ABC leaves ACC

The Archbishop of Canterbury at the ACC, Photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg

The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks not so much in chapters but in whole books. So his closing address to the ACC (Word file, one report of many here) has to be taken as a whole and not cherry picked for sound bites. This is, of course, not easy journalists trained in the way of the 30 second clip.

But the Archbishop is generous and offers sound bites to both sides of the argument: he points to the costs paid by the gay and lesbian community and he points also to the costs, "different costs" paid by those who feel that their gospel is made less credible by the welcome offered to gay people in the church.

Taken as a whole, however, the address is an attempt to offer spiritual counsel to the leaders of the Communion. In it there is a great deal which I heartily welcome. It is just such a shame that the whole agenda of the covenant effectively works to destroy the spiritual (and ecclesiological) insight that the Archbishop is offering on this occasion.

I think he is attempting to speak truth to the members of the ACC and, through them, to the wider Communion. It's still dressed up in Archbishop-speak and therefore easy to misunderstand what he said and his words can easily be used to support one faction or another. But, for this Archbishop, he is speaking remarkably clearly. He is explicit about the state of conflict and the difficulty of finding any way of moving forward when violence is being used, the tanks are on the lawn, and everyone's recipe for peace is antipathetic to everyone else's.

He is also open about the possible Balkanisation of the Communion. There is a sense behind his words that in his view the Communion came very close to falling apart at the ACC and may yet do so, despite everything he can do, unless a series of steps are taken which are as much about people's hearts that they are about organisation.

And there is a lot in his prescription for the future which is well worth listening to.

1. Good listening "really allows the other person to speak".
2. Don't write off the (existing) Instruments of Communion.
3. Work on "life-giving exchange" between Communion members.
4. Treat one another with at least the courtesy that we accorded to members of other denominations. (In the mid 1940s formal discussions were arranged by the then Archbishop of Canterbury between the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic wings of the Church of England which were explicitly described as internal ecumenism.)
5. He says, and this is a curious observation for anybody who's worship life is based in Parish Church, "we've been I think quite simply conscious that here is a local Church and local Churches matter." Of course. But I guess that what ‘local’ means depends entirely on your perspective: for an Archbishop local means the Province, for me it means say a five-mile radius. It must be almost inevitable the sense of the very local has to be lost the more international your perspective becomes.
6. He prefers the word ‘particularity’ to autonomy. This is important, but unusually clumsy. If each church (at every level of locality) can contribute its distinctive gifts to the others around it, its particular chrism, its distinctive qualities, to the vitality of the whole church then this gift relationship embodies and enacts a relationship of generosity. This is a direct alternative to the defensiveness currently visible and to the juridical relationships currently proposed.
7. His talk about "glorious failure and miserable failure" which has been snatched up and misused by commentators also needs to be taken seriously. This is a spirituality of humility in the face not only of God but also of the ordinary facts of human existence. This (as with his comments on the local church in Jamaica) is about being both holy and in a mess and being both simultaneously. This is not failure in the organisational sense of the demand for someone to blame, this is failure in the sense that the cross was a failure for Jesus.

Therefore it is such a crying shame that the covenant will oppose and destroy so many of these aspects of a communal future.

I understand the Archbishop's desire, and the desire of many others, for a framework of law and order which might structure and pattern relationships between the disparate Provinces. But what is obvious to the conservatives and appears to be either missed or disregarded by other supporters of the covenant is that the document is a lever to govern not just formal relationships but the whole culture of the Anglican Communion.

1. With a juridically-based covenant there is no longer a need to really allow the other person to speak. All that is needed is for the other person to conform.
2. The existing Instruments of Communion will remain but will be subordinated to the covenant structures.
3. "Life-giving exchange" will always remain important. But once the covenant is in place these exchanges will always be secondary to the possibility of formal action by one party against another under the terms of the covenant. Even if no such action takes place exchanges will always be tempered, and something held back, because of the abstract possibility of future action.
4. Courtesy and respect are always requisite for good working relationships. Even lawyers can be polite to one another. But this is the basic minimum not a sufficient condition for the vitality of the Communion.
5. Of course the local church matters. It is the foundation on which the pyramid of priest, bishop, archbishop, primate is constructed. A hierarchy which forgets where its roots lie is by definition disconnected from its spiritual, and also its financial, roots. The RCDC does at least reintroduce the notion of the whole people of God into its text as a key ecclesiological element. Nonetheless it is integral to the covenant that the local church is governed from the centre by the hierarchy – and only by a few of the hierarchy. The local church cannot be fed spiritually on a trickle down from the Instruments of Communion; on the contrary the quality of the instruments and the spiritual strength of our leaders must be fed from the local church.
6. A relationship of generosity is a matter of gift, of grace. It cannot be commanded, it cannot be required, it cannot even be put to each province to decide within its own canonical structures whether or not they will decide to play. But any hint of coercion or of the possibility of sanction destroys for ever the possibility of gracious relationships.
7. And whether any organisation or institution can embody in its whole being and manner of work the spiritual relationship proper to individuals in their relationship to God and their (messy) spiritual journey is a matter of considerable doubt. Nonetheless the aspiration to holiness by following the way of the cross, by self abnegation before God and self giving towards others, holds out the possibility that the whole church might conceive of itself primarily in terms of the search for God.

In my judgement the first, central but lesser, task is to work towards a church capable of loving its members who see one another face-to-face – and all of its members without question. It is to foster a church which works to evoke holiness in the ordinary chaos of day-to-day life, and a church which is capable of nourishing a deep spiritual life, individually and corporately, in active engagement with the hard questions of living together and the facts of human pride, vanity, and will to power.

The greater task is to conform the whole church to the denial of itself to the glory of God as though it were a person, a disciple of God, a penitent pilgrim – semper reformanda.
The covenant, so far as I can see, expresses the will to power of a hierarchy convinced they know what is best for the rest of the Communion. It is grounded on an hubristic presumption that those who demand it are serving God's providence against the blindness of those who resist it (see paragraph 4 of the Introduction to the RCDC). It is designed to throw away the words and gifts of some and to insist on the rules of others. It is intended to replace the local church with the international Church as the source of all authority.

In my view the covenant is profoundly misguided and may well have a deeply detrimental effect on the church for generations to come.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous15/5/09

    This is a good digest. Thank you.