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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 175

Autonomy-in-communion

Autonomy-in-communion

The Windsor Report uses the expression autonomy-in-communion and I think the general meaning intended is that individual churches maintain authority over their affairs, whatever happens as regards their relationship with the other Anglican Churches. I should think so too!  It would indeed be a radical move to attempt to let the Anglican Communion legislate within the framework of individual churches.

During the process of trying to define what form the covenant should take, the expression ‘communion with autonomy and accountability’ has been used. And you can see what is afoot - there is a desire on the part of those attempting to formulate the covenant to disseminate the idea that while churches are entirely autonomous as regards their own affairs and in their own countries, their relationship with the other churches is subject to other considerations. In other words, although they cannot be affected internally, they can certainly be affected externally - that is in their relationship with the other churches in the communion.

This distinction, however, is what all the discussion and anxiety is about. If you are trying to keep a group together and one starts to go off on a tangent, what do you do?  The covenantal answer is - you eject them from the majority. They are accountable for their diversion from the party line and therefore, if they refuse to get into line, you part company with them.

It is important to see that the giving up of autonomy by each church - the essential element of the present covenant scheme - is so that, if the majority decides that a church is in error and won’t recant, then that church will withdraw from the main group of the Communion. The fact that the system provides for the church itself to initiate its own withdrawal does not change the fact that it is the decision  of the majority which is the trigger.  It is the majority which is expelling a member church which it considers to be in error. However you dress the system up, it is still an act of eviction by the majority of churches.  

And it is this very point that is the crux of the whole matter.  Either you take the view that the majority view must prevail and any church  that diverges must be ejected, or you take the view that arbitrary action like that is inappropriate between Christian Churches linked in the way that the churches in the Anglican Communion are linked.

Section four of the Ridley Draft of the Covenant - the latest attempt to find a good basis for consideration by the thirty eight churches - has been referred back because it has been decided that it - the disciplinary part of the Covenant - needs further study and discussion. In other words - the key bit is still a subject of uncertainty.

The whole crux has always been about whether the majority of churches can evict a church that does not agree with the majority on some aspect of doctrine or practice that the majority thinks important.

All sorts of arrangements for discussions with a church that diverges from a majority view have been made, and all sorts of procedures have been defined. But the key matter is still - as it always was - whether it is appropriate for an Anglican Church to be thrown out by the majority if it disagrees with the majority.

What is the alternative?  Is there any alternative that would help resolve such disputes as have rocked the Communion over this last decade?

One proposed solution we know - the majority evict the divergent church. The other solution is for the churches to go on discussing and talking and praying - separately and together - until unity is reached.  ‘But that is no good, surely!’ some may say. ‘That would mean that you could get the whole problem all over again!’  Yet that is what many Anglicans feel in their bones is in fact the right way forward. Let me explain.

The main reason against the present suggestion - that a majority evicts a diverging church - is that it is arbitrary and hinges on a majority decision. That is certainly how the world works. Almost any organisation will work on that principle - the majority is the best way of getting the most wisdom. It is the universal practice from boardrooms to tennis clubs. I will call it the Majority principle. Argue it out; take a vote; make that decision binding on everyone.

The other way is much less clear cut! It doesn’t work on votes - not even church votes. But in my view it is by far the more Christian approach. It stays with the problem. It continues the discussions. It organises not only joint discussions but joint prayers. It goes on talking and praying until the whole church comes to a common mind.

Instead of going the ‘legal’ route and using the Majority system, it depends on the Holy Spirit. And it is prepared to wait. However long it takes for unity to be born and become apparent. I shall call this the Christian solution.

The Majority solution versus the Christian solution.

The Majority solution enables a majority to evict those it doesn’t like. Lets be quite clear about this - although the Covenant is couched in language that suggests that it is the offending church  that initiates its withdrawal from the Covenant Group, in fact it is the majority of churches that is evicting the offending church. To demonstrate this just think for a moment what will happen if an offending church refuses to go. Inevitably they will then be isolated from the others - it will not be invited to the various conferences and gatherings at which the majority will be making decisions. It will be frozen out. It will be effectively evicted.

I believe that the strength of the Anglican Communion is that it is a group of Christian Churches bound together in many ways - but not bound together in a legal sense. There are differences between the doctrines and practices, and indeed outlook - but what binds them together is something that is not defined by any legal framework. There is not a rigid covenant whereby a majority of churches can vote some other member out of the whole group of Anglican Churches.

The strength of the Anglican Communion is in this very approach - where churches do not have to toe the line to stay with what a majority decides is essential.

The present Anglican Communion - before any legal arrangement is entered into by the churches - is held together by the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury. We are so blessed by this man!  He has a brilliant mind and a humble soul, and it is his patience and tenacity that have kept the warring factions loosely together. He is in my opinion truly the man for the hour!  Come the need, cometh the man!

Of course Rowan Williams locates himself in the middle. That is the right place for him to be. Neither on one side nor the other. If he veered to one side or the other he would be part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Instead he is demonstrating to us all the road we should be taking. We should follow the via media - the road that does not bring down a guillotine on errant churches, nor lets every church wander away on its own into pastures new without great attention to what is happening. Instead he goes steadily forward, step by step - holding us all to the middle way.

Of course there are those who say that he should be more definite. That he should ‘stand for the truth’ - as they see it!  ‘Which truth?’  he replies, for both sides have strong elements of truth on their side. Of course the bible must be the authoritative basis for our faith. Of course we should be inclusive - God welcomes us all whatever our colour, gender, sexuality or race.

So the ABC keeps on going from meeting to meeting, trying to coax all the parties (and some who are absent!) to meet together round the table of the Lord. He knows that if they will once really stand alongside each other to take communion, then the battle is more than half over. They will be one in the deepest way that Christians can experience, and doctrine and practice will eventually get sorted out. Eventually it is Christ who will heal the divisions, as only he can. He will do it by our being convicted of a lack of love for our brothers. That is what we have to go on praying for, not some kind of legal framework so that offending churches can be chucked out of the Communion.

So I hope that the Covenant either dies or is neutered of its ‘Majority vote’ clauses - those that allow a majority to evict (in one way or another) a minority. Then maybe we shall get back to living together despite our  different understandings of the bible, of God’s will, even of the meaning of the Church. Then the Anglican Churches will be liberated to respond to the many and varied challenges that are lining up to be dealt with by the Anglican Communion. Issues that cry out for an inspired response, not a wooden response produced by literalists. Then we shall be free of doctrinal rigidity and the old fatal flaw of trying to legislate for everything. Then we shall be open to the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us into the exciting future that awaits our united Christian voice.  

Tony Cross
May 2009


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