Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future

Yesterday (Monday 27th July 2009), the Archbishop of Canterbury issued his reflections on the Episcopal Church's (TEC) 2009 General Convention for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion. It is a very measured and studied response in the style of an encyclical letter. It is a reflection stemming from a mind of faith and knowledge, trying to steer a flock forward in a time when the temptation is to tear itself apart. Some will consider it as the usual Anglican fudge, others a betrayal of liberal principles that Rowan Williams seemed to espouse some time ago. As is said the office makes the man, and here we have a sensitive Archbishop gifted with wisdom as he assists the Church in turmoil. If you would like to read the full text, you can find it here.
My reflections revolve around two points.
The Archbishop explains that the LGBT debate in Church “is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage. In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding. This is not our situation in the Communion. Thus a blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority of the Church Catholic, or even of the Communion as a whole. And if this is the case, a person living in such a union is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond; whatever the human respect and pastoral sensitivity such persons must be given, their chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church's teaching sanctions, and thus it is hard to see how they can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires. In other words, the question is not a simple one of human rights or human dignity. It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences. So long as the Church Catholic, or even the Communion as a whole does not bless same-sex unions, a person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle. (There is also an unavoidable difficulty over whether someone belonging to a local church in which practice has been changed in respect of same-sex unions is able to represent the Communion's voice and perspective in, for example, international ecumenical encounters.)”
As I am encouraged with this I can see the identical argument that has been put forward by Forward in Faith in the last two decades. I am sure that what the Archbishop argues about one departure from the norm is equally valid from a different and yet as big as departure from the practice of the Church Catholic. With the same ecumenical implications, as Cardinal Kasper and the Russian Orthodox Church have pointed out clearly to the Church of England, as regards the admittance of women to Holy Orders.
The second point (fundamentally being the perennial question of authority in the Anglican Church) is the one of how a local church makes up its mind on a sensitive and controversial matter. The Archbishop says: “When a local church seeks to respond to a new question, to the challenge of possible change in its practice or discipline in the light of new facts, new pressures, or new contexts, as local churches have repeatedly sought to do, it needs some way of including in its discernment the judgement of the wider Church. Without this, it risks becoming unrecognisable to other local churches, pressing ahead with changes that render it strange to Christian sisters and brothers across the globe…it should be clear that an acceptance of these sorts of innovation in sacramental practice would represent a manifest change in both the teaching and the discipline of the Anglican tradition, such that it would be a fair question as to whether the new practice was in any way continuous with the old. Hence the question of 'recognisability' once again arises.” Again the Archbishop hits it on the head, but is this not equally true about the departure from the norm that is the innovation of women’s ordination?
The Archbishop says: “But perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a 'two-track' model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage…” Maybe what Forward in Faith called a Third Province is in fact some sort of a two-track model too. A two-track model is coherent with the Anglican view of comprehensiveness, even though I have some reservations as I think about what the mean between two extremes really means (Nicomachean Ethics). After further reflection I might be able to live with a two-track model, what I find very difficult is two standards of reasoning about core matters of the Faith Catholic.

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