THE NOTION OF “CHOICE” IN ANGLICAN COMMUNION MATTERS:
A REVIEW OF “COMMUNION, COVENANT, AND OUR ANGLICAN FUTURE”
The Very Reverend Sam Candler
28 July 2009
I appreciate both the presence of Archbishop Rowan at General Convention 2009 and the position in which he is placed in this present age. He has been given both the vocation of overseeing the Church of England and the vocation of stewarding the Anglican Communion of churches, in an age that ricochets between uniformity and plurality. At one moment, we acknowledge the plurality of modern culture; at the next moment, we yearn for the routine and comfort and predictability of uniformity. In addition, the tension between uniformity and plurality is made fiercer by communication methods which react and provoke more quickly than ever before.
In Archbishop Rowan’s quick essay of 27 July 2009, “Communion, Covenant, and our Anglican Future,” he rightly perceives our tension; and he writes, at best, descriptively of our present Anglican situation. He is certainly correct in acknowledging that the Episcopal Church yearns to remain in Anglican communion. But he is also correct that ongoing decisions in The Episcopal Church have been the occasion for anxiety in some other parts of the communion.
Though descriptive, Archbishop Rowan’s essay also dips into diagnosis and prescription. In some of these matters, he will be open to theological critique. A primary critique will certainly be directed toward his repetition of the common perception that homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle.” Within two paragraphs, he uses “chosen lifestyle” and “choice” three different times.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention resolutions concerning homosexuality have never claimed that homosexuality was simply a choice, or, much more, a “chosen lifestyle.” Rather, Episcopal leaders have realized, over time, that being gay or lesbian was definitely not a choice for those members of our Church. Indeed, for many heterosexual persons, the realization that homosexuality is not chosen at all – no more than heterosexual persons choose their heterosexuality—has been the turning point in their ability to recognize God’s grace in homosexual relationships.
Obviously, the most prescriptive of Archbishop Rowan’s remarks is his suggestion, again, that the Anglican Communion of churches might develop a “two-tier”, or, less provocatively, a “two-way” structure of formal Anglicanism. One way of being Anglican would stress the values of local faith and theology, and local autonomy; the other way would stress the values of more global, and probably more ordered, forms of the church.
I find it curious that Archbishop Rowan repeats the language of “choice” not only in relation to homosexuality, but also in relation to Anglican Communion matters. He suggests that there may be those who will, in good faith, decline a covenanted structure. He implies that those who “elect this model” will also “not take official roles in the ecumenical interchanges and processes in which the 'covenanted' body participates.”
It is the way that Archbishop Rowan uses “choice” which is bothersome, as if it would be as easy for someone to choose a homosexual lifestyle as it would be them to choose a certain way of being Anglican. At their deepest levels of identity, neither homosexuality nor Anglicanism is a choice. In particular, Anglicans have claimed that Anglican Christianity is a gift; and part of that gift is a joint realization of local grace and global grace. I understand that certain formal parameters of an Anglican Covenant have yet to be developed, notably any “two-way” system. However, it seems to me a distinctly un-Anglican maneuver to sever local autonomy from global communion. Those very poles, taken together within one orbit, are exactly what define the structure of the wider Anglican tradition.
A certain constituency of Anglicanism has always regarded our church as catholic. Our catholicity has been seen as a “given,” a “gift,” not something we have chosen at all. A distinct alternative to catholic Christianity has been known classically as protestant Christianity; and its development was associated quite often with choice, with free will.
Now, Anglicans generally prefer to be both catholic and protestant; but Archbishop Rowan, in my quick review, is sounding too much like a protestant and not enough like the catholic that I know he is. The Anglican tradition is too historically rooted, too old, and too rich, --indeed, it is too catholic—to be relegated to a matter of choice.
Let us remember that only recently has “choice” come to play much of a role at all in Anglican Communion matters. This is an age when we, as a communion of churches, have been considering our common identity at just the same time that we (and the world) have been strained by sexuality disagreements. Many want to resolve both issues with rigid uniformity. But can we return to an Anglican identity without the “bureaucratic absolutism” which Archbishop Rowan disavows (in paragraph 13 of “Communion, Covenant, and our Anglican Future”)? I hope so.
I suspect that Archbishop Rowan yearns for a classically catholic sense of ecclesiological identity; it is ordered and mostly uniform. In addition, I recognize that ecumenical relationships and conversations are easier with this model; Archbishop Rowan mentions them explicitly in this essay. However, the suggestion that “covenant” denotes a choice of association and membership is part of a rather distinctive protestant ecclesiology. The Anglican tradition is more catholic than mere choice; and it is more protestant than mere uniformity. If some sort of covenant does become a sign of Anglican identity in our future, let us pray that it arrives as a gift and not a constraint. Let it arrive as a choice for catholicity, a choice that always reveals itself later as unchosen divine grace.