A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Professor Ian T. Douglas
This article has appeared in Episcopal Life and in EDS News This new version will appear in the Diocese of Maassachusetts' Episcopal Times
On the eve of the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, prognosticators are predicting that decisions made at the Convention will make or break the Episcopal Church's continuing membership in the Anglican Communion. A great deal of time and energy thus has been spent trying to discern how the Episcopal Church can be both faithful to what God is doing in our midst while at the same time responsive to the concerns of the wider Anglican family of churches. While these are laudable efforts, the question for me is not so much: How can the Episcopal Church remain a part of the Anglican Communion? For me the question is: Why should I care about the Anglican Communion?
There are two reasons why I still care about the Anglican Communion. One has to do with the nature of the Church (the ecclesiological reason), the other with the nature of what God is up to in the world (the missiological reason).
First, the ecclesiological reason: Max Warren, the great General Secretary of the English Church Missionary Society in the mid-twentieth century is credited with saying: "It takes the whole world to know the whole gospel." Warren's statement underscores the belief that the Gospel contains universal truth that is meant for, and accessible to, every person and every culture. At the same time, Warren's words emphasize that any one cultural expression or contextual embodiment of Christianity is limited in its understanding and experience of the Gospel. No individual, no local eucharistic community, no national ecclesial body, not even any one province of the Anglican Communion, can pretend that they alone, that we alone, know and reveal all that God has done in Jesus Christ.
So to know the whole Gospel we need the whole world, in all of our differences, in all of our peculiarities, in all of our gifts, and all of incarnational realities. The Anglican Communion (that family of 38 national or regional churches in 164 countries with 75 million members all of whom trace some part of our history to the see of St. Augustine of Canterbury), offers an incredible means by which the catholicity, the universality, of the whole Gospel in the whole world can be lived out. To turn our backs on the Anglican Communion is to turn our backs on one possible way by which we can live into the fullness and wholeness of the Gospel. The Anglican Communion, in all of our differences and plural contextual realities, and not in some hegemonic normative presupposition of a "world church", can reflect the whole Gospel in the whole world. But to do so, the Anglican Communion needs the Episcopal Church; and the Episcopal Church needs the Anglican Communion.
Second is the missiological reason that I care about the Anglican Communion. The mission of God is to restore all people, all people, to unity with God and each other in Christ. The mission of God, the missio Dei, is one of justice, compassion and reconciliation that seeks right relation with and between all people and all creation. In order to be faithful to the mission of God, I need to be in relationship with others, near and far, those similar to me and those very different from me, who share in the vision of God's reign.
When we Anglicans come together in relationships across difference to serve and advance the mission of God, the Anglican Communion can do great things. Supporting Archbishop Tutu in his fight to overcome the sin of racism during the apartheid regime in South Africa, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in new languages and contexts around the world during The Decade of Evangelism, and cooperating with people of other faiths as well as secular organizations to pass significant debt-relief legislation for the poorest countries of the world during President Clinton's administration, are all examples of how Anglicans have come together to effect God's purposes in the world. And today, the Anglican Communion is widely acknowledged by governments and Non-Governmental Organizations alike as the single best global network to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic through our hospitals and schools that provide palliative care, medical delivery, and preventative education. The excellent work done by the Jubilee Committee of the Diocese of Massachusetts to address the realities of HIV/AIDS in East Africa is but one example of the incredible ways that Anglicans are coming together to address the pandemic. And finally the Anglican Communion, in our individual national churches and as a whole worldwide family of churches, is a significant voice challenging the governments of the world to make poverty history by fulfilling their commitments to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The invitation to fulfill God's mission is before us and the world needs our witness.
So why do I still care about the Anglican Communion? I do not care about the Anglican Communion as some precious ecclesial institution of English tradition, good taste and right order. No, I care about the Anglican Communion because it offers one way by which I, and we, in the Episcopal Church can begin to glimpse the whole Gospel in the whole world while calling us more deeply into faithfulness and service to the missio Dei. Evil being what it is, there is nothing the devil wants more than for the Anglican Communion to come apart and thus not fulfill its possibilities to serve and advance God's mission. I hope and pray that the Deputies and Bishops who gather at General Convention will see the Anglican Communion not as an end to be maintained at all costs, but as a means by which we can live into God's love and make real God's compassion, justice, and reconciliation in the whole world.
Much of this article was published originally in the EDS News as "Why We Should Care about the Anglican Communion."
Dr. Douglas is a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge Massachusetts. He sat on the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and he sits on the special legislative committee at General Convention 2006 called "The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion."
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