Saturday, July 01, 2006

reflections on a reflection

A text has come to my attention which I think is one of the more trenchant analyses of the Current Uncertainty within the Communion. It follows:

The current crisis within the Anglican Communion is ultimately about whether the "Anglican experiment", so to speak, has within itself the commitment and resources by means of which to sustain its identity as a church that truly understands itself to be part of the Church Catholic in its Western manifestation.

The painful situation in which His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, clearly finds himself reflects a deep commitment to such a serious ecclesiology.
The Archbishop, as an individual theologian, has in the past evidenced sympathies with those on the liberal side of many of the currently presenting issues, and yet, he has very properly if painfully, put these personal sentiments aside in recognition of his obligation, as Archbishop, to maintain the established mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole. In doing so, he exhibits precisely the cost that has to be paid for membership in a church which, as such, should see itself as more than an accidental concatenation of like-minded souls.

The question at hand, albeit historically rather late in the day, is whether this identity, as a true Communion, can now be more formally institutionalized, given that the hitherto prevailing genteel understanding among Anglicans, that certain limits were simply not to be transgressed, has clearly broken down. Pushed beyond their limits the claims of autonomy, private insight and communion seem currently to be dangerously incommensurable.

At this stage, one has to say it is not obvious that sustaining the Anglican venture will prove humanly possible, so we must remind ourselves that God’s church is not a merely human creation and it is his will that we must seek.

Manifestly, there are opposing tendencies, each of which could sink the rather fragile and battered Anglican vessel. Moreover, there are those who would, in the name of saving Anglicanism actually turn it into something else. (This must always be a risk given the inherently "tensive polarities" between which Anglicanism has, throughout its history, proceeded. Awkward and untidy as these have been, the Anglican view has supposed they are the best that are to be had given our human estate in this world. To think otherwise is deemed to risk the embrace of presumption and merely to wish the world to be other than it is.)

On the one hand, you have those (including it would seem many within ECUSA) who would reduce Anglicanism to a loose federation with minimal obligations in any one province to the wider whole and an illusively minimalist doctrinal specificity. Although it is ironic to note that many of the proponents of this view in North America combine this concept of strong Provincial autonomy, with a rigidly legalist canonical fundamentalism and an autocratic model of localised episcopal hegemony. To some it has even seemed as though neo-mediaeval prince and princess bishops suppose themselves called to command the unreserved submission of all whom they survey in their dioceses. It may be that the bishops themselves do not intend this, but then it is as well to recall that it is those who feel oppressed who generally, in enlightened circles, are now deemed determinative of oppression’s actuality. Yet quite aside from the alleged realities of hegemonic episcope, there is the further paradox of a strident inclination to claim for new and seemingly private revelations (most notably in the area of morals) the status of prophecy, even though in its historic origins this dignity was customarily claimed for a witness calling the faithful BACK to an existing truth rather than towards a supposed replacement. This has, in turn, led to a somewhat imperious posture to those seen as less favoured with the new illumination Moreover, it has to be remembered with humility that seeking the status of a prophet is unlikely to be cost-free as Dr. Williams has pointed out: those who claim the status must be able to bear the price.

On the other hand, there are those who seem to suppose that the remedy to the projection of potentially dangerous novelties upon a dubious epistemic base, is to fall back upon some sort of new confessionalism. This is as though the Bible, the creeds and historic formularies of the church that seemed to suffice for generations of past orthodoxy were somehow not enough. (To say that such formulae have been wrongly disregarded or badly interpreted is one thing, to say that they are in themselves inadequate is quite another.) Thus, there is a mind abroad to define and “pin down” Anglicanism through a covenant as some written formula, heedless of the point that this is precisely NOT the way Anglicanism has best proceeded. (By contrast, some would argue that Anglicanism has always been as much defined by method and the issues surrounding HOW things are done and conclusions are arrived at, as by the recorded formulae of those conclusions themselves).

This neo-confessionalism also tends to travel with a rather light historical awareness of what it is to be an Anglican and the further assumption that what is involved is merely a happy congregational occasionalism. By this I mean the belief that from time to time there happen to be found among people calling themselves Anglicans groups of right-thinking types who are Christians and that, as such, these groups are ones with whom it is safe to join. This can be no more than an "Accidental Anglicanism", in that what is seen as important is being Christian, while the Anglican identity is an ultimately optional, that is to say accidental, if happy afterthought. To be sure, being Christian MUST always be our central concern, but any deep commitment to being an Anglican Christian surely ought to see in the Anglican way some particular methodological claim to virtue. To think otherwise must risk seeing Anglicanism as a matter of taxonomic, or historic, but never essential continuity –-a perspective that presents scant warrant for sustaining the identity.

Here, surely, is the nub of the ecclesiological issue behind the proposed covenant.

All of which places a great burden upon the shape to be taken by this proposal. Is it to be about HOW we do business together, as an ecclesial entity, such that anything that affects all must be decided by all and then upheld by all? (With a de facto exercise of the charism required through the gathered collegial episcopate in particular, as found in the Lambeth conference, and between these assemblies in the Primates.)

Or, is it to be about affirming a specific and new formulary that will in some mysterious way succeed where the historic formularies of the past have apparently failed us?

It may be, however, that the Communion will not be able to agree upon EITHER approach, with the result that it will presumably dissipate into a fragmenting federation linked by increasingly tenuous bonds of history and a rapidly fading mutual affection?

The evident theological intent of the Archbishop of Canterbury is that the costly burden of mutual submission before God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is what must be entailed by a serious commitment to work together in the deep and theological community of a true Communion. Dr. Williams’ practical intent, and signal achievement, has been to give form to the costly challenge this poses to the Communion as a whole and to every one of us as individual anglicans as we begin to address how this process should formally be undertaken through the device of the Covenant as proposed by the Windsor Report.
To do this truly we must hope will be a crucial and essential ecclesiological moment of Anglican reformation.

A. M. Radcliff

1 comment:

Seppuku Kid said...

This morning I read Griswold's response to the Archbishop's reflections.
My "bishopese" isn't so great, so what do you think this means?