Why has THE EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS become so important to Anglicans? And why should we prayerfully study it this Fall in our parishes?
With six short chapters, the Epistle [of Paul] to the Ephesians has been the focus of much attention in the last few years by some of the “leadership” of the Anglican Communion of Churches.
Why the attention? Apparently because of its clear teaching on the vocation of the Church to unity and communion. The background in the Anglican family is that there have been tensions and stresses in the relations of dioceses one to another within provinces and then also between provinces. The presenting problems in chronological order were the ordination of women as deacons, priests and bishops; the blessing of same-sex couples; and the ordaining of actively homosexual persons in same-sex partnerships.
So, the New Testament was searched to find a short and easily accessed portion to describe, emphasize and call for unity in real fellowship in the Spirit – and somehow (I do not know exactly when and how) the Letter to the Ephesians was chosen.
Here I commend the slow reading of the Epistle to my readers, asking them to note just how much the unity of the Church of Christ is emphasized, and, with this, the solemn duty of all baptized Christians to make this unity practical and real in the life of the congregation of Christ’s flock. It also addresses what are these days called “sexual relations” and does so in the light of the “marriage” of Christ Jesus and his Bride, the Church – again a word that American Anglicans need to hear.
If we now leave the New Testament for a moment and turn to the reports from Anglican Commissions in recent years, three stand out as being of importance, not necessarily because their content is of consistently high quality, but rather because they have been given such weight and prestige within the family of Anglican Churches. The reports are The Eames Commission Report (TER) of 1994; The Virginia Report (TVR) of 1998 and The Windsor Report (TWR) of 2004.
TVR (as had done TER) seeks to ground the (cherished) unity in diversity of the Churches of the Anglican Family in the communion (koinonia) of the Three Persons within the Undivided Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
And TWR begins its discussion of communion from the content of the Letter to the Ephesians, with help from related material in 1 Corinthians. As TWR has become so central to debates and discussion within the Anglican Family (note such expressions as “Windsor process” and “Windsor compliant” commonly in use in 2006) so the importance of The Letter to the Ephesians has also developed as a basis for thinking of the nature of the communion (koinonia, fellowship) which was believed to exist in the past and it is hoped will once again exist in the future.
There is an excellent summary and critique of both TVR and TWR by Philip Turner in the book that he co-authored with Ephraim Radner and entitled, The Fate of Communion. The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Eerdmans, 2006). I commend this to my readers. In my own, Reforming Forwards? The process of reception and the consecration of women as bishops (London, The Latimer Trust 2004, www.latimertrust.org ) I also offered a critique of the use of the “model” of The Trinity by TVR and TER for establishing the unity in diversity of the Anglican Communion of Churches. In fact, I believed then and I more clearly believe now that this method is truly a non-starter and has an aspect of arrogance and irreverence to it, for the eternal communion in holy love of the Three Persons is something we can only begin to imagine, let alone seek to imitate. I was glad to see that TWR did not utilize it, but went to the Word of God written, the New Testament and one of its books.
I do also believe that there is great potential in a careful reading, exegesis and practical interpretation of the Letter to the Ephesians in order to allow the churches to be addressed by a word from the exalted Lord Jesus Christ to his whole Church -- and in this case to the small part of it we know as the provinces of the Anglican Family. And I believe that Dr Turner, in the chapters referred to above, has begun to hear and communicate that word from heaven and that he and I, with all Anglicans, need to hear and obey. We shall all have to be ready not only to travel up the holy hill of idealism to see our unity in the Spirit in union with the exalted Lord Christ, but also to descend into the valley of humility and subjection one to another, in order to realize that there is great pain and cost involved in the moving towards real and practical unity. We need to be inspired by vision but also humbled by the mighty hand of God, and the Word of the Lord in Ephesians can do all this and more for us.
It would be good if all churches and parishes in The Episcopal Church and jurisdictions alongside it that seek to be “Windsor compliant” took the Letter to the Ephesians as the basis for parish study this Fall – or next Lent -- and sought to hear not only its comforting, enlightening and encouraging words, but also its calls for genuine repentance, amendment of life and holiness individually and corporately.
This approach may create the beginnings of the frame of mind and attitude of heart that are necessary to work for and live within true communion – a genuine unity with comprehensiveness in churchmanship and with a strong common center and real fellowship between all members. Certainly prayerful study of such a Letter by the providential guidance and mercy of God will do much good.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)