Monday, 27 July 2009

Reflecting on Rowan's reflections on General Convention

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflections on the Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention, ‘Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future’ make for demanding reading, and not only for their prolixity —but if you have to look up what that means you may want to give the full 2,900 words (longest sentence, 90 words) a miss.

It is perhaps ironic that in a situation frequently described as a crisis, where there is a widespread call on both sides for clarity, the man at the hub is so given to lengthy expression. Nevertheless, there are, I think, three points worth noting from the document as a whole.

First, the Archbishop seems to have accepted the line (strongly advocated by TEC itself) that, “if the wording is studied carefully” (para 1), resolutions DO25 and CO56, on ordinations and blessings, do not mean what they have been widely taken to imply.

The difficulty here, though, as many will recognize, is that it involves detaching the words of the resolutions from the substance of the debate and the context in which they have been put forward. It is as if Nazi Germany’s construction of so-called ‘pocket battleships’ had been greeted by a discussion of the nautical meaning of the word ‘pocket’, rather than an awareness of just what a battleship is for. No doubt, the words of the resolutions may accept an alternative construction, but their meaning may also be read from where we have been in the past, where we are in the present and where it evidently seems we are going in the future.

Secondly, however, these ‘reflections’ seem to have shifted the framework within which the whole issue of human sexuality needs to be discussed within the Anglican Communion, for we now have several references to “the Church Catholic” as something over against the Anglican Communion, of which the Communion has to take full account in its decision-making.

This is not the first time Dr Williams has used this phrase, but it is not, apparently, how he has always thought. In an interview with Paul Handley, he once said that he was an Anglican because “this is the Church Catholic in this place”. That principle, however, sits awkwardly alongside paragraphs 8 and 9 of his reflections, where he says both that,

... a blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority of the Church Catholic, or even of the Communion as a whole. (para 8, emphasis added)


So long as the Church Catholic, or even the Communion as a whole does not bless same-sex unions, a person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle. (para 9)

adding, in brackets,

There is also an unavoidable difficulty over whether someone belonging to a local church in which practice has been changed in respect of same-sex unions is able to represent the Communion’s voice and perspective in, for example, international ecumenical encounters. (para 9, emphasis added)

This may indicate that Dr Williams has listened to the chief complaint of Forward in Faith in this country, that the real issue is not sexuality but whether the Anglican Communion, let alone a single Province, has the right to come to decisions which are fundamentally at odds with the Church’s received understanding of faith, morality or Order (with a capital ‘O’).

I may be wrong in suggesting this is relatively new, but if it is indeed the case, then it changes the whole debate, for it means that the person ‘chairing’ it has accepted a different set of rules than hitherto.

Thirdly, although Dr Williams remains committed to the Covenant process, in paragraph 22 he talks of “at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance”, which he elaborates as,

... a ‘covenanted’ Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the Church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, ... local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with ‘covenanted’ provinces.

This is as close as he comes to admitting ‘schism’. In fact he specifically rejects the word in paragraph 24, describing it as simply “two styles of being Anglican”. Nevertheless, it envisages a future quite unlike the present, resulting from the decisions and actions of TEC and others.

Those of us who believe TEC is schismatic, who basically support ACNA and who are convinced the Covenant is a dead duck should not greet Dr Williams’ statement with automatic scorn. Its length is no more than we would expect from him, and its willingness to see both sides is intrinsic to his own theology. Nevertheless, there must still be a concern that he does not seem to accept the fundamental logic of what must happen when people pull in different directions.

Holding people together in such circumstances, whether by a covenant or by some other convention, may succeed, but it is in principle contrary to the underlying processes. Unless some means may be found by which TEC and others within the Communion can be made to pull in the same direction, then tensions will continue and a split is virtually inevitable.

Revd John P Richardson
27 July 2009

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  1. Rev
    I enjoyed reading your reflections. Here's my take.
    I admire ++Rowan attempt to maintain the stability of the Anglican Communion, but I fear he has lost that battle. Mayby he should focus on the Church of England, because ultimately it, the COE, will have to decide what side of this debate its on - the historic and traditional, represented by FCA/ANCA or the brave new church of the Episcopal Communion. Then we will see the Anglican Communion re-emerge

  2. Thanks, John, for these valuable reflections. As the previous commentator observes, given that Archbishop Rowan appealed directly to TEC not to make these moves, he has in effect "lost the battle". To talk of two distinct Anglican styles is painfully naive when we look at where much of the TEC budget is being spent - litigation - [incidentally, another lost battle for Cantuar]. Two styles of Anglicanism? Not unless we think in terms of kung fu... Time for a change at the top methinks.

  3. I also thought the references to the Church Catholic were significant. The argument he made (that changes must be grounded in thorough and convincing biblical exegesis and accepted by the Church at large after that has been done) apply as well to the issue of women priests and certainly to women bishops, an issue very current for the Church of England.

  4. Katherine, I think you have hit the proverbial nail squarely on the proverbial head.

  5. The ABC believes that the Covenant process, which he believes will lead to the two tiered approach that he has espoused since the beginning, will resolve the problem. Presumably the TEC will not be allowed to sign up to the Covenant so long as they are on their present course, so will be relegated to the second tier which would preclude them from being represented in meetings of the Instruments of the Communion. So now the ABC needs to take action; 1) Complete the Coventant with a strong section 4, ignoring concerns of the TEC who aren't going to accept the coventant in any case, 2) allow diocese rather than provinces to accept the covenant 3) allow individual parishes to accept the Covenant where their diocese do not accept the covenant. In other words get on with the two tiered structure as soon aspossible.

  6. "No one could be in any doubt about the eagerness of the bishops and deputies of the Episcopal Church at the General Convention to affirm their concern about the wider Anglican Communion."


  7. I wonder, Revd. Richardson, if the appearance of the "church catholic" in the Archbishop's musings may be related to the obvious cooling in the Anglican/Roman Catholic talks, and perhaps also to the announcement by an Orthodox body in the US that it would no longer bother with ecumencial talks with TEC, but would transfer its attention in this regard to the ACNA. To preside over the collapse of not only the Anglican Communion but also the ecumenical talks which once looked so promising would be a bitter pill for an academic like Dr. Williams.