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Where is Unity in a Theologically Divided Church? 

At the day-long seminar, organized by the Anglican Communion Alliance, Ephraim Radner spoke of a possible way forward for Anglicanism. Photo: Orvin Lao / ACA

By Sharon Dewey Hetke

In a March 25 gathering of 70 Anglicans at Wycliffe College in Toronto, the mood was serious, but calm and devout. The day-long seminar, organized by the Anglican Communion Alliance, had as its subject “Where is Unity in a Theologically Divided Church?” In the wake of General Synod 2016’s first-reading approval of the motion to amend the Marriage Canon to include same-sex couples, this event was part of an effort to strengthen and encourage the theologically orthodox who remain within the Anglican Church of Canada. 

Facing head-on the question of how to proceed, having found oneself in a Church increasingly in conflict with traditional Christian teaching, three Anglican thinkers drew on their personal and pastoral experience, as well as their particular field of study.

The morning began with a talk by The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, on the “fact of pluralism.”  Having established that we live in a thoroughly pluralistic cultural setting, that Anglicanism itself has always been pluralistic and also that secular pluralism may have reached a dead-end, Radner showed a possible way forward for Anglicanism. After describing two historical models of engagement, Comprehension (the Church is a container of diverse viewpoints which we sort through to find an underlying unity) and Contestation (the Church is the arena for working out the conflicts between “truth claims”), he described a model of “Evangelical Transformation.”  

This last type involves both Comprehension and Contestation but both are sublimated to the purposes of Transformation. The marks of this transformational Church are its focus on disposition (which is even more important than position); its humility, and an “admission of fundamental ecclesial fallibility.”  This form of Anglican pluralism, Radner suggested, is a “mission to the debased and hollow pluralism of our wider culture….” He said, “Other Christian communities, with their particular gifts…have their own charismatic vocations, bound to tremendous historical burdens.  This is ours.”

Drawing on St. Augustine, Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker and Michael Ramsey, Lieutenant-colonel Canon Dr. Gary Thorne, Chaplain at the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University in Halifax, picked up on Radner’s theme of the fallible, visible Church and the invisible Church.

First, directing his audience to the 39 Articles, Thorne noted that after Articles 6-18 speak about the Scriptures and salvation in Christ, they turn to the theme of the Church. “And here [is]… the surprise.” From Article 19: “As the Church of JerusalemAlexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” And General councils “may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” (From Article 21).  “These Articles were not designed to inspire confidence in the visible Church!”, Thorne pointed out. 

And so, he continued, “The Church can only be trusted when she points beyond herself to the Scriptures, that contain all things necessary for salvation.  But that’s the sticky point – and that’s why we›re here:…who determines what is contrary to God›s Word written?  We have the biblical witness that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13), but who discerns the mind of the Spirit?” 

Thorne answered his question: “I think no individual – no one individual….The unity of God’s truth in Scripture is known in and through the diversity of the community of faith over time…– the consensus fidelium, the mind of the Church. And this consensus fidelium is anything but a “dogmatic attachment to the past,” Thorne said.  Rather “As memory is an essential part of the integrated human personality, so the consensus fidelium of tradition is at the very core of the identity of the Church.”

But we have not, according to Thorne, always done the “hard work” necessary to discern this consensus fidelium, but instead have too often been carried along by cultural currents. In the Q & A, Thorne suggested our present confusion about marriage must be seen in the context of decisions taken at Lambeth 1930 (approving the use of artificial contraception within marriage) and of the teaching on marriage in the 1980 BAS, which uses the phrase “acts of intimacy to promote friendship,” further distancing the sexual act from its procreative aspect and signalling a move away from traditional teaching.  

In her talk, The Rev. Dr. Catherine Sider Hamilton, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at Wycliffe College and Priest-in-Charge at St. Matthew’s Church, Toronto, spoke movingly about the nature of unity, and of disunity and division. “…If there is a way forward, it must spring from [the] essential characteristic of unity: that the unity of the Church rests in Christ.” Sider Hamilton described the Church as the “body of Christ,” “knit together in Christ in every limb” (Eph. 1:23 & 4:13-16).

And so, she argued, “Our present division is a denial of the gift Christ has given us, so concretely and at such cost, in his body and his blood.  And let us be clear:…this division begins with those acts which separate the church from its moorings in the faith of Christ. This division begins with the new marriage rite, with the consecration of a bishop [in a same-sex relationship], with the first vote to change the Marriage Canon…. Those who leave in response do so as a piece of wood splits under the axe.”

Sweeping aside any suggestion that differing convictions on marriage are simply another manifestation of Anglican diversity, Sider Hamilton emphasized its theological significance: “There is a mystery in the marriage of man and woman that goes, like the unity of the Church, to the heart of things.” She then turned to the facts on the ground: “When you challenge the definition of marriage, people leave.” Pointing to ANIC, ACNA in the US, GAFCON and the request for mediation in Toronto, she continued, “And we all know about attrition in our own pews. It is possible to say that this is not a communion-breaking issue, but if in fact it results in broken communion, then it is a communion-breaking issue.”  

What of the suggestion (made often enough) that our task is to “bear with the Church in its brokenness” – that in fact we are sharing in the cross of Christ when we are struggling, and broken. No, said Sider Hamilton, the church in its brokenness “is not like the crucified Christ. The division of the church is a denial of the crucified Christ.”

What hope is there for the Church? Sider Hamilton pointed to the self-giving obedience of Christ and said that, for us,  “It means at least this: that Christ comes first. That his Word rises over all other words in our life….’Yet not my will but thine be done’.” And when the Church turns away from this Word, we are called, said Sider Hamilton, “to stand in the midst of the Church and say, ‘This is wrong.’…--even when it puts us in conflict with parishioners” and “with bishops.” 

All three talks were marked by erudition and a deep sense of each speaker’s personal wrestling.  In the Q and A that followed each talk, ideas were given flesh in the form of practical advice.  Radner suggested one key element of “pastoral activism” in our pluralistic Church: “You have lunch with people….the person that you most deeply disagree with, and think is the biggest problem in the world, and to the Church .... That’s small, but that is actually an extraordinarily concrete and difficult thing to do...after all that is Matthew 18.”

Sider Hamilton agreed with Radner about engaging face-to-face with those with whom you most disagree, but suggested that our human weakness and stubbornness get in the way of good dialogue. Pointing to the spiritual realm, she also said that a “struggle with powers and principalities is probably going to render ineffective the attempt to ‘talk out our disagreements’.”  But “that’s part of obedience,” she said, “– to keep speaking for what we believe to be true….and to trust that God is with you, that you are speaking the word of Christ.”  

When asked about the validity of leaving a parish if one felt she could not “bear faithful witness” due to the “groundswell of apostate views,” Thorne responded by urging the gathering to do the hard work of learning “how the Church has handled these things in the past” and pointed to the strong precedent of not “choosing on your own to leave,” but “staying and suffering either martyrdom or being exiled.”

Regarding those who stay and those who leave, Radner commented that it has been his experience that “In the end it’s a prudential judgement in terms of one’s own spiritual health.” But, he added, “I am thankful [retrospectively] that I don’t have that kind of space. Just as in a marriage: you know a number of people who, had they not had that demand, their marriage would have ended years ago. So I’m grateful for that because I’ve learned a lot….Patience is another [virtue], along with obedience, that we should reawaken to.”

In a comment that summarized the spirit of all three talks, Sider Hamilton said, “…All three of us are saying things about humility, obedience and charity. Even with our somewhat different readings of the situation, that call is constant, and pretty difficult.”   TAP  

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