This year’s Conference was meant to help bring things back together. I observed it only from a distance, but I am aware of the great labor, prayer, and goodwill that went into its preparation (of which I was a part), and of the efforts of many present to be faithful, open, and hopeful. For all my frustrations, I admire the archbishop of Canterbury and the many bishops who worked hard for this affair. But the result simply didn’t add up.
The penny is finally dropping. Anglicans are “irreconcilably divided”—that is, their divisions are viewed on all sides as arising from essential commitments, which cannot be compromised. Anglican leaders are finally admitting that these “essential commitments” are tied up with claims about sexual identity and its scriptural (and hence Christian) meaning. Not that most Anglicans did not already know this. But at the public and administrative levels of leadership within the Communion—among bishops and their theological advisors or subalterns—a refrain of the past two decades has insisted on the secondary nature of these differences. Sexuality and its scriptural significance, it was explained, do not touch “core” realities of the gospel; they are “matters indifferent” (adiaphora, in the technical sense of not being doctrinal issues that should divide the church), or, if not quite that, at least matters that can be set aside as we focus on our commonalities and continue to chug along “together.” The Communion could carry on as a Communion, we were told, without resolving the supposedly secondary issues of sex and sexual identity.
It was at best a naive view and at worst a willful refusal to admit the obvious in hopes of maintaining a grip on ecclesiastical power. Though theologians, formal and informal, can argue that this or that matter ought to be adiaphora, the category is in fact purely descriptive. Christians divide over what they think is important, not according to a template devised by scholars. So “sex” is not important? Prove it to the Communion! Opposing sides say otherwise and have proven their commitments through their actions. Confusion, disagreement, and political hostilities over sexuality reflect deep cultural issues that may one day be resolved—but not in the short term, and probably not without the intervention of catastrophic social changes driven by factors other than theological discussion.
The Anglican “Communion,” therefore, is no longer a “communion” in the twentieth-century sense, a sense that grew out of a nineteenth-century understanding and experience of common Christian mission. There are Anglican leaders who seem quite happy with the fragmentation; indeed, this summer’s Lambeth Conference seemed at times giddy with relief at having left behind the desperate efforts to paper over disunity. But if the Anglican “Communion” is not the Communion of the past, what is it?
First, it is necessary to clarify what else today’s Communion is not and does not do. The Anglican Communion no longer holds a common teaching about the gospel….
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