This is a sermon I preached last week at evensong at Hertford College, Oxford – hence a few local references. Sorry it’s a bit long, but it’s a big topic!
I have spent the last week in Canterbury, at the conference for new bishops. We were a diverse group – 26 of us from Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana, Kenya, South Sudan, India, Myanmar, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Canada, Jamaica, Uruguay, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland and England. We came from countries which are mostly Christian, and from those in which Christians are a small minority. We represented churches which are large and small, growing and declining. Some of us were committed evangelicals, others convinced Anglo-Catholics. Probably eleven of us had English as our first language (I didn’t go around asking!). And there we were for a week together in Canterbury, the home and hub of the Anglican Communion, experiencing first hand both the solidity and history of its tradition in the cathedral and its worship, and also the difference and diversity of Anglicanism as it has spread and mutated across the world.
It was quite a disconcerting experience. The first thought I was wrestling with was this: apart from the fact that we all have some sort of common inheritance, why are we all here? Why am I here? It was like an ecclesiastical version of ‘Who do you think you are?’ – look, this is your family, these are your ancestors. Now: who are you?
Compared to some, I already have quite a lot of experience of Anglicanism worldwide – through family in Canada, through visits to the diocese with whom we are linked in Zimbabwe, through visits to dioceses in Chile and the USA, and churches in Israel/Palestine. But this experience made me ask even more: what does my identity mean as an Anglican in the context of this worldwide communion? A proper answer can’t just ignore all the bits that are different or far away; they too are part of the whole pattern which defines my Anglican identity. So not just, ‘who are you?’, but what are we – what is Anglicanism?
Is it: erudite, cool evensong and sermon; worship songs at St Aldates; scriptural exposition at St Ebbes or exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at Pusey House? Or the Melanesian Brotherhood, seven of whose brothers were martyred in 2003 while trying to bring peace; or the work of repentance and restitution among those First Nation people who were sent to residential schools in Canada in which their language and culture were denied; or negotiating with the World Food Programme in South Sudan to feed displaced people; or providing a hostel for HIV/AIDS sufferers in Uruguay; or planting new churches in Kenya?
How do you hold all of those together? Well, the one clear negative answer is doctrine. The Anglican Communion, like the Church of England, encompasses people of pretty much every shade of Christian belief and doubt. One statement which is used as a pointed towards Anglican identity is what is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral – having been invented in the US, agreed on by the Lambeth Conference in 1888, and having four parts, that is
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s Words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.
Those four characteristics might explain where we come from, and provide a useful frame within which we work. Certainly if you didn’t have one of those you wouldn’t be an Anglican church. But – and this was the whole point – they would also describe perfectly well many other Christian churches and communities. The Quadrilateral was supposed to provide a springboard towards unity, not a description of what was Anglicanism.
Another attempt to define Anglicanism offered two qualities: ‘a readiness to be ‘located’ in a particular culture, place, and time, and an acceptance of internal pluralism’ . Together, these two indicate a distinctive quality which is precisely the quality of being different – of adapting to a local context, and living with the divergences and differences that that adaptation throws up. It might be then that the distinctive quality of Anglicanism is only to be found when the huge variety I listed earlier is evident, and therefore that the diminishing of that variety necessarily also reduces Anglicanism to be no longer fully itself.
And that is the anxiety which I felt during my time in Canterbury particularly acutely – that it is becoming more and more difficult for Anglicanism to retain that acceptance of pluralism – perhaps particularly as it becomes more and more definitely located in its different cultures and places. One of the conversations I had with my fellow bishops from around the world, in their different contexts, was about the border line between inculturation and syncretism: that is to say, when does Christian faith move from locating itself within a particular culture, and begin to change its very nature in order to fit in.
That of course was the very large elephant in the room. Some of us in Canterbury were among those who see the church’s acceptance of same-sex relationships as a threat to the whole life and order of the church – a fundamental question of faith about which there can be no compromise, no flexibility. Others of us felt very differently, that Christian support of loving, faithful relationships should be extended to people regardless of their sexuality. What some see as incarnational witness, others see as syncretistic betrayal. So proponents of all the different views argue in different ways, with complete conviction that they are remaining faithful to the tradition of Christian faith. We may all be family, but we look like we might be one in which various relatives are about to disown others.
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is not going to help this fractious family – everyone could declare themselves completely signed up to every clause, and the things we argue about would not go away. It’s not about that: it’s about the strain between the local and the universal. Anglicans are trying to get better at being the local church in the different places where they are, but in doing so they are stretching ever further the ties of commonality which enable global mutual recognition.
Sermons are supposed to end by tying all the ends together, making a satisfying resolution which leaves the hearers inspired, or reassured, or whatever effect the preacher was trying to create. You can imagine that it’s not going to happen tonight. If I were able to propose a neat solution to the Anglican Communion’s problems, it might also provide a formula for world peace which would put me straight in line for the Nobel Peace Prize. There is no neat solution; the only solution I can see is to cease to worry so much about the mess. That is to say, the only way to stay together as we become increasingly local, is at the same time to become increasingly able to hold an ever greater ‘generous orthodoxy’.
You may have been wondering when God would get a look in to this sermon. Finally we have reached that point, because what I am suggesting is a deeply theological move in the Anglican understanding of church. Just as the increasing desire to be ‘located’ has obvious analogies to the doctrine of the incarnation, I think that the church can only incorporate that increasing diversity by a (perhaps less obvious) fresh understanding of the transcendence of God.
The old story goes of three clergy (any assortment will do) who meet on a train journey, and end up talking to one another about their different churches’ patterns of worship. Maybe they’re trying to get to the West Country, because they have plenty of time. Eventually they reach a stop, and one gets out saying: ‘Thank you for such a fascinating conversation. It is wonderful to me that we are part of such a diverse and fascinating church. I pray that you will each continue to worship God on your way, and we will continue to worship Him in His.’
I think we need a renewed appreciation of the practical consequences of belief in a transcendent God. If God is transcendent, then God transcends us – transcends our understanding in every way. In God’s grace and through Christ’s incarnation, we are invited into a relationship of love, but the relationship of understanding only goes one way. As St Paul puts it, ‘then – that is after the end of this world – I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’. Taken seriously, that means that we cannot judge one another on our understanding of God; we can only help one another by sharing what insights we think we have gleaned. Our doctrinal differences meet, like parallel lines, only at infinity – the eternity of God. A framework like the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral then begins to make sense, not as a definition of what Anglicanism is, but as a set of boundaries which point to where it isn’t. Within that space, the differences between us are differences within the church, not differences which can divide it.
If we can begin to attain this doctrinal humility, we will be pushed back into that which did in fact make my experience at Canterbury a powerful and moving one: meeting with other men and women in whom I experienced the same desire to follow Christ. It can’t be neatly conceptualised and packaged, and it’s not easily susceptible to doctrinal evaluation, but it is in the encounter of people – an opening to one another in community – that we discover our true unity. As we ate, and prayed, and talked together we knew that we were part of the church which is the body of Christ.