Saturday, December 15, 2007

The ABCs of Communion


The Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett offers his observations on the Advent message from the Archbishop of Canterbury and on a possible way forward for the Anglican Communion. Here is a snippet:

All of us, I think, believe ourselves to be living under the authority of Scripture, and believe that we are seeking to be obedient to what is revealed in the biblical witness in terms of what God offers and requires of us.

The problem lies in the key to each of its elements: “common acknowledgment”. While we easily see our own faithfulness in terms of this definition of full communion, we have trouble seeing the faithfulness of those with whom we disagree. And the Archbishop’s quest to find a way to hold the Anglican family together will not be successful unless we can come to a place of common acknowledgment. And as far as I can see, there are only two choices that could bring us to that place: exclusion or agreeing to live in a state of paradox.


Read his essay below.

The ABC on the ABCs of Communion
by the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett

In his most recent communication to the Primates of the Anglican Communion – one which he hopes will be widely circulated among clergy and laity alike – the Archbishop of Canterbury lays out his understanding of what “a full relationship of communion will mean.” In doing so, he describes three elements that he views as constitutive of such a relationship:

  • “The common acknowledgment that we stand under the authority of Scripture as ‘the rule and ultimate standard of faith’, in the words of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral; as the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which decisively interprets God to the community of believers and the community of believers to itself and opens our hearts to the living and eternal Word that is Christ. Our obedience to the call of Christ the Word Incarnate is drawn out first and foremost by our listening to the Bible and conforming our lives to what God both offers and requires of us through the words and narratives of the Bible.”
  • “The common acknowledgement of an authentic ministry of Word and Sacrament. We remain in communion because we trust that the Lord who has called us by his Word also calls men and women in other contexts and raises up for them as for us a ministry which can be recognised as performing the same tasks - of teaching and pastoral care and admonition, of assembling God's people for worship, above all at the Holy Communion.”
  • “The common acknowledgement that the first and great priority of each local Christian community is to communicate the Good News. When we are able to recognise biblical faithfulness and authentic ministry in one another, the relation of communion pledges us to support each other's efforts to win people for Christ and to serve the world in his Name."
I cannot imagine that any Anglican/Episcopalian in the world would disagree with any of the elements of the Archbishop’s definition of full communion. All of us, I think, believe ourselves to be living under the authority of Scripture, and believe that we are seeking to be obedient to what is revealed in the biblical witness in terms of what God offers and requires of us. Each of us believes our church to be enlivened by an authentic ministry of Word and Sacrament (although some would exclude women, gays and lesbians from those who can legitimately exercise it), and I can’t imagine any of us disagreeing with the idea that the primary purpose of a Christian community is to proclaim the Good News.

No, the problem is not with the Archbishop’s definition. The problem lies in the key to each of its elements: “common acknowledgment”. While we easily see our own faithfulness in terms of this definition of full communion, we have trouble seeing the faithfulness of those with whom we disagree. And the Archbishop’s quest to find a way to hold the Anglican family together will not be successful unless we can come to a place of common acknowledgment. And as far as I can see, there are only two choices that could bring us to that place: exclusion or agreeing to live in a state of paradox.

Exclusion, of course, is the easier path. Again and again over the centuries, this is the option that the church has chosen. When we exclude or excommunicate those who dissent from the majority opinion, we bring our house into order quite quickly, and we no longer have to deal with those “heretics." Of course, we also create more fractures in the Body of Christ, making Jesus’ desire that we might all be one even more of a distant dream.

It seems to me that Jesus himself doesn’t make the choice of exclusion. Rather, he seems to opt for living in a state of paradox. Over and over again, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he speaks paradoxically. The kingdom of God is a reality that is already here, but yet not here. The kingdom of God is a place where the world as we know it is turned upside down, with the first being last and the last being first. Faithfulness to the life of the kingdom requires us to surrender our family allegiances – to “hate” father and mother, which hardly seems like a loving thing to do. According to the logic of the kingdom, death leads to life, crucifixion brings us resurrection. And according to that same logic, the church proclaims that Jesus is at one and the same time both God and human. Kings wear crowns of thorn in the kingdom of God, and power is seen most powerfully in faces of weakness and vulnerability. And those of us who have been admitted to the kingdom through baptism have died and been reborn.

Paradox is the stock in trade of the kingdom of God. Perhaps when Jesus invites us to take up our crosses, he is inviting us to take up the burden of paradox: an instrument of death that is for us a symbol of life. Obedience to that call is called in the Scriptures “perfect freedom” – yet another paradox.

For us to choose the way of paradox as Anglicans/Episcopalians, in the context of the Archbishop’s definition, would be to choose to see one another as being faithful even though that faithfulness does not look the same. It would be to acknowledge the faithfulness of the Archbishop of Nigeria and the faithfulness of the Bishop of New Hampshire – and the faithfulness of those they represent. Though I disagree with him on almost everything, can I see Archbishop Akinola as standing under the authority of Scripture and seeking to be obedient to his understanding of it? Am I able to acknowledge the authenticity of his sacramental ministry and share the Eucharist with him? Am I able to see that, in the context of Nigeria, his preaching may indeed constitute Good News for the vast majority of his people? And is someone who feels about the Bishop of New Hampshire the way I feel about the Archbishop of Nigeria able to do the same?

There is no question that to walk this way of paradox is hard. My mind cries out, “They can’t both be right! There is only one Truth!” But my heart and spirit are not quite as sure as my mind. As St. Paul pointed out, we see as in a mirror, darkly, so long as we are in this present life. Each of us is possessed of cloudy vision, only able to glimpse the partial – and only in those rarified moments of mystical exaltation to catch a brief glimpse of the whole.

Historically, Anglicanism has developed as a form of Christianity that is able to live the way of paradox effectively, if not always comfortably. With our emphasis on common prayer, we have acknowledged that within the context of that prayer we do not always share a common mind. Yet, we can nevertheless share in the life of the same community, hearing the same scriptural Word, partaking of the same Sacraments, all seeking to discover at the root and depth of everything the same living Word, the living and risen Christ.

The present situation has seemed to show us the limits of our tolerance for paradox. All the subtle shades of color seem to be draining out of our worldviews, and resolving into a stark black-and-white. This colorless world is simpler, but also more violent. It does not respect the dignity of every human being, nor does it very well reflect the richness of the kingdom of God.

I wish the Archbishop of Canterbury well in his efforts to find a way to keep the Anglican family together. But I am not, I must admit, very confident of our ability to choose the way of paradox, acknowledging one another’s faithfulness at the same time we are challenging one another to deepen that faithfulness. I fear that the church will relapse to its default mode for dealing with such profound disagreements and choose the way of exclusion and excommunication. It has already begun, and I’m not sure that even Lambeth Palace any longer has the power to stop it.

About the Author: Matthew Dutton-Gillett has previously written for The Episcopal Majority here and here and here. His biographical information appears here.

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