By Canon Gary L'Hommedieu
Special to VirtueOnline
The Primates concluded their recent meeting in Alexandria with a breakthrough in consciousness: the Anglican Communion, so called, is no longer. Or perhaps, and more likely, it never was.
There is still something called The Anglican Communion, and this thing will live on for the indefinite future. The discovery in Alexandria was that the legal entity called the Anglican Communion is not what everyone thought it was, and, if it is anything at all, no one knows what for sure. Nor is it clear on what basis we might define it for the future.
Going into Alexandria there were all sorts of presuppositions about what those words "Anglican Communion" meant, but no one presupposition carried more weight than any other. In the end the various opinions revealed themselves to be just that--opinions, by nature personal and individual, even if many happened to share them.
Alexandria concluded with acknowledged ascendency of postmodern thinking, where there is nothing that lords it over the individual conscience--in short, no basis for truth. Each Provincial member adjourned to his or her own local "context" with its universe of truths. In a sadder but wiser "Communion" the Primates recognized it was time to move on.
I say the following not by way of criticism or of finding fault: the word "Anglican" now defies meaning. Queen Elizabeth's 500 year old experiment has foundered, but not on the shoals of theological liberalism as many suppose. The recent episodes of theological extremism in the Western Provinces should not have been possible. They are symptomatic of a Western mob psychology at war with itself. Theology in the West merely reflects the wider culture in its manic self-loathing and its thirst for revenge. A live theological tradition, one which loves its children enough to discipline them, would have had the resources to temper the influence of the mob.
Elizabeth's political formula for inclusion--the "genius" of Anglicanism--proved a failure when matters of theological principle were at stake. The political criterion of inclusion ended up trumping divine revelation. Truth was revealed to be secondary to political expediency. May it now rest in peace.
Let's review some of the classic examples of how that term "Anglican Communion" has derived its meaning, all the while setting the stage for the present evacuation of meaning.
Over the years some have thought of the Anglican Communion as a kind of shadow Catholicism--global in scope, sacramental in flavor. Others thought of it as a Western counterpart to Eastern Orthodoxy, an attempt to resurrect the Undivided Church of the first millennium according to a gospel minimalism certified by the English Reformers. This core gospel turned out to be Protestantism in vestments.
The theological authority in Protestantism is ultimately the individual, based upon the missionary emphasis of the local community. The Bible means whatever my people and I agree that it means. This is not necessarily bad. As Alister McGrath shows in "Christianity's Dangerous Idea", the Bible in the hands of individual interpreters is a force for liberation. It does, however, leave us wondering about that word "Communion". When our local disagreements are irreconcilable, it leaves us with no ecclesial alternative but to launch a new experiment, or perhaps to launch the old experiment all over again.
Some thought of the Anglican Communion as a chaplaincy of latter day English imperialism, the last precinct of Her Majesty's empire to see the sun go down. Now that that imperial sun has finally set, Anglicanism means something in the former colonies above and beyond what it meant in the Mother Country. Great Commission expansion has surpassed the economic expansionism of an earlier era.
Anglicanism might turn out to mean something after all, something that might form the basis for future theologizing, but "Anglican Communion" at present is an anachronism, a holdover from a former life that ended rather abruptly after giving birth to a robust progeny.
The consensus at Alexandria was that there is no consensus on the Faith, nor will there be. Provincial churches can now enter a welcome season of détente. Unlike the Griswoldian declarations of "peace when there is no peace," it is now clear that the era of pretending has come to an end. The feeling of relief was palpable in Alexandria, even if none of the presenting problems was solved.
Perhaps the presenting problems were only problems insofar as they were misnamed and hence misinterpreted. The Anglican Communion, such as it was, was never the sort of Church that was capable of heresy. It was not, we learn at long last, the sort of community from which one could be excommunicated. No leaven could penetrate such a lump. Nor, as it turns out, could there arise any real bread. The Communion was all for show. It was an occasion waiting for member churches to rise to it. It is the inability so to rise that was finally realized in Alexandria.
Properly stated, the old "problem" was irreconcilable only so long as its proper nature was unrecognized. The solution to the present impasse is for member provinces to go their separate ways when it suits them, to form appropriate alliances according to their several needs and opportunities, and perhaps to share polite company in the future. The pressure to embody a catholic ecclesial reality as a means to fabricate a preferred past is in vain.
The problem leading up to the breakup of Communion is not modern theological liberalism but, alas, good old Elizabethan comprehensiveness. While comprehensiveness made for a wonderful addition to the garden varieties of Reformed Christianity, it had the fateful defect of never being what it appeared to be, and perhaps never quite being anything at all.
Comprehensiveness is not a thing, not a doctrine or a position. Rather it is a set of institutional parameters within which a variety of things, doctrines and positions can coexist up to a limit. That limit had never been defined, and so comprehensiveness was received on faith as a sort of doctrine. Recently the American and Canadian Churches have crossed a line that has forced the member Churches to recognize that there never was a consensus on what it meant to be part of the Communion. In retrospect, the Anglican churches have always been filled with mutually exclusive theological positions. For example, Anglo-Catholics who uphold the sacramental priesthood and transubstantiation as essential to the Faith have appeared to agree with their Reformed brethren in their varying degrees of Calvinism based on a professed reverence for the scriptures and creeds. Philosophically this is impossible: Christ cannot be simultaneously really present and really absent in the Eucharistic elements, even though Anglicans in good standing in a single congregation have acknowledged just that purported reality. While unacknowledged, the locus of theological authority had been consigned to the individual in a covenant of silence. Only so could irreconcilable opposites be called "agreement". This is the seedbed of the future liberalism where the individual conscience is honored as an expediency for the sake of the peace.
In the present example, classic high and low churchmen shared a belief in the idea of theological authority, and therefore of theological limits. Each could give the other the benefit of the doubt that they shared the same idea as long as no one pushed the limits of interpretation to a point where a consensus could no longer be pretended.
In the Episcopal Church a critical point was reached with the admission of women to the sacramental priesthood. For strict Anglo-Catholics this was a direct repudiation of the revealed order of the Church and hence the end of Catholicism within the Episcopal Church. The rest of the Anglican Communion raised an eyebrow but committed itself to incorporate the innovation for the sake of the peace.
The fatal blow came with the claim that active homosexual practice was consistent with Christian tradition, based upon an esoteric reading of the Biblical text, or on a postmodern theory of the Bible's authority for Anglicans, or both. The fact that the innovators and the traditionalists could not agree that the Bible could admit such a novel interpretation meant that each presupposed a differing set of parameters for comprehensiveness. It was not the discovery of something new so much as the shocking realization that they never agreed to begin with. It was now undeniable that a line had been crossed.
Once such a limit has been reached, the basis for doing any subsequent theologizing must be given a name. The inability or the unwillingness to name the theological authority for the Communion has marked the end of Elizabeth's experiment in religion. The pressure is off to continue pretending it into existence.
In the democratic West comprehensiveness is defended as an end in itself. Indeed, comprehensiveness, once an expediency of the English crown, has become for many all that remains of the Christian gospel. Or rather, it is all that "today's Christian" can be expected to affirm, in all seriousness. Elizabeth's political doctrine and nothing else is what the American Episcopal Church means by the word "Anglican".
The intuited limit of comprehensiveness has been exposed in the recent travails of the Communion. The boundaries have not held, or rather the actual boundaries have finally been revealed. The Primates are agreed, based on their latest intuition, that the historic boundaries cannot hold. The Anglican experiment has not so much failed as run aground. The ecclesial waters turned out to be shallower than anyone expected.
What remains of the word "Anglican"? At present it is the name of a federation of provincial churches that share a common history and religious culture. No one likes that word--federation. It makes us self-conscious in our sumptuous medieval garb that bespeaks the catholic consciousness of another age. That doesn't mean it doesn't accurately describe the organization of what is inaccurately called the Anglican Communion.
It is impossible to call these autonomous churches "catholic" because there is no catholic authority. The Reformation DNA comes to light in the question of whose reading of the Bible carries weight. The Anglican churches are essentially comprised of individuals who have implicitly agreed to follow the lead of their local clergy in the reading of scripture, at least in public, knowing all the while that they can defer to their own private reading at any point. The basis for doing theology resides in the individual.
The moral of this laborious tale is... make the most of it. Get out and save souls. Get on with the next phase of the Reformation. Whatever that may be we will likely learn from our Anglican brethren in what was once called the Third World.
The message of Alexandria is that it's time to stop pretending.
---The Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon for Pastoral Care at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando, Florida, and a regular columnist for VirtueOnline.