The need for restraint
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
THE most important item in the Primates' communiqué is not a recommendation,
but a word of caution. This concerns the suggestion, made in the Windsor
report, that the role in the Communion of the Archbishop of Canterbury might be
enhanced, specifically by the development of a Council of Advice to assist with
the resolution of serious disputes (Windsor report, paras. 1088-1112).
During the past decade and more, this proposal has repeatedly been aired. It
is a highly understandable way of responding to disagreements that threaten the
very coherence of the Anglican Communion. It closely matches the reasons for
the development of the papacy in the early years of the Church.
But the Primates are not persuaded. They are cautious, they say, "of
any development which would seem to imply the creation of an international
jurisdiction which would override our proper provincial autonomy" (Primates'
meeting communiqué, para. 10).
In a radio interview, Dr Williams added that a "papal" model of central
authority was no more acceptable to the Primates in the developing world than
it was to North Americans. The logic of this position is that the legally
autonomous provinces must voluntarily embrace principles of self-restraint;
otherwise, the Communion will disintegrate.
Disputes are chronic in Christianity, and there is no uncontroversial way of
telling whether they are about important or trivial matters. Anglicans live
with frameworks of law from parish, to diocesan, to provincial levels. To have
no jurisdictional recourse at international level means a great deal of serious
work on the implications of what the Windsor report designates as
The problem with that phrase is that it is an unequal mixture of concepts.
"Autonomy" is clear enough as a legal term. But "communion" is much more
complex and multi-faceted. It has, of course, the deepest roots in God's own
being, and God's mysterious and gracious sharing of participation in that being
with humankind. Anglicans have never believed themselves to be the exclusive
keepers of the limits of that sharing. They have, none the less, developed
local juridical frameworks to define who belongs to their communion.
The different ontological and juridical strands in "communion" are
complemented by a strong affective element - hence the phrase, "the bonds of
affection". These are much wider than the boundaries of the Communion, as many
Anglicans can testify. The sense of the shared spiritual reality of "being one
in Christ" extends in all directions - and does not necessarily accompany the
fact of juridical communion, as the lack of mutual affection of Anglicans of
different opinions eloquently demonstrates.
The Primates indirectly highlight the affective element, in their note that
their meeting "has been characterised by generosity of spirit, and a readiness
to respect one another's integrity, with Christian charity and abundant
goodwill" (communiqué, para. 2). If the press accounts of bickering, cohorts of
lobbyists, and celebratory dinners are not to be believed, it may be that the
Anglican Communion has turned a corner.
WHAT IS CERTAIN, though, is that a very large-scale breakdown of trust, the
minimum pre-condition of any talk of affection, had already occurred before the
Reversal of this catastrophic situation is imperative. But we have in our
hands more opportunities than might appear to be the case. There are said to be
four "instruments of unity": the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates'
Meetings, the Lambeth Conference, and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC).
Inevitably, their deliberations are distorted when made the focus of
aspirations that they cannot deliver.
But communion is nourished in very many more ways. For example, the forms of
communication that link all parts of the Communion are an integral element in
building up knowledge and affection. Diocesan exchange partnerships; the work
of mission societies in all directions; networks of common interest;
educational visits; the work of international commissions - these are all
vital, the more so in a climate in which, inevitably, such events as the
proposed "hearing" at the meeting of the ACC in June this year are liable to
become heavily politicised gladiatorial contests.
The principle of voluntary self-restraint is embodied in the Primates'
proposal to the North American Churches that they withdraw from the ACC until
after the next Lambeth Conference.
To do this will take some generosity of spirit, particularly if it is not
accompanied by a matching withdrawal of their substantial contributions to the
ACC budget. It may not be easy for those who voted in good faith for the
innovations on sexual teaching to understand why others in the Communion were
outraged by their refusal to heed the many warnings about the consequences of
As things stand, the onus in this matter is plainly on the North American
Churches to take steps to re-establish trust. Indirect actions will be as
important as direct ones. To continue energetically to address the enormous
issues that confront so many parts of the Communion - in health, poverty,
education, environment, and trade - will be vital evidence of a willingness to
stay in partnership. Co-operation in theological study is also a pressing need,
but one constantly sabotaged by disparity of access to resources.
Not to accept any kind of inter-national jurisdictional authority is to
place additional weight on inter-provincial admonition. The Windsor report
addressed such a message to the North American Churches. We are told that there
is a high measure of support for its conclusions from around the Anglican
Communion. The Primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury have added their
voices. Is "autonomy-in-communion" to mean simply "autonomy"?
The Rt Revd Professor Stephen Sykes is chairman of the Church of England
Doctrine Commission and the Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal