Nobody with an interest in Christianity in the 21st century can have missed the recent challenges of the Anglican Communion. As a Primate who took part in three Primates’ Meetings and two Lambeth Conferences over the last two decades, these Anglican troubles have been written into my soul.
It is good news that Archbishop Justin Welby has decided to call a meeting of the Primates in January. This has been described in some parts of the media as a “crisis summit”. This misses the point. The reality is that we are over the crisis point – the moment when an illness could go one way or the other. We passed that many years ago. No province has declared formal schism and no province has created a body separate from the Anglican Communion.
What we have, however, is an unresolved situation where we have not fully worked out all our relations with each other.
In the Catholic church, the model of the church invests “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church” in one Bishop, “a power which he can always exercise unhindered”. The nature of the Anglican Communion has a concept of authority which is diffused globally.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, often described as the primus inter pares (first among equals), has an authority of honour, based on the power to declare who is in communion with him and the power to convene. At heart his authority is relational, and this is something Justin Welby has focused his first two years on. He has visited every province of the Anglican Communion and every Primate, and we are seeing the fruits of this labour now, in this meeting.
Archbishop Welby has also made conflict resolution a hallmark of his life and ministry, working (at risk to his own life) for this in Nigeria and bringing about an agreed way forward over women bishops in England that many thought would be impossible.
So what does he want to do? The scandal of Christian disunity – and, within that, Anglican disagreement – is that there are so many things in the world we could do so much better together. Christians are being slaughtered; climate change threatens our way of life; humans migrate in numbers unseen for over a thousand years; potential disciples, especially in the West, see our disunity and look no further.
Archbishop Welby is exploring how we can work together ecumenically on some of these issues, and he wants the Anglican Communion to show how united efforts, despite disagreement, can nurture lasting fruit in these areas. How can we learn to disagree well and to continue to love each other and serve the common good?
To do this we need to establish what, allowing for theological diversity, is the highest possible common ground of unity. One of the tragedies of disunion is how we focus on the matters we disagree about.
The reality is that we agree on so much. Anglicans have no disagreement about core credal doctrine; the question comes in the diversity of interpretation of that doctrine and its outworking in subsidiary issues. We have recently agreed guidelines for understanding the authority of the bible and its interpretation.
What will this common ground of unity in diversity look like? It is likely to retain that basic definition of being an Anglican, being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, that communion being defined by something similar to the earlier portions of the Anglican Covenant which was mooted some years ago. Provinces, however will have different levels of relationship with each other, some very close, some very distant.
The analogy doing the rounds is of a family that sleeps in separate bedrooms but still live in the same house and still eat at the same table. Perhaps another analogy could be spokes on a wheel.
You might think “how is this different from the reality now?” That is very much the point. We have already come to a position where relationships are complicated but, crucially, not ended. In what some might call “classic Anglican style” we have arrived at what might be a contemporary via media, or middle way: the “high common ground”.
Not only is this resolution absolutely vital for the Anglican Communion internally, but also for our ecumenical relationships. We pray for the restoration of the full visible unity of the universal church, characterised by unity in diversity within the Anglican Communion and between the global churches. We need to find agreed ways of being together and agreed ways of working with other Christians coherently, despite our differences.
This Primates’ Meeting will, by the grace of God, help bring it about.
Archbishop David Moxon, is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See and Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. He was Primate of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand & Polynesia until 2013.
Father David Moxon returned from theological studies at Oxford University in the U.K. in the late 1970s to attend Saint John’s Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand, to undertake Maori Studies under the tutelage of Canon John Tamahori who was then our Lecturer in that subject.
I was attending SJC at that time, as an S.S.F. Brother studying for the L.Th. exams, and was intrigued by this exotic New Zealander who had been personally advised by the then Bishop of Auckland, +Paul Reeves – later to become Archbishop of Aotearoa/New Zealand – (who had been his presenting bishop before ordination for the Waiapu Diocese) to undertake further studies in Maori at St. John’s College, Auckland. Around that time, when I was studying at Saint John’s, the College was host to two more students destined to become bishops in ACANZP – ++Philip Richardson, now the Pakeha Archbishop of New Zealand, and +Kelvin Wright, currently Bishop of Dunedin.
Archbishop David Moxon’s ministry in both Maori and Pakeha Tikanga in ACANZP gifted him abundantly for his current role as the latest Anglican Communion Representative to the Holy See, which task he took up in 2013 after his episcopal ordination as Bishop of Waikato. N.Z. in 1993, and his accession as Pakeha Tikanga Archbishop of New Zealand in 2006.
Archbishop David’s Anglo-Catholic leanings – not unlike those of his mentor, former Archbishop Paul Reeves – led to an easy relationship with the Roman Catholic Bishops in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In fact, he was first ordained Bishop of Waikato in the R.C. Cathedral in Hamilton, because his own Anglican Cathedral was not deemed large enough to contain the likely congregation on that august occasion.
Bishop David’s work as Director of Theology for Education by Extension in the Provincial Church from 1987 – 1993 provided insights into a sphere that has equipped him for continuing dialogue with ARCIC and the Roman Catholic Church – a task with which he is now intimately involved, through direct contact with Pope Francis and officials at the Vatican in Rome, in which city he is now domiciled.
In this intimate relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, it would have been important to Archbishop David that he try to articulate the difficulties currently encountered in the Anglican Communion’s stand-off on issues of gender and sexuality – which happens to coincide with the imminent Roman Catholic Conference on the Family, called by Pope Francis to address problems encountered in his Church on the very same issues. With the Pope’s well-known desire to open up the Catholic Church to a more compassionate treatment of women and gays – despite the expected opposition of some members of the Curia – it may well be that these two ‘princes of the Church’ could provide some welcome support for one another in their ecumenical pastoral conversations.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand