Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Privileging Autonomy Over Communion Violates the Baptismal Covenant

Over the last several months, I've benefited greatly from reading blog postings by my clergy colleague in the Church of Ireland over at More Than a Via Media. I particularly appreciate his emphasis on generous Anglican orthodoxy, and also on communion as an essential mark of what it means to be the Church.

In a recent posting entitled "Unam, sanctam, cathólicam - to be church is to be in communion," More Than a Via Media expresses pain and sadness over the following declaration in favor of autonomy over communion by Fr. Mark Harris on his blog Preludium:

Should The Episcopal Church find itself without cognate churches, close relatives, sister churches, etc, in various parts of the world so be it. If TEC withdraws and no new affirmation of connection takes place, and the Anglican Communion goes on without us, so be it. Short term autonomy is not the end of the story, for it is in Christ that we are united, not in the broken churches of Christendom.

As a catholic-minded Anglican, I find More Than a Via Media's brief response persuasive. You can read it here.

I think More Than a Via Media is right to note that Fr. Mark's willingness to privilege autonomy over communion departs from the Nicene Creed's affirmation "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church" in favor of an ecclesiology in which the "we" of the Creed becomes a "we" that purportedly receives Christ outside of "the koinonia of the ecclesia" and "apart from the proclamation and sacraments of the ecclesia." And I think this pushes us in the direction of violating one of the vows we routinely make in the Baptismal Covenant: the promise to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304).

The language of "apostles' teaching" primarily refers back to the first full half of the Baptismal Covenant: the Apostles' Creed. Reciting the Apostles' Creed, each baptized Christian affirms belief in "the holy catholic Church." In his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, Luke Timothy Johnson notes that the word "catholic" "means both a universality of extent and an inclusiveness that embraces differences within a larger unity." This means that "the catholic church is the one that exists everywhere, rather than simply in one place." And as an ecclesial principle, "catholicity asserts the general over the particular in any argument about the nature of the church."

Rather than affirming the general over the particular, Fr. Mark's willingness to privilege autonomy over communion amounts to asserting the perspective of a particular faction currently in the legislative majority within the Episcopal Church over the general perspective of the larger whole of the Church, thereby departing from the Creed's understanding of what it means to be "catholic." But departure from what the Creed means by "catholic" means violating one's Baptismal Covenant vow to continue in the apostles' teaching insofar as this teaching entails embracing the meaning of "catholic."

In addition to violating the promise to continue in the apostles' teaching, privileging autonomy over communion also violates the promise to continue in the apostles' fellowship. By "apostles' fellowship," the Baptismal Covenant refers to "historical continuity with the lives of the apostles - above all in teaching and morals" (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed). The language also signals communion by intimate participation (koinonia). Faithfulness to living more deeply into such intimate fellowship requires accepting shared norms and clearly articulated boundaries as the conditions that make such a common life possible. Privileging autonomy at the expense of communion undermines koinonia by setting aside the diversity, interdependence, mutual responsibility, and mutual accountability of such a common life in favor of an increasingly isolated, like-minded "church."

By promising to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, we promise to live our identity as members of the Body of Christ. This means not only serving God's people within the Episcopal Church, but also serving and fostering relationship with the larger whole that transcends the Episcopal Church. Faithfulness to the Baptismal Covenant requires every Episcopalian to work for deeper and more intimate communion with all Christians, and especially with Anglicans worldwide. That's true even when we disagree with our brother and sister Anglicans, and even when we don't like them.

If this is what it means to be faithful to the Baptismal Covenant and to mean what we say when we recite the creeds, then privileging autonomy over communion renders the promise to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship and the affirmation of the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic disingenuous.

NOTE: Due to technical problems, the owner of More Than a Via Media had to terminate that blog, so the links to that site no longer work. His new blog is called Catholicity and Covenant.


Christopher said...

I would suggest that there are two different ecclesiologies going on here, both catholic. One is that which tends to a universal structural understanding and is more in keeping with Roman tradition, the other is that of networks in which it is God through Christ in the Spirit who in each place creates the Church. The latter is closer to Ramsey or Maurice. What I always find in your posts, besides increasing crankiness, is a real lack of consideration that a minority of Christians are not being treated in a Christlike manner by the majority. You can be catholic all you want and still do terrible things to fellow members of the Body. That sort of majoritarianism is itself a violation of catholicity.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you for the comments, Christopher.

What I always find in your posts, besides increasing crankiness, is a real lack of consideration that a minority of Christians are not being treated in a Christlike manner by the majority.

Who, exactly, is this "majority"? The majority of all Christians currently living? The majority of Christians who have ever lived? The majority of Anglicans today?

I have clergy and lay friends in the Episcopal Church on the conservative end of the spectrum who would agree with your statement. They are now in the minority, and they often feel like they are not being treated by the increasingly liberal majority in a Christlike manner.

As to issues of catholic ecclesiology, I find Anglican Down Under's recent posting on conciliation quite helpful.

plsdeacon said...

The Ecclesiology of TEC's leaders (such as Mark Harris) is woefully deficient in that it is almost adoptionistic (I would say it is adoptionistic) in its grounding.

Ecclesiology flows from Christology. Just as the person of Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine, so is the Church. Calls to "go it alone" or "who needs the Anglican Communion" show an adoptionistic tendency in that they believe the Church is, in its essence, a human institution that can be changed to suit our desires and needs at the moment. They do not recognize the divine essence of the Church.

To answer Christopher, we should always act in a Christlike manner - even to those who are subverting the Gospel and proclaiming a false Gospel. But remember that Jesus is not always "sweetness and light." There is a strong judgemental side to Jesus - especially to those who subsitute human traditions and human reasoning for the Kingdom of God.

Phil Snyder

C. Wingate said...

I have to say that I don't see any ecclesiology in Harris's remarks. Indeed, I think it would be entirely accurate to characterize the liberal position which he embodies as saying that justice trumps institutions (all the while quoting the readings from the prophets that seem to dominate the RCL at this time of the year) and that ECUSA, having chosen the path of Justice, must pursue it whatever the institutional cost--and also must not allow its own institution to be reclaimed by the unJust, and indeed must use its internal institutional power to suppress them.

It's an entirely political view of the church as institution, of course, and it is rigidly dogmatic even at the expense of being indifferent to historic doctrine. We can have effectively unitarian bishops, as long as they are on the side of Justice. We can have priests who deny the Virgin Birth and even the reality of the resurrection, as long as they promote Justice.

I personally find their dogmatism as much of a problem as their theological and ecclesiological indifferentism, but it's all cut from the same cloth. Living in religious community means living in theological community, and beyond the flaming hypocrisy of using the theological laxity of ECUSA in order to seize control of it, it seems to me that both within and without they have fallen into an abusiveness of not really caring how they treat anyone else.