Thursday, 10 January 2008

However you try to mend it, the Anglican Communion is broken

Believe it or not, they used to make cars in the UK without locking petrol caps. I know, I had one. A locking petrol cap was an ‘accessory’ that you had to buy in a store like Halfords. They became popular in the 1970s for one simple reason — people started stealing petrol from cars.

What this snippet of social history shows, however, is of contemporary relevance for the Anglican Communion: if you are trying to come up with a new solution, you already have a new problem. Just as the advent of the locking petrol cap showed that social mores had changed in 1970s England, so the very existence of the Windsor process, and the accompanying search for an Anglican Covenant, shows that the Communion is not what it was. It is broken — the very fact that people are trying to mend it proves that this is the case.

Not that division has never before affected the Anglican Communion. Ironically, the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 was taken up with theological disputes around the so-called ‘Colenso Affair’. What is different today is that the theological question has become the very existence of the Communion itself.

In consequence, it may be argued that the last of the old Lambeth Conferences has already taken place. The next does not assume that all who are invited will come, nor that all who are invited ought to be there. As the Archbishop of Canterbury himself put it, “an invitation to Lambeth does not constitute a certificate of orthodoxy.” Of course, in the technical sense, it never did, but in the past there was a generally available ‘benefit of the doubt’ offered to even the most doubting of bishops. In the future, this simply will not be the case.

Much of the problem is that the Anglican Communion was always a mongrel organization. Ostensibly representing something called ‘worldwide Anglicanism’, it was actually the result of the successful propagation of the British Empire, not Anglican theology.

The greatest anomaly of all in this regard was, of course, the presence of a contingent from the United States — a country whose establishing owed much to disputes with the Church of England and which had proudly fought to throw off the rule of the English monarch. Living from henceforth under an elected President, the episcopal church of the United States should, of course, have become the Church of the USA and acknowledged George Washington as its Supreme Governor, if it was to remain consistent with the theology of the ‘mother church’. That it did no such thing is simply the first of many quaint, but tolerable, theological oddities.

Nevertheless, it should have been obvious that a body bonded more by historical accidents and affections than theology would find it hard to hold together as a global manifestation of the universal Church, any more than the Commonwealth has been able to survive as a political institution in the face of the dissolution of the British Empire.

Archbishop Rowan Williams writes of a “profound conviction that the existence of our Communion is truly a gift of God to the wholeness of Christ’s Church”. Personally, I am no longer convinced (if I ever was) that this is the case. I share his sorrow at the prospect of the Communion’s disappearance, but it is the sorrow I feel at the destruction of a stately home or the felling of an orchard. Such things may be deeply regrettable, but they happen — and once they have happened, we must move on.

The difficulty, as Dr Williams identifies, is that “our identity as Anglicans is not something without boundaries”. In the past, those boundaries were often unstated — affection and shared history are hard to put into words. Now, the attempt is being made to set the boundaries verbally. To return to my opening analogy, we are looking for a petrol cap which locks.

This is no accident. The Communion has been broken, and it has been broken largely by the actions and attitudes of members of the episcopal church in the United States. That is my personal conviction, and that is what I believe history will show. Nevertheless, if that is the case, the answer is not to rail against the ‘guilty party’. Let us rather recognize that things have already moved on, and that we are all involved henceforth in merely catching up.

The Church is not dead, but the past is always another country. Right now, there is rancour and bitterness. In twenty years time, however, I expect things will be both much clearer and much less unpleasant. I doubt that there will be a Lambeth Conference — but then it is quite possible I will not be around to see. Amongst the mature, neither should be the cause of lasting regret.

And if, on the other hand, we are both still here, although I for one will be glad, I am equally sure we will both be looking quite different.

Revd John P Richardson
10 January 2008

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