There is an old saying about going away for a week and returning to find a changed world. Having been away for a week I find, upon my return, not so much a change as a continuation. Still, a few incidents have spiked above the background and I’d like to comment on them here.
The Church as Social Network
The Anglican Communion Network held a meeting at which it adopted a number of statements, most of them in the “continuation” mode as opposed to that of “change.” Part of that continuation is the gradual dis-entanglement of the Network from what its Moderator seems to be coming to regard as rather a lost cause. And that is what until now has been known as the Anglican Communion — the one with the Archbishop of Canterbury as first among equals. Protestations notwithstanding, the Network seems to be heading, along with the “Global South” towards the creation of a new and alternative Communion, no longer centered on Canterbury.
This has led one long time member of the Network, Dr. Ephraim Radner, to sever his relationship with it. I am not at all surprised, other than by how long it took Dr. Radner to see which way this particular convoy was heading. Dr. Radner, with whom I disagree on much but with whom I have had a number of helpful conversations over the years, represents what the hard-liners in the Network call the “Communion conservative” point of view. I suppose that I should call myself a “Communion progressive.” That is to say, both he and I see the Anglican Communion — in its historical form centered on Canterbury — as a gift to the church that is well worth preserving, imperfect and errant though it be. The Network seems instead to have adopted the Pure Society model for the church, in which unity is preserved only through allegiance to an agreed-upon and determinable truth.
A number of things strike me about this distinction. Classical Anglicanism, in the Elizabethan Settlement, represented comprehension rather than compromise: a capacity for sometimes strongly divergent views to be accommodated within a single household. Sometimes, as in the case of Eucharistic doctrine, this was managed by including opposing theories in equal measure. Sometimes, as with the doctrine of the Atonement, it was achieved by not singling out any one explanation for special recognition. Ultimately, as in the Lambeth Quadrilateral, a sense of commonality was achieved through a summary rather than a point by point exhaustive confessional list. (We have our Lord’s own example for the wisdom of this course, in the Summary of the Law as opposed to its detailed enumeration.) Rather like the clouds of quantum physics, the truth we proclaim is not yet collapsed into particular form, but is held to exist somewhere within the bounds the church has marked out as most probable. Our knowledge is incomplete, but sufficient.
The crucible of pluralism
It also strikes me that we are seeing, in the development of the Network, the final collapse of a geographical rootedness to the church. We are entering the world of the virtual church, the Church of the Five Faves, the church not of geographical and terrestrial space, but of affinity: Ecclesiastical MySpace.
It should not come as a surprise that this is happening in America. Although the Netherlands should be recognized as the antecedent for Christian pluralism, it was in America that disestablishment and separation of church and state were not only held to be foundational in principle, but gave to the adherents of the various sects all of the elbow room that Manifest Destiny could provide. As the preface to the first American Book of Common Prayer noted:
But when in the course of Divine Providence, these American States became independent with respect to civil Government, their ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included; and the different religious denominations of Christians in these States were left at full and equal liberty to model and organize their respective Churches, and forms of worship, and discipline, in such a manner as they might judge most convenient for their future prosperity...
Many of us, in the midst of this swirl of possibilities, have chosen to seek to hold to that earlier vision of Anglican comprehensiveness as opposed to sectarian divisiveness. We have seen the Anglican Communion as a way to remain united in essentials while allowing a tolerable variety on matters about which a complete consensus has either ceased to exist or has not yet emerged.
I believe that this Anglican Communion — the fellowship of autonomous churches in communion with the See of Canterbury — will continue to exist.
It will continue, but it will be changed.
Some who have been part of this Anglican Communion until now have already made it clear they see a different future for themselves. As they are not forsaking Christ, but only this fellowship, I can wish them Godspeed. They are not lost; merely detached. Time will tell if these branches will be grafted onto other stocks, gathered into a bundle, or planted separately, where they may thrive — or not. They may eventually be grafted back to the stock that gave them life. Whatever the future, let us not cease to be open to the possibility of restoration, and a vision of unity in variety that is truly Anglican.
Tobias Haller BSG
See the follow-up post for further discussion in addtion to the comments below.