Fr. Michael Poon (Singapore) Looks to the Future of Anglicanism

A Vision for the Fellowship of Anglican Churches

by Michael Nai-Chiu Poon

My vision for the fellowship of Anglican churches is to be a communicative people and spiritual movement in the service of the church universal. This, I believe, puts the family of Anglican churches on surer footing to work out their particular vocation as envisioned in the call for a “larger episcopal unity” in Lambeth Conference 1948 encyclical letter.

Three words stand out in the vision statement.

Fellowship

(1) First, fellowship. My preference of the term ‘fellowship’ over ‘Communion’ (with a big C) is intentional. It connects us to the 1930 Lambeth Conference description of the Anglican reality, as the “fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury.” The term ‘Anglican Communion’ has undergone substantial conceptual transformation since then, mainly in response to the ecclesiological concerns in the World Council of Churches, and the devolution of metropolitan authority within the Anglican family of churches. The ‘Anglican Communion’– understood as a Christian World Communion alongside the Lutheran World Federation and other Protestant confessional families – has as well developed ‘instruments’ – structures at the global level – that have become contentious in recent Anglican disputes. The ‘Anglican Communion’ idea carries different nuances to different people. Therefore, to talk about the vision for the ‘fellowship’ of Anglican churches worldwide, in more concrete and realistic terms, is a more unifying way forward. Otherwise, we wind up defending structures and constructs that are theologically and ecclesiologically suspect. To be sure, the Anglican Communion Covenant, as I have argued, aims to constitute the family of Anglican churches worldwide to be a Communion of churches. It is however unclear whether the Covenant, in its present form, will eventually be adopted by all “Churches of the Anglican Communion.” In any case, the “Anglican Communion,” in its present form, is more like a federation of churches that has no federal government (Owen Chadwick 1992, xv). It has no coherent ecclesial identity.

People

(2) Secondly, people. The word connects us to Augustine’s definition of a people as “a multitude of rational creatures associated in a common agreement as to the things which it loves” (civ. Deixix.24). To see what a people is like we must consider the objects of its love. To be a communicative people alerts us to inner disposition Jesus invites us to cultivate. God’s people are called to be poor, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure, to be peacemakers, and to be persecuted because of righteousness. This inner disposition unites us with Jesus, and makes us able to connect with the world, where the experience of hunger, dispossession, and so on is lived out in concrete terms. The vision to be a communicative people opens a moral and spiritual horizon against which the Anglican family of churches can rediscover their true bonds of affection. We are, because we share. The cultural heritage and historical precedence of British and American churches on their own cannot unite the Anglican family of churches. Still less can the churches be united by abstract ’causes.’ Human and social rights, developmental goals, and even doctrinal positions can become alienating and abstract when they are universally applied with little regard to the particular human condition. To see ourselves as a communicative people alerts us to the need to discover the real tasks in loving God and our neighbour in the concrete.

Movement

Third, movement. The term alerts the Anglican family of churches to the traditioning task. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger helpfully distinguishes between ‘movement,’ ‘current,’ and ‘action:’

Movements generally come from a charismatic leader and they take shape in concrete communities that love the whole gospel anew from this origin and recognise the Church without hesitation as the ground of their life, without which they could not exist.  (Ratzinger 1998, 500-501)

His point, clearly, is the sustaining power and ecclesial focus of ‘movement.’ To be sure, his discussion was directed to ecclesial movements in the Catholic Church. But it has especial relevance for the Anglican churches as well. Are our undertakings merely ‘current,’ ‘action,’ or ‘movement’? Most Anglican undertakings lack ecclesial consistency, especially those at international levels. Discussion and decision in international meetings do not carry any weight at local levels; ecclesiastical policies vary with change of leadership; Communion-level undertakings are mainly fund-dependent and therefore short-term by nature. The ecclesial deficit that the Windsor Continuation Group identifies in fact is endemic beyond the Communion structures, to the ‘five marks of mission,’ the rationale of qualification of Communion membership, and the ‘autonomous province’ concept. To Christopher Dawson (and John Henry Newman), this deficit goes to the heart of the Church of England: it lacks a proper authority structure. (See Adam Schwartz’s discussion on Christopher Dawson in The Third Spring: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones, 202-285.) Shorn of a coherent intellectual and theological account, global Anglicanism is therefore bound to collapse, and is at risk of splintering into tribalism. Remarkably, over the past decades the creative ecclesiological reflection in ecumenical conversation had not fed into the Communion-structure-building exercises.

To summarise, the Anglican disputes have highlighted the ecclesial deficit in the Communion-building project that began in the 1970s. It is unclear whether the Anglican Communion in its present form is intelligible to our ecumenical partners at both the international and local levels. More importantly, it is unclear whether the protracted disputes and the Communion-building exercises are morally justifiable in the face of wider challenges to Christianity and humanity in the twenty-first century. (See e.g. Pope Benedict XVI’s assessment of the human condition and Christian situation in his encyclicals.) We live in a globalising era that ‘Anglicanism’ is not the only option for the Anglican faithful. In fact, it can become a liability to true ecumenism. Anglican churches need to recover a more generous horizon and to draw on more locally-based ecumenical resources in order to work toward a ‘larger episcopal unity’ in the service of God’s kingdom. The primates and senior leaders of the Anglican Communion will do well to end their disputes soonest, and attend to long-term intellectual and ecclesial tasks. Only then can they continue to command respect and loyalty among the faithful.

_______________________________________________________________

I first encountered Dr. Michael Poon a few years ago, when he was one of the Singapore theologians writing for the neophyte ‘Global South Anglicans’ web-site on the Internet. In those days, Fr. Michael Poon was an eirenic voice in the controversies arising in the Anglican world on the subject of homosexuality and gender – especially as it affected the Third World countries – particularly in Asia and Africa. He did not, at that early stage, consider these subjects as affording any great threat to the ‘Unity in Diversity’ traditional to the ethos of Anglicanism – except that he thought that Asia, in particular, was hardly poised to welcome the advances made on gender and sexuality issues by the Episcopal Church in North America and the Anglican Church of Canada.

In the light of incipient schism, and the policy of border-crossing developments in the Communion since those early days of the ‘Global South Anglicans’ web-site, which later led (through a breakaway conservative group of Primates) to the formation of the more militantly anti-Gay group known as the GAFCON, it is salutary to remember that some G.S. theologians – like Michael Poon – have not elected to join the oppositional claque of Provinces – like Uganda & Nigeria, and some other Provincial Churches of Africa – that have refused to countenance the continuing reforms that have arisen  in TEC and the A.C. of C.’s – opening up the ranks of the ministry of their churches’ to Gay and Lesbian Christians. He had great hopes for the possibilities of the Anglican Covenant, as a tool for tightening up the structures. However, I think that even he now sees that this plan had its own particular weaknesses and may not provide the answer needed to the problems of Communion disaffection.

In these times of seeming schismatic tendencies which pit the conservative Province (like Gafcon) against the more liberal Provinces (like TEC and the A.C. of C.); voices like those of Michael Toon need to be heard – on the need for further reflection on what it means to be Anglican, even when the prospects of holding the Communion together in diversity, seem especially difficult. I believe Fr. Michael is a theologian of some integrity in the Communion who might yet help us to find ways of bridging the gaps that have appeared. But a lot will depend on the influence of people like him to persuade the likes of GAFCON that any effort to ‘strengthen the bonds’ , needs to allow the restoration of the necessary  ‘Unity in Diversity’ praxis to exist among the diverse Provinces of the Communion – in order to maintain that essential fellowship that would make being Anglicans in a world Communion worth the time and trouble involved.  

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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