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Two Notes on the Church of Nigeria’s Constitutional Revisions
Anglican Communion Institute ^ | 10/13/2005 | The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner

Posted on 10/13/2005 5:06:41 PM PDT by sionnsar

(These appeared previously on the Titusonenine and Fulcrum weblogs.)


Graham Kings and Francis Bridger wrote a small piece (Church Times ,Sept. 23, 2005)  in which they questioned the wisdom of recent revisions made by the (Anglican) Church of Nigeria to its Constitution.  Kings and Bridger wondered if “deleting” references to communion with the See of Canterbury was a helpful or even faithful step to take in the context of the Windsor Report’s emphatic delineation of communion interdependence in terms of the four “Instruments of Unity”, of which Canterbury is a central piece.  A week later, Dr Philip Giddings, Canon Dr Chris Sugden, Canon Ben Enwuchola, and Canon Martin Minns responded with a letter taking issue with Kings’ and Bridger’s “criticisms”. They praised the Nigerian constitutional revisions as a welcome reassertion of “historic Anglicanism” through a commitment to the classic English formularies as the Nigerian Church’s sole standards of communion faithfulness. I personally agree with aspects of both perspectives, and believe that this kind of measured and informed exchange of ideas about such an important matter in our common life can only teach us things we need to know. 

Still, some have found Kings’ and Bridger’s article “unfortunate” in its failure adequately to gauge (and inform itself about) the “intention” of the Nigerian Synod’s constitutional change – something Abp. Akinola attempted to explain in a press release later.  But here I disagree.   For the matter is less about “intention”, it seems to me, than it is about perception, in the sense of “effect” upon a common mind.  At a time when the Anglican Communion is struggling mightily (and some would say unsuccessfully) to order its life upon the basis of a shared accountability to the Christian faith, what is the perceived effect of publicly decoupling one’s ecclesial existence from one critical instrument of accountability already in place (e.g. the See of Canterbury)? 

On one level – as many have pointed out – the constitutional changes made by the Nigerian General Synod were hardly drastic within the spectrum of Anglican self-orderings.  Not all Anglican churches have made communion with the See of Canterbury a constitutional foundation of their life; and many (including Nigeria before the most recent changes), have long made adherence to classic English formularies doctrinally essential.  Further, the reality of impaired or even broken communion that already exists between Nigeria and ECUSA in certain respects demanded some kind of constitutional tidying up if it was to be a canonically coherent response within the present crisis. 

But why now?  That is the question of Communion perception.  The Windsor Report urged not only a greater sense of interdependence on the part of Anglican churches around the world, but more concrete actions and structures of interdependence.  And while Abp. Akinola was initially negative in his response to the Report, he subsequently joined with African Primates a year ago, and with the Primates as a whole, in commending the Report as the “way forward” for the Communion.  There is no reason to doubt that commitment.  I certainly do not;  and I am deeply grateful for Abp. Akinola’s public hopes and prayers for the Communion’s continued life.  What is puzzling is how this commitment coheres, within the context of ongoing Communion counsel, with the concrete act of decoupling from Canterbury that the new Nigerian Constitution represents.

Obviously, there is now concern over the Church of England’s own integrity as a Gospel-committed church.  The teaching confusion among bishops there, the strange disciplinary contortions elicited among English bishops by the Civil Partnership Act, revelations about widespread moral contradictions among English clergy – all this has raised doubts among many Anglican leaders, including Nigeria’s, over the wisdom and faithfulness of making communion with Canterbury a lynchpin for Anglican existence itself.   I share these worries.

But what shall we put in its place?  This is the nub of the perception problem.  Unless there are other “pivots” of unity and accountability within the Communion that can function more consistently and steadfastly, it is not clear what is gained by the decoupling at this time.  To be sure, the proposal for an Anglican “Covenant” is precisely what may fill this gap at some point; and there is no reason, prima facie, why the classic English formularies should not be a part of such a covenant.  But who will put this covenant together and call churches to its discussion and commitment if the “instruments” of unity themselves have, bit by bit, withered away in the meantime?  We shall at best end up like a stunted WCC Faith and Order commission, spending a century or two picking away at dialogue statements.   There is every reason to fear, at this time, that Anglicanism is going the way of Protestant fragmentation, as astute thinkers like Al Kimel have (in my mind, prematurely) concluded.

But perhaps this is all too “institutional” a set of concerns.  On an absolute level it is of course true that our communion can only be upon the basis of the pure Gospel of our Lord as He Himself has offered it to us and held us within it.  But is this bare assertion adequate to our obedience?  For unless there are mediating realities by which this Gospel is both known and followed, and by which we are held accountable to its truth and transformed (by discipline, repentance, and renewal), the historical character of communion is utterly veiled, and perhaps contradicted altogether.  There is, after all, no untainted faith in the Gospel of Jesus among our churches and among the Lord’s followers.  How shall we speak of “communion” practically, then, if it is to be lodged transcendently in an adherence to a Gospel that is in fact beyond our capacity to apprehend purely? 

It has been the Church’s conviction and teaching – and Scripture’s more basically – that the Gospel of Jesus is in fact mediated through and within the Body of Christ itself.  This is the place where the Gospel is known and obeyed, and where it holds us accountable and works its transforming power within our lives.  As our Lord’s actual “body”, furthermore, the Church Catholic is not really a “mediating” structure at all, but the locus of the whole salvific work of God in Christ – in its historic aspect, that is, which confronts taintedness and imperfection even as it transfigures the sinful into what is holy. 

Accountability, as referring practically to the structures of the Church’s common discipline and mutual subjection, is therefore a doctrinal matter. (The fact that failures of accountability – e.g. in the range of churches that have permitted sexual abuse to the point of encouragement – destroy the actual faith of the “little ones”, turn belief into despair, and deform the image of God embodied in word and deed within our churches, is surely a sign of the congruence between accountability and doctrinal truth-telling.)  There may well be a range of ecclesial orderings that further accountability; and within the fallen character of the divided Church it may also be the case that this variety is not susceptible yet to a uniform character.  But as a fundamental reality of our relationship with God in Christ, within the Lord’s Body, having and adhering to and upholding structures of accountability is a matter of the Gospel itself.  It characterizes all of St. Paul’s discussion of Christian existence, and this is in turn based on Jesus’ own teaching regarding the essential truthfulness of Christian “fruit” over Christian “words”.

One of the sorrows and signs of divine judgment in the present era of Anglican dissolution is that structures of accountability have weakened and in many instances simply disappeared.  Within ECUSA it is hard to perceive them.  I would like to say, for instance, that I am accountable to my bishop.  But given the contradictions and hostilities of the episcopal office at present, there is little basis for such accountability except in my own personal wish (which, at present, is ill-supported).  I would like to say that I am somehow accountable to the synods of my church (e.g. General Convention).  But the complete failure of these synods to adhere to their own promises and to the larger structures of communion accountability have eviscerated the accepted authority of such councils.  And finally I would like to say that I am accountable to the structures of the larger Anglican Communion, in its self-ordering according to the common discernment of the Gospel to which it has subjected itself in humility and mutual regard.  But here is the question:  where shall I perceive this common discernment and subjection today?  

The questions raised both by the Kings and Bridger article and by the Giddings/Sugden/Enwuchola/Minns response – and more importantly by the Communion realities they address – are critical.  I am not sure that they are easily resolved right now.  Rather, they demand ongoing and respectful discussion by the leaders of our church within a context that is capable of receiving and implementing their resolution.  I continue to wonder, however, if we have the patience to carry this discussion on to its faithful end.  For who will hold us accountable even for such committed reflection and decision? 


I suppose that one reason that some Americans myself wonder about the Nigerian constitutional changes is that some of us look at them through the lens of our own church, ECUSA.  We might well pose the question in the context of ECUSA’s documents of self-ordering:  what, if any, constitutional changes would protect or could have protected ECUSA from its current dissolution?  Would constitutional changes like the Nigerian church’s be helpful to ECUSA, more so than its current 1967 Preamble?  How might matters have played out in ECUSA if in fact we had a constitution in conformity with the new Nigerian revisions?  And what, if anything, does an answer to these kinds of questions say about the revisions themselves?

The 1967 Preamble to ECUSA’s Constitution was framed to conform to the language and ecclesial spirit of the 1930 Lambeth discussion of the newly prominent Communion character to Anglicanism (cf. Resolution 49):  being a “constituent” member of  the “fellowship [the Anglican Communion itself] within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury” that share common characteristics, including “upholding and propogating” the “historic faith and order” of the Church (in Lambeth 1930, this was termed the “Catholic and Apostolic faith and order”), as set forth in the Book of Common prayer. 

All this was seen, in 1967, as binding ECUSA to the Communion in a fundamental and newly articulated way.  Of course, ECUSA’s Prayer Book (e.g. in its original 18th-century Preface) had already tied the church to the essential doctrine and discipline of the Church of England, and this predated the rise of the Anglican Communion itself.   There were changes, too, both in the American Church and in the Communion itself regarding the exact authority of the English formularies within Communion churches, e.g. the 39 Articles (see the 1888 Lambeth Encyclical, which dropped the express subscription to the Articles as a standard for Communion membership, even while demanding common conformance to their “substance”, and, interestingly, also hinting at something akin to a common doctrinal and disciplinary covenant).  But despite all this, there was a basic sense that EUCSA had, in her Prayer Book and Preamble subjected herself to the demands of the Communion’s common teaching.  This subjection was, furthermore, concretely bound up with the See of Canterbury.

Now we might ask:  what has the current crisis shown regarding this constitutional format?  At present there are three Communion parameters within which ECUSA (constitutionally) lives.  First, there is something called “membership” in a “fellowship”; second, there is a common mission and identity – upholding the “historic faith and order” within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church and embodied in the Book of Common Prayer (in Lambeth 1930, understood as a family of Prayer Books);  thirdly, communion with Canterbury.  In theory, all of these parameters impose themselves together in concert; and it is debatable as to each’s force when one or the other either crumbles or is questioned.  At present, for instance, there is enormous concern on the part of many over Canterbury’s failure to take an active role in maintaining the force of the other two elements.  Whether this means that the “Canterbury parameter” should be ignored or thrown over; or whether the other two parameters themselves will do their work on Canterbury itself is unclear.  (I would prefer to think the latter, precisely on the basis of the communion character of Anglicanism from the start – assuming it is accepted, which is what the present crisis is all about.)

What is clear, however, is that ECUSA’s only wider accountability  at present in terms of her internal teaching and discipline is given through these external parameters.  Were it not for her “constituent membership” in the Communion as a defining element of her Constitutional existence, there would be no conciliar or legal interest period in the concerns of the wider church at present – they have put this church (rightly) into a dither;  were there no doctrinal constraints, identifiably labeled (however broadly), that were imposed upon our ecclesial identity, there would be no demand for theological accountability (however poorly responded to at the moment);  were there no communion link to Canterbury, there would be no disciplinary force to Lambeth’s gathering and resolutions, which now hang over ECUSA like a somber threat. 

None of these parameters, it should be said, has prevented ECUSA from in fact devolving into doctrinal and disciplinary chaos.  Why not?  Would it have been different had an alternative constitutional framework been in place?  What about Nigeria’s new revisions – could they have helped if they had been adopted long ago by ECUSA?  I think it fair to say that they would not.  The key parameter of accountability now in place for the Nigerian Church are the classic English formularies, interpreted according to her own internal councils.  Would they have constrained ECUSA if applied in this fashion?  It is hard to see how.  Certainly on the element of sexual ethics, in its presenting scandal today, there is nothing in the Formularies that is not already in even the 1979 Prayer Book, especially with respect to the authority of Scripture in determining these matters.  And ECUSA’s own internal councils have long re-interpreted her own acknowledged standards in a way that has (in the mind of much of the rest of the Communion) eviscerated their actual meaning.  When the interpretation of standards is up to the internal councils of a single body, there is nothing to prevent their corporate perversion.

Thus, more to the point, the decline in ECUSA’s theological and disciplinary self-control is historically linked to a long period before the canonical revisions involved in the new Prayer Book – the 1950’s, especially, but even before.  Other elements in American Episcopalianism – national and political culture, shifts in demographic power, the infiltration and rootedness of social sin of a variety of kinds – simply overwhelmed the constraining forces of the Formularies in ECUSA’s self-ordering.   It is the Nigerian church’s business, certainly not mine, to ask itself if she is strong enough in the long run to resist the internal forces of sin where others have failed.   All I would say at present is that it is less a question of some kind of constitutional inoculation against such forces, as it is a matter of ordering one’s life within a system where the larger Body, animated by the Son’s Spirit, can come to one’s aid when one has weakened and fallen.  As an American Episcopalian, I do not want Nigeria decoupled from Canterbury, because I depend on that common linkage to hold my church to account.  I would hope the same is true in multiple directions.

The question for today, then, is whether the Communion-oriented parameters of ECUSA’s constitution can prevail in the long-term, not only for itself but on behalf of the larger Anglican “fellowship”, and what will be required for that to happen.  If this does not happen, as I have long argued, Anglicanism itself will have seen its providential day pass it by;  and there will be little point in latching on to the life-rafts of individual ecclesial planks cut off from the shattered vessel of the Communion itself.  Anglicanism, in the context of her communion identity, is tied to the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church, and if her internal life embodies itself as fragmenting, factionally hostile, local, and scripturally-barren, she is a church that has committed suicide.  The 1930 Lambeth discussion of the Communion as a fellowship existing for the sake of “the ultimate reunion of all Christendom in one visibly united fellowship” is one I share;  if the Communion cannot do that through its internal life, its purpose and the purpose of her members will have been spent. 

It is still the case – though time may well be running out more quickly than I could ever have feared – that the force of these Communion-oriented parameters have strength enough to press for an outcome of mutual subjection in the Lord and in His truth.    If I cannot pray for this, then I must begin pray for another church altogether. 

Ephraim Radner (the Rev’d Dr.)
Church of the Ascension
Pueblo, Colorado, USA

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant

1 posted on 10/13/2005 5:06:46 PM PDT by sionnsar
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2 posted on 10/13/2005 5:07:28 PM PDT by sionnsar (†† || (To Libs:) You are failing to celebrate MY diversity! || Iran Azadi)
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