How Legalism Has Destroyed the Communion

You are currently viewing How Legalism Has Destroyed the Communion

It’s now over 3 months since the pivotal Primates’ Gathering in Canterbury. Much water has passed under the bridge since then and many readers will have been watching along. Apologies that has not been more vocal in bringing you up to speed.

As I write the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) is meeting in Lusaka. The ACC forms one of the four “Instruments of Unity”of the Anglican Communion, alongside the decennial Lambeth Bishops’ Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself and the Primates’ Meeting. You may remember that attendance and participation in the ACC was a key topic of conversation coming out of the Primates’ Meeting given that the Primates in their closing communiqué stated:

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters [the decision of The Episcopal Church (“TEC”) to unilaterally change doctrine on a key question] we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

At the time attention naturally turned to the upcoming ACC meeting given that it would be the first Communion event in which this statement would be tested. Almost immediately bishops of TEC began to line up to state that they would be attending and had every intention of participating fully. Anglican Ink has a fantastic catalogue of many bishops’ statements where there is a recurring theme which can be summarised as:

  1. we value our relationships in the Anglican Communion and are just as committed as ever to “walking together” with others.
  2. nobody has the power to remove us from the Communion’s institutions and structures.

This position was also reiterated by the chairman of the ACC, Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga (former bishop from southern Malawi but since then deeply integrated into the TEC theological education system and increasingly influenced by their revisionism, particularly in the downplaying of the divide that TEC’s actions have brought).

tengatenga-250sq“So the Episcopalians have been given three years,” he asked. “What does it mean? Nobody knows what it means,” Dr. Tengatenga said.  The primates believe they have said “something that is definitive, but it is not.” They do not have the “power to take the next step.”

He observed the “primates think they are more important than anyone else. When they attempt to bottle up the fizziness [of the development of doctrine within the Communion] that is when things explode.”

The “bottom line is that the Episcopal Church cannot be kicked out of the Anglican Communion and will never be kicked out of the Anglican Communion,” Dr. Tengatenga said, adding the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council will be held in two months’ time in Lusaka.

“Are the Americans going there? Yes. Are they going there to be rude?”

They were not, he said “because it is their right and responsibility” to attend the meeting.

“Are they going to vote? Yes, they are going to vote as it is their right and responsibility,” the ACC chairman said.

The Americans might “voluntarily” withdraw from the meeting, he said, but he did not believe they could be compelled to withdraw.

The presiding bishop of TEC had pushed a very similar line shortly after the Primates Meeting:

bishop-curry_tp…it’s important to remember that the Anglican Communion is really not a matter of structure and organization. The Anglican Communion is a network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth by helping the poorest of the poor, and helping this world to be a place where no child goes to bed hungry ever. That’s what the Anglican Communion is, and that Communion continues and moves forward.

So the Communion is nothing less than it’s relationships. This is, of course, what the Primates themselves stressed in their communiqué while also noting that the actions of TEC had caused a great disturbance to those relationships:

5. In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.

6. Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.

At the time of the Primates’ statement and communiqué the Anglican Communion Office were at pains to stress the relational nature of what was being said. I even had this remarkable exchange with the Church of England’s media officer:



The spin was on.

Although at the time I was (along with others) disappointed as to what was achieved at the Primates Meeting (albeit glad that something was done), the more I’ve reflected upon the language used, the more I appreciate that the Primates have actually got to the heart of the matter.

Communion really is dependent upon relationship. The κοινωνια that the New Testament speaks of is a deep fellowship and partnership grounded in a common mission – the gospel. It finds expression in key books, most famously Philippians:

Phil. 1:4-5 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…

Phil. 2:1-3    Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

Yet this communion also requires an understanding that agreement is important (as we have already seen in Phil. 2:1-3)…

1Cor. 1:9-10 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

And this is what the Primates recognised, albeit that agreement no longer existed and thus the κοινωνια of the Communion was fundamentally broken.

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

Essentially what they were saying is this:

We long to be in κοινωνια but TEC has broken that relationship. Thus there are natural consequences to their actions. They cannot with one breath claim to be one with us and with the very next depart from us. So we require that their separation from us is formally recognised for a period to allow some reflection on this.

Now let’s take the spin we’re getting at face value – that this was not so much a legalistic disciplinary statement as a relational statement. Let’s go with Tengatenga’s claim that the Primates don’t have the structural authority to ban TEC (and on this he is correct; there is certainly a moral and spiritual authority inherent in their position but no structural authority to mirror it. But then that’s the nature of genuinely deep relationships; they are always grounded in proper affection, not rules).

Let’s therefore agree that the Primates are talking in relational, not disciplinary language. This was a relational call to those with whom κοινωνια has been broken to restore that κοινωνια. What, then, ought the response to be?

Surely it should also be relational? Every pastor (and plenty more of us besides) have sought to mend broken relationships between those around us. Blessed are the peacemakers and all that. But on what basis do we work? On simple legalistic frameworks? Of course not, we appeal on the basis of those prior relationships and the need for action to restore them. That action, of course, more often than not requires an acknowledgement of prior wrongdoing followed by repentance and rectification.

Were friends of many decades to fall out nobody would consider it reasonable for the offending party to claim “you don’t have the right to end this relationship”. It would make no sense. The relationship is already fractured. The only mature and reasonable way for the relationship to be sustained and repaired is for the offending party to consider their actions and work out if they want back in.

But coming back into κοινωνια is not the same as just going through the motions of a process. It requires a genuine desire to re-engage on the original terms of that good relationship that they have rejected, just as we have seen the Apostle remind the Church.

The appeal to “rights” and the claim that others “don’t have the right” demonstrates only one thing; that those protesting don’t actually value the proper basis of relationships. It is a destructive legalism that is the very opposite of the deep relationship that they with the next breath protest loudly they are so committed to.

Process over genuine partnership, rules over deep relationship, the entire run-up to the ACC Lusaka meeting has only served to demonstrate what the GAFCON Primates and others have reiterated as they each in turn made the difficult decision not to attend.

For the GAFCON Primates in Canterbury last month, it was the light shining from Jerusalem that enabled us to give a lead in the steps taken to sanction the Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC) as a step towards restoring godly faith and order.  Sadly, the meeting had hardly finished before it was made very clear that there would be no repentance or change of direction on the part of TEC and their delegation to the Anglican Consultative Council Meeting in April expect it to be business as usual.

As the GAFCON Vice Chairman, Archbishop Okoh of Nigeria, has already said, it is now clear that nothing has changed as a result of the Canterbury meeting. The fabric of the Communion is still badly torn and there can be no true walking together until there is repentance for what is acknowledged even by TEC as a breach of core doctrine.

So where are we at?

The Communion longs for a global κοινωνια upon which it should be rightly grounded. But as long as those who are repeatedly tearing the fabric of that Communion continue to insist upon a framework of rights and rigid authorities rather than responding in seeking to properly mend the broken κοινωνια things will only get worse.

Roll on GAFCON 2018 wherever and however it will be. One of the repeated comments I hear from bishops who attended GAFCON and various FCA gatherings is that (as opposed to any number of Communion-wide meetings they have been to including Lambeth Conferences) there is a genuine κοινωνια because of a genuine common commitment to the gospel.

So let the legalists and the Communion apparatchiks argue about who really has the right and authority to do all manner of things. Genuine κοινωνια relationships simply don’t work that way and without them the Communion is a communion in name only. Its restoration would be wonderful, but unless there is genuine κοινωνια, what would be the point?

Leave a Reply

Leave a Comment - but please pay careful attention to the house rules