Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reflections on the Anglican Realignment

There seems to be little question that the Anglican Communion is going through an unprecedented major realignment at this time. Most leaders and commentators across the spectrum of conviction agree that this is the case. Indeed, the realignment has been in process for years already. Some reflect and publish in a considered and Biblical manner, and make their case logically and humbly. Others do so with varying degrees of arrogance, stridency, fear, discouragement, lack of charity, ignorance, etc. What the realignment will look like when it has been achieved is a matter of guesswork, and the settlement will probably take years to emerge.

Blessed Sacrament’s Discernment Committee, which I called together last January (see this post), has been doing careful, prayerful, and effective work to look at the trends, issues, and possibilities. The Committee has a huge charge, though it may be simply stated: make a recommendation to the Vestry about what is best for Blessed Sacrament in this time of realignment.

The Discernment Committee—and two of our Lenten programs as well—began by learning about the Anglican Communion, which consists of 38 independent provinces throughout the world, with about 75 or 80 million Anglicans. We have learned that the Communion overall is healthy and robust. The strength of the Anglican Communion is in the “Third World”, mostly in Africa, if one may measure by vibrancy of faith in the pew, number of converts, and strength of commitment to commonly-understood Biblical orthodoxy. Almost 25% of the Anglican Communion is found in Nigeria alone. African Anglicanism is strongly evangelical rather than Anglo-Catholic in preference. Western Anglicanism appears to be in decline. Membership and attendance in the Episcopal Church, for example, have declined a little bit each year for a long time.

The Anglican Communion came into existence almost at random, with its greatest period of expansion in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the spread of the British Empire. There was no intention at that time to “centralize” the Anglican Communion or come up with a way to make decisions on a worldwide basis. There was no need to do so. Anglicans generally have considered the independence of the provinces and a decentralized form of governing to be a strength. It has often been said that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a “first among equals” and has no juridical authority outside his own diocese.

For the past generation or more, however, a few provinces in Anglicanism have made unilateral decisions that have had a serious negative effect on the rest of the Anglican Communion. These decisions, mostly made by the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, and how other parts of the Anglican world responded to these decisions, have brought the Anglican Communion to a crisis. It is clear that the Anglican world has come to a point where it cannot and will not function as it used to. Whatever it comes to look like, the future Anglican Communion will be different from what it has been.

At the risk of putting it too simply, it seems to me that there are now two views about the way Anglicans should do business. One view says that in the modern world, Anglicans need to realize that they are in fact a world community addressing world issues, and that the provinces are interdependent—not “should be interdependent”, but already “are”. Major issues that confront any given province will likely affect all the other provinces. Therefore a way must be found to define Anglicanism as a world community with a decision-making process at the world level. That means that we must “centralize” the way we make decisions in areas that affect the whole Anglican world.

The other view asserts that that is not the way Anglicans have ever made decisions, and actually goes against one of the strengths and boasts of Anglicanism: a decentralized form of government with provincial independence. This claim is certainly accurate—historically, at least. The question is whether this way of doing business meets our current needs. In my opinion, the old way is clearly inadequate. Even apart from the issues that have created the crisis, to try to maintain the old way of doing things is backward thinking—basically merely saying, “But we’ve never done it that way before.” It is doing business this way that has brought the Anglican Communion to its current crisis. It doesn’t work any more. It hasn’t worked for more than thirty years. (I find it more than curious that most of those who claim to be “pushing the envelope forward” in the Anglican world are the “backward thinkers” in the matter of Anglican decision-making!)

The first view, proposed by the great majority of Anglican leaders, is indeed a way new to Anglicanism. This does not make it automatically wrong. In my opinion, it is, in fact, wise, realistic, and essential. The realignment is moving in the direction of this view—creating a worldwide Anglican identity with mutual accountability and effectively recognizing that Anglicanism has become a world family and is no longer a loose confederation.

There are currently four Instruments of Unity in Anglicanism that define us as a world family: the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the symbol of unity and has authority to decide who is an Anglican; the Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops, which began in 1867 and meets every ten years to take counsel; the Anglican Consultative Council, a deliberative body that includes clergy and lay people from around the world; and the Council of Primates, or bishops who are leaders of the 38 Anglican provinces. The latter two only came into existence in the 1970s.

Currently, there is proposed to the 38 provinces an “Anglican Covenant” by which the various provinces are asked to agree together to be a worldwide family with mutual accountability and, when necessary, make binding decisions together. It is a situation similar to the time after the original thirteen American colonies had become independent from England and then had to decide whether to form a federal government or not. It is a rare situation in world history, and people do not easily or gladly cede authority to a larger body. Until now there has been no need in Anglicanism to do so, but it seems to me to be a crying need today.

What will the Episcopal Church do in the present time? What will the rest of the Anglican world do once the Episcopal Church makes its decision? What will Blessed Sacrament do as these decisions unfold? Ah—these are the questions, aren’t they? As always, they are only different forms of the One Great Question of all: how do we best serve Jesus?


Nicholodeon said...

Indeed, the horns of the dilemma.

Anonymous said...

As a member of the Anglican Communion I find the options aren't limited to what can be done within whatever group(s) emerge after the fallout. The crisis is an occasion for me to further consider the claims of the other ancient churches. I say ancient churches with a measure of ambiguity. Catholics united under the Pope have no difficulty defining the word "church", since it is that polity united ultimately in 'law' and function under a single visible head of 'state'. Many Anglican parishes believe or allow belief in nearly every Roman dogma, disagreeing only that some of those be binding on parishioners' conscience. Re-alignment by assimilation into Catholicism under the Pope seems like a legitimate option for these more Anglo-Catholic parishes.

Such a strategy, however, would likely be met with all the typical objections the annals of history record against Rome. But many of those objections fall by the wayside. I speak of those objections against the practice of Catholics, the priestly scandals, the parishes that compromise with culture, and those individuals that don't follow the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. So what objections to the truth-claims of the teaching of Rome remain?

Parishes lurching in the current wobbles of Anglicanism would seem wise to open the door to consider again and afresh, with renewed interest for truth and unity the claims of Rome, even the exalted and exclusive claims that readily receive scoffing by left-leaners and low-churchmen.