Dear Brothers and Sisters, greetings in Christ.
This is an important week in the life of the Anglican Communion, the meeting of the primates of all the member churches to address our frayed relations. I am sure there will be more to say once we know the outcome, which at present is very murky. There has been a great deal of speculation: will It be the beginning of a demotion of the status of TEC? Or conversely the renegotiating of the communion into more of a federation? What role will Canterbury choose to play in it all?
At this moment I want to assume more the role of one of those commentators before the big game - they suggest something to keep your eye on, the pass rush of one team or the running game of the other.
Here is an important question we might ask ourselves: what exactly do we mean by 'communion'? We might speak of 'impaired communion' or 'sharing communion.' About what exactly are we speaking and about whom are we speaking? Somewhere along the way these will be important questions, and they have a bearing on ecclesiology itself, on what we imagine the Church to be.
While 'communion' might refer to various things, here at least are three. First there is the relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. This was key in the historical development of the sister national and regional churches we now find. It was the ABC after all who first gathered all the bishops of the Anglican world to Lambeth in the face of controversy in 1867. (It is worth noting that this relation has constitutional weight in our church). Secondly there are the means of taking council together as a communion which have grown up over the years. These 'instruments of unity' comprise different means by which they can consider discipline and participation. Who can go to the Conference or to the Anglican Consultative Council are questions which have been debated over the past decade. Thirdly, there is the question, more literally of who may have communion among whom. Now we as a church take an easier approach to who may take communion than who may preside at communion- we give Methodists communion but don't let their ministers celebrate. So this sense of 'communion' involves more local, case-by-case judgments. For example the church in the South Sudan recently stated that it considered itself out of communion with TEC, but still in communion with a diocese like Dallas.
My point is simply this: since 'communion' means several things, it might be that there could be multiple effects of the present deliberations. One could, for example, be at once 'in communion' with Canterbury, separated from the councils of the church, and yet locally still 'in communion' with a variegated group of churches of various stripes. What boxing calls a 'split decision' is quite possible. We shall have to wait and see.
All of this is a working out of what the late bishop Stephen Sykes called 'dispersed authority.' Whom we answer to and how is varied. This is at once our strength and our weakness. Authority is also, by no accident, the Achilles heel of postmodern Western culture.
In the midst of it all it is good to remember that in normative, 'mere' Christianity, authority is ultimately lodged with Jesus Christ himself, witnessed to by the canonical Scriptures and read in keeping with the creeds. Ecclesial struggles matter. But on this rock even frayed communion can be rewoven.
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