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The Revd Ian T. Douglas upholds importance of the Anglican Communion

Posted on: October 16, 2003 4:22 PM
Related Categories: Revd Douglas, USA

[ACNS source: Episcopal Divinity School] In an interview with Kim Lawton of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, the Revd Dr Ian T. Douglas, Professor of Mission and World Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explains the composition of the Anglican Communion and the importance of its unity:

Q: The Anglican Communion is rather unique among Christian traditions. How would you describe it?

A: The Anglican Communion is that family of churches that trace their connection to Catholic Christianity through the Church of England [and that] spread as the British Empire spread. The Anglican Communion now exists in 164 countries - about 75 million people. As a family of churches, we trace our relationship to the See of Canterbury, the originating place from which all of our churches have some historic connection.

The 38 churches in the Anglican Communion are regional or national churches that basically are autonomous or sibling churches. We're not highly centralized, but we're not radically decentralized. Our organizational structure stands somewhere between, if you will, Protestant churches as federations [and] a strong, centralized church like the Roman Catholic Church.

The Anglican Communion is a family of churches and, like any family, there is a parent who sits at the head of the table. For us as Anglicans, that parent, that titular body - the Archbishop of Canterbury - sits at the head of the table and has the power of recognition and invitation to the family members to come together around the table. So, as a family, our communion, which is a gift from God, which is our relationship one to another as brothers and sisters in Christ, is convened, is hosted, if you will, by the See of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, from which we all have some historic connection and relationship.

Q: But the Archbishop of Canterbury is unlike the pope.

A: That's correct. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not have canonical authority or the power to tell any one church of the 38 churches in the Anglican Communion what to do. The power that he does have is the power of invitation and recognition. Whether it's the bishops coming together at the Lambeth Conference every ten years or the primates' meeting that happens annually, it's up to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who presides over those meetings, who's the president, to extend the invitation.

Who's in or who's out of the Anglican Communion depends on who the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to recognize as being in communion with him. In other words, if you don't get invited to the party, you're not an Anglican.

Q: And how important is that? Is it symbolic, or is it something deeper than that?

A: It's really much deeper than a symbolic head. We do believe that communion, our fellowship one to another, is a gift by God. It is the way that we have developed as this family of churches. As part of that gift, the Archbishop of Canterbury hosts [and] helps to frame our coming together as the body of Christ.

Some in the communion, especially those who, perhaps, have more of a relationship with American democratic principles, like to think of the communion as some kind of democratic body. It's not at all a democratic body. It's not as if this is a reality TV show where one church can get voted off of the island. Rather, we believe that communion is a gift by God; and we have that relationship, one to another, through a shared history, coming from the See of Canterbury.

Q: "Communion" is also used to describe the Eucharist. How are those two related?

A: That's a wonderful image. Once again, the coming around the table, the sharing in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, as we do in our local communities in the celebration of communion, is the exact same kind of coming together and sharing in the bread and wine and the body and blood of Jesus Christ at the national and international level. The Eucharist locally is an image, a vision, a reality of how we come together as Christians at the national and local level.

When the primates get together, for example, their shared communion around the table, their Bible study, their fellowship together are as important, or dare I say more important, than any deliberations that they might have amongst themselves; because there is where the communion, one to another and one with God, is realized.

Q: What is a primate?

A: A primate, historically, is the head of the church in any of the 38 churches - the highest office, if you will, of any of the churches of the Anglican Communion.

The primates are different with respect to their own church structure, from church to church. For example, in the Episcopal Church USA, the primate is the presiding bishop - the bishop who presides over the meeting of the House of Bishops. In other parts of the Anglican Communion, the primate might be the archbishop, the bishop that sits above, or hosts, the other bishops, or archbishops, as they gather together. In even other churches of the Anglican Communion, the primate is known as the "metropolitan," which might be an elected position that rotates among the bishops. Whether it's metropolitan, archbishop, or presiding bishop, the primate is an all-inclusive term that says "chief officer," if you will, the chief office in any church.

As the titles are different in each church of the communion, their authority, their responsibilities are also different. Some archbishops have great authority to effect change or not to effect change in their own church, whereas, in the United States, for example, the presiding bishop, as can be imagined, as a presiding officer, has less authority than, say, an archbishop might in another church in the communion.

Q: What about the role of King Henry VIII in the history of the Anglican Communion and his impact on current events?

A: People like to think that the genesis of the Church of England was a church splitting off from the Roman Catholic Church because of matters of divorce and the desire for King Henry VIII to have his divorce and still remain within the Church. That's a little bit facile. Frankly, the Church of England, like many churches of the fifteenth and sixteenth century within the Reformation, was trying to be a church that was genuinely catholic, connected to the church that had gone before - genuinely universal, but also a church that was genuinely local, grounded in the lived experience and the culture of the English people.

Translating the scriptures into English in the King James Bible and having common worship in the language of the people is all about that Reformation in England, that desire to be genuinely English but also still genuinely connected to the church that had gone before - the church universal, the church Catholic. We like to see the Church of England and its "children," if you will, in the broader Anglican Communion as being part of that great Reformation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. So, Henry VIII, sure. Divorce, right. But it's much more complex and much more wonderful than simply a little political shift and issues around divorce and one particular monarch in England.

Q: Do Anglican churches today retain worship-style characteristics of both Catholicism and also Protestantism?

A: Anglicans pride themselves as being the church of the middle way, the "via media" that holds many of the Catholic Church beliefs: our understanding of three holy orders and apostolic succession - bishops, priests, deacons; the importance of the sacraments, specifically, the sacraments of holy communion, the mass, and baptism, but [also] other sacraments such as marriage and confirmation and confession and absolution. We believe in the seven sacraments. In that respect, our sense of identity, our worship style does try to have continuity with the early church, the church catholic.

On the other side, though, we are a church of the Reformation. We take seriously the word of God preached so that it could be understood. To have worship in our own language - whether it has historically been English in the Church of England, or all of the many languages and cultures of the Anglican Communion today - tends to favor more of a Protestant ethic, a Protestant tradition that says the elucidation of the word in the language of the people is very important to being in communion with God and Jesus Christ himself.

So the sacraments, historic ordination, orders, apostolic succession on one side; the emphasis on the word and preaching in the language of the people on the other - Protestant and Catholic. That's who we are as Anglicans in the world today.

Q: What is the current global makeup of the Anglican Communion?

A: The Anglican Communion today is made up of 38 regional or national churches in 164 countries around the world. Historically, those 38 churches with approximately 75 million people have been identified with the British Empire, as English-speaking, if you will - as the North Atlantic alliance between the United States and England and other western churches. However, within the last half century, the growth of the church in the postcolonial era, post-British Empire [is] where all those churches dropped seedlings of the Church of England, [and they] have grown up into strong, mature churches in their own right, such that the majority of Anglicans now live in the Third World, the southern hemisphere - however you want to describe it.

That change - from being a historically English-identified church of the North Atlantic to a church of the southern hemisphere, with the radical pluralities of cultures and languages represented - has occurred within my lifetime, within the last four decades. In that respect, this radical change from the hegemony of the English-speaking world to a truly global communion in all of its pluralities has been an incredible gift of God and an incredible challenge to those who want it to have been the way it's always been in the Church of England.

Q: What are the implications of this cultural shift?

A: It used to be easy to understand who is an Anglican - someone who spoke English, maybe liked to take tea in the afternoon, had a particular kind of order of worship and perhaps even a kind of reserve or dignity, on the English model. Today, that [comes] nowhere near encompassing the breadth of Anglicans and the radical plurality of cultures.

In some churches of the Anglican Communion - for example, in Africa south of the Sahara, all-night vigils, which have been part of traditional African religiosity, are now part of the Anglican worship experience. Ecstatic utterances, preaching throughout the night, healings - that's all part of what it means to be an Anglican in parts of the world. But that's radically different from what we've known in the more staid and reserved experience of the immediate English experience of Anglicanism.

Q: There is a lot of division in the Anglican Communion now on the issue of homosexuality. What happens to the relationships between these sibling churches when there is this kind of crisis?

A: Frankly, what I've been trying to emphasize is that, with respect to the question of the place of gay and lesbian people in the Anglican Communion, it's another example of how we are being stretched, how God is stretching ... the Anglican Communion to embrace difference.

It was easy, when we had the sameness of English heritage, to relate one to another. What do we do now, with radical differences within our church globally? Can we as Anglicans live with difference, celebrate difference as a good thing, come together around that table [and have] that experience of communion as we share the body and blood of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior? Can we, in all of our differences, come together and worship and be related one to another?

I would argue that difference is a gift of God and sameness is the work of the devil. In that respect, Anglicanism has always tried to embrace the breadth of Catholic Christianity and the particularities of any local context. That's what the English Reformation was about: genuine local experience connected to the church catholic.

What do we do now when those genuine local experiences span the spectrum of the world's peoples, languages, and cultures? Can we live with difference? Can we embrace difference as a gift from God and as an expression of our communion? The big question for Anglicans today is, can we witness to the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ and celebrate difference around the world? Or are we all going to fall into line behind one particular perspective - on any issue, not simply human sexuality - and try to force a norm, which I would argue is not historically Anglican?

If we can witness to the world that living with difference is a good thing, what a witness that would be for the wider world as we struggle to live with profound differences over issues of economics, interfaith relations, politics. We have an opportunity as Anglicans today to show the love of God and the breadth of inclusivity that's possible. Or we can draw tight lines and find ourselves going to each of our own ghettoes as a sign of safety and a place where we can run and hide rather than living in the broadness and the difference that God has given us.

Q: Some church bodies have threatened to break communion with other church bodies - specifically, the U.S. church - on this particular issue. What significance would that kind of action have?

A: If any one church in the Anglican Communion disassociated itself from any of the other churches in the Anglican Communion, or even a bunch of churches in the Anglican Communion disassociated themselves from one another, that would signify an incredible loss in this body of Christ. That would signify a sense that a sibling coming around the table is no longer pulling the chair up and sitting and being in fellowship, one with another, as we share in the Eucharist. It would be profoundly sad to me and, I think, to most people in the Anglican Communion if any one church decided that they would no longer be in communion one with another.

Communion, though, is a gift from God. We can say no to that gift; we can say, "I no longer have need of you." But I believe that is not of God and is not of the Anglican way. So sure, churches can say, "We're in impaired communion. We're no longer in communion with you," and that would be a profound sadness and an extreme loss for this body of Christ in the world today known as the Anglican Communion.

Q: Some people in the United States say, "We want to be part of the Anglican Communion. But we can't, on theological grounds, agree with the position on this bishop." What do they do, based on the traditions of the Anglican Communion?

A: That's exactly the hard question right now: how do Christians in the United States who genuinely differ over questions of human sexuality remain in communion, remain in fellowship, continue to share the body and blood of Jesus Christ around the table together as brothers and sisters in Christ? There are some people who would say, "I can no longer meet you there. I can no longer break bread with you. I can no longer be in communion with you because of your stand" on any particular issue - in this case, the place of gay and lesbian people in the church. That's the challenge before us today in the Episcopal Church in the United States and, because we are a part of this global fellowship, [it] is extended to our relationships with churches around the world in the Anglican Communion. We're not sure if we can do it. That is exactly the struggle and the stresses that we are living through as Episcopalians, as Anglicans in the world today. So it's a time of deep sadness. It's a time of deep hurt, a lot of anger. In some respects, it's a Good Friday experience. We're all hoping and praying, because of our faith in Jesus Christ, that we'll come through to the other side, and there will be a new Easter where we can see the wholeness of the body of Christ anew in the world and then go out in a kind of new Pentecost to effect God's reconciling love to the whole world.

Q: Some people are floating the idea of two separate provinces in the United States that would both be in relationship to the See of Canterbury - one that would not approve of openly gay bishops. Is that a good idea? How unprecedented would that be within the Anglican Communion?

A: When the primates get together in October, before the Archbishop of Canterbury, there are three options. [He] can move to no longer recognize or be in communion with the Episcopal Church USA. [He could say,] "You've gone beyond the limits of diversity in the Anglican Communion, and I'm going to recognize some other presence in the United States as the real church within the Anglican Communion." A second option would be for the Archbishop of Canterbury to recognize a parallel church, a parallel jurisdiction, another Anglican body in the United States, or maybe even combine the United States and Canada within North America. That would be a 39th province of the Anglican Communion [and] we would, in fact, have two Anglican churches in the United States. Or a third option would be a serious chastisement of the Episcopal Church USA for moving too quickly and departing from perceived Anglican tradition, and then some assurance by the Episcopal Church USA that we will live with difference and assure that people who hold a traditional or orthodox position are every bit included in the church and are not persecuted or excluded from the ongoing life of the Episcopal Church. Those are three options among many, but those are three real options that are before the Archbishop of Canterbury and the primates as they gather in October.

With respect to the possibility of another body being recognized in addition to the Episcopal Church in the United States or in North America - if you will, a new 39th province in the Anglican Communion alongside of the existing Episcopal Church USA - that would be an unprecedented move within the Anglican Communion. Within Anglicanism, there's a great importance and emphasis placed on the jurisdictional integrity of a bishop in a place. To have overlapping jurisdictions runs against that tradition. Two bishops in one place, both Anglican, is not historically the English and Anglican way of seeing the church. That said, there are examples in the communion where there are overlapping jurisdictions. Take, for example, continental Europe, where you have the historic chaplaincies of the Church of England and the historic chaplaincies of the U.S. church. What they're doing is trying to come together - the diocese in Europe of the Church of England and the American Convocation of Churches in Europe - to form one body. They're trying to resolve the overlapping jurisdictions rather than create a new overlapping jurisdiction problem. So, it's really against Anglican tradition. It would be a new thing. It's not to say God isn't about always doing something new. But it would be a big pill to swallow for a lot of bishops to suddenly see that there were two Anglican bishops in any one place, both having equal authority.

Q: We've already seen reports that certain dioceses within the U.S. are withholding money or saying they do not accept this particular decision from the national church. What implications does that have for communion in the U.S.?

A: You have to understand that in the Episcopal Church USA, our model really does follow on the model of democracy in the United States. In that respect, we're a federation of dioceses not unlike a federation of states that come together nationally. I understand there are maybe six or eight dioceses in the United States right now who want to absent themselves and say, "We no longer want to follow the decisions and dictates of the church nationally." We don't know yet what that means for our ongoing life together as a federation of dioceses in the United States. Does that mean when we come to the next General Convention those six or eight dioceses will no longer want to be with the rest of the dioceses in the United States? We don't quite know what that means. We do know that those six to eight dioceses have already said, "We will no longer contribute to the national programming of the combined dioceses. We no longer want to participate." But it's really too soon to tell what exactly that means with respect to a new structure in the Episcopal Church USA. And that gets back to if the Archbishop of Canterbury recognizes a new church in the Anglican Communion; or maybe they would form together and be another church. Whatever diocese left the Episcopal Church USA to join the other church in the Anglican Communion on these shores, I would assume there would need to be a continuing Episcopal Church presence in those dioceses that departed.

Q: Just how big of a crisis does the U.S. Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion now face?

A: I am not one to make light of this situation. It is a genuine crisis in the Anglican Communion, and we should not take this lightly. I think it's a crisis not so much of human sexuality, but really a question of [whether] Christian brothers and sisters [can] live together in difference and still witness to the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ.

The risk here is that this incredible global family of churches in 164 countries that are united [and] that work together could be compromised if the Anglican Communion comes apart over this particular issue. The Anglican Communion can be one of the most significant networks in the world to address such issues as the HIV-AIDS pandemic, international debt, and inter-religious conflict. The Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church, in particular, have been at the forefront of international debt relief, and in the United States [they were] central to passing debt relief legislation during the Clinton administration. The Anglican Communion's network of schools and hospitals, by far one of the best infrastructures in Africa for the delivery of HIV-AIDS medications and for education around prevention and palliative care - that very important work, where we are called to serve God "among the least of these," could be compromised.

So the sadness for me? My heart breaks over the fact that what God really wants us to be doing as the Anglican Communion beyond the confines of the church could be compromised by our inner church struggles over difference, and particularly human sexuality. The preoccupation around issues of human sexuality and particularly how we live with difference within this church can distract us from [being] a communion, a body of Christ in the world today living into God's call, God's mission of justice, compassion, reconciliation for all people.

If the Anglican Communion comes apart at this time, we will no longer be able to witness as fully to the love of God in Jesus Christ. How can we, as an Anglican Communion, continue to serve God beyond ourselves while we are wrestling so deeply with what's happening within our own church? My hope and prayer are that the Anglican Communion will come out of this crisis much stronger and able to live with difference, as we address what God is calling us to do in the wider world. And what a witness it would be for the world today if we could live together and celebrate our differences in this broken and divided world. What a reconciling, healing witness that would be for all people.