Skip to comments.Ephraim Radner on the Nigerian Action and “Communion Realities”
Posted on 10/07/2005 11:00:42 AM PDT by sionnsar
I agree with Kendall that the Fulcrum article is welcome, as is the CT letter of response. I have deep respect for Fulcrum and its authors, as well as for the authors of the critical letter in response. A measured and intelligent exchange of ideas among these persons about such an important matter in our common life can only teach us things we need to know. Indeed, I personally agree with aspects of both perspectives.
I disagree, however, with Kendalls judgment that Fulcrums article was unfortunate in its failure adequately to gauge (and inform itself about) the intention of the Nigerian Synods constitutional change. For the matter here 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 ones 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. Akinolas public hopes and prayers for the Communions 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 Englands 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 Nigerias, 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 to 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 Lords 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 Churchs conviction and teaching and Scriptures 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 Lords 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 Churchs 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 destroys the actual faith of the little ones and turns belief into despair and deforms 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 Lords Body, having and adhering to and upholding structures of accountability is a matter of the Gospel itself. It characterizes all of St. Pauls 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 Fulcrum 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?
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim is rector of Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado
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