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A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003

Mystic Sweet Communion:

Mystic Sweet Communion

is one thing

and the Anglican Communion

is another.


by Mark Harris


Concerning “those whose race is run”

                        (see, The Church’s One Foundation,

                        words by Samuel Sebastian Wesley):


The name Bishop Colenso had pretty much disappeared from all but the most arcane ecclesiological literature.  Archbishop George Carey mentioned Colenso’s name in his address to the Anglican Consultative Council delivered September 16th. He said this, “…it was the unilateral action of one bishop, Bishop Colenso of Natal, that led to the first Lambeth Conference of 1867.” 


I was delighted to see the name because it proved for me once again that the bits of flotsam and jetsam that pass for information in my brain occasionally have some use.  My church history professors will perhaps find it gratifying that I at least remembered something from their classes.


 Colenso was bishop of Natal until he got tried for heresy, found guilty and excommunicated in the 1863. The battle with various authorities about that judgment did not stop there and he was later reinstated.  He provided grist for the chewing by his unwillingness to go quietly into the night. The people who ate of this strange judicial meal were mostly bishops concerned about what sort of canonical and legal ways the churches in the colonies were to relate to the ‘home’ Established Church, the Church of England and how churches in non-Established contexts would identify with the mother Church.


This was perhaps among the first ecclesial questions to be faced by what would eventually be the Anglican Communion. It was not so much about Colenso as it was about authority and autonomy. (See Jan Nunley’s article in the Episcopal News Service online at )  It was not the first such question, as members of independent Anglican bodies, among them the Episcopal Church, well know. And, (the Archbishop and Jan Nunley to the contrary) I suggest it was not the only causative reason for holding the first Lambeth Conference.   And contrary to what the Archbishop suggests,  it was not unilateral action either that seemed to be bothersome at the time, but independent thinking and teaching which is, of course, always unilateral. Colenso was tried for “his critical approach to the Old Testament.” (See The Study of Anglicanism, Sykes and Booty, pg. 361)  He thought, for example, that the Old Testament accounts of the flood and other matters were not literally true. He seems pretty tame now, but then he made a lot of people angry.


Still, Archbishop Carey brought his name up as a “unilateralist,” as someone acting on matters of “faith and order that could affect the unity of the Communion” in an independent fashion. In the world where issues of autonomy and authority are debated, the resolution of that Lambeth Conference of 1867 calling “upon all dioceses to submit to ‘superior synods’” is taken as a reference point for the notion that synodical authority is needed, first beyond dioceses to Provincial synods (our General Convention for example) and from there to something even higher on the judicial food chain.


So hearing the name Bishop Colenso brings more to me than simply the pride in recognizing a name seldom heard since Seminary, it also brings my attention around to the Archbishop’s address in a new way.  The Archbishop is pushing, I believe,  for a re-imagining of the Anglican Communion as world-wide Church whose synodical structures would provide the machinery for governance and canonical judgment on various matters having to do with faith and order.  In such a structure appeal could be made by priests defrocked and bishops maligned, but judgment could be rendered against bishops thinking too far ahead of the curve, and actions of Provinces that seemed out of sync with the received wisdom of the highest synods of that Church.


“’Mid toil and tribulation…”


Archbishop George Carey, near the end of his presidential address opined that “we are not yet a Communion but becoming one.” Earlier in his address, and more forcefully, he said, “we are not yet a communion because we are still too separate, still too ignorant of one another and, more importantly, in danger of allowing our national and local cultures to pull us apart.”


Strong stuff for Anglicans who might otherwise think that being part of the Anglican Communion was without cost.


He is right, of course. Not I think about the business of “becoming” a communion, but about his observation that we are too often separate, ignorant and obstinate.  Anglicans the world over need to practice mutuality much more than we do, and Archbishop Carey is on the case.


The Archbishop is also prophetically on target to call us again and again to a common vision for mission.   How are we to sit at table and have that be true communion when we will not, or can not, take the suffering of the world as our first order of common mission and them as our first guests? 


On the other hand I am less certain about certain aspects of his vision for the Anglican Communion. He asks, “What kind of Communion does our Lord want us to become?  What is the vocation to which we are called?”


In the larger scheme of things the answer is not too difficult.  The vocation of the Anglican Communion is to live and die in such a way that it might contribute to the fullness of “the work of Christ.” 


We must constantly remind ourselves that the Anglican Communion is a way of being IN the Church.  It ought not be touted as THE Church, or even as A church. Churches belong to the Anglican Communion. It is a way of staying connected with fellow travelers while going about the task of the whole Church – “to carry forward the work of Christ.”  When this way of being in the Church has served its usefulness it will die, and hopefully be well remembered.


The Archbishop of Canterbury no doubt sees this business of being a Communion in a unique way. His perspective, experience and place makes it imperative for him to think of the unity and continuity of the Anglican Communion, not its devolvement into whatever God might have for us in the future. And so Archbishop Carey has set out to chart a course by which all of us who are members of churches that are part of the Anglican Communion can continue to hold together.  Re-imaging the Anglican Communion is quite properly something on which he might speculate. But we should not be surprised if he envisions the Anglican Communion as a world wide Church, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head, and sees unity as a primary task.


The Archbishop’s speech has flashed around the world on several internet pages and has occasioned various reactions, almost all having to do with the penultimate section of his speech in which the Archbishop was moved to bring up again the subject of “unilateral action” by various archbishops, bishops and dioceses which he sees as “steadily driving us towards serious fragmentation and the real possibility of …distinct Anglican bodies emerging.”  People were angry or glad, depending on whose head was on the block.


I wish the headlines for this speech read:

“Archbishop supports mission to ‘the most vulnerable, the very poor and those without hope in Christ;’ Calls for renewed focus on mission.” 

For that is a reasonable summary of the whole speech. But of course that’s not what has gotten reported. Instead the headlines are all about matters that came near the end of the speech and concerned his “greatest worry.”


It would be easy to blame the media for going for the tasty sections on sex and accusation. But the Archbishop went there first. He said “unilateral” actions were taken “usually (but not always) in matters having to do with sexuality.” Well, sex sells, as they say. At least it makes headlines. His speech also produced good headline material in his naming the so-called unilateralists by name or title, for after all, accusation also sells.


But all of this is a sad business, because it further exemplifies precisely the Archbishop’s most important point - that the attention of the church turns too easily away from the “most vulnerable, the very poor and those who have no hope in Christ” and too easily focuses instead on the bad behavior of family members when they act out. 

My sense is that the Archbishop was his own undoing in this speech. Here he was, on a tare, “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” He was telling hard truths.  Where the world is hurting, too often the church is split, ignorant and divisive and unable to respond.  We need to get about the mission of the Church.


And then, just when he has in his grasp a great closing, calling for interfaith dialogue and action, he turns aside to take on the one area where he has himself been most vulnerable – the matter of his special ministry to work for the unity of this rather unruly fellowship of churches called the Anglican Communion.  With that turning aside his last and perhaps most engaging address gets lost in the eroding swamp of church squabbles. It is then that Bishop Colenso gets dragged into the argument.


It is too bad. Archbishop Carey is a good man in a difficult position. The challenges of his speech on re-visioning the Anglican Communion were, concerning the focus on the “work of Christ” was on the whole right on target. He just got pulled in to a scolding mode, frustrated with family matters gone bad.


“Yet She on earth has union … with God”


Years ago someone told me, (assuming that I was rather simple minded, I expect) that the Anglican Communion could be thought of as a parallel to the British Commonwealth of Nations.  Just as the Commonwealth consisted of nations that had at one time been colonial territories, the Communion consisted of churches that had their origins in the Church of England.  Both, it was thought, are united by their experience of Englishness.


Well, the British Commonwealth of Nations is less interesting as a unifying idea after the tide of post-colonial analysis.  And, I would suggest that the Anglican Communion is less English in either origin or immediate ancestry than would have been supposed prior to that same post-colonial analysis. It is less the source of unity as well. 


But many of us kept the notion that somehow the Archbishop of Canterbury was “head” of the Anglican Communion, not unlike the role of the Monarch as the “head” of State.  Everyone knows that the Monarch of England does not rule in the ordinary sense but rather hopefully incarnates something of the realm of England. And everyone in the Anglican Communion knows that the Archbishop of Canterbury does not rule as, say, the Roman Pontiff does.  What the Archbishop does (if gifted by the Holy Spirit) is incarnate something of the life of the Communion. But those two sorts of incarnational activity are quite different, really. For England is a place and people; the Anglican Communion is a free association of independent churches. There can be no equation of monarch and patriarch, even if we have one.


The temptation is to think that the Anglican Communion is in fact a body of believers that has certain “instruments of unity” that makes our local ministries (by that I mean people and bishop) accountable first to national instruments or persons, and then worldwide instruments or persons. Well, most of the Churches of the Communion have at least come to an agreement that there would be Provinces, whose canons and practices were considered normative for their Province. And one must note that new Provinces do submit their constitutions and canons for approval and review by structures of the Anglican Communion.  But beyond that, what? 


The temptation is to think that the Archbishop of Canterbury is more or less at the top of a pyramid, perhaps along with the Primates, and that dioceses are accountable in an “upward” way.  It is tempting to think that this is the case, but it isn’t. If the Pope was a “foreign” bishop to England, even now we need to realize that the Archbishop of Canterbury, or for that matter the Archbishop of Singapore, is sometimes ‘foreign’ to others in the communion.


Why is this “submission to higher synods” stuff so tempting?  Because it does promote some semblance of unity.  It certainly makes it appear that all of us in the Anglican Communion are, or can be, on the same theological and ecclesiological wavelength.  It makes us seem grown-up and worthy of being taken seriously by other “world” churches. I believe the Archbishop gave into the temptation to want the Anglican Communion to be a world church “like” other world churches.


The Archbishop laments that “leaders of other Churches…have spoken gently but sternly of our internal disorderliness on issues … It is viewed as a major stumbling block to the unity we claim we seek with the universal Church.”  But internal disorderliness is not alone among the stumbling blocks, what about overweening pride of being the “true” church, a disease that is rampant in Christian churches.


No doubt it would make our conversations with, say, the Roman Catholic Church, clearer if we were less “disorderly.” But of course we would impolitely have to say that who cares if the Roman Catholic Church considers us disorderly?  How about the stumbling block of their attitudes made dogma concerning Anglican Orders? They don’t consider our priests real priests, or our bishops real bishops. Surely the stumbling block is somewhat greater than our disorderliness.  


Anglican efforts to deal with ethical and theological matters concerning human sexuality are not particularly orderly, that is true. There are widely divergent opinions about all sorts of matters concerning sexuality, in the Episcopal Church, in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion, and between Provinces.  But as has been pointed out disorderliness is certainly to be found elsewhere in Christendom.  Sexuality is a gift with strings attached and no Christian community of any size (I hazard to suggest) had been without its decisions that do not conform to the assumed mores of the earliest Christian communities. And by the by, I believe there is little to support the notion that the mores of that time and place were meant to hold for all times and places.  Our disorderliness is nothing so surprising. Leaders of other churches might do well to dampen their disdain of our disorderliness less their own puzzlements come too much into the light.




“Mystic Sweet Communion”


The Archbishop ends up saying, “it is not enough to carry on talking about being a Communion while we take actions that contradict our words.” Well, supposed we did “carry on talking about being a Communion” but we meant by “Communion” something different than an organism or institution that was a single whole, a ‘world church.’  Suppose we meant by “communion” something more porous, open – a net of many strands?  Suppose we did not think of ourselves as a “world church?” Suppose we were to think of the Anglican Communion as precisely what we say it is in the Preface to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church, “a fellowship of churches.”


If a Province or diocese were to leave this fellowship we would all lose. It would be profoundly untidy. It would be like a split in a family where one member never talks to another, or leaves and never comes back.  But it would not be the end of the Anglican Communion. 


For some it would spell the end of the notion that there is one and only one Anglican “body” in the world. Well, it’s time to dispel that idea anyway. There are many distinct Anglican “bodies” in the world as it stands now. These are the many autonomous churches that make up the Communion and some which are Anglican but not part of the Communion. In some places there are several bodies in the same geographical setting, and sometimes there is real competition among them. 


The Archbishop of Canterbury is perhaps worried about the falling apart of the “commonwealth” that he supposes the Anglican Communion to be, (the remnant of the old parallel between State and Church) and on some odd level, about the diminution of the role of the Archbishop as “first among equals” and patriarch. 


Bishop Colenso is brought out from the dust bin again by the Archbishop in order to argue for some higher authority in church matters than that of a Province. Archbishop Carey is not new to this argument.  He has in the past voiced his opinion that synods (Provinces) ought to submit matters of sufficient merit to a higher synod which acts as an instrument of unity (Lambeth or the Primates for example). Well, it looks like that’s not going to happen.


I don’t think that the possibility that we might become a world body with something like a patriarch is such a good idea anyway. I like the fact that the Archbishop presides at meetings rather than has audiences. I think it is a splendid innovation in church polity that keeps us free of persons or organizations that ‘insist’ rather than ‘urge.’  Respecting the Archbishop of Canterbury and listening carefully to the deliberations of the Lambeth Conference, these are all important, but important too is that we re-imagine the Anglican Communion in ways in which we retain that blessed “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”



“Lord, give us Grace”


We should commend the Archbishop for his address, even with its penultimate quirky side trip, a speech so filled with the hope that Anglicans might find their focus clearly in the Gospel to the poor and to the mission which that focus requires.  We should remember him in our prayers. And we should remember that he veers from the focus when frustrated by our untidy ways every bit as much as we all do at times, and forgive him for it. We gave him a terrible job to do.


But we should stay focused on the Gospel and the mission to “carry forward the work of Christ”, undeterred even by the specter of the dissolution of the Anglican Communion.  The Anglican Communion is our answer to the question about how to be in fellowship, not our answer about how to be the ‘universal Church.’  And if that answer no longer serves, so be it.  We Anglicans can’t be the universal church anyway… that is a matter of the whole Body of Christ, which is (as I remember) a spiritual body involving as it does the living and the dead with Christ as its head.


And, perhaps while we are at it, we might also remember that being in “communion” with other Christian bodies, both in and outside the Anglican Communion, is a pale shadow of the truly embracing Mystic Sweet Communion, which is about the Gospel that says He is Risen and is at table with us, and with all our ancestors in the faith and all those yet to come. 


Mystic sweet communion is one thing and the Anglican Communion is another.


Meanwhile, as the Archbishop encourages, we ought to set our gaze on those God in Jesus Christ first embraces.




“Archbishop supports mission to ‘the most vulnerable, the very poor and those without hope in Christ;’ Calls for renewed focus on mission.” 


Focus, focus, focus.     



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