Communion Matters XII: The Elements of Communion 1: the Council

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To review, this year-long series, from a variety of angles, aims to make one point:  that our identity as Episcopalians, which is to say Anglicans in the United States in communion with Canterbury, is global. Communion in both the most immediate and the most expansive senses, is not an optional add-on, but constitutive of who we are as Christians. And in this regard we have a rich and specific history about which we benefit by knowing.

What holds us together as a Church, a people, beyond those social bonds true of any social organization? The most important ‘ties that bind’ are simply Christian, and so are true for us as well as Christians of other traditions: the Scriptures, (for most, the Creeds by which to interpret them), the water and bread and wine, and some kind of ministry. (In our case the latter takes the widespread and traditional form of the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon).  But what things have served to hold us together as Anglicans, across cultures?  In these seven blog entries we will consider some of the ligaments that have, or should, hold the Anglican Communion together. 

Taking counsel is found from the earliest time in the New Testament- the apostles finding a replacement for Judas for example, and Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to resolve issues over the place of Gentile believers.  These in time came to take place at more local and more general levels; longevity and ubiquity of teaching mattered (though it sometimes required a debate to figure out if there actually was continuity of teaching, as with the Arian heresy which our Nicene Creed is responding to).  In later centuries councils became less frequent, though the need for them was felt in the later medieval period, to purify the Church of corruptions. This came to be called the conciliar movement, and even in the Reformation period there were (unsuccessful) calls for a council to resolve differences. 

In the Reformation period the emphasis on the national nature of Churches was emphasized, especially in resistance against control by Rome. The newly protestant churches shared teaching (though they fought as well). In the 18th century, nascent churches began in new places in the world where trade took people, especially as ministries grew out of chaplaincies (for example in India), or immigration (for example in the Americans colonies).  But in the 19th century, new churches also sprang up as a result of deliberate missionary work (especially in Africa, Asia).  In each case there was an assumption of ‘national churches’, though this sometimes proved more difficult than it seemed. In the later 19th century, disagreements among Anglicans (for example over issues like polygamy in the surrounding culture, as well as debates over the episcopate), led to a sense of the need to consult, more widely, as Anglicans. The resistance to anything resembling Roman Catholic structure ensured that these councils would be more informal and advisory, though they did have considerable influence.  The best example of this is the Lambeth Conference of bishops from across the world. They have gathered every decade since 1867 (though sometimes delayed by things like world wars and pandemics!). While the Conference (which will gather again in August) does not determine doctrine, it does provide an opportunity to ‘take counsel together,’ and it does influence teaching over the long-haul. 

It is, by the way, in this context that the proposal of a (voluntary) Anglican Covenant was made, according to which Churches that chose to hold themselves accountable to one another, could have disputes adjudicated by taking counsel with one another.  This proposal came to be caught up in the political maestrom that ensued, but the idea of a council that combined choice on the part of a national church, and accountability, seemed very Anglican. We find something similar in the more recent proposal for a Covenant by Churches of the Global South. This may in time provide the impetus for the kind of deliberation over time that questions of doctrine, morals, and culture require.

The question of a Church council leads to several more themes of Anglicans in Communion, which I will consider in the next post.

Communion Matters XI: The Great New Fact

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This is actually a sentence spoken by the great Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner in the middle of the 20th century to note the great demographic shift in world Christianity which had already then begun and has accelerated. In our world it is sometimes summarized by the statement that the typical Anglican is African, female, and in her 20’s.  In a scholarly mode, this shift has been noted by the Church historian Philip Jenkins in the best-seller, The Next Christendom, which both looks back to the history of the Churches of the global south in order to look forward to the day, now here, when these Churches will take the lead. (He goes on, I might add, to note that global Christians are no longer far away, but down the street or across the town, which is true for us in the diocese). Recent stats from the Anglican priest/ demographer David Goodhew said that, in the last 50 years, while we in North American have been halved in membership down to 2.5 million, Africa has grown from 7 to 56 million communicants.

You might ask how this came to be, and there are many reasons. Change had, for example, come upon African society in the earlier 20th century, which sometimes opened people to new religious possibilities as well. (For example, in Buganda Christians were called msomi, those who can read, to denote this new, horizon expanding ability).  In some places conversion conformed to the religion of the colonizers, though elsewhere the dynamic was quite different. Features of the Christian faith like healing or the ‘communion of the saints’ aligned to traditional belief, but directed to a new Lord.

However I would also like to stress that ancient features of conversion proved decisive as well, for example martyrdom (for example again Uganda). And in my own experience, quite simply, the practice of witnessing to neighbors, continually, is crucial. There is no reason we cannot follow the example of global brothers and sisters! 

+GRS

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.

Amen.

GRS