A discussion starter from Peter Toon for St Bartholomew’s Day, 2007
August 24 is St Bartholomew’s Day and it was in 1662 the deadline for conforming to the discipline and practice of the Church of England under the restored Charles II by those who are often called Puritans. Nearly 2,000 Ministers did not conform and were deprived of their freehold livings in the Church of England. Their forced exit is often referred to as the Bartholomean Exodus and it gave rise to English Dissent or Nonconformity..
Thus it is an appropriate day to think of schism and division within the Ecclesia Anglicana in its twenty-first century form as the Global Anglican Family of Churches.
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I begin with a personal recollection. A few years ago I was deeply involved for a few months in writing parts of, and seeing through the press, TO MEND THE NET—in service of the two Primates (Gomex and Sinclair) and along with two or three other learned men, and for Bishop-to-be Bill Atwood of Ekklesia.
This involvement illustrates that I have long been pondering whether or not the Anglican Communion is really and truly a viable Reality—I mean truly a global Communion of autonomous but yet inter-dependent churches, confessing a genuine Christian orthodoxy and worshipping the LORD in spirit and in truth..
There is nothing I would like better than to see the Anglican Family as truly a Communion of Churches confessing the Reformed Catholic Faith of the Anglican Way. Regrettably it is not there right now by a long shot. It used to be somewhere near to this ideal but approximation to the ideal has diminished and hope has faded as differences have surfaced and deeply affected emotions and attitudes.
Whichever way one comes at the problem of Anglican Global Unity, one is faced with the fact that, for twenty or more years, unity has often been strained, that unity has been reduced practically speaking to baptismal rather than Eucharistic unity since the ordination of women, and that unity is now only an ideal and a hope rather than a practical experienced spiritual reality for most provinces.
However, no province has left the Family as yet and no province has been expelled by all the others as yet; but, what is in existence is more like an Association rather than a Communion. Further, it is at times and in some places a dysfunctional and disordered Association, with, however, wonderful memories and achievements by grace in many areas. It has an impaired Eucharistic communion and even broken Eucharistic communion within provinces and between provinces which is a shocking sign of shame to the world. To study the whole picture seriously can give one a severe headache and a grieving heart.
The so-called instruments of unity have been set on a pedestal in the last two decades or so in order to try to generate unity where it was looking like disappearing, but they have minimal influence in 2007 towards unity, and maybe even a negative influence.
The generous-hearted Archbishop of Canterbury has upset not a few bishops across the spectrum by his invitations to the Lambeth Conference of 2008—by those he has invited and those he has not invited.
The Anglican Consultative Council seems to be without audible voice or influence.
The Primates’ Meeting may issue strong statements as if it were a holy synod, but everything it says is in the last instance advisory and not binding. for it has no authority at all over individual Provinces—despite hopes and pretences by some Primates that it does.
And the Lambeth Conference can be cited through its reports and resolutions in favor of various principles that are being broken by one or another group right now (e.g., some bishops cross diocesan boundaries as invaders to steal sheep, and some bishops ordain homosexually-active persons as liberal progressive prophets). Further, taken as a whole over the years since 1867 the Lambeth Conference can be cited as the origin or the enabler of not a few liberal developments in Anglicanism in doctrine, morals, polity and liturgy. Thus citing it as the final authority, as some tend to do, is to appeal to shaky foundations.
All in all the Anglican Way in is one big mess especially but not only in North America —although in not a few provinces the ordinary laity would not know this to be the case for life goes on as normal. Happily in some cases this is an exciting normal of church growth in numbers and in holiness with joy. (But we know that Rome can burn while thousands attend a violin concerto ten miles outside of the city!)
To summarize, much like the British Commonwealth of Nations, the Anglican Family of Churches has worked best when there is minimal regulation and much trust and affection, with mutual help always on offer. But such an association of friends depends on everyone being friendly and this means giving and taking in charity and no-one stepping too far out of line—a state of affairs nearly impossible to maintain in a sinful world.
Perhaps, like the British Commonwealth, the Anglican Family of Churches will fade in importance as individual provinces have to look more to creating regional associations and “trade” partners for survival and prosperity. So there will be a Global Communion in Churches in name only, but in reality there will be a series of groupings which will stretch across oceans and continents and not be tidy in terms of shape and size. For example, “Anglicans” in America might belong to the North Africa with S E Asia association while “Episcopalians” in America (TEC) might belong to the Western association with Canada and Scotland, and so on. This is a viable possibility that reckons with original sin and the weakness of the human being as a moral creature!
A critical test will be how many bishops, and from where, attend the Lambeth Conference of 2008, and whether there is an alternative Conference somewhere outside Great Britain alongside the one at Canterbury! How the Archbishop of Canterbury performs before the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church in late September will also be a preliminary test.
Like the Commonwealth of Nations the Communion of Churches is probably moving into a new phase of existence, and members are finding the move very painful and divisive.
St Bartholomew’s Day, 2007