THE ARCHBISHOPS IN SECRET
The recent meeting of Anglican primates (the principal bishops of each of the separate Anglican churches, large and small) did nothing to improve the situation in the Anglican Communion. Whether it has left us materially worse off is something we shall learn only in the years to come. My guess is that the Archbishop of Canterbury invited his fellow primates to gather in the hope that he could at least prevent our incipient schism from growing worse. It is a legitimate goal. Schisms that reach fully institutionalized character are notoriously difficult to resolve. Whatever issue is claimed as the occasion for schism assumes an importance that it may never really have deserved simply because it becomes the distinctive badge of the community resulting from the schism. It must continue to be justified as the only acceptable decision, even if, in later years, it should cease to seem so important after all.
The Anglican tradition’s combination of dispersed authority and respect for tradition is both blessing and weakness. It helps avert the kind of political authoritarianism that created the Inquisition and provoked the Reformation, but it has difficulty in satisfying people’s desire for clarity. Once people are truly furious with one another over a contested issue, there is no authority that can rein in the warring sides. In this respect, of course, we are in precisely the same situation as earliest Christianity. No voice could successfully reunite those Jewish Christians who insisted on full conversion of Gentiles to Jewish identity with those who regarded the Gentiles’ presence in the church as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work. In the same way, no voice in contemporary Anglicanism can reconcile those who feel that the existence of gay, lesbian, and transgender Anglicans is radically transgressive with those who are persuaded that it is an important victory of the gospel. The only hope of preserving church unity is to find, foster, or create a majority who are prepared to regard the issue as an adiaphoron, a matter that should not occasion division.
It is not surprising, to be sure, that Christians, early or late, have been uncomfortable with this protracted and uncertain sort of process and have sometimes looked for social mechanisms that could speed it up or even short-circuit it. The gradual increase in the power of the early papacy was fueled in part by requests that the Bishop of Rome intervene in local quandaries in Western Europe. The parallel rise of the patriarchates of the East owed something to the same process as well as to the emperor’s desire to quell conflict in the church. In the long run, however, the result was an increasing rigidity that had difficulty making room even for innovations of great spiritual value—with divergent and unpredictable results as exemplified in the cases of, say, Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther. The Reformation broke with the absolute power of the papacy, but held onto much of the rigidity of the Western Christian mindset and became, as a result, a welter of competing and conflicting organizations, divided by disputes that sometimes seem of dubious value in the present era. The desire for doctrinal purity occasioned much division. One distinctive element of the Elizabethan settlement in England was the effort to hold these diverse elements together under a single roof—an effort never completely successful even in the resulting Church of England.
We now have significant elements of schism among Anglicans. There are churches that refuse to share communion with The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, and wish to have the secessionist elements grouped together in the Anglican Church in North America officially recognized as their replacements. There are those who resolutely oppose this program. If the Archbishop of Canterbury hopes to prevent this situation from becoming more entrenched, he must probably aim at buying time in which to foster the growth and consolidation of the group that sees the matter as adiaphoron and rejects the idea of dividing over it.
This will not be an easy matter, given the global character of Anglicanism. The status of lesbians and gay men (still more of transexual persons) varies enormously from culture to culture. And it is part of the larger issue of gender, which also remains unresolved among us. It is no accident that many of the churches that are particularly angry about the embrace of homosexual persons are also opposed to the ordination of women. And it is no accident that the leadership of these groups is entirely male and presents itself as emphatically heterosexual.
But the fact that the task is difficult does not mean that it can or should be lightly abandoned. The unity of the church is more than an institutional convenience, more than a theological premise, and more than a concern of professional ecumenists. It is a matter of deep spiritual value. God’s creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness, implies, as I have said elsewhere on this weblog, God’s search for friends. And since God has created so many of us and of such different temperament, experience, and culture, it seems reasonable to infer that our very multiplicity is part of what we bring to God as God’s friends. The great danger of Christians in any one place or time is that we shall begin to identify the gospel with the practices and prejudices of our particular time and place. Only a community of discourse that is large and varied enough to disrupt that kind of fossilization is ultimately adequate to the needs of our growing friendship with God, this friendship for which God created us and to which we are learning to respond through God’s grace.
Accordingly, I praise and honor Archbishop Welby for his efforts to keep us all in conversation and not yield prematurely to the forces of disintegration. At the same time, there are consequences of the meeting that bode ill. Most significantly, it has reinforced the apparent power of the Consultation of Primates, a gathering that has no theological or constitutional rationale for exercising this kind of authority. It was first created as a consultation, and anything beyond that on its part is a usurpation. It has become, in effect, a weapon of convenience for those who wish to suppress theological debate on topics that they have defined as out of bounds. This is a dangerous precedent both in its own right and beccause the group’s meetings are essentially secret—out of the eye of the larger church in a way that our local conventions and synods or the global Anglican Consultative Council are not. Moreover, those who wish to control the discourse are resorting to the age-old schismatic device of trying to bar their opposition from participation. I fear that by reinforcing these precedents of secrecy and exclusion Archbishop Welby’s initiative may prove more destructive than helpful, for they cut against the real need—to foster the community of those who are committed to broad unity and disinclined to dig trenches between us.