These are heady times for the Anglican Communion. It seems as if barely a week goes by without some international body or some political interest group within the Anglican Communion trying to assert who is currently in, or out, of this odd worldwide family of churches. Such internecine family squabbles make for great media headlines that are all too quick to scream: “See how the Christians love one another.”
The most recent communiqué from the Primates Meeting in Newry, Ireland, in February 2005 offers yet another opportunity for the pundits to point out how the sky is falling in the Anglican Communion. The primates’ suggestion that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada “voluntarily withdraw” our members from the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council has been misrepresented as throwing these two North American churches out of the Anglican Communion. Enflamed by such rhetoric, some in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada have asked: “Why should we care about the Anglican Communion anyway?”
I believe that there are at least two good reasons why we in the Episcopal Church should care about the Anglican Communion and should do everything possible to stay in the Anglican family, while at the same time remaining true to who we are as American Anglicans. One reason is ecclesiological, the other is missiological.
First the ecclesiological argument: Max Warren, the great general secretary of the English Church Missionary Society in the mid-20th 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 it alone, that any of us alone, knows and reveals 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 our mistakes. 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 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 Anglican Church of Canada; and we need the Anglican Communion.
Second is the missiological rationale for caring 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, we need to be in relationship with others, near and far, those similar to us and those very different from us, who share this 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. The Decade of Evangelism resulted in the sharing of the Good News in Jesus Christ in new and exciting ways around the world. Inter-Anglican efforts and cooperation resulted in the passage of significant debt-relief legislation for the poorest countries of the world during President Bill Clinton’s administration. And today the Anglican Communion is widely acknowledged by governments and nongovernmental organizations alike as the single best global network to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic through our institutions that provide palliative care, medical delivery and preventative education.
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 of justice, compassion and reconciliation in the world.
So why should we care about the Anglican Communion?
We should not care about the Anglican Communion as some precious institution of English tradition, good taste and right order. No, we should care about the Anglican Communion because it offers one way by which 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 mission of God.
This article was first printed in the Spring 2005 EDS NEWS, newsletter of the Episcopal Divinity School. Reprinted with permission.