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The need for restraint

02 November 2006

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 "autonomy-in-communion".

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 meeting.

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 their actions.

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 Commission.

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