Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Bishop of Pittsburgh responds to the Canterbury primates communique

The primates’ decision, along with the fact that the current leader of the ACNA was invited to participate for the duration of their deliberations, has opened old wounds for many of us

On Thursday, the Primates of the Anglican Communion, meeting in Canterbury, issued a statement limiting the participation of the Episcopal Church on certain internal committees and ecumenical bodies for a period of three years. 

This has widely been misreported as a “suspension” from the life of the Communion, which is simply untrue. The Very Reverend Andrew McGowan, Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, has written the best statement I have seen on what actually happened and what it means, and I strongly encourage you to read it.

The primates’ decision, along with the fact that the current leader of the ACNA was invited to participate for the duration of their deliberations, has opened old wounds for many of us: for lesbian and gay members of our diocesan family and the congregations who support them; for our more conservative sisters and brothers who have remained in TEC out of their love for the Church; for all of us who have spent painful years nurturing relationships across deep disagreements in order to hold the unity of the Body of Christ. 

It would be easy to say that these wounds we now feel again are the wounds of the split, of our own personal histories of exclusion, the wounds of lost friends, lost congregations, lost trust. But that is not an adequate explanation. These wounds are, in fact, the wounds of Christ crucified, Christ nailed to His Church, the wounds of our own selves crucified to one another and to the world. 

What makes this moment so painful is that, even as we hurl threats of separation, or lay down conditions, or demand repentance from everyone but ourselves, we know we cannot get away from one another. We are stuck in the terrible unity of love which, as Archbishop Welby has said, “is imposed by the Spirit of God on all” who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This is the only unity worth bothering with. 

The world suggested by the primates’ decision appears to imagine another: a unity achieved or broken by the actions of ecclesial structures. Although I was initially encouraged by their stated desire to “walk together,” upon further reflection, it is difficult to imagine what this would look like in five or ten years. There is not the least sign that our General Convention would undo recent actions in regard to marriage, nor that the Church of Canada will change course, nor that the Churches of the Global South will in any way become more tolerant of these trends. 

But the unity of the Cross is not something we achieve; it has been achieved for us. We need only live as if we knew it, through lives of sacrificial love even and especially toward those who believe they can do without us.

The trend indicated by the primates’ actions suggest that the formal instruments of Anglican fellowship may become less important in the coming years. Our belonging to one another as a worldwide communion is likely to depend less on structures – on gatherings of primates and councils – than upon the relationships we are able to build and nurture. In fact, this has always been the case. As our Presiding Bishop said in his own statement Friday, the life of our Communion consists in our interactions parish-to-parish, person-to-person, bishop-to-bishop, diocese-to-diocese, in a complex web of relationships that will surely become more, not less, complex. 

Let us hear in this statement of the primates, not a repudiation of our part in the Church, but rather Christ’s own call to a deeper love and deliberate action to nurture our sisters and brothers around the globe. The churches represented by the majority of the primates are beset by challenges we can scarcely imagine. They include “the poorest of the poor” who endured years of colonial oppression, and post-colonial condescension, from the various powers of the North. Many face daily violence, aggressive incursions from radical forms of Islam, and the suffering endemic to war and poverty. Since 2007, Betsy and I have been deeply involved in ministries of development and evangelism in East Africa, under the auspices of Pilgrim Africa. I know many in this diocese have similar commitments in the global south. I urge us all to redouble our efforts in strengthening our global partnerships in whatever way we can, and to hold in prayer all bishops and their people, that we may live together in the unity of the Cross. 

As we live this mission on the road, I believe that the common life we have built in this diocese will be shown as an effective and godly example for the whole Communion. Our diocesan community spans the theological breadth of Anglicanism and we hold that breadth as a treasure, not a weakness. We do so as our conscious expression of the faith once delivered to the saints and still held by us today. I trust that God will sow seeds of His reconciliation wherever our own story is told.

Faithfully your bishop,

(The Rt. Rev.) Dorsey W.M. McConnell, D.D.

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