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"God's Church for God's World" -- Traces of Babel Rhetoric?

"God's Church for God's World" -- Traces of Babel Rhetoric?
PHOTO: The Design Group LC 2020

By The Rev. Dr. Joseph G. Muthuraj,
August 7, 2019

The first Lambeth Conference met in 1867, making 2017 its 150th anniversary year. It is not surprising that the LC was not originally an idea from the Canterbury establishment. At the Provincial Synod of the Canadian Church, held on September 20, 1865, it was unanimously agreed, upon the motion of the Bishop of Ontario, urging the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Convocation of his Province that the members of Anglican Communion in all quarters of the world should be gathered from every land.

India and the Lambeth Conference from 1867

The circumstances under which the Archbishop of Canterbury had resolved to issue the invitation dated 22 February 1867 was that he was moved to invite the bishops of the Indian and Colonial Episcopate to meet him and the Home bishops for brotherly communion and conference. The Indian presence was there through its missionary bishops from 1867 onwards.

How was the response from the Indian sub-continent? The Anglican episcopacy had been in existence in India since 1814 and India is the third country outside England to be endowed with the Anglican Episcopate and it was first in Asian and Australian continents. The See of Calcutta founded in 1813 was considered the Bishopric of the British territories in the East Indies. According to the Letters Patent dated 27 May 1823, 'The Diocese of Calcutta constituted a larger region of the continent of Asia and even to the islands of north of the equator. It comprised all islands, ports, havens, costs, cities, towns and places between the Cape of Good Hope and Straits of Magellan' (a channel separating South America from Tierra del Fuego and other islands south of the continent and connecting the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans). The diocese included Australia and New Zealand geographically known at that time.

The bishops from the Calcutta diocese were in Canterbury as part of the Colonial and missionary episcopate particularly in the nineteenth century despite the long and arduous sea travels. In 1867, 144 Bishops were invited, and 76 attended. The Colonial Church had sent twenty-four, including the five Metropolitans outnumbering the English bishops. In 1878, 173 were invited, and 100 attended. Thirty were of the Colonial and Missionary episcopates. In 1888, 211 were invited, and 145 attended and 53 came from Colonial and Missionary Dioceses throughout the world. From the present geographical borders of India, one bishop in 1867 three in 1878, two in 1888 and seven in 1897 and ten bishops in 1908 attended the Lambeth Conferences.

The question of church unity was mooted in the LC 1920 as it made 23 Resolutions on Reunion of Christendom alone out of a total of 80. It happened a year after 33 Indians met in a village called Tranquebar (where the first Protestant mission began in 1706) under the leadership of the first Indian Anglican bishop to prepare a Manifesto consisting of principles of union between episcopal and non-episcopal churches in India ('Tranquebar Manifesto, 1919').

The debate on Church Unity received continued attention in the LC 1930 which wished that unity as an experiment would be reached 'gradually and more securely' in South India but it was anti-climactic in LC 1948. It was reported that the formation of the united church of south India based on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was a fait accompli. The CSI was noticeably expelled from the Anglican Communion on account of the disapproval from the 'substantial minority' as a result none of its bishops were invited to LC 1948. The exile was for a thirty-year period during which time the CSI would become totally episcopal in its ministry with the irregularities of the non-episcopal ministries disappearing completely.

Quite unnoticed and in a less dramatic manner, the CSI was back at the LC 1978 to join the fold of Anglican churches endowed with full communion status. Its contribution to the life and the programmes of the Lambeth Conferences have been minimal since then considering the number of bishops who attend the LC. About 24 bishops and their spouses are waiting to go to Lambeth next year simply to watch the pomp and pageants of the colourful vestments and to enjoy having Indian meals in London and not forgetting the shopping spree opportunities in Dubai on the way for the spouses. As a mark of CSI involvement, one or two CSI bishops might be asked to assist in Holy Communion services held at the Conference. That is all they will get! When they return there will be a brief report on the visit to Lambeth in the CSI official magazine as the LC is never seen as 'our' conference.

Anglicanism in India is put to death both by Canterbury and the CSI

Both the Anglican Communion and the CSI treat Anglicanism as dead in India as Archbishop Justin Welby unofficially spoke of the CSI in terms of a successor to Anglicanism in India and the latter sees Anglicanism as a ghost roaming around the CSI churches. The Church Union is wrongly understood on both sides that the Union was meant to erase the footprints of Anglicanism.

When bishop John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich visited India in the year 1977 he said in his Sunday preaching at St. Mark's Cathedral, Bangalore that the CSI was still holding on to some of the old practices of Anglicanism and singing the hymns the West had been thrown away when it was supposed to have given up on Anglicanism.

It is my aim to show that the Church of South India is made to stand firmly within the history and tradition of Anglicanism as a united church. Anglicanism is to be revived and its essence has to be reabsorbed by the CSI because the Church Union has been wrongly practiced to mean that each constituent church tradition represented in the making of the CSI is to bury the other and one should keep neutralising the other under the pretext of unity.

This is a conviction I gained from being part of the pastoral teams assisting churches in the Diocese of Polynesia (Suva, Fiji) for three years, the Diocese of Durham (Kelloe) for a period of two years and St. Giles' Cathedral (Edinburgh though not strictly Anglican) for a year. This was balanced with the equal number of years of ministry in the CNI and the CSI churches.

In this background and standing on this historical foundation, I take a close look at the preparations for the Lambeth Conference 2020 and particularly at its theme. I am aware that the theme is in process of being expounded as there is still less than a year to go before the Conference starts. But the amplification of the theme so far, since it's unveiling last year, raises few concerns in my mind. I present them here with the hope that the purpose and the agenda of the LC are not set and controlled by a small section who wish to dictate matters to the entire Communion. I am willing to review my comments and criticisms once the full picture is revealed to the public before the commencement of the Conference. I hope that some of my criticisms will find no place in the course of further tangible developments.

The Theme Itself

The Conference in Canterbury 2020 is making a declaration with a two-sided theme "God's Church for God's World: Walking, Listening and Witnessing Together" to set the tone for the conference. It was designed by a Group under the chairmanship of Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. The Design Group of 10-15 members in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury is working on this theme in order to create a rhythm for the conference by shaping the seminars, programme and plenary sessions of the Lambeth Conference.

Archbishop Thabo is excited by the theme, "God's Church for God' World". "This is a beautiful theme that reminds us to look at something greater and bigger than ourselves," he said, "and not to quibble around the little things within the family -- not to gloss over them -- but also to celebrate who we are within God's Church in God's World."

First of all, the extent of the problem within the Anglican Communion that has caused a split within the college of bishops for two decades or so cannot be underplayed. As David Virtue has observed, '...this is not a friendly inhouse disagreement between the brothers, but a war over "sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1). The differences are over the very definition, understanding and meaning of the gospel.' Belittling the problem is not the way to find a solution. When persistent disagreements are leading to relationship dissolution and community discord, we need to build a resolve to work through the conflicts and not to paper over the cracks to attain a temporary relief by pushing ourselves to a celebrating mood.

God's Church

The phrase 'God's Church' is not totally new but the theological and practical assumptions underlying this phrase raise some difficulties in properly appropriating it. It is not clear whether it is a declaration, a challenge or a goal-setting to be attained by the Communion. It sounds a pious declaration projecting a proud image of the Communion as to how it sees itself as God's Church living in God's world. A comfortable thought! Such a self-declaration will blind their eyes to see the pitfalls and failures in the corporate life of the Communion.

"God is smiling," the Archbishop Thabo said, "because there is a group of dedicated Episcopalians and Anglicans from all over the Anglican Communion, put together by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Secretary General, who are committed to birthing an innovative, creative Lambeth Conference..."

By 'God's Church' is meant squarely the Anglican Communion functioning under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the General Secretary. Archbishop Justin Welby restated what it meant for a Church to be an Anglican province, saying that the member churches of the Anglican Communion are those churches in communion with the See of Canterbury that are listed as members of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Archbishop Idowu-Fearon leads us to ACC-16 Resolution 16.24 which demands walking together 'with the Primates and other Instruments of Communion'. 'God's Church' is explained in institutional sense measured in terms of its loyalty shown to the See of Canterbury, finding a place in the membership book and showing respectful gesture to the four instruments of the Communion.

To substantiate this position, Resolution 49 of the Lambeth Conference 1930 is being quoted which has defined the Anglican Communion 'as a fellowship of churches, provinces and dioceses in communion with the See of Canterbury.'

This is a very narrow understanding of God's Church and it makes God as belonging to a group that fulfilled institutional requirements. The partisan language is seen in the way the Archbishop distinguishes between 'bishops around the world in communion with the See of Canterbury' and the 'other churches' which are in communion with the Anglican churches. The 'other churches' (such as the CSI) are those who relate themselves with the See of Canterbury on the basis of the four elements spelt out in the Lambeth-Quadrilateral. He concluded by saying, 'I remain hopeful that when, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we come together as bishops in communion in Canterbury next year...' Members of the Anglican Communion means that they have to be in Communion with the See of Canterbury etc. Anyone who has difficulty in accepting Canterbury as the main centre of authority such a church will not be considered an authentic Anglican. This seems to be the fundamental reasoning dormant behind the phrase 'God's Church'. Is there 'us' and 'them' and 'in' and 'out' in the fellowship of God's church?

Revisiting the Resolution 49 of the LC 1930

Archbishop Welby quotes only the first part of Resolution 49. The actual Resolution concludes with this statement: 'The Conference makes this statement praying for and eagerly awaiting the time when the Churches of the present Anglican Communion will enter into communion with other parts of the Catholic Church not definable as Anglican in the above sense, as a step towards the ultimate reunion of all Christendom in one visibly united fellowship.' It is implied that the See of Canterbury is a temporary phase enabling the churches to move towards forming into a visible united Church which is God's Church.

This solemn inclusive thought was behind other Resolutions on Reunion or Church Unity made in the Lambeth Conferences of 1920 and 1930. The LC 1930 formally reaffirmed the LC 1920. (Resolution 31, 1930)

"The vision which rises before us is that of a Church, genuinely Catholic, loyal to all Truth, and gathering into its fellowship all who profess and call themselves Christians', within whose visible unity all the treasures of faith and order, bequeathed as a heritage by the past to the present, shall be possessed in common, and made serviceable to the whole Body of Christ." ("An Appeal to All Christians", Resolution 9, LC 1920)

"We do not ask that anyone Communion should consent to be absorbed into another" (Res. 9, IX, 1920)

'...every branch of the Anglican Communion that it should prepare its members for taking their part in the universal fellowship of the reunited Church' (Res. 15, 1920)

The LC 2020 should always remember this whenever they meet even if little or no progress has been made in the last ninety years in the achieving unity with other churches in each of our regions. This realisation is very important that Anglican Communion is just a fragment of 'God's Church' and 'Body of Christ'. It is this spirit of universalism should inspire us to see the God's church not merely in institutionally marked identities of the Anglican Church.

I remember my meeting with Bishop Stephen Neill during the summer 1983 in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He told me that when he was writing the History of the Ecumenical Movement, and he was quite surprised to discover that, throughout the world, it was Anglicans who initiated unity talks with other churches. Anglicans were the pioneers in unity of churches in every region of the world.

In the recent past, the Archbishop of Canterbury in his concluding Presidential address to the Lambeth Conference 2008 affirmed, 'The vision of a global Church of interdependent communities is not the vision of an ecclesiastical world empire - or even a colonial relic... The global horizon of the Church matters because churches without this are always in danger of slowly surrendering to the culture around them and losing sight of their calling to challenge that culture.' Institutional loyalty to Canterbury communion cannot be counted as a mark of God's Church.

If this universal dimension of God's Church is lost sight of from the beginning itself, then we will be straying in our path thus doing disservice to the biblical and theological foundations of Church.

"The Book of Common Prayer is the fruit and the record and the expression of Anglicanism" -- Bishop E. J. Palmer, Former Bishop of Bombay

For bishop Palmer, the Book of Common Prayer is the authoritative standard of the doctrine of the Anglican Communion. In it, the Eucharist is not an act meant for strengthening the identity of the Anglican Communion but to make us "very members incorporate in the mystical body of God's Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people,... that we may continue in that holy fellowship,...We express the universality of God's Church and that we participate in that universal holy fellowship."

Our Intercession in Anglican liturgy is framed for the well-being of 'the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth' not just for Anglican Communion. We beseech God 'to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord'

The Anglicans of the 21st century must eschew parochialism in their self-understanding and further choose not to understand God's Church in such a way that Anglicans of the ACNA and the diocese of Brazil are disinvited as full members of the Communion. It is important that the Orthodox wing of the Global Anglicans should be invited before the table is set for the meeting rather than inviting them to sit around the table for talking and listening after the table is set.

Returning to 'God's Church' as understood by the LC of 1867?

The interpretations given to 'God's Church by the Archbishop and by the Chairman of the Design group rhyme with the significant place accorded to the Canterbury in the very first LC of 1867.

'God's church' certainly means for the Archbishop and his team the churches that approve the privileged position of Canterbury. A Resolution regarding 'conditions of union' of the 1867 Conference also reflected this very notion of Canterbury venerated as the Mother Church by the colonial churches. What the organisers of the LC 2020 have not yet said openly the other glories of Canterbury being the cradle of Anglo-Saxon Christianity standing at the forefront of all nations, carrying civilisations to the ends of the earth and the Archbishop is seated on St. Augustine's chair.

'Mission to the nations' not to be an attention-diverter from the real issues

Archbishop Welby expressed the hope that the bishops would "look outwards at the world that needs the good news of Jesus Christ. And it needs to see it in our actions, envy it in our love together, and hear it in our confident proclamation of the good news of Jesus." This is a too idealistic and dream-like assumption. To those to whom you proclaim the good news, your inner condition of poverty in faith and love cannot remain hidden. You can't preach good news to the nations and at the same time be an object of bad news in your own environment.

The LC 2020 should not be discussing mission to the nations to divert attention from facing the real issues and challenges which call them to mend themselves by turning to the Word of God. God has his own people proclaiming and worshipping Christ in each nation and God will use them for his mission of reconciling the world to himself. There is a great need for presenting Christ and His word to the West. The Great Commission of Jesus is not a mandate given to one church in one region for the sake of other regions.

The sequence of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) was not a one-way linear movement and no one community was in-charge of this movement. It was reversed in many instances because it was under the control and will of the Holy Spirit. The happenings in Samaria (Acts. 8) had something to teach the disciples in Jerusalem and the missionaries from Antioch Paul and Barnabas, had an important message to convince those who were at the Jerusalem Council (Acts. 10). The little island of Malta (Acts. 28) had few lessons to teach Paul. A multi-ethnic group of seven men was appointed (Acts. 6) to look after the widows in the daily distribution of food in the early Church. An Ethiopian became a Christian (Ac.ts 8) before a Roman (Acts. 10). In the list of nations in Acts. 2: 9-11, the Arabs were there together with the Jews.

I Peter is a mismatch for the Theme

The epistle of I Peter is chosen as a book to lead us into the Conference theme. It is so because the epistle is the favourite book of Archbishop Welby. A daily programme of Bible studies in the LC 2020 will explore 1 Peter from 27 July 2020. An international group of 35 New Testament scholars from Anglican and other Churches around the world gathered at Lambeth Palace to prepare material for this. They will be made available closer to the Conference dates and so also all the other reading materials to help explain the theme and the purpose of the Conference which will be distributed just before the Conference. This practice will not help as the material resources will not bear the stamp of diversity as the members of this projects are very carefully chosen that they work around the theme in accordance with the instructions received from the Archbishops.

Archbishop Justin tells us that the programme centres on studying the Bible together, reading the Bible together. A cursory reading of I Peter suggests that the contents of the epistle do not match the theme of God's Church in God's world unless Peter's neck is forcibly squeezed to make him speak in line with the agenda of the organisers. The Design group may be tempted to set aside the key messages of the epistle as Peter might appear to them an uncompromising lobbyist.

Why Peter might upset the design of the LC 2020?

The word 'Church' (ekklesia) does not occur in I Peter. The design group does not seem to have a handle on the epistle to trumpet 'God's Church'. The words 'race', 'temple', 'people', 'flock' (not fold) are used to denote communities that bear the name of Christ. E. G. Selwyn, the Dean of Winchester for 27 years and the leading commentator of I Peter observes that Peter spoke about the church that had no boundaries or edges. So, the organisational mindedness about the church cannot have much support from Peter.

I Peter was written to those who were being persecuted for Christ's sake in a hostile world. We need not argue whether it was a State sponsored persecution or persecution inflicted by local authorities or over periods of persecution. The Christians were suffering 'for the name of Christ' and were sacrificing their lives for Christ. This fact is mentioned on four occasions (1:6; 3:13-17; 4:12-19; 5:9). The persecution was widespread Peter wrote, 'you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.' (5:9). It is not just individuals but the whole church of God was suffering. 'If you are reproached for the name of Christ (4: 14) and 'if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.' (4:16) Bishop Polycarp who was thoroughly acquainted with I Peter was martyred because he was obstinate in rejecting the deity of the emperor.

One of the common persecutions in India is mob violence against Christians. A Christian or a Muslim may find himself or herself unexpectedly surrounded by a group of Hindu nationalists forcing him/her to say 'Jai Shri Ram' (Victory to Lord Rama, the hero of Ramayana the Hindu epic). You are slapped and punched if you refuse to chant it. No one on the street will come to your rescue or support. You are beaten and thrashed sometimes until you bleed. Some finally yield to chanting it softly but they will be forced to say it loudly.

Last week, a 15-year-old Muslim boy was set ablaze in the State of Utter Pradesh for refusing to say 'Jai Shri Ram'. The Hindu party BJP ruled State Police said that it was a fake event. A few months ago, 50 Christians were reconverted to Hinduism and they were made to shout 'Jai Shri Ram'. Last Sunday, a group of men walked into a church during the worship service and beat the pastor (who was a convert from Hinduism) and vandalised the church. The worshippers were ostracised from the community and not permitted to collect water from the public well. Another video on my desk shows a similar incident in which a woman worshipper stood up against the persecutors and spoke courageously that they will worship only Jesus the Christ. Finally, the congregation shouted 'Jai Jesus Christ'. The Police were not helpful to the victims in many cases as they refuse to file cases against the persecutors.

I am not writing this to receive attention or secure sympathy but to say that Peter's epistle will embarrass the Conference organisers if they faithfully listen to all he has said and understand the world he and the recipients of the letter were living in. It will be sad indeed if the Designing group selects few verses from I Peter and miss altogether the central message of the epistle.

The Marriage between man and a woman makes the Christian Household

If I Peter drew from liturgical, confessional and catechetical materials of the Church of Rome, his household ethics were part of those ecclesiastical sources. The main foci of the Household Codes in I Peter (2:11-3:12) are upon husband/wife, parent/child, and master/slave relationships. We should particularly note here Peter's instructions for Christian married men and women as husbands and wives and how they should develop their individual characters and behaviours and how they must relate to each other in a Greco-Roman context. The other apostle Paul also agrees with these views of Peter. I hope that the conference takes time to read this section carefully and picks up the message for the modern society and for those churches which have approved the same-sex marriage.

An American Presbyterian minister once wrote, "One of the stubbornly enduring habits of the human race is to insist on domesticating God. We are determined to tame him. We try to figure out ways to harness God to our projects. We try to reduce God to a size that conveniently fits our plans and ambitions and tastes. But our Scriptures are even more stubborn in telling us that we can't do it. God cannot be fit into our plans we must fit into his. We can't use God -- God is not a tool or appliance or credit card."

"New Birth" is an identifying mark of God's church

Peter stresses the 'new birth' that characterises God's Church. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. God has given the people a new birth into a living hope and the church awaits the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. Still there is a long journey before we are vindicated as God's Church. Therefore, Peter admonishes, 'Since you call on a Father who judges each person's work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear'. Therefore, the genuineness of the faith has to be tested by various trials and the result of our faith will be known at the end. Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.

The church is a worldwide brotherhood (5:9; cf. 2:17) and so love the family of believers because love covers the multitude of sins. Live as God's slaves and abstain from sinful desires. Once you were no people and now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer (episcopos) of your souls. Hence do not join the pagans in reckless and wild living. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Babel Rhetoric: "Let us make a Name for Ourselves"

Which is God's Church? Are the bishops building a monument to themselves, to call attention to their abilities and achievements centred on the Archbishop of Canterbury and the General Secretary? Do they want to make a name for themselves to preserve unity around them so that the tower they build reaches heaven? 'God's Church' cannot be projected in terms of place, persons, geography or institution. 'God' cannot be pushed and pulled according to our agenda and it is Christ who is on the throne.

In none of his writings did Paul refer to the Church of God in terms of a denominational category (Acts 20: 28; I Cor. 10: 12; I Cor. 11: 22; I Cor. 15: 9; Gal. 1: 12). Neither is the Church of God was identified in the NT by the name of human leaders or by a set of teaching. I see in the declaration, God's Church for God's world an attitude of pride though words of humility are often expressed. The pride is delusional believing that you speak for God and that God is yours. It is a folly to attempt to reach God through earthly power and authority. Institutional attributes should not elevate themselves above the directions set by the Word of God.

The Rev. Dr. Muthuraj, is a former member of St. John's College, Durham and a graduate of the University of Durham, UK. Through his publications, he has been established as a CSI historian who currently writes on the relationship between the united churches and the Anglican Communion. He has been one of the strongest voices in the global theological communion appealing for a renewal of Episcopacy to bring an end to the corruption in the Church of South India.

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