January 9, 2007

Do We Need the Anglican Communion?

In preparation for a post I was planning to make regarding the upcoming primates’ meeting, I had listed all the advantages of being in the Anglican Communion that I could think of off the top of my head. Before I got a chance to write my essay, however, I read a post called “Revisiting ‘The Question’” on the blog daily episcopalian. The lead paragraph of Jim Naughton’s post was the following:
It’s time to ponder once again whether membership in the Anglican Communion is actually worth it. Today I’m wondering whether it is an asset in evangelism.
It was difficult not to see this as a challenge to address the general question of whether The Episcopal Church actually benefited from its membership in the Communion. I therefore left a rather long comment on the blog addressing that question. The issue seemed important enough, however, that I thought it would be useful to reproduce my commentary here, with as few changes as necessary.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that, until a few years ago, The Episcopal Church’s being in the Anglican Communion was largely a blessing. Membership of late, however, has become—to put it as delicately as possible—a thorn in our side. Alas, the situation threatens to get worse and never get better, as reactionary forces turn what had been a fellowship into a tyranny. My remarks, then, are not meant to address what the Anglican Communion has been in the past, but only what it is now and what it—inevitably, it would seem—is becoming. It may be possible to avoid the dark, totalitarian Anglican Communion I see in the future, but, to do so, The Episcopal Church and its allies—we do have allies—will need to challenge the primates and their allies who intend to deliver that future. I am not hopeful, but, if we cannot save the Communion from this madness, perhaps we will at least be able to save part of it.

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Here is my list of the major benefits of belonging to the Anglican Communion:
  1. Clergy are easily exchanged between members.

  2. We have the opportunity to discuss matters of mutual interest.

  3. Travelers can identify churches in foreign lands in which they may comfortably worship.

  4. Certain kinds of mission are facilitated (e.g., relief efforts following a natural disaster can be co-ordinated through the local Anglican community).

  5. Ecumenical efforts (e.g., discussions with the Roman Catholics) can be pursued by the Communion, rather than by individual churches.

  6. Association with a “75-million-member Communion” gives The Episcopal Church a certain perceived significance in the public mind that it would not have when seen only as a “2.2-million member” church.

  7. There are miscellaneous advantages to clergy, and, to a lesser degree, laypeople (e.g., once-a-decade junkets for bishops to England, opportunities for primates to pad their résumés).
We can disregard (7) as largely trivial.

Item (1) is primarily a benefit to clergy (and, perhaps, congregations). The number of people directly affected, in practice, is small, and one could imagine other arrangements being adequate in the absence of a Communion.

Items (2) and (3) are quite real, but, as certain elements of the Communion exchange their Anglican heritage for Puritanism, discussion becomes more irritating than helpful, and finding a place to worship in a foreign land becomes as troublesome as it might be without a Communion. Of course, Anglicans from other provinces are also drawn to Episcopal churches because of our Anglican connection, and our formal disconnection from the Anglican Communion could be confusing to them and harmful to some of our parishes.

Item (4) is real, but Anglican churches are not everywhere, and organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development are very good at what they do, irrespective of whether there are Anglican resources on the ground or not.

There is value in (5), I suppose, both for us and our partners in discussion. On the other hand, individual churches are likely to engage in the discussions that matter most (think of our relationship with the ELCA and our discussion with the Methodists). I realize that many will disagree with me, but I consider the Communion’s discussions with the Roman Catholic Church to be, at best, a complete waste of time, at least in my lifetime. At worst, they allow for unelected negotiators to sell out our beliefs in the name of an elusive Christian unity.

Item (6) is real, but, as Jim Naughton pointed out in his daily episcopalian post, this cuts both ways. If we are seen as associating with bigots and Fundamentalists, how is our public image as a church enhanced?

On the negative side of the ledger, we are now regularly told how defective both our theology and our polity are, and our enemies within our church are regularly given aid and comfort by our Anglican brothers. (We don’t hear much from our Anglican sisters.) And we are ever being told what we can and cannot do.

All in all, Anglican Communion membership doesn’t seem like such a great deal, does it?

What about Christian unity—that we all may be one, and all that? Well, I do not believe that Christian unity requires Christian uniformity. If God had a particular theology he expected all of us to follow, he screwed up big time in letting us know what that is. I grew up Presbyterian and considered myself a good Christian. I am now an Episcopalian and consider myself a good Christian. If, tomorrow, I join the United Church of Christ, my feelings about my Christianity will not have changed. I consider my Anglican brothers and sisters fellow Christians, but my view of Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, and Baptists is the same. We are all part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, even if we do not agree on everything.

But what about Apostolic succession, you ask. It is a lovely, romantic concept, but I do not believe it is magic. All Christians are sons and daughters of the Apostles, even though our take on Christianity may be different. Christ does not call us to be and do exactly what first-century converts were called to. Hello! The world has changed. We know more than we did then. The needs of the world are different than they were then (though, surely, many of the old needs remain).

The Anglican Communion is not an end in itself or a good in itself. If it facilitates the mission of The Episcopal Church, we should embrace it enthusiastically. It is increasingly difficult to hold that it does, however. It is time for us—and for our Presiding Bishop—to work for the health and mission of The Episcopal Church, rather than for the peace and quiet of the Anglican Communion. If we truly believe in what we see as our mission, we are failing our God if we do not advance and defend it.

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