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The ties that bind

15 January 2016

“THE world does not see the spiritual Church but a divided and wounded body” — Archbishop Welby, talking to the Primates this week. Well, up to a point. No outsider is troubled, particularly, by the existence of different Christian denominations, although a handful might be puzzled, perhaps, about their seemingly imperceptible differences. In a consumer society, the ability to choose between one outlet or one brand and another seems perfectly natural. And if they behave decently, like rival shops joining a chamber of commerce and funding the town’s Christmas lights, so much the better — far better, in fact, than the proprietors of one store who are at each other’s throats squabbling behind the counter and ignoring the customers.

Agreement, therefore, must be a key objective for the Anglican Communion, whatever the outcome of the Canterbury talks, unresolved when the Church Times went to press. This may be full agreement, hardly likely, given the recent history; or what used to be called agreeing to differ, and is now termed “good disagreement”. Suppose that, when Christians disagree, their sole objective is to resolve that disagreement. Their first impulse would be a loving one; for who would be more likely to persuade: a friend or an enemy? And if love is being made manifest, differing views on one aspect of faith or another become less important.

If that love is not being manifested, the suspicion arises that other impulses are at play: the shoring up of support by demonising an opponent; self-justification, leading to self-righteousness; indulging in the pleasure of like-minded company (especially online); seeking the good opinion of others outside the faith; etc.

The Primates are, unfortunately, the wrong people to solve the Communion’s differences. It might be that they think they are not, given the hierarchical model of decision-making which the Church seems unable to shake off. But elevating someone to the status of Primate, with the exercise of power that the post invites and the degree of deference it attracts, and the dangerous amounts of loneliness that accompany authority, is not the way to convince him or her deep down that, in Archbishop Welby’s words, “without each other we are deeply weakened.” To be mutually supportive, people need freedom to manoeuvre, without having to look over their shoulder all the time to check the views of those whom they represent in some way. This is best done — and will continue to be done — by individuals and small groups who create the ties of mutual support that are what really constitutes the Anglican Communion and, indeed, the Church. The image of a broken net has long been used by conservative Anglicans to describe the Communion’s present state. Some of the larger knots may have come apart, but the fine mesh will remain unless, by their clumsiness, the leaders creates gaps that are difficult to reach across.

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