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Anglicans can affirm truth while embracing difference

Article published in The Melbourne Anglican, March 2008
by Dr John Davis, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

The Anglican Church will split. That is the basic conclusion of the nearby opinion piece in this edition of TMA. We cannot remain in the same Church together because we approach important truths very differently. The acceptable basis for fellowship is the 39 Articles of 1562, in their completeness.

It is sad but not surprising to read something like this. Sad because Anglicanism has always embraced a broader understanding of being Church. Not surprising because the article is reflecting a similar sort of attitude to that of the Archbishop of Sydney in his declaring that neither he nor any of his bishops will be attending the Lambeth Conference later this year.

A good illustration of difference is provided. To the assertion that 'historically, Anglicans have found their unity in commonly held beliefs', I would counter argue that historically, Anglicans have found and expressed their unity in common prayer and worship, rather than in a particular single confessional response to a series of doctrinal propositions. That does indeed represent a very different idea of Church, but must that present an insurmountable obstacle? Perhaps we are drawn in different directions by too much talk of truth and not enough of love.

The formularies of our Church are clear about where we need to look for guidance and for the shaping of all that we do. The Fundamental Declarations of our constitution summarise what the Lambeth Quadrilateral affirms internationally. Interestingly, the latest draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant reflects this too:
that, reliant on the Holy Spirit, [the Anglican Communion] professes the faith which is uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith, and which is set forth in the catholic creeds, and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear significant witness, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation;

These are our foundational truths and they do not exactly prescribe how we must read our Bibles or the precise path to repentance, any more than the many and varied accounts of repentance in the gospels do. But they do utterly affirm our common faith and hope in Jesus — the Word made flesh; reconciler and saviour. For Christians that must be so. We will live this faith in varied ways.

There are different yet still legitimate and worthy ways for Anglicans responding to the call to a living and transforming relationship with our God in Jesus Christ. A Church is by definition large enough to embrace such differences. A sect is not.

An irretrievable breakdown occurs in an inter-personal relationship when at least one of the parties does not want to work at it any more. The same can apply with a sufficiently large faction or group within an institution. It is very hard to see how a boycott of the Lambeth Conference by some bishops from Australia and Africa can in any way assist in the working through of these difficulties. Lambeth happens only once every ten years. It is one of the four so-called 'instruments of unity' in the Anglican Communion. Another is the person and office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A direct snub of two out of the four instruments is not a bad start towards complete breakdown; if that is the direction you want to go in.

I suspect however that 'unity at any price' is no longer acceptable to anyone. That is why it actually is a real possibility that there will be institutional division. Hard-liners at either end of the spectrum might bring this about. By not being prepared to talk or to pray or to worship together with all those who have found themselves in this Anglican tradition by choice or birth, they instead only find fellowship with that ever-decreasing number of those with whom they have complete agreement. That is sad for it leaves out either the Holy Spirit or, more broadly, God's grace. It is to the grace-filled generosity expressed in Ephesians 1 that I would appeal. The thanksgiving and the joy are apparent. Grim disapproval is not.

Is there a way forward? Perhaps it remains a matter of attempting once again, as ever, to discern what are 'first order' and therefore communion breaking matters of difference, and what are 'second order' questions, where we can agree to differ. That has been the Anglican way. If there is not consensus, it means that from time to time we lose the extremes, but the centre holds. Acts 15 is a powerful New Testament example of establishing what is central and what after all is not, as the early Church grappled with the implications of the conversion of the gentiles. The Anglican Church, as it is presently organised in this country and internationally, bears witness to this approach, in its variety and in its dispersal of power and authority. Of course it is not tidy. It has never satisfied the rigorists. But it is a way to God that has been found to be inviting and sustaining and transforming for a wide range of people. It continues to be so.

Dr John Davis
St Peter's Eastern Hill


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