February 18, 2010

Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence

It is not often that I find an essay from the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI) to be genuinely helpful, but “The Making and re-making of Episcopal Canon Law” by the Rev. Robert W. Prichard, the Arthur Lee Kinsolving Professor of Christianity in America at the Virginia Theological Seminary, is a welcome exception. Prichard has given us a brief history of the Episcopal Church’s constitution and canons, with special attention to three periods: that of the founding of the church; the period of extensive revision at the beginning of the twentieth century; and the 1960s, in which the end of colonialism led to some rethinking of the nature of the Anglican Communion.

Although I have a suspicion, conditioned by long experience with the ACI, that the Prichard essay is part of wider ideological campaign, “Making and re-making,” taken in isolation, seems both factual and objective. I have a few quibbles, but they mostly involve clarifications I would like to have seen, rather than objections to Prichard’s explicit assertions or opinions.

What I found especially intriguing was the discussion of Prichard’s third period of interest, which is discussed under the heading “The Church in a Big World.” The central event of this time was the third Anglican Congress held in Toronto in the summer of 1963. “Roughly a thousand delegates attended from throughout the Anglican world,” Prichard explains. “Many came from churches in newly independent or soon-to-be independent former British colonies in Africa and Asia.” This unofficial Anglican gathering produced the declaration “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ.”

I had already been thinking about the term “interdependent,” which, in Anglican discussions of the past few years, is often and confusingly juxtaposed to “autonomous.” To describe an Anglican church as “autonomous and interdependent” has always seemed oxymoronic. I understand “autonomous,” but in what sense are Anglican churches “interdependent,” and why is that seen as a given, as self-evident, or even as desirable? Reading “Making and re-making” reminded me of the source of the phrase “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ,” something I should have remembered from paragraph 8 of the Windsor Report. (Actually, the Windsor Report seems to have misquoted the phrase as “mutual interdependence and responsibility in the Body of Christ,” but it quoted all the right words, even if it permuted them a bit.)

In the draft Anglican covenant text, “interdependence” appears three times. “Autonomy” appears four times, once in the phrase “autonomy and accountability” and once juxtaposed to the clause “while upholding our mutual responsibility and interdependence.” Although “interdependence” is never defined nor its scope explicated in the proposed covenant or, as far as I can discern, anywhere else, it is clear from the overall thrust of the revised Ridley Cambridge draft that interdependence is a limitation imposed on provincial autonomy. The effect of “interdependence” in light of the covenant is that virtually any province can object (and potentially block) any action of any other province. “Interdependence” between Anglican churches in this sense is neither reasonable nor desirable, but I will save the arguments for this assertion for another day. Instead, let us cast our gaze back to 1963.

First, an aside: the 1963 Congress was not a gathering only of bishops, but its major product, in lamentable Anglican style, is written in the voice of bishops. The text begins: “Meeting for the first time since Lambeth 1958, we have spent two weeks considering the present needs and duties of our churches in every part of the world.”

The text quickly gets to the main theme of the document:
It is a platitude to say that in our time, areas of the world which have been thought of as dependent and secondary are suddenly striding to the center of the stage, in a new and breath-taking independence and self-reliance. … It is now irrelevant to talk of “giving” and “receiving” churches. The keynotes of our time are equality, interdependence, and mutual responsibility.
The document then asserts three “central truths” (italics in the original):
The Church’s mission is response to the living God Who in His love creates, reveals, judges, redeems, fulfills. It is He Who moves through our history to teach and to save, Who calls us to receive His love, to learn, to obey and to follow.
Our unity in Christ, expressed in our full communion, is the most profound bond among us, in all our political and racial and cultural diversity.
The time has fully come when this unity and interdependence must find a completely new level of expression and corporate obedience.
As becomes obvious in the next section, what all this means is that the emerging churches of the communion continue to need financial and human resources contributed by the more established churches, but the younger churches expect mission not to be dictated by the donors but worked out coöperatively. It is actually amazing how indirectly this simple message is stated—there’s that Anglican-speak again—but it cannot be missed. This is really the meaning of “mutual responsibility and interdependence.” In particular, “interdependence” is not the alternative to independence, but the alternative to dependence. The Congress was declaring that churches should work together, not dictate to one another or insist on some kind of doctrinal unity. Significantly, “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence” acknowledges, without apology, “our political and racial and cultural diversity.” Its call is for working together in mission:
Finally, we must face maturely and without sentimentality the nature of the Anglican Communion, and the implications for us all of the one Lord Whose single mission holds us together in one Body. To use the words “older” or “younger” or “sending” or “receiving” with respect to churches is unreal and untrue in the world and in our Communion. Mission is not the kindness of the lucky to the unlucky; it is mutual, united obedience to the one God Whose mission it is. The form of the Church must reflect that.
So what happened between 1963 and, say, 2004? A catch phrase that entered the Anglican vocabulary as a plea for coöperative work in mission, seen largely in terms of evangelism, became detached from its original context and was transformed into a weapon to be used against the more liberal churches of the Communion. Ironically, “interdependent,” a term intended to rescue emerging Anglican churches from becoming merely compliant mendicants is being used to turn more established Anglican churches into guilt-ridden and compliant donors.

Since 1963, Anglican churches have become interdependent, in the sense that they regularly work together on mission goals. Becoming “interdependent” was never intended to turn autonomous churches into one another’s nannies, however. It is time to declare that, in particular, The Episcopal Church is accountable to its members and to God, not to members who have deserted it or to foreign Anglican churches that understand neither our church nor the society in which it operates.

No Anglican Covenant

Mark Harris’s January 28, 2007, post “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence Incarnate” is also helpful in discerning what “mutual responsibility and interdependence” was originally intended to mean. The link to Bishop Mdimi Mhogolo’s letter in that post is no longer current, however. You can find the letter, however, at Daily Episcopalian.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, interdependence means nothing without autonomy. Interdependence means dependent on each other - stress on the other.

    Autonomous means independent, not in the sense of not being dependent, but in the sense of not having my actions controlled by others. Likewise, I can be autonomous and still have a responsibility to others. Indeed, responsibility is sapped of meaning if I am not autonomous.

    I agree, Lionel, that the writers in 1963 knew exactly what they were saying. There is no oxymoron.


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