Thoughts on ‘our’ Anglican communion; Justin’s potential genius.

So ++Justin is calling for a meeting of Anglicanisms most senior leaders to discuss the future shape of the ‘Anglican Communion.’ Good on him! It is a conversation that needs to happen. 

When I was training for ordination I was invited each Wednesday afternoon to attend a seminar on ‘Anglican identity.’ I can honestly say that I found it the most depressing two hours of the week!

We never really managed to get to grips with what is the supposed Anglican identity. Is there one? Or do we define it in different and diverse ways? And, what does it mean, in this day and age to say with confidence,clarity of purpose and, integrity of intent that ‘we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church?’

Even on this statement, which supposedly represents our core theology of the Church, we have no substantive agreement.  Some wish to distinguish between apostles and disciples, some believe the terms to be more or less identical. (The guidance note to the ordinal, from the House of Bishops, in relation to the Apostolic Succession, uncomfortably for some, makes it abundantly clear that the Church of England continues to believe in the ‘Apostolic Succession). Some regard ‘catholic and apostolic’ to be two different clauses within the creed, others believe this to be a liberal rewriting of the creed, arguing that the terms can not be separated out.  I tend towards the latter view!

So we already, as a ‘communion,’ have very different understandings over our core articles of belief, expressed through the ‘catholic creeds.’ We just don’t acknowledge it, or like to admit, too often! It’s not polite!

In other areas we either explicitly, or tacitly, permit substantive disagreement. Take the sacraments and, especially the Eucharist for instance:

I would describe myself as a’sacramental conservative.’ I believe that the real presence is somehow, mysteriously, made manifest through participation in the Eucharist, because Jesus told us so, and that the Eucharist should be central to our worship because he said ‘do this!’

Taking communion once a month, guided by a theology that suggests that ‘the Lord’s Supper’ is solely  a commemoration of the last supper is, to my mind, a very liberal interpretation. Yet, many, with integrity, would robustly disagree.

Whilst theoretically sharing a common liturgy or liturgies (in the case of the Church of England the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship) we also differ in the way we incorporate both our beliefs about, for instance, the significance of the Communion of the Saints and the breadth of Church history into the standard liturgy. If you take my ‘home city’ of Oxford for example, some churches will today commemorate Hildergard of Bingen, whilst for other churches her ‘saints day,’ will be a complete non issue.

Perhaps, one feature of Anglicanism is that we are a church in  disagreement. We share a set of common affirmations and  practices (or we are at least supposed to) but we already take the words and practices to mean different things. And, as ++Justin says, because ‘we have no Pope,’ we recognize and live with the reality of this situation. And, many would say that is a good thing; it is already the living embodiment of ‘good disagreement.’

I would also suggest that subconsciously our current arrangements celebrate a significant theological principle: subsidiarity. According to the Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops prior to the General Election subsidiarity is:

‘The principle that decisions should be devolved to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness.’

I would slightly expand the definition by amending the clause ‘decisions should be devolved to the lowest level……’ to ‘decisions and resulting practices should be devolved to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness.’

Who decides on issues of ‘effectiveness’ would then follow as the next logical question. My response, and it is one validated through the Christian leadership tradition (the Rule of Benedict, for instance), would be taken from the definition: ‘the lowest level;’ the parish, or distinctive missionary community.

Subsidiarity can, therefore, be used in two ways:

Firstly, as an epistemological lens to critique reality, including the tendency for groups to claim subsidiarity for themselves irrespective of institutional endorsement.

Christian communities always have, and will always continue to, bring different levels of meaning to a range of common and binding practices. The Anglo Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Oxford, as already indicated, are already the living embodiment of subsidiarity. And, even within these broad groupings there are significant differences!

We can pretend that the differences ‘ the mystical we’ currently accommodate are trifling compared to the ‘big issues,’ but this would surely be a very ‘liberal’ reading of both history and current reality? And, the ‘big issues’ to some extent are only ‘big issues,’ because they are current issues?! And, individual priests and congregations will apply the principle of subsidiarity to these issues in any case. It is already happening and cannot be stopped as Archbishop Justin recognizes.

Subsidiarity in both its negative (we will not….)guise and its positive, (we will……) guise is there for the taking. A wise church leader recognizes this. And, the degree to which subsidiarity will be claimed depends on a number of issues, one of which is the broader socio-political landscape. Theological vacuums simply don’t exist, except in the mind of the most abstract theorists.

Secondly, subsidiarity can be used as a guiding,  binding, future oriented principle. I hope, and think, that this is ++Justin’s hope. If Justin’s plan works he will have pulled off two master strokes of leadership. He will have managed to persuade Anglicanisms’ most senior leaders to recognize reality (and many leaders run a mile from reality) whilst reshaping Anglicanism as an expression of Christianity that celebrates, subsidiarity as an expression of catholicity. And, that really would be a stroke of genius!

Justin’s intention is to re-shape the Anglican Communion. But, could the consequences of his project have far greater implications? I think they might. I think they could just provide a shining example for all denominations who week-by-week declare that we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Justin’s plan has consequences, for ‘better of for worse,’ way beyond the narrow, and somewhat artificial parameters, of Anglicanism?

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