Monday, 21 July 2008
The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner
The Anglican Communion Institute
Shortly before the opening of the Lambeth Conference (now in progress) the Rt. Rev. Clayton Matthews of the office of TEC’s Presiding Bishops circulated a memo to all TEC bishops planning to attend. The memo is entitled “Lambeth Talking Points” and is intended to guide and shape the comments of TEC’s bishops in their discussions with other bishops from other parts of the Anglican Communion. The memo is revealing for several reasons. (1) It is an obvious attempt to give uniform shape and content to the contribution TEC’s bishops have to make; (2) it reveals what TEC’s leadership intends the outcome of the conference to be; and (3) displays what the theology is that lies behind the uniform position TEC’s leadership hopes to establish as that of the Communion as a whole.
It is revealing that the introduction to the memo states that a method of communication is being proposed that “will provide the media with no more “than they want or can use.” It is manifestly also a method designed to keep a large group of people “on message” so that TEC’s bishops will remain on the same page. It is manifest also that the memo signals a hardened position on the part of TEC’s Episcopal leadership that runs counter to the spirit the Archbishop of Canterbury has asked to guide the bishops in their deliberations—a spirit of mutual subjection in Christ that is open to correction.
From the outset it is important to note that the central purpose of the memo (to keep TEC’s bishops on message) runs in a completely contrary direction to that of its central theological message--one that, as will become clear, amounts not to a call to unity but to a celebration of diversity. The controlling idea of the memo is that the American bishops ought to arrive at Lambeth with a single “core message” that does not in fact reflect on their own part the diversity they call for in others.
This uniform message is to be presented using three supporting points comprised of references to scripture, statistics, and anecdotes drawn either from personal experience or from one’s community or congregation. It is a message intended to establish the right of TEC to go its own way in defiance of the requests of all the Communion’s Instruments of Communion.
What then is the “core message” TEC’s leadership is proposing? The memo goes on to suggest two iterations that turn out to be virtually the same. The first is, “At the Lambeth Conference the bishops of the Anglican Communion renew our deep unity in Christ.” As a core message, these words seem both truthful and in accord with the tradition of the conference. That is, they seem truthful and faithful to tradition until one takes a close look at the three supporting ideas that are meant to give content to the core message.
The first is that we are a community that “celebrates both unity and diversity.” Again, we have a statement that any reader of Paul ought to find perfectly correct. The apostle insists, after all, that there are “diverse gifts, but one Spirit.” The unity Christians both enjoy and celebrate is one that joins God’s diverse people in a fellowship of love and witness by means of which the diverse gifts of each are put to common purpose. Some of the talking points suggested by the memo make just this point. For example, “The Anglican Communion is a network of relationships across cultural, political and economic boundaries.” However, the reader is soon led in another and quite different direction by these supporting ideas. (1) “Baptism in Christ demands that we always (emphasis added) welcome each other in our journey in faith” and (2) “Jesus did not call us to agree but to love as he loves.”
The memo is on solid ground when it roots our unity in Baptism (as indeed it does). However, the ground rapidly turns to quick sand when we are told that we always welcome each other on our journey in faith and that we are not called to agree but to love as Christ loves. This latter point is later given warrant by the misleading statement that “even Peter and Paul didn’t agree”—the implication here being that they did and could disagree about matters central to Christian belief and practice in ways that did not require reconciliation.
Athanasius and Irenaeus, not to mention Paul and John, would hardly agree that we always welcome others on their journey in faith. They would want to know where the journey in question is taking someone before a warm welcome is given. And they certainly would not chant with the Beatles and Bishop Matthew’s memo “All you need is love. Love is all you need.” For both the apostles and the church fathers, there were unacceptable forms of both belief and behavior. For both the apostles and the church fathers it is precisely love that demands that we come to agreement on these matters.
It is these two qualifications of Christian unity that tip the reader off to the fact that TEC’s leadership is advocating not a form of communion but a form of federation joined by affection, even love, but not by mutually recognized forms of belief and practice.
The TEC memo is in fact proposing a post modern, de-centered church joined not by mutual recognition of belief and practice but by allegiance to a common mission. So the second core message of the memo is “When Anglicans work together through the power of the Holy Spirit, we change the world.” What the memo means by this statement is made clear at several points. In Supporting Idea Three of the first core message we are told, “the reconciling work of Christ is at the heart of our common life.” This statement is absolutely true. However, the supporting point that follows immediately on indicates that reconciliation is adequately described by “justice, love, mercy, the healing of creation, and the end of poverty.” It would appear that Paul’s statement that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” can be adequately rendered by the millennium goals. The memo renders reconciliation in entirely moral terms. The central issue before us is our reconciliation with God from whom we are estranged. This point is utterly missing from the memo’s account of what Anglicans do when they “work together.” Failure to address this point indicates that TEC’s leadership has failed to grasp the primary worry its critics from around the communion have. To be sure, they are offended by the consecration of Gene Robinson and by the increasingly common practice of blessing sexual unions between persons of the same gender. More fundamental, however, is a concern that TEC’s gospel message is not in the first instance one about the saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection but about a moral responsibility for the ills of the world. Their concern is that in TEC’s rendition of the gospel, the tail is wagging the dog and not the dog the tail.
The previous point is crucial to an adequate evaluation both of TEC’s goals at the present gathering of our bishops in Canterbury and the theology that lies at the base of these goals. The memo contends in the last supporting idea it offers, “the church has focused on its mission rather than its disagreements in order to remain faithful.” The implication is that the mission of the church has nothing to do with the matters that now so divide the Communion—that we can do mission while in fundamental disagreement about the content of the Christian gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth! To equate the Christian gospel with the moral agenda of peace and justice is as false as it is to say that the Christian gospel has nothing to do with peace and justice. It is precisely the nature of the church’s mission that lies at the heart of our present distress. To call for the communion to join in common mission and yet pass over divergent views of the gospel is in fact incoherent.
Those of us who look to our bishops to speak truthfully about our real circumstances can only hope and pray that the incoherence of what TEC is proposing will be pointed out in no uncertain terms. If not, a “core message” that is patently false and rigidly held will take center stage, and the disproportionate number of TEC bishops will allow them to remain there. It will render the conference impotent. It will effectively derail the practice of mutual subjection upon which the future of our Communion depends.