The Anglican division: God's love lost?

The Anglican DivisionThe Anglican Church is dividing, according to recent media statements. This view comes in response to a refreshing and frank essay from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, 'Challenge and Hope for the Anglican Communion', taking up the evident stresses within it. His 'reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion' follows the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the USA, which formulated a careful if less than fulsome response to The Windsor Report.

What is meant by 'The Anglican Church', however? It is often assumed that it is some well-organised, centrally run global institution. 'Division' in such a body would thus mean parallel institutions, living as rivals with overlapping episcopal jurisdictions.

Much of the media debate, however, fails to acknowledge that we are talking about (and for Anglicans such as myself, living in) an Anglican Communion. As Williams writes, 'institutionally speaking, the Communion is an association of local churches, not a single organisation with a controlling bureaucracy and a universal system of law'. It is a 'communion' of churches seeking to live in the 'communion' of the triune God (as every Christian tradition seeks to do).

The Anglican DivisionHumanly speaking, that the Church of England spread to become this now-global communion is something of an historical accident. Alongside this truth, Anglicans view this development as an act of divine providence, offering to the world a tradition both 'catholic' and 'reformed', open to embracing, within the tradition of the Scriptures, the ambiguities of history and the particularities of context as revelatory data.

The struggle over Anglican identity has engaged theological reflection on the importance of 'communion', koinonia, to what it means to be 'church'. In this way of looking at things, every person baptised -plunged by the Spirit into Christ's dying and living to be the child of the one heavenly Father -is thereby drawn into the love-life of the Holy Trinity, whose being is 'in communion'. That is where the 1998 Virginia and 2004 Windsor Reports not only begin, but find their life.

In what sense is it then possible to speak of 'division' in communion? As Archbishop Rowan acknowledges in his essay, those who see the full recognition of Christian gays and lesbians as the last straw, and those who view it as the breaking down of the next barrier to 'inclusion', may both conclude that God's gift of communion is shattered by the other. And some Anglicans do seem to be taking such extreme stances, albeit (to my mind) at the risk of turning communion as divine gift into communion as reward for holding certain stances on lifestyle (non-justification by non-works?).

The Anglican DivisionBut what difference does all this make to the life of an Australian Anglican diocese or parish in places such as Bendigo, where I live? There are differences of opinion across every diocese and in most congregations on such issues -but such differences barely touch the need to get on with God's mission. The relationship of my diocese with ECUSA, Nigeria, England or Sydney is secondary to the prospect of division locally.

And that is where the real danger lies. When 'ordinary' Anglicans read about 'division' in a supposedly global 'Anglican church', they may start seeing local relationships in terms of suspicion rather than trust. This can too easily begin to corrupt these, and so communion, not only between dioceses and/or congregations, but within Christian friends and households. And that quickly becomes an ecumenical and social issue.

One ironic facet of a debate whose public face concerns same-sex relationships 'in Christ', is the imagery employed. Marriage has now become the favoured metaphor to describe the situation: 'separated' but on the way to the divorce court is the way Archbishop Jensen puts it, while 'separated' but working for reconciliation is suggested by the Australian Anglican Primate, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall.

The Anglican DivisionOne wonders what those seeking to support classical Christian teaching on marriage as indivisible, and those seeking recognition for committed, exclusive same-sex relationships, make of such language! Has divorce now entered the Christian imagination as a central way to express truth? More significantly, such 'pair' language tends to underscore the dualistic, polemical assumption that opposites are in contention, rather than the Trinitarian language of churches 'being in communion'.

Language shapes our world. How Anglicans -and all Christians- speak about our communion (or lack of it) in God's love, may do as much damage as the debates in which we are taking part.


 

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