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Messy Church

15 April 2016

THE secretary-general of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the Rt Revd Dr Idowu Fearon, has given a robust answer to the ACC’s stay-at-home critics. The communiqué from the Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury in January had not been ignored, he suggested. US representatives had been asked to withdraw from committees in the gift of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As for the ACC, its standing committee was a legal body, and trustees could not be removed without a sound reason. That is not to say that the Bishop of Connecticut, the US representative on the standing committee, could not have stood aside voluntarily this time around; but there is a graciousness about his withdrawal from the slate for the next standing-committee chair.

It has been suggested that the Primates, a group of mature male clerics, are not representative of Anglicanism. The breadth of the ACC is undoubtedly wider, including male and female clerics and lay people, although suffrage is hardly universal. Its function is, by definition, consultative, and observers rightly ask whether either body is able to exercise authority over ordinary Anglicans. The real question, though, is whether they should. It bears repeating that Anglicans are both Catholic and reformed, so, while they tend to subjugate individual inclination to a collective, episcopally led purpose, they also test the collective inclination against personal conscience. Combining these two tendencies creates a Church that cannot be governed by top-down diktat. Anglicans will not often comply with discipline that they feel has been unjustly imposed.

Anglicans have been described in the past as uniquely troublesome in this respect, a misshaped jigsaw piece that cannot be made to fit into any regular church-unity puzzle. This misrepresents not only Anglicans but also other denominations. The antagonism between Pope Francis and conservative elements in the Roman Catholic hierarchy stems from the fact that he is the first Pope in recent decades to acknowledge the level of disengagement within his Church. The alternative to the “respectful discernment and careful accompaniment” suggested in Amoris Laetitia, released last week, is not a more faithful orthodoxy, as critics have made out, but increased disaffection. Pope Benedict XVI learned from the Anglicans that a church leader might retire. Is it fanciful to suggest that Pope Francis has learnt from the Anglicans, and also from the Lutherans, that more attention must be paid to individual consciences in the ordering of the Church?

Such apparent disorganisation should be seen in a positive light. The Holy Spirit is a force for unity, but also a disrupter. The centuries-long suspicion of prelacy in the Anglican character could be seen as an openness to this other aspect of the Spirit, and is manifested not only here in the UK but also overseas, as we have seen in Kenya in recent days. The desire to be united around the world will hold the Communion together, but it will always be in tension with a dogged individualism that is one of the strengths of Anglicanism.

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