May 6, 2009

The Province is the Church

Episcopal Café reports the following answer to the question of just what "Churches" are intended by the proposed Covenant.

In Anglican ecclesiology, there is a creative tension between the understanding of “local Church”, which is that portion of God’s people gathered around their bishop, usually in the form of a territorial diocese, and “Church” as a term or description for a national or regional ecclesial community, which is bound together by a national character, and/or common liturgical life, governance and canon law. Traditionally, Anglicans have asserted the ecclesial character of the national Church as the privileged unit of ecclesiastical life. The Church of England’s very existence was predicated upon such an assumption at the time of the Reformation. Recognised in most cases as “Provinces”, these national or regional Churches are the historical bodies through which the life of the Anglican Communion has been expressed, and they are the primary parties for whom the covenant has been designed. If, however, the canons and constitutions of a Province permit, there is no reason why a diocesan synod should not commit itself to the covenant, thus strengthening its commitment to the interdependent life of the Communion.

Which is more or less what I've been saying for some time. The notion that the diocese is autonomous from the church of which it forms a part makes no sense in an Anglican ecclesiastical framework. The "national church" was the idea from the beginning of the Reformation, on through the creation of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America (because the US was now an independent nation), the creation of the PECCSA (Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America) when the southern states believed they had formed a new nation; &c.

Although Roman Catholicism enjoys the concept of a single world-church, Anglicans have tilted more in the direction of Orthodox autocephaly, with our own peculiar twist on things as a communion of autonomous churches bound together with shared history and liturgies springing from a common trunk, with many branches and leaves, and those apparently foresaken bonds of affection. Efforts to squeeze the individual Churches of the Anglican Communioin onto the procrustean bed of international uniformity cut against the grain of our rich tradition — cutting down perhaps our greatest gift to the whole Church of God, in that our provincial structure makes possible selective development in teaching and practice, limited not by some central magisterium, but by the natural process of reception. Thus change is limited in scope until (and unless) it becomes more widely accepted. (As I've said again and again, nothing TEC or the ACoC have done necessitates the Nigerian or Ugandan Churches approval, or their doing the same thing.)

The driving force behing this Covenant is a step away from this manner of thinking. It is a step backwards, and will prove to be an tool for division and fragmentation, rather than an instrument towards unity. Unless we all just sign up and get on with our lives, allowing it to serve its symbolic function with no real power over any of those who sign it.

The fact is, all of our problems began with Lambeth 1998, when it came to imagine itself capable to make doctrinal statements beyond its competence. The fathers of Lambeth ate sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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