08 November 2011

Autonomy versus Communion?

Another instalment of the Living Church's series of pro-Covenant articles has appeared while my attention was diverted. In his article, From Autonomy to Communion, Bishop Titre Ande Georges, of the Diocese of Aru in the Democratic Republic of Congo, compares the Anglican Communion to the Eglise du Christ au Congo (ECC), of which his Church is a member. The ECC, says Bishop Georges, is a loose federation with an unclear ecclesial identity and no clearly defined body of doctrine. It is, says Bishop Georges, not so much a Church as an ecclesial social club suffering from a severe ecclesial deficit.

So, too, says Bishop Georges, with the Anglican Communion. He suggests that the Anglican Communion is an equally loose federation of Churches without a clearly defined statement of faith and no central authority. He correctly states that “There has never been a normative statement of faith binding each of the national churches in the Anglican Communion, nor a central source of authority.” Whether this is a problem is where I respectfully disagree with the good Bishop. For I do not believe that he is correct to say that, “ 'Communion' has been merely a matter of social fellowship between autonomous churches, fostering spiritual and social bonds of affection. ” It is true that the Churches of the Anglican Communion are autonomous, but this autonomy is a strength rather than a problem. And communion is surely about more than “spiritual and social bonds of affection.” The Churches of the Anglican Communion are in a relationship of full communion with each other, albeit a communion which is impaired in certain areas. It is not clear from the ECC website whether there are any marks of full Communion, notably mutual recognition of orders, among the member churches. But that is certainly a mark of the relationship among the Churches of the Anglican Communion.

As I have argued previously, it is unfortunate that the proposed Anglican Covenant does not contain a definition of communion. But if it means anything in our context surely it means that we recognize the full authenticity of the Church in all its marks in each other, and that we (generally) accept the validity of the sacraments, and especially of the ordination conferred in each of the member Churches. (There is the anomaly that some Churches do not accept ordination of women or ordination by women. But with those exceptions, a bishop, priest or deacon in one Anglican Church is accepted as such in any other Anglican Church.) So, with respect to the Bishop, the nature of the relationship among the Anglican Churches is different from, and deeper than, the relationship among the member churches of the Eglise du Christ au Congo.

The “ecclesial deficit” of which Bishop Georges speaks stems from a collective identity crisis and an inability to “speak and act as one coherent ecclesial body”, and so “our ecumenical partners are frustrated” evidently because they expect the Anglican Communion to do so. But are these really problems? Is not a multiplicity of voices a necessary corollary of being a diverse communion of Churches? It may be that Bishop Georges and certain, unspecified, ecumenical partners would prefer a more uniform global Church over a diverse family of Churches, as long, presumably, as this uniform Church espoused the same doctrinal positions as Bishop Georges. But this is precisely the problem with the proposed Anglican Covenant: it is uniformitarian in its essence, designed to place the member Churches of the Anglican Communion on a Procrustean bed of uniformity. But we must not confuse uniformity with unity; it is the illusion of unity. True unity, the kind of unity to which God calls us, and for which Jesus prayed, is the coming together of diverse people in a common mission, revealing the multifaceted love of God for humanity in all its diversity in celebration, not annihilation, of that diversity. It is the kind of unity to which the Eglise du Christ au Congo apparently aspires. It is the kind of unity depicted by the Second Vatican Council. It is the kind of unity reflected by the Anglican Communion at its best. And this kind of unity is foreign to the Anglican Covenant.

As with other authors in this series of articles, Bishop Georges uses the Anglican Covenant as a screen on which to project his vision of the Anglican Communion. He asserts, but does not attempt to demonstrate, that the proposed Covenant will enable the Anglican Communion to grow, or in this case shrink, into his vision. Sadly, I think in this case he may well be correct. The Covenant is indeed designed to produce an Anglican Communion along the lines that Bishop Georges describes. But it will be a Communion that is too small, worshiping a God who is too small, proclaiming a false Gospel of uniformity, incapable of engaging with the beautiful diversity of humanity that is itself created to reflect the multifaceted image of God.


  1. Excellent, Alan. I like your words on the relationships in the present Anglican Communion, and I love the descriptive below of the covenant:

    it is uniformitarian in its essence, designed to place the member Churches of the Anglican Communion on a Procrustean bed or uniformity.

    I presume you mean 'of' instead of 'or'. 'Procrustean bed of uniformity' is perfect, and I'm sure I'll find the phrase useful on many occasions.

  2. Thanks, Grandmère. I have fixed the typo.


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