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Archbishop Eames speaks at Virginia seminary on reality of Communion

Posted on: October 5, 2005 9:30 AM
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The Most Rev. Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, delivered one of two lectures October 4, titled "The Anglican Communion: A Growing Reality," as part of Virginia Theological Seminary's 2005 Alumni Convocation.

The full text of Eames' October 4 lecture follows:

The Anglican Communion: A Growing Reality

It is an immense privilege and pleasure to have been invited to deliver two lectures on Anglicanism here at the Virginia Theological Seminary. VTS will always hold a special place in my affection and reflections. Among my previous visits was to chair a meeting of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission as we prepared what was to become known as the Virginia Report, a theological analysis of the meaning of 'communion'. We gave this Report the title 'Virginia' as a small token of our appreciation for the hospitality and support of the Diocese of Virginia and its bishop and my long-standing friend, Peter Lee; the support of Dean Martha Horne and the VTS community and the membership of Bishop Mark Dyer. Those friendships mean much to me and I acknowledge them today.

I have chosen as my subject for these reflections two aspects of our current life as members of the Anglican Communion: what I term 'its reality' and second, the role in our corporate life of communion. These reflections will be subjective and personal. Due to time I will only be able to develop my thoughts in a limited manner. However I offer those reflections to you at a time when our world Communion is listening to many opinions and views as to its nature and future.

It is debatable if the Anglican Communion has faced a more searching period, more public scrutiny and more transparent heart-searching than in the past two years. Our divisions have been all too obvious and our public agonising has provoked sharply divided opinions, broken relationships and serious questions about what Anglicans believe and practise. Above all those divisions have compelled us to ask questions about what being in communion means given diverse attitudes to deeply held convictions. But I have to ask whether the debates we have seen are about the real issues which confront the Anglican Communion? To put it plainly, has the sexuality debate hidden other issues, other agendas and other questions of principle which are of greater significance to the nature of Anglicanism? Has the Anglican obsession with sexuality been merely the tip of an iceberg hiding other deeper issues which will ultimately dictate the future of the Anglican Communion?

On the surface the appointment of a practising gay bishop to the diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church USA and the blessing of same sex relationships in New Westminster, Canada, plunged Anglicanism into a crisis. That crisis was manifested by dramatic statements, at times vitriolic words and public denunciation of opposing opinions. In media terms -- and how the media has enjoyed itself -- north America was portrayed as the focal point of liberalism and the global south the defenders of conservatism. Those terms soon became synonymous with others as the ecclesiastical fury gained momentum : other aspects and identities which themselves evidenced the complexities, contradictions and dilemmas of a Communion in crisis. As time passed it was not possible to limit the struggle to a confrontation between a liberal embracing north and a reactionary and conservative south. Within many Provinces, not least here in the United States, issues about pastoral recognition and protection of minority groups, justice and episcopal leadership burst to the surface as attitudes, concerns and apprehensions long dormant for other reasons became focused on the sexuality question. With few exceptions the Anglican north and west began to recognise the extent of internal diversity which had existed long before the name of Gene Robinson became known internationally.

For the purposes of this first lecture let me consider what I call 'the reality' of these questions.

First -- the tapestry before which our problems exist. The Anglican Communion at present consists of some 80 million believers across the world. We have proclaimed a historic relationship of inter-dependence and a historic communion with the See of Canterbury. We have advanced the joint theological approaches of Scripture, tradition and reason, we have proclaimed the centrality of Scripture and our ecclesiology is based on episcopacy and synodical structures. Yet beyond these features there is another principle which has developed as the cement of our autonomous and diverse world family.

The words 'bonds of affection' are the most overworked attempt to describe what has held the Anglican Communion together. These words have been a useful but not necessarily a clinical description of how a truly international body of autonomous Provinces could relate. Pressures on those bonds have come from many directions down through the years but of late have greatly increased. When communion meant identifying with each other as agreeing partners who all thought alike, bonds of affection were adequate. But with rapid growth in size, growth of cultural difference and search for structure their inadequacies and limitations became obvious. They were a basis rather than a working entity. They were adequate when there were identifiable aims and common purpose. They were happily used and embraced when the Anglican Communion wanted the religious world to see and indeed envy a cohesive family led by an Archbishop of Canterbury. They were adequate when agreement existed simply because there was no division. But they proved inadequate when pressures built up. As divisive issues surfaced they became what bound together only those Provinces which agreed with each other.

What was the nature of those pressures?

First we need to be aware of their historical context. For first generation Anglicans the notion of Empire stemming from a mother country and a mother Church 'Anglican' equated completely with colonialisation. The Book of Common Prayer and the concepts of Anglican episcopacy bound the dioceses of the Church of England to the colonies. The missionary outreach of the Church of England was the Communion. This is how you do it -- this is how it works -- this is what you need -- was the message. The context of the first Lambeth Conferences made it plain that the mother Church and mother country offered the benefits of English piety, English social structure and religious Englishness and the expansion of the Empire also meant expansion of a Canterbury-based establishment. The eclipse of colonialism was also the eclipse of the influence of the Church it brought.

In that significant period the missionary societies were the first to realise the change of emphasis. It was no longer 'do it our way' but a gradual recognition that growth of cultural confidence, the shedding of colonial power and the rising tide of local independence called for a co-operative, supportive and diverse ministry in which the mother Church among others would provide support for the new concept of indigenous ministry. Without realising it a quiet revolution was taking place in Anglicanism. From the early blue-print of Englishness the Anglican Communion was discovering local autonomy: discovering -- but not yet recognising. Little of the documentation I have examined of this period fully appreciated the magnitude of the consequences of this change. Pictures on the walls of my home of successive Lambeth Conferences illustrate some of this transition. Pictures of bishops attending Lambeth Conferences demonstrated this change most vividly to the outside world. The colour of skin, the emergence of growing numbers of non-white bishops, spoke eloquently of an irreversible trend. The new confidence, the challenge of local strength and new elements of diversity should have spelt out warning signals that 'bonds of affection' needed much more if this quiet revolution was to produce a continuation of the concept of what I call 'practical communion.' Add to that doctrinal controversies over the question of women in priesthood and women in the episcopate which was to produce in the early 80s the seeds of division and the stage was set for the current difficulties over sexuality. But that is itself an over-simplification of historical development. For other things were happening of equal significance.

I recognise that the Episcopal Church (USA) views itself in historical terms as part of the revolutionary movement which broke away from colonial interest. Back in the eighteenth century this Church began a process which is now taking on a new significance for other parts of our world-wide Communion -- namely, how to inculturate outside the 'English' pattern. This was done on a primarily democratic model. But not alone in a historical context for ECUSA but now for the Communion as a whole : our history may indicate the development of means to inculturate beyond the English scene -- the problems of today on which we focus stem in many ways from the results of that process. How do we hold diversity together? Or as some are now asking -- is that 'holding' a price too much for them to pay?

The historic significance of Canterbury itself for generations the fulcrum of those 'bonds of affection' continued to be acknowledged in spirit. But post colonialism and with its questions about the 'happy band of brothers' was being replaced by the machinery of independence. Autonomy and in the case of the Anglican Communion, provincial autonomy enshrined in provincial synodical and constitutional enactment was beginning to raise questions about the nature of the relationship between autonomous freedom and central allegiance. This development was to place new emphasis on cultural as well as doctrinal divergence. While 'bonds of affection' for the historic significance of Canterbury continued it now existed alongside a new reality. Was the real issue now as much about the nature of historic affection for and authority granted to Canterbury and a changing world picture of growing cultural and therefore doctrinal practice? I have heard the question asked: has the centre of Anglicanism moved to somewhere south of the Sahara? I have been present when without loss of historic affection for the See of Canterbury voices have been raised and opinions expressed which have compared the 'old world of Anglicanism' with 'the new realities of Anglicanism.' Where were the structures to embrace this new pressure? Did we give adequate thought to what structures were needed to hold the line of relationships when the respective parts of that relationship was moving into unchartered waters? Historically we had always refused the notion of central authority. We did not want anything akin to the central curia of Rome. Successive statements by Lambeth Conferences and meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council said so. Anglicanism we believed then could survive on those traditional 'bonds of affection' because we wanted it to survive - because we had a relationship based on agreement to fundamental principles which worked simply because we had never had real disagreement? I have examined reports of synodical debates in several Provinces of our Communion held during this period and I am convinced the scenario for our present divisions was being painted. But we did not recognise it. Anglican ecclesiology was developing along two lines : Provincial autonomy and Provincial independence. Those two concepts were not necessarily identical. But there was a third element. Growth of autonomous confidence with its jealous protection of cultural as well as doctrinal freedom inevitably asked questions about the structures which allowed 'bonds of affection' to continue. All was well when there was general agreement. The distress signals arose when we did not agree on everything. The events in ECUSA and in particular the diocese of New Hampshire in 2004 lit a fire. But I have often asked myself 'was this a division waiting to happen' and 'if it wasn't sexuality questions which would divide the Anglican Communion so vividly and dramatically would it have been something else?'

Here we need to emphasise not just tensions between Provinces but also within Provinces. In the run-up to Windsor the Lambeth Commission saw such tensions at first hand. Despite developments since Windsor those tensions continue to exist within Provinces, within dioceses and indeed within parishes.

I cannot over-emphasise the strength of conservative feeling about the identity of authentic Christianity as being "Biblical Christianity." Undoubtedly this is an authentic Christianity in its culture. To a conservative Anglican it is the key issue. But what alarms me about our current crisis is the failure to engage in dialogue on an agreed playing field between two apparently opposing views. If Anglicanism is to maintain a global community dialogue on an agreed transparent basis is essential. Sadly, so far I have found little evidence that such a process is taking place.

Such questioning brings me to another and perhaps more controversial issue.

Is the real question about authority rather than sexuality?

Not just authority in terms of the authority of interpretation of Holy Scripture, but authority to be 'in communion' among diverse and autonomous Provinces while we're growing not only in numerical strength but growing in the confidence to question what communion meant if it maintained a historic allegiance which satisfied 'the old world' but could not address the divisions of 'the new'?

Much of the current crisis in Anglicanism turns on attitudes to the authority of Scripture. Interpretation of Scripture itself and its relationship to tradition and reason is one thing -- it is quite a different matter when it is allowed to become an integral part of the process of cultural approach to communion. In the preparation of the Windsor Report I was made acutely aware of arguments on all sides which owed much of their persuasive nature to what was seen as the norm of cultural experience in north and south, east and west. A liberalist view spoke of the culture in which life-styles shunned by a conservative culture were now the norm. Many submissions I read in the production of Windsor quoted cultural approaches. I well recall the argument from certain Provinces which spoke of the climate of opposition to a liberal interpretation of Anglicanism from their Moslem and Hindu neighbours.

Of course all this was evidence if evidence the Lambeth Commission needed that cultural development across our Communion had become an equal if not a dominant ingredient within the 'bonds of affection.' In saying that I need to be aware that conservative Anglicanism resents any argument that places cultural difference above questions of theological principle. They argue obedience to God's Holy Word must not become eroded by reference to cultural difference. The liberal argument of course takes the view that cultural diversity has a great deal to say about what I would term the 'freedom of Anglican autonomy.' Am I alone in thinking that at the root of those clashes, irrespective of our personal allegiances or preferences, lies the failure of succeeding generations of Anglicans to accept that there are parameters to divergence in scriptural interpretation, there are boundaries to ecclesiological autonomy and there are limitations to what a world family of vague technical relationships can endure and still remain a cohesive entity. I do not in any way question the depth of sincerity of the conservative or liberal Anglican in any way. I seek only to try to decode the pressures which were to produce reaction to New Hampshire and New Westminster.

There are many dilemmas associated with what could be called 'the practical working of communion' Broken communion declared between Provinces places serious questions not only on relationships between such Provinces but on others who are in communion relationships with them and with others.

For example, if one Province declares a broken relationship with another -- what does this mean for Provinces already in communion with it or with a disassociated partner? Above all else it is an interesting question -- what does such a rupture of relationships mean to other Provinces if broken communion refers to the See of Canterbury? The commutations for ecclesiology in such instances are immense. They underline again that 'bonds of affection' based on fraternal gestures alone were never geared to meet the challenge of division.

There is a secondary aspect to such a situation. How does such a fracture of communion affect the day to day relationships and work of Anglican organisations which do not owe allegiance to any one Province? I am thinking of such as the Missionary Societies and the Mothers' Union. Their work and witness over the years has provided communion in practical and realistic ways. What are they to do in such a situation where their work and witness spans many individual Provinces and involves many conflicting attitudes? In a sense they are instruments of communion in their own right. I for one do not want to see their influence simply eroded because of the fractures between some Provinces. I also believe they represent useful, practical and positive means of contact in such times of bewilderment for many clergy and laity.

Just as it is difficult to be definitive of what communion between Provinces means, so it is even more difficult to define the consequences of a broken relationship.

The impressions of the Anglican Communion I gained in the preparation of the Windsor Report are dominated by one word -- pain. I encountered the pain of those who were hurt because they felt they had become voiceless. I saw the pain of those who felt alienated from the hospitality of a parish or diocesan experience. I saw and heard the pain of misunderstanding, the painful consequences of angry words and the pain of broken relationships. Those fractured relationships were not just between autonomous provinces but perhaps were most visible at a level of great pastoral significance -- the relationship of a bishop to his or her flock and the relationship of groups and individuals to their pastors.

Calls for remedies for this current crisis abound. They range from protection of minority parishes in dispute with the attitude of their bishop to high level commissions such as the Lambeth Commission I had the privilege to lead. But let me dwell on one aspect of a solution of which I have some experience within my work in Northern Ireland. I refer to the concept of reconciliation.

From experience in community peace-making and reconciliation I can share some conclusions with you.


First, reconciliation cannot be enforced. Reconciliation comes when parties wish to be reconciled.

Second, reconciliation involves pain just as the situation to be reconciled causes hurt.

Third, reconciliation does not mean the total achievement of individual aims. It speaks of honest compromise.

Fourth, reconciliation involves recognition of the possible and acknowledgement of difference.

The process of reconciliation means a genuine attempt at listening and understanding. It means no longer talking at one another but talking with one another.

Do these aspects of a process have any relevance to world Anglicanism today? But how in a voluntary allegiance of autonomous bodies do they work? They raise again the question of structures of machinery. They question the assertion which faced the compilers of the Windsor Report that there can be no compromise on a deeply held principle such as the authority of Scripture. They confront the element which says 'If you are not with us then you must be against us.' Does this mean the current sickness at the heart of the Anglican Communion cannot be addressed by any process of reconciliation? Does it means there can be no compromise on questions of deep principle?

I believe there are fundamental questions which need to be asked not of Anglicanism alone but within our Communion. I also believe they are questions which perhaps have lain submerged for too long in any healthy world debate in a world Church family. I believe in the future of our Communion -- but I also believe we are only at the beginning of a period of self-examination of fundamental issues if the Anglican Communion is to move together into a future of self-confidence.

So, these are just some of the 'realities' which constitute the situation I see as I look across the Anglican Communion today. In the second lecture I will invite you to look with me at the realities of 'communion'. For the present let me return to these current realities.

In the myriad of opinions and views I have heard and read in the past few years one thought has received less prominence than I believe it deserves. Is it just possible that future generations will look at this time not as a negative era for Anglicanism but rather as an inevitable sign of growth, a sign of maturity even in the history of a most diverse world Christian family? In other words, is our present ecclesiastical crisis an inevitable stage because of the very fact of diversity in theological, cultural and doctrinal terms? If it is - then surely the real challenge for Anglicanism is not in fact obsession with any one particular issue, but the challenge contained in the question - what price communion, what price 'being together' and do we honestly want to remain in relationships which mean something of value? I suggest that is the true reality of the contemporary Anglicanism. It is about what is really essential about being in communion as Anglicans, about what we mean by relationships and about how realistic historic structures are actually essential to a family 'in communion'.

Let me conclude this first lecture by drawing attention to a consequence of our current structures in the Anglican Communion which to my mind most clearly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of adherence to traditional 'bonds of affection.'

I have tried to point out some of the consequences of an international Church body in which aspiration to 'bonds' is more visible than application to their realities. As far back as 1920 the Lambeth Conference concluded:

"The Churches represented in (the Communion) are indeed independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognises the restraints of truth and love. They are not free to deny the truth. They are not free to ignore the fellowship."(1)

The Windsor Report took this question and commented:

"This means that any development needs to be explored for its resonance with the truth, and with the utmost charity on the part of all - charity that grants that a new thing can be offered humbly and with integrity, and charity that might refrain from an action which might harm a sister or brother."

Since the publication of Windsor I have personally given much thought to what all this means for the meaning of 'bonds of affection'. In the course of that consideration I have found myself returning to the whole question of limits to diversity. Are there essentials on which there must be universal acceptance if Provinces are to be in complete communion? Are there issues which diversity protects, on which there can be disagreements, but which are not essential to full communion? If there are to be different levels of essentials or non-essentials in this sense - who decides into which category any action by an individual Church should fall?

Those are just some of the reflections which I will ask you to consider tomorrow.

(1) Lambeth Conference 1920, SPCK (1920) Evangelical Letter p.14.

Article from ENS