What price unity?
The Archbishop of Armagh and Senior Primate of the Anglican Communion, the Most Revd Robin Eames, examines some of the questions currently facing the worldwide Anglican Communion prior to the forthcoming special meeting of Primates at Lambeth Palace.
The decision of the Episcopal Church of the United States to endorse the appointment of Canon Gene Robinson as bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire has provoked a crisis for the Anglican Communion. Irrespective of individual or collective opinions on the election of a practising homosexual to be an Anglican bishop, this event has once more brought into question the nature of unity and relationships of the diverse Provinces which make up the Communion, to which the Church of Ireland belongs, by bringing to light very deep divisions on this question which have existed within Anglicanism and beyond. Those sharp divisions of opinion currently obvious within individual Provinces and between Provinces, the expressions of strong opinions by clergy and laity and the widespread media speculation in advance of the forthcoming special meeting of Primates at Lambeth Palace, compel a careful examination of the nature of the Anglican Communion and its structures. The demand by some for the expulsion of ECUSA from the Anglican Communion raises the question: What does expulsion mean and how if at all could it take place?
In any relationship, corporate or individual, it is often the case that only when a crisis arises is the structure or meaning of that relationship examined in any depth. So it is with the Anglican Communion. The ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate forced such an examination before, during and following the Lambeth Conference 1988. The media even forecast the end of the Anglican Communion. Questions were raised then about the same structures where fundamental differences of opinion existed across Anglicanism and I was privileged to chair the international Comm-ission set up by the late Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury. That Comm-ission produced pastoral guidelines which were geared to encourage the ‘highest degree of communion’ between differing Provinces, guidelines which may well be appropriate at this time. My experience then and since has convinced me that the fundamental issue for our Communion is: How do we live together with differing opinions, differing cultures but maintain some semblance of active communion? I believe Anglicanism will survive this current controversy. The question is: in what form?
The truth is that the Anglican Communion has lived through generations without basic regulations, rules or legal structures. Anglicanism has consistently rejected any move to create a curia such as we see in the Roman Catholic tradition. This desire has manifested itself time and again at Lambeth Conferences, Primates’ Meetings and gatherings of the Anglican Consultative Council. I have witnessed consistent rejection of such a move. The autonomy of individual Provinces has been jealously guarded. Provincial government, usually through synodical structures and the exercise of episcopacy, has enshrined this degree of individuality. Provincial contributions have centred on the aspirations and historical developments of individual Provinces or Churches. The common tie has been ‘communion with the See of Canterbury’ and ‘communion with other Churches maintaining the same ethos’. But I am unaware of any agreed rules governing such relationships beyond the desire to be ‘in communion’. Therefore when we talk of expulsion the question arises - expulsion from what?
In the blitz of opinion and counter argument over the election to New Hampshire I believe we need to be clear what we are talking about.
This election undoubtedly challenges the Resolution 1.10 of the last Lambeth Conference. It is clearly in breach of the majority opinion of the bishops in 1998. It is clearly contrary to the view of a large number of Anglicans. But the question still remains: Is there a tangible manner within the structures of our Communion as present constituted to do more than express concern and criticism and adopt attitudes within our own Provinces towards those others with whom we disagree?
To put it plainly - if no constitutional or legal rules exist for what constitutes membership of the Anglican Communion there are no rules for expulsion of a member Church.
The focus must therefore turn to the practices and customs which do exist.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is primus inter pares at any meeting of Primates. As ‘first among equals’ he calls and normally presides at such gatherings. Equally it is at his invitation that bishops attend the Lambeth Conference. In theory there is nothing to prevent disapproval on any issue being expressed at a meeting of Primates. It is also open to the Archbishop of Canterbury to withhold invitations, should he so wish, to either a Primates’ Meeting or to the Lambeth Conference itself. But the fact remains that no constitutional basis exists for the expulsion of any Province from the Anglican Communion. Given that the traditional ‘instruments of unity’ of Anglicanism are the See of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council, our Communion has existed as a ‘communion of like-minded Provinces’ where provincial autonomy is preserved. It is that ‘communion’ which has been questioned and challenged by the recent events in the United States.
On the other hand, Anglicans refer to the historic Lambeth Quadrilateral which addresses the concept of Communion even more directly than the Instruments of Unity. We have traditionally placed a high value on the ordering, the forms and the expressions of worship. In this we have expressed doctrine in a more explicit manner than doctrinal statements. Here in the Church of Ireland it is the way we worship and pray that shapes our identity. Soon we will celebrate the launch of a new Prayer Book. Such is for us a standard of doctrine as much as a basis for worship. This standard expressed through the Book of Common Prayer has been recognised by successive Lambeth Conferences as being grounded in Scripture, the Catholic Creeds, the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist and the historic Ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon.
A Church which describes itself along these lines does not seek to define more of its ethos than is absolutely necessary. Provincial autonomy permits different attitudes to discipline and to ways of presenting the Gospel. Anglicans seek to preserve the identity or communion of a world family. This does not prevent disagreements between members of the family on what Scripture says - but it is far from saying we do not care about the primacy of Scripture. We can disagree about the frequency of the celebration of the Sacraments - but we cannot discard the Sacraments. As we have seen Anglicans can differ on the ordination of women to the priesthood or episcopate but we do not deny there should be priests and bishops if we wish to remain Anglicans. The Creeds may be only an outline of the faith but we cannot reject them and remain part of the Catholic Church.
Such are just some of the ingredients and dilemmas of ‘communion’ as we have sought to be a world Church family.
As the Archbishop of Dublin and I stressed in our recent statement, the Church of Ireland addresses that communion in the Declaration: ‘The Church of Ireland will maintain Communion with the sister Church of England and with all other Christian Churches agreeing in the principles of this Declaration.’
Laws apart, opinions apart and sensitivities apart, diversity of culture, practice and life-styles have been and will most likely continue to be the experience of a world family such as the Anglican Communion. Perhaps the main question arising for us at this time is simply: How do we live with and how do we understand difference?
What price unity?
© Church of Ireland Gazette 2003