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Leader: It depends what you mean by communion

11 February 2009

IT IS TEMPTING, especially in National Marriage Week, to elevate the status of marriage higher than it deserves. Single people, widows and widowers, cohabitees, divorcees, can all remind even those who are blissfully married that God blesses other living arrangements. Nor is the state of matrimony immutable. In the past in the UK, and still elsewhere, it has been bound up with the transfer of property, under which heading the wife often falls. Different demands have been made on different partners in different ages.

For this reason at least, marriage is a good analogy for church unity. It is perfectly possible to be faithful to God apart from other members of the Church; to be joined with some believers and not others; to be in a relationship that equates to friendship rather than a stronger bond. The Anglican Church is struggling with all these possibilities at present, facing splits within its fellowship over women and sexuality, while being aware that the historical divides in Christendom are not being mended in any concrete way. It is commendable that many continue to look for ways to come closer together, even if this involves redefining what “to­gether” means. But Christians cannot ignore their Lord’s nagging demand to be one “as I and my father are one”. In Dr Williams’s presidential address, he spoke of the bishops and Primates coming together in “daily prayer and Bible study”. If traditionalists continue to be accommodated in the C of E, it will be by assuring them that they need not be affected by women’s episcopal ministry. If Christians of different denominations unite, it is generally over some form of joint action or hospitality. None of these, though, could be described as becoming one. They are not communion. They are not marriage.

A clear test of unity has been placed before all of Christ’s followers. If they cannot kneel at the same altar, eat the same bread, drink from the same cup — as the Primates could not — they are not as Christ would have them be. And even then there is what Dr Williams called a greater “intensification” to be sought. In discussion within and outside the Anglican Communion, it is important to note that visible unity is not the end of the striving to be one, to be reserved for a future moment of perfect togetherness. It is this understanding that encourages Anglicans to welcome Roman Catholics and others to partake fully in its eucharists. It is this understanding that appears to have been lost by some of the Primates. The marriage analogy holds good: church leaders need perhaps to be reminded of the sound marriage-preparation counselling contained in Guys and Dolls: “Marry the man today . . . and change his ways tomorrow.”

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