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Keeping it in the family

15 August 2007

The Anglican Communion is fractured beyond repair, but it could flourish as the ‘Anglican Family’, argues Robin Gill

The build-up to the Lambeth Conference 2008 is repeating patterns established immediately before the two previous conferences. Leading up to 1988, it was feared that the ordination of women as priests would split the Communion. Archbishop Runcie had to use his remarkable diplomatic skills in attempting to avert this.

Ten years later, it was similar, with women as bishops (before the conference) and homosexuality (during it), and Archbishop Carey deploying his considerable strategic skills. Now we are hoping that Dr Williams’s well-honed theological skills will save the Anglican Communion in the aftermath of Canon Gene Robinson’s ordination as bishop.

The reality is that Anglicanism has not been a Communion for years. After the ordination of women as priests, a sizeable minority of clergy within almost every diocese in the Church of England no longer communicates with the majority that accepts women as priests — a pattern now replicated elsewhere in the world. Now, after Canon Robinson’s consecration, the Primates no longer receive communion together.

In more colonial times, it might have been possible for an Archbishop of Canterbury to quell dissent, for example when the Bishop of Hong Kong ordained a woman in the 1940s. In a post-colonial age, however, this is no longer an option.

Why should the Americans conform, when they have been instrumental in effecting what they believe are essential changes — democratically elected bishops, women as priests and bishops, and the democratically elected Bishop Gene Robinson? Why should Nigerians conform, when everything in their theology and culture tells them that homosexuality (probably orientation, as well as practice) is deeply sinful and an abomination?

Anglicans may simply have grown up. It seems unlikely that we can ever be a Communion again, when there are so many areas of potential conflict — ordination, doctrine, sexuality, liturgy, authority, politics — any of which could fracture communion further. Of course “we” (the true Anglicans) could exclude everyone with whom we disagree, but that is simply a recipe for constant schism, as Pentecostalists around the world have experienced.

Perhaps we need to use a different biblical model: one of family rather than communion. Admittedly, the metaphor of family has been deployed sloppily in churches. “Family worship” can become little more than a cliché. The Church as a “family” can also be an excuse for petty behaviour. We all know that families are complex in pluralist societies, and can be problematic.

Family-resemblance theory offers a more robust model. It suggests that particular families may have shared characteristics that identify them as families, even when there is no single characteristic held by every member of that family. So some families have outstanding musical, artistic, social, and intellectual skills. Yet there may be no member of the family that has all of these skills, and no single skill that every member has.

This theory helps to resolve the dilemma of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, and, later, the Rt Revd Professor Stephen Sykes. Archbishop Ramsey tried, but ultimately failed, to find a distinctive Anglican theology shared by all Anglican theologians. In his early work, Professor Sykes tried to find a distinctive Anglican pattern of doctrine derived from a then widely shared use of the Book of Common Prayer. In more pluralist times, it seems that Anglicans may have shared characteristics, but that there are few, if any, characteristics that every Anglican shares. We draw differently from a common heritage.

For the past 15 years, I have lectured at Canterbury and elsewhere around the Anglican Family — including Moore College in Sydney, the United Theological College (UTC) in Bangalore, Newton College in Papua New Guinea, and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley. In each, I have encountered an abundance of differing and sometimes conflicting characteristics (only one of these colleges accepts the ordination of gays, and two that of women, for example), while still seeing all as parts of the same Anglican Family.

At each, I have seen at least one abiding Anglican emphasis: at Moore on marriage and family life; at UTC on the socially disadvantaged (especially the Dalit community); at Newton, on a developing theological education in a country where tertiary education is still a privilege; and at CDSP on inclusiveness and the changing place of women.

There are occasions when families do not talk to each other, and have deep tensions. Yet they remain families, whether they want to be or not. Family members can make pompous statements — “I am no longer your sister” — yet they obviously are. Likewise, in the Anglican Family, exclusion makes little sense, and the Lambeth Conference can survive as a less formal gathering, whether or not the bishops share communion or agree about anything much.

The Anglican Family worldwide can be seen to flourish in many different ways, even within parts of its extended family, such as the Methodist Church, that have developed a separate ecclesial identity. In turn, the Anglican Family can also be seen to be a part of the extended Catholic Family, whatever recent popes have thought about the validity of Anglican orders or shared communion.

All Anglicans have a common genetic link with the Church of England, but they have expressed their inheritance differently. However much we may regret this, we are now unlikely ever again to be a Communion. Yet perhaps that can free us to be something else.

We need not strive for conformity. We can be free to explore shared convictions with like-minded family members around the world, without denigrating other members who do not share these convictions. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has wisely done this for years.

As a post-colonial Church, the Anglican Family would learn to move beyond power and authority — no more Lambeth Resolutions or Windsor Process. Instead, we might discover the joys of sharing and learning from different members of the same family. We might even rekindle some of the genuine family affection that I have seen so often in my travels. Be not afraid. We can indeed flourish as the Anglican Family.

Canon Dr Robin Gill is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent.

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