'Power in the Church: Prelates, Confessions, Anglicans' by Archbishop Michael Peers

Power in the Church: Prelates, Confessions, Anglicans

by Most Rev. Michael Peers
Archbishop & Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada

The Arnold Lecture, December 6, 2000, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Note: Thanks to the Archbishop for permission to publish this lecture. He has already sent copies to all Anglican primates. -- L.


In the past few years a kind of tidal undertow has generated some strong waves and powerful breakers in the Anglican sea. They have to do with the issue of what it means to be a communion. The Virginia Report of the 1990's recognized and noted this in its opening chapter:

When Christians find themselves passionately engaged in the midst of complex and explosive situations, how do they avoid alienation from those who by baptism are their brothers and sisters in Christ, who are embraced in the communion of God the Holy Trinity, but who disagree? How do they stay in communion with God and each other; how do they behave towards each other in the face of disagreement and conflict? What are the limits of diversity if the Gospel imperatives of unity and communion are to be maintained?

How do we contend with the matters that trouble our Anglican waters? My thesis is that there is a deep connection between what it means to be in communion and what it means to exercise power. In large part, the way in which we deal with the questions raised in the Virginia Report reveals our understanding of power. So I propose, in this talk, to consider the nature of the communion we share in Anglicanism, and to explore that in terms of the way we think about and exercise power.

Two Incidents, Two Questions

How should Christians think about 'power'? My starting point is scripture. I want to begin by recalling two stories told by Mark. In each of them, power is key. And at the heart of each incident is a question. The first is this:

"Who touched my clothes?"

Mark describes a moment when a man named Jairus, a member of the ruling class, a leader in the synagogue, approaches Jesus, and seeks help for his sick daughter. As Jesus starts out to go with Jairus to his home, a large crowd presses around. In the crowd is a woman who also seeks healing. Here is the story in Mark's words:

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, "Who touched me?' " He looked all around to see who had done it.

But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." - Mark 5: 25-34

There are important things to notice here. The woman, unlike Jairus, has no name, and is clearly not among the leading citizens. She is invisible. She has suffered 12 years with a flow of blood, making her ritually unclean and outcast. She has 'spent all she has' on physicians without relief, and so has become poor. But despite her anonymity, her poverty and her illness, despite her powerlessness to control anything in her life, she reaches out to Jesus. This is more than an act of desperation; it is a moment of profound faith: "If I can only touch his clothes, I will be made well." And she is made well. Her haemorrhaging stops.

But the healing is much more than the cure of the condition that brought her to Jesus. The woman is restored to relationship. The first word Jesus says to her is "Daughter". "Daughter, your faith has made you well". Outcast and unclean in the eyes of the law, she is now proclaimed a member of the family - at least of the new community he was forming. In a brief note, Walter Wink says that "by elbowing her way through the crowd" to reach Jesus, the woman rendered unclean, "not only Jesus, but everyone else she touched". The woman crossed uncrossable boundaries, and was welcomed by Jesus. She receives the gifts of wholeness of body, of belonging, of dignity - she is now 'daughter'.

This is all framed in terms of power: When she touches Jesus, she receives 'power' to find new life. "Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, 'Who touched my clothes?'" Once powerless, the woman is now empowered. And this is also framed in terms of faith: "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace." John's gospel echoes this: "To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God."

"Who touched my clothes?" Who came close to me? Most were pushing, shoving. But what Jesus senses is the 'touching'. Pushing and shoving is about vying for place. Touching is about relationship. Those who belong to the kingdom are persons like this woman - people who are at the edges without power, who are enabled to 'go in peace'.

To go in peace, is to go empowered. It is an invitation to participate in life - not to be trampled by, nor to trample others. God invites us 'to go in peace'.

The second question Jesus asks is this:

"Are you able to drink the cup I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"

This incident follows a little later in Mark. Jesus has just told the disciples for the third time that he is to suffer and die:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." Mark 10:35-45

This is a clear attempt at a power grab by James and John. They seek to secure for themselves position and privilege (the right and left hand) when Jesus comes into his glory. For them, 'glory' is some kind of status; they may well be imagining a political coup that, if successful, could lift them into high rank. They understand Jesus' 'kingdom' in terms of the ruling powers of their time: winners, losers. And further, they are careful to approach Jesus apart from, and without the knowledge of, the other disciples. It is a move which separates and divides community. The other disciples, when they discover this, are angry. Their anger seems to be not so much that the two brothers sought power, but that they sought it unfairly. Ched Myers says that "the whole community is indicted in the struggle for power." Jesus recognizes this and calls them together. He teaches that the model of power that is found in "rulers" and "tyrants" is not the way to which they are called. "It is not so among you. you must be servant and slave."

It is significant that Jesus responds to the request with a question that asks "Are you able to drink my cup, share my baptism?" It is the same sort of question as the one asked in the earlier story: "Who touched me?" They are both questions about "communion". In the first instance, the question is "Who has come into communion with me?" And in the second, the question is "Are you able to be in communion with me?" In scripture, to be in communion with Jesus is to share his power, but it is always the power that gives life, power that is open and not closed. It is to participate with others - power with not power over others. Power, as scripture sees it in Jesus, is not for domination or intimidation (such as James and John seek to acquire); it is for relationship and abundant life (such as the woman is able to receive).

Dr. Eileen Scully described this sense of power in a paper for the Primate's Theological Commission. She was thinking specifically of the word 'authority':

"The word is related, of course, to the word 'author' which in turn comes from the Latin word augere meaning "to make increase, to cause to grow, to fertilize, in increase or to enlarge." An auctor, or author, is a doer, a creator, a leader. Further, though, authority describes a relationship. One holds authority in relation to another, and this means that one, the 'author', has some kind of power in relation to the other. ."

The view of power that operates in the world relates easily to the categories revealed in the request of James and John. Political power, financial power, military power are well known to us, and we understand that. The Bible understands all that too, but it challenges this with its own vision: And that vision is of power that is always for sharing life, enabling life, lifting up, creating. Power with implies relationship. In short, it is for communion.

Communion and Hospitality

I turn now to explore something of what is meant by 'communion', and specifically to begin to say something about the Anglican Communion. Communion or 'koinonia', to use the biblical word, is mutual sharing, encouragement, hospitality. It is fully to recognize another as a brother or sister. That is why the woman who reaches out to touch Jesus can be said to be 'in communion' with him: she lets nothing - not ritual uncleanness, not lack of status, not the fact that she is a woman - stop her from the possibility of this life-giving relationship. And Jesus accepts her completely: "Daughter, your faith has made you well." Bishop Jim Cruickshank, in an address given at a joint meeting of the Council and the Standing Committees of General Synod, said, "the reign of God happens when people are brought together who are not normally found together." That is communion, koinonia. And it is a gift, not an achievement.

Paul Avis, in his book Christians in Communion, writes with a particular focus on our relationships with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Churches and Protestant Churches. But what he says has significance too for the Anglican Communion's own life. He states that "the primary obligation to our fellow Christians is to be in communion with them." He quotes St. Paul's words, "Receive one another as God in Christ has received you" (Romans 15.7), and goes on to say: "We are obligated to extend to one another the identical welcome and acceptance that God has extended to us in Christ." It is important to remember that this is the basis of the Anglican Communion. We are bound to one another by a shared history, and by a desire to hold together for the sake of the mission God gives us.

But worldwide Anglicanism is a communion, not a church. The Anglican Church of Canada is a church. The Church in the Province of the West Indies is a church. The Episcopal Church of Sudan is a church. The Anglican Communion is a 'koinonia' of churches. We have become that for many reasons, among which are the struggles of the sixteenth century and an intuition about the value of inculturation, rooted in the Incarnation, which has led us to locate final authority within local churches. We are not a papal church and we are not a confessional church. We are autonomous churches held together in a fellowship of common faith dating from the creeds and councils, recognizing the presidency of a primus inter pares (the Archbishop of Canterbury), often struggling with inter-church and intra-church tension, but accepting that as the price of the liberty and autonomy that we cherish. As I said to the members of the Council of General Synod last month, the price of this includes a certain measure of messiness.

In his letter to the Church in Rome, Paul, characteristically, lists a variety of traits which he sees as necessary for a healthy common life. The list - which includes giving pride of place to one another, persistence in prayer, contributing to one another's needs - concludes with this simple word: "Practise hospitality". (Romans 12: 9-13) Communion is rooted in hospitality. Hospitality is a willingness to invite and receive another into your house, to break bread and to share life. To refuse to give or to accept hospitality - for instance, to refuse to break bread with another - is to decline communion. Historically, in the Anglican Communion, member churches have modelled this hospitality in relationship to one another. In recent times, because the ordination of woman as priests has not been accepted in every Province, and because the ordination of women as bishops is recognized in still fewer Provinces, we have spoken of 'impaired communion'. But because we seem inherently to understand that we need one another, we have not let go of each other. This is some of the messiness that we have accepted as the cost of being in communion. Hospitality is not a tidy business. But it is the business of communion.

Mark Harris, an Episcopal priest who has reflected often on the Anglican Communion, has made this comment:

"Koinonia is always a gift of hospitality to be received as a gift and not to be grasped at as a matter of right or property. There is great authority in hospitality, for those who offer hospitality speak for the household from which they come. But the only power in that hospitality is that of invitation. All other powers ascribed to the host derive from the desire of those who wish to be invited to the table. And ascribed power is idolatry, not fellowship. There is no place for coercive power in fellowship.The full joy in our bonds with other Anglican churches derives from our sense that our common life as Anglicans is a product of hospitality and friendship, not power or coercion". [See Harris' full essay]

Power as we have tried to understand it in the Communion, has to do with invitation and acceptance. We have sought models of partnership that are based on mutuality and that create life for those who covenant together. We have sought models of mission which understand that mission in a local context is best discerned and carried out by the local church. The whole concept of "Partners-in-Mission" is one that happens because a Province invites others in the Communion to come and participate in a re-examination and evaluation of how it does mission. Partners come with eyes and ears open to see and hear with fresh perspective, and their reflections are invaluable for the ongoing life of a church. It is an opportunity for a Province to hear the gospel in a new way. But this takes place because we invite or are invited out of a sense that we share life, communion, as friends together in Christ. The power we see here is the power to enable and foster relationship in Christ. It is not 'coercive', to use Mark Harris's word, but rather rises out of give-and-take as we have tried to "practise hospitality". Bishop Penelope Jamieson has written: "Power with consent has the potential to foster identity and community, and to be both productive and creative. as opposed to the inertia of negativity." Consent has everything to do with mutual agreement, with an honouring of one another, with real friendship, partnership and communion.

Communion, Confession and 'Curialization'

At the beginning of this lecture, I noted some questions raised in The Virginia Report. One of them was about 'the limits of diversity' in the Communion. It is a question about freedom and boundaries. It is a question that is at the centre of Anglican life today. Communion, by its very nature, does not have clear boundaries. I do not think it is simple to find sharp lines in a worldwide communion of churches, because any limitations are local - local to a particular Province. The challenge of 'communion' is to listen, learn and reflect together in order to hold together. It is a challenge that is certainly not easy, but it is worth the try.

Precision of doctrine and clarity of decision-making are not among the strongest hallmarks of 'communion'. I mentioned earlier that Paul Avis has said that our primary obligation is to be in communion. He believes that communion takes precedence both over orthodoxy in doctrine and also over order. I find myself in substantial agreement with him in the matter of orthodoxy in this sense: if by orthodoxy we mean to have a set of detailed propositions that govern our thinking and action as a Procrustean bed into which all must fit, then I say no. We affirm the Creeds, the Scriptures, the Sacraments. More precise definitions would be a liability in the establishing of communion. There are Christian bodies - Lutherans, Presbyterians - who have definitive statements called confessions. Their life is grounded in those. I do not demean that, but it is not my view of the Anglican Communion. "Communion" leaves room, stretches, remains open.

I also find myself in substantial agreement with Avis in terms of order. If by order, however, we mean that we have a person or a body of persons - a hierarchy - which "demands obedience", then I resist. (I add, parenthetically, that when I was ordained bishop I took an oath of obedience to the Metropolitan and when I have ordained a bishop I administered such an oath. But this was in the context of mutual canonical responsibility in which each party has duties towards, and expectations of, the other.) I believe the notion of 'communion ' is about solidarity, partnership and mutual consent. Roman Catholics find their life grounded in papal authority which, in the language of Vatican I, is "universal, ordinary and immediate", and which calls for a particular obedience. Again, I do not demean that - it is simply not what I understand as our received tradition of "communion".

The choice facing Anglicanism at this moment in history is whether we continue to risk communion, or trade it in either for confessional statements or a kind of Anglican papacy, or both. I suppose that stating the problem in these terms makes clear where I stand. There are those who want to re-define communion in terms of detailed faith statements, or a stronger central authority. Ian Douglas, Associate Professor of World Mission and Global Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School, has described this phenomenon well in an article last spring. He writes:

"Various attempts to maintain control, reassert power and put Humpty Dumpty together again are dominating inter-Anglican conversations at this point in history. Two attempts to maintain old structures of power and privilege in response to the changing face of Anglicanism are particularly insidious and thoroughly un-Anglican.

The first is a rather diffuse attempt to claim 'historic documents' of the church as authoritative for all time.[Some] want to claim clear definitions of what it means to be an Anglican today. There are new attempts.to raise the 39 Articles or even the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral to be the defining statements of what Anglicans are and are to believe. What results is a 'new confessionalism'. as those who fear loss of power in these changing times struggle to nail down Anglican theology and beliefs. Armed with clear doctrinal definitions and limits, the same folk are then able to count who is in and who is out."

It is true that some look to statements such as those Ian Douglas mentions. But the appeal is not just to 'historic' statements. There are some that are much more recent. In 1997, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the South-South Encounter produced a document called "A Second Trumpet from the South - The Encounter Statement". The document focuses on the relationship of Scripture to issues of mission, youth, our relationship with other faiths, the cultures in which Anglicans live and church unity. There is material in this that deserves attention and thoughtful reflection. However, it has been ignored. It has been ignored because also within the document is a statement on Human Sexuality. That one piece of the whole has been extracted and, in some circles, come to be the Kuala Lumpur Statement. As such, it has become a test of orthodoxy.

The Province of the Anglican Church of South East Asia, a few days after the conference ended, passed a resolution adopting and endorsing "The Statement on Human Sexuality", and said that it would "support and be in communion with the part of the Anglican Communion which accepts and endorses the principle aforesaid and not otherwise." That is to make a loyalty test out of a statement. I understand that at least one other Province, Rwanda, has made a similar commitment. It is not yet clear if these Provinces are saying they are no longer in communion with the Episcopal Church USA, the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Canada and others who have not accepted and endorsed that statement. But it certainly sounds like it.

The second concern to which Ian Douglas points, is what he calls a 'new curialization'. He speaks of the tendency "to develop a new kind of headship, a new form of primacy, with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the center and the Primates as a kind of 'college of cardinals'." In August of 00, a gathering of a few primates, seven bishops from ECUSA, and representatives of some para-church organizations met in Nassau in the Bahamas. They issued a statement deploring some resolutions of the General Convention of 00, declared a "pastoral emergency" in ECUSA and argued that the situation was so serious that "special episcopal visitations" were necessary, and that the "crossing of diocesan boundaries [could take place] in appropriate circumstances." A press release which accompanied the statement says,

"the issues. will certainly receive major attention at the March 01 international gathering of Primates, who are charged with supervision of the Anglican Church around the world."

The problem is an assumption that the Primates have such a mandate of "supervision". There is no such mandate. Each Primate has the mandate accorded by due authority of the Church in which he ministers, and nothing more. The group is deliberately styled a 'meeting', not a synod or a council, or even a conference. The implication here is to accord to the Primates, or worse, to have them arrogate to themselves, a jurisdiction capable of interfering in the life of provinces other than their own.

Linked with this, and linked also with the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Sexuality, was the consecration of two bishops in Singapore in January 00. The reason for these consecrations was put in these words: "The consecrations in Singapore are an interim action to provide pastoral assistance and nurture to faithful individuals and congregations [in the United States]." The Provinces of South East Asia and Rwanda have each 'legitimized' what is called missionary activity of these two men.

What do these events suggest about the understanding and exercise of power? First, it appears to be a view of power that is about shutting down, putting a lid on something. I don't see this as life-giving and enabling. It tenders a narrow interpretation of scripture and insists that this particular view is a line that, if crossed, takes one out of communion. To elevate a statement like Kuala Lumpur - "unanimously passed" by a conference of 80 persons (in fact, it was not unanimous; there were abstentions) - and place it in company with the ancient creeds of the Church, simply baffles and bewilders. In one sense, I suppose a province can do that if it chooses. One can say "I am not in communion with you". But what one cannot say is "I excommunicate you from the family." In our tradition, one can leave the family, but one cannot send another province away from the family. However, I think that is the attempt. And the attempt is to use 'order' to score points and fight battles. The endeavour is to turn the Primates' Meeting into a central authority which has the power to say who is in and who is out. If that is true, then we are a long way from communion, hospitality and invitation.

As well, these attempts to apply control have originated in secrecy, or if not in secrecy, then in gatherings that have purposely excluded a majority of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion. Kuala Lumpur was not in itself a secret meeting, but its original purpose was to talk about how Anglicans in the south might support one another in evangelism and mission, not to produce a statement that was to be a sort of test of allegiance for every province of the Communion. The consecrations in Singapore were clandestine - only a few knew they were to happen, and even some who had sympathy for them were surprised and disappointed. These meetings have involved only select persons, and one hears of them after the fact. There is a kind of quality about this that recalls the furtive way in James and John approached Jesus - action divorced from the rest of the communion. It is action presented as being faithful to the gospel, however, it seems a gathering of the like-minded, untrusting of others and not respectful of the life and order of the church in a given Province. Whatever intention lies behind these actions, the effect of them is an attempt to dominate and control someone else.

The Risk of Communion

I said a few moments ago that the challenge facing us is whether or not we will continue to risk communion. Communion is risky because it doesn't have the kind of clarity or certainty that some seek. Certainty runs its own risks - the possibility of power structures that shut down life rather than open it up. Certainty looks for absolutes, and Anglicanism has always resisted absolutizing its own life. Instead, we have come to think of authority in a different way.

Anglicanism puts much stock in the threefold authority of scripture, tradition and reason. We have often referred to this as a three-legged stool, but William Countryman has used another image: three-ply yarn. That is a helpful description, because it speaks of the three as somehow entwined with each other in mutual reinforcement. Each adds a particular potency to the total and, in turn, receives strength from the others. We say yes to Scripture of course, - we accord it primacy and hold it central. But scripture is not disconnected from the other two. It needs tradition so that it is grounded in the history out of which it was born, and it needs reason in order to speak authentically to the context in which we live. So we say yes to Tradition. But tradition is something alive, something formed and re-forming. In a speech at the General Synod of 1975, Dr. Eugene Fairweather said that tradition, whatever else it may mean, does not mean that what has not been done cannot be done. Tradition is not static. It needs both the ancient texts for grounding, and reason - imagination - to give it life. And so we look also to Reason. Reason is both the discipline of thoughtful inquiry and the freedom to explore. But it needs both Word and tradition to give it a strong and faithful underpinning. This is not just a nice formula - these three, woven together as they are, form a lively, even playful, partnership. It is the kind of partnership that fosters communion. It allows and makes room for spirit and life. We could say of these three, that they are hospitable to one another. And they model the hospitality that is at the heart of communion.

To choose any absolute other than God, is to choose power that stunts growth - in us as persons and in our relationships. Absolutes see life as a closed shop. The story of James and John leads me to think that this was the kind of power they sought. They wanted to put in place an order which was hierarchical and closed - one in which they were leaders because they knew what was best. And Jesus responds, "Are you able to drink my cup and share in my baptism?" "Do you have any idea what communion with me requires?" So he taught about the power that kills life and said "It is not so among you." He said that whoever wishes for this sort of power must learn servanthood, for only in that kind of hospitality will you find life.

The kind of power we have thus far opted for in our life as a communion is power that invites us to listen, to meet with one another in charity and freedom. We have found that to be life-giving, though often difficult. My reflection on the story of the woman who reached out to touch Jesus is that she discovered that kind of power in her own life. When she took hold of the hem of Jesus' garment, he looked around: "Who touched me?" Who shares power with me? Who has entered into communion with me? It was someone who dared to take a risk of faith in the face of all the absolutes that blocked her - her gender, her uncleanness, her poverty, her anonymity - and who, then, found life, communion. "Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace." My abiding hope is that we will continue to risk communion, striving to find in it the power that enables us to go in peace and opens us to live faithfully in the world.


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