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A tapestry of faithfulness, charitableness and mission

A tapestry of faithfulness, charitableness and mission

By Chris Sugden and Vinay Samuel
Church of England Newspaper
January 20, 2016

The hype was walkout, separation, federation, and manipulation. The reality was prayer and commitment.

The Primates' gathering achieved its very limited purpose - whether members of the Anglican Communion will continue to walk together particularly after TEC unilaterally moved away from the common faith and order to which members have assented since the communion's beginnings. It was not about addressing the issues of marriage, sexuality and same sex partnerships, settling doctrinal differences or saving the communion.

Members may have come with different expectations: some to discipline TEC, others to silence TEC's opponents, some to save the communion, others to have their say and walk out as they expected no coming together. But nearly all primates appear to have accepted the focused agenda and decided to walk together.

Clearly most primates saw that The Episcopal Church's unilateral actions had serious implications for the unity of the communion which they were willing to address. But clearly most primates were committed to walk together and thus address the problem created by TECs actions. We doubt if any came ready to walk out if matters did not go their way.

Such a commitment to stay together in the communion for a long time reflects an understanding of the communion as a family of diverse communities all committed to being faithful to the gospel and committed to God's mission in the world.

The 2016 Communique will be seen as fundamental for the Communion's future. It settles its common ground: "The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union....unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion." (Addendum A 4,5).

The task force's work and the 'time-out' for TEC is not to revisit this position. That relates only to TEC and any province minded to go that way. These are 'consequences', intrinsic results, just as an intrinsic result of practicing the piano is to be able to play a tune well.

This is a performative understanding of doctrine with implications for Christian discipleship and witness. Departing from doctrine without considering fellow churches has intrinsic consequences for life, witness and fellowship with other churches. Such a church judges itself to have moved apart.

The primates did not address social challenges by dividing for and against. Archbishop Welby set the scene not as a CEO or umpire for winners and losers but as a Christian leader for what would keep people faithful to what has been given to the church. Orthodox primates, except one who left early, were willing to pay the price involved in settling for this outcome, whatever some supporters may have wished for.

Faithfulness, charitableness and mission are three threads to understand the primates' tapestry. Charitableness requires the determination to understand another's claim to be faithful which can be understood in a number of ways.

For some faithfulness is in black and white, them and us terms. Anyone who does not cross all the "t's' is seen as weakening, even abandoning the faith, and no longer part of the family. Most orthodox Anglicans see faithfulness as being faithful to central truths of the faith which carry and hold them and keeps the church close to God.

Others equate faithfulness with relevance as they are eager to apply the gospel to contemporary contexts.

Every claim to faithfulness cannot expect to be accepted on its own terms. It has to tested with reference to the settled stand of the Communion. For we all have blindspots.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba spoke of the Communion's role in the apartheid struggle. "If the Communion had not been there, we (black Christians) were being challenged as to how we could remain in a white communion when whites were persecuting blacks. But the Communion held, there is a hope in God." White Christians in the Dutch Reformed Church and perhaps some Anglicans believed they were being faithful to Scripture but needed the insights of Christians from other cultures to help them see that they were being culturally racist.

Such correction is part of faithfulness to the gospel, tradition and biblical teaching. The Primate of TEC is trying to be faithful to the truth as he sees it. But faithful Christians do not always know everything: we need the church's wisdom in history and around the world.

Charitableness requires that people are not seen to have abandoned the faith but desiring to be relevant. Faithfulness however often requires us to be out of step with the world. The primates are calling TEC to reconsider their action and after three years will ask "Do we still walk together?"

The third thread is mission. The communique notes religious motivated violence by majoritarian national religions, the deep evil of corruption, tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and patronage networks, and rejects the criminalization of same-sex attracted people. These, along with massive inequalities and the breakdown of family and marriage, challenge the churches in the Global South as much as in the West. All churches need mutual support to address their own challenges and correction for each other's mistakes in being faithful.

The markers for walking together have been clearly set up. TEC is asked to think again. Orthodox Anglicans are asked to recognize a difference between deciding what is the truth and how it is to be upheld.

The future is with congregations of the communion living out faithfulness, charity and mission. A CofE area bishop commented that an English congregation views Christian discipleship differently from a congregation in Uganda. He implied one is shaped by inclusive love while in Uganda a narrow biblicism and bigotry dominates. He suggested that CofE should leave and move ahead with others in the communion with similar views. This is less than charitable. Ugandan Anglicans seek to be faithful to the gospel in their context and need to communicate that more effectively and accept that Anglicans in England seek to do the same. Such charity is needed to support each other in a world not eager to embrace the gospel.

Dr. Chris Sugden and Dr. Vinay Samuel are writers and missiologists engaged with the Church of England and world mission

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