As the bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion prepare to gather next month at the Lambeth Conference -- a gathering held only once every 10 years -- many people are waiting to see if our global Communion of 38 independent churches can remain unified in the face of deep disagreements, ostensibly over issues of human sexuality.
But the real question is not can we stay together, but do we really want or need unity within the Anglican Communion?
The question is not new....
....In 1988, as Anglican bishops gathered for the Lambeth Conference and as religious and secular media speculated about the possible dissolution of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie raised the same question: "Do we actually need a worldwide Communion?" The issue then was the ordination of women, and specifically the expected consecration of the first woman bishop, Barbara Harris, who was elected bishop suffragan in Massachusetts in September 1988. The question was as pertinent then as it is now, and it is the primary question that must be answered before our Communion can begin to resolve any of the divisive issues that are before us.
This week, the conservative leadership of the Global Anglican Future Conference, meeting in Jerusalem, released a document declaring that "there is no longer any hope...for a unified Communion" and that the cost of unity is too high. At the same time, other conservative voices, like Durham Bishop N.T. Wright, claim equally solid evangelical credentials and argue that "the ship hasn't sunk yet," making a case for staying in relationship and bringing their voices to the table in order to strengthen and renew the mission of the church. Ironically, the liberal spectrum can be seen having much the same debate.
But the issue is not simply about sexuality.
The Anglican Communion has changed and so has the world around it. The center of gravity of global Christianity has shifted from north to south. The greatest growth in membership in Anglican churches in our time has taken place in the churches of Africa. There is no question that Anglicanism has moved from being a loose assortment of colonial churches into a new post-colonial configuration of independent national churches with indigenous leadership wanting and needing to make their voices heard. Overlay that with the glaring economic disparity between the first and third worlds. Mix in the unilateral foreign policy exercised by the West. Combine it with the inter-religious, cultural, racial, and political tensions in every region of the world. Set it all in a context of globalism. Is it any surprise that there are tensions, disagreements, and conflict in our Communion?
Even so, the question remains: is it worth it? Do we really need a worldwide Communion?
The answer, I believe, is a resounding and heartfelt "yes."
No one finds God alone. The intricate web of relationships that form our global Communion provide an invaluable network of mutual benefit, often bringing desperately needed resources into remote communities that others either cannot or will not reach, often making the difference quite literally between life and death. Those same relationships call us all out of our self-limited little worlds, cracking open our hearts and minds, challenging and compelling us as a kind of corrective, to see and to understand the full spectrum of Christian witness that often takes place under circumstances and with a kind of courage that many of us cannot begin to understand.
Do we have differences? Certainly. But as Archbishop Runcie observed, "it is only by being in communion together that diversity and difference have value." Do those differences challenge us? Unquestionably. But those same challenges, by the grace of God, form the very crucible of our own transformation.
Communion, in other words, is not our gift to God. It is God's gift to us.
Only to the degree to which we learn to empty our selves in humility for the sake of "the other" do we bear witness to the cross, the very mind of Christ, showing forth the true nature of divine love. Only to the degree that we willingly embrace "the other" do we reveal the unity of the new humanity that God intends for all humankind.
In the kingdom of God, we can never give up on one another. When it comes to the mission of the Church, in the deepest sense of that calling, no one is off the hook.
We live in a world plagued by division, conflict, and violence, much of it rationalized, justified, and glorified in the name of God. Indeed our world is starving for a more transcendent vision of itself. So how about something new? How about a global Communion that reveals a deeply challenging but wonderfully divine truth. Archbishop Runcie said in 1988, "that without relationship difference only divides." But I would add, that in relationship difference actually redeems.