Posted by: Titus Presler | August 17, 2009

Mission collaboration’s prospects mixed if Anglican Communion has a two-track future

What is the future of mission collaboration in the Anglican Communion amid the sexuality controversies that are occupying the first decade of the 21st century?  This question is sharpened by the two-track future considered by  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his July 27 essay, “Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future,” issued as a response to the Episcopal Church General Convention’s July 2009 shift away from moratoria on the blessing of same-sex unions and consents to the election of bishops in partnered same-sex unions.

In a two-track model of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, says Williams, provinces that commit to an Anglican Covenant could continue to have relationships with provinces that do not feel able to commit to a covenant.  In the archbishop’s words: “[T]here is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality . . .: that is, a ‘covenanted’ Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the Church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with ‘covenanted’ provinces” (par. 22).

In outlining such a future, Williams prefers the term “two-track” to the more disparaging terms “two-tier” or “first- and second-class,” and he hopes that competitive hostility would be avoided.  Such an alienated future is by no means certain, because the process of covenant reception will take years, during which other events may occur to upset all predictions, and because provinces’ response to a covenant may not divide so neatly into two tracks.   It is good, however, that Williams engages the question of how the future may unfold.  Some may accuse him of using a two-track future to browbeat people into the Anglican Covenant, but his intent seems rather to engage such a future early and straightforwardly in order to lay a foundation for its being viewed as constructively as possible if it ends up being the inevitable endgame, albeit regrettable.

In view of how central mission has been in such documents of the Anglican crisis as The Windsor Report, the successive drafts of the Anglican Covenant, and Lambeth Indaba, it is disappointing that Williams cites only ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as areas of continuing relationship in his initial discussion, cited above.  A little later he notes that “the two styles of being Anglican . . . would not exclude cooperation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the Communion” (par. 24).  This acknowledgment, while helpful, falls far short of Lambeth’s full-throated insistence that mission is the purpose of the church’s unity and the implication that mission is the church’s reason for being.

In the essay’s final sentence Williams says, “We must hope that, in spite of the difficulties, this may yet be the beginning of a new era of mission and spiritual growth for all who value the Anglican name and heritage.”  With neither a robust understanding of mission evident in the rest of the essay, nor a realistic view of what mission cooperation would look like, Williams’ statement, while doubtless sincere, appears as little more than boilerplate.

Realistically, what are the chances of mission cooperation flourishing between covenanted parties and those who do not subscribe to an Anglican Covenant?  It is impossible to predict how the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) or any other province of the Anglican Communion will respond to a covenant proposal.  Yet it may be helpful to speculate.  So if, for instance, the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) and several other provinces do not subscribe to a covenant. and most or all other provinces do subscribe, what would prospects be for continued joint action in mission?

Certainly the dissenting provinces would intensify their cooperation with each other in areas of common mission concern.  If – again, just speculatively – Canada, Mexico, Southern Africa and Aotearoa/New Zealand were to join ECUSA in standing apart from a covenant, those provinces would likely intensify their mutual mission consultation and  action in such areas as congregational development, urban outreach, HIV/AIDS, and indigenous peoples, both within the churches and in the wider life of their societies.

Between covenanted and uncovenanted provinces, the recent history of common mission amid the Anglican crisis suggests that a two-track situation could both impair some mission initiatives and leave others intact.  So far, much has depended on the intensity of the passion involved.  Relationships between the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), the centralized mission structure of ECUSA, and some provinces have already been impaired significantly in that there is now little possibility of new DFMS  missionaries serving in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and some parts of Southern Cone, and relationships with some Episcopal mission granting agencies have been similarly affected.  Especially since these provinces include at least 30 million of the communion’s 80 million Anglicans, these impairments should continue to grieve the Episcopal Church and should not be accepted as the status quo, with a correlative dismissal of Anglican life in those provinces.

On the other hand, significant mission relationships have continued with Anglican provinces that disagree with the Episcopal Church but which do not wish to break communion.  Jerusalem and the Middle East, Burundi, Central Africa, and the united churches of Pakistan, North India, and South India are examples here.  This could change, however, if and when the covenant question is pushed to the point where provinces must decide either for it or against it.  What have hitherto been significant but still fluid differences of opinion on theological and ecclesial issues could then be regarded as having been hardened and institutionalized in ways that could raise further questions about whether and how relationships could be continued.

Missionary appointments, for instance, could be regarded with greater caution.  This might be especially true of appointments that have pastoral, evangelistic or church-planting responsibilities.  Yet reservations could be expressed also about educational and healthcare appointments, given how missionaries in such positions are often expected to speak in a representative way about church, gospel and mission.

Companion diocese relationships could be affected adversely in a covenant-versus-non-covenant situation.  Inclinations to stay in relationship could be strong, but would a diocese on one side of the issue feel comfortable inviting the bishop of its companion diocese “on the other side” to share in the consecration of its new bishop?  Could there be stronger objections to gay and lesbian Anglicans being included in personnel exchanges and mutual visits?  Could reservations proliferate about funds coming from progressive dioceses?  Would it become more difficult for ECUSA seminarians to study at seminaries in covenanted provinces and seminarians from there to study in ECUSA seminaries?  In all these areas the hardening of the existing divisions into publicly recognized covenant and non-covenant groupings could result in mission impairment.

The recent history of international mission cooperation within ECUSA has highlighted relational breakage, not continued cooperation, between agencies on opposite sides of the sexuality controversy.  Beginning in 1990, the Episcopal Council for Global Mission and its successor network, the Episcopal Partnership for Global Mission (EPGM), brought together evangelicals and progressives, conservatives and liberals, for joint consultation and mission initiative despite the theological and social issues on which they disagreed.  At its height EPGM included over 60 “voluntary societies,” parishes, dioceses and Episcopal Church Center agencies.  The consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003, however, brought relationships to a breaking point, and in 2004 most of the evangelical agencies left to form their own network, Anglican Global Mission Partners, under the auspices of the American Anglican Council.  There is now very little contact, let alone cooperation, between agencies on opposite sides.

In the pan-Anglican situation, mission agencies have long preferred to cooperate with some agencies rather than others, and such theological and strategic preferences long pre-date the current crisis.  For instance, in it is only in recent decades that the Church Missionary Society (as it was formerly called) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel began to cooperate in mission.  The current crisis has made some associations more or less likely.  For instance, Anglican Frontier Missions’ cooperation with the Church Missionary Society of Nigeria in evangelism in north Africa was a natural liaison between the evangelistic concerns of each agency, and it would always have been unlikely for the DFMS to join in such an effort, especially when directed at Muslims.  The current crisis, however, makes any joint effort between DFMS and any Nigerian mission agency extremely unlikely, regardless of the particular project.  Anglican groupings according to adherence to an Anglican Covenant could calcify the existing inter-agency affiliations into segregated camps.  It could also threaten some present relationships between agencies that are on opposite sides of the divisive issues.

Amid these discouraging possibilities it becomes all the more important for Anglican mission leaders to be clear that while differences about sexuality do have mission ramifications, these differences should not be allowed to impair fundamentally the mission relationships that are vital to strengthening the church’s witness to Jesus Christ in a wounded and suffering world.  Listening to one another across theological divisions is vital.  Here the so-called Continuing Indaba, the sustained process of listening within the communion, is central, and it is important that the mission imperative be high on its agenda.  And when we have listened we need to have the courage to say, “Yes.  I understand your position better.  And in understanding you better I recommit myself to serving with you in Christ’s work of reconciling the world to God.”

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