1948 and a dedicated but secret Communist had been elected president of the La Porte Garden Club. Within a few months, the members notice that more politics is being talked at meetings than horticulture, and many of the new members seem not to know much about flowers or vegetables. Eventually the Club isn’t about gardening anymore, and offers to make detailed presentations on proper composting are simply dismissed.

    In short, it’s no longer a Garden Club.

    This is what has happened to the upper-level leadership of the Episcopal Church: they understand political environments, they understand lawsuits, but Christian values and modes of interaction are totally foreign to them. God-talk is useful only as a camouflage.

    It is clearly possible — and proper — at the parish level to concentrate on Christian formation, pastoral care, and all the other roles the local church has traditionally fulfilled. But to ignore the very deep problems at the national level — and their probable effect on evangelism — borders on denial. God is unquestionably in charge, but He works in very mysterious ways sometimes.

    GC2009 will be very interesting…

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