The Archbishop of Canterbury has conceded defeat in the battle over the Anglican Covenant. In a 2 Dec 2012 Advent letter to the primates, Dr. Rowan Williams said the Anglican Communion had become “corrupted” and could no longer be considered a communion of churches but a “community of communities.”
Dr. Williams’ somber appreciation of the state of the communion today, contrasts with his past letters to the leaders of the Communions 38 provinces. Nothing now bound the church together apart from good will.
In 2009 Dr. Williams rejected calls from the Episcopal Church to reorder the Anglican Communion as a federation of churches. “As Anglicans, our membership of the communion is an important part of our identity. However, some see this as best expressed in a more federalist and pluralist way. They would see this as the only appropriate language for a modern or indeed postmodern global fellowship of believers in which levels of diversity are bound to be high and the risks of centralisation and authoritarianism are the most worrying.”
“There is nothing foolish or incoherent about this approach,” Dr. Williams wrote in a letter published on 27 July 2009, “but it is not the approach that has generally shaped the self-understanding of our communion.”
Dr. Williams had proposed an Anglican Covenant as a mechanism that would “do justice to that aspect of Anglican history that has resisted mere federation.”
A covenant would create “structures that will express the need for mutual recognisability, mutual consultation and some shared processes of decision-making. They are emphatically not about centralisation but about mutual responsibility. They look to the possibility of a freely chosen commitment to sharing discernment.”
However, in his Advent 2012 letter, Dr. Williams retreated from his previous declarations, conceding the political reality of the communion would not support his goals of a communion that was more than loose federation of national churches.
He had come to believe that “the truth is that our Communion has never been the sort of Church that looks for one central authority.”
He added “this doesn’t mean that we are not concerned with truth or holiness or consistency,” but over the past ten years he and the leaders of the communion had not been able to find this truth.
“All forms of human power and discipline can become corrupted, and that in the Church we have to have several points of reference for the organising of our common life so that none of them can go without challenge or critique from the others.”
He also suggested that it was not the destination, but the journey that was important. Dialogue provided an opportunity for the light of the truth to be glimpsed. “Our hope is that in this exchange we discover a more credible and lasting convergence than we should have if someone or some group alone imposed decisions – and that the fellowship that emerges is more clearly marked by Christlikeness, by that reverence for one another that the Spirit creates in believers.
“Another way of saying this,” he said, citing the words of theologian was that “we are a ‘community of communities’. And perhaps in our own time we could translate this afresh and say we are a ‘network of networks’.”
Dr. Williams did however commend to the primates the communion’s special interest groups – the “official networks of the Communion”.
“In the work done around evangelism, healthcare, the environment, the rights and dignities of women and children and of indigenous peoples and many more areas, what drew people together was this halfway formal model of a global community of prayer and concern maintained by deep friendship and common work. This is where you are probably most likely to see the beauty of the face of Christ in the meetings of the Communion; this is where the joyful hope of Christian believers is most strongly kindled,” he argued.
The archbishop’s view that the communion had collapsed will not come as a surprise to Global South Anglican leaders, who have warned that the consequences of the actions taken by the Episcopal Church would lead to this end.
However, his plea to support the “official networks of the Communion” will likely have little resonance amongst the leaders of the growing churches of the Global South, however. The networks that have bound African and Asian Anglicans to Anglicans in the developed world have not focused on works or issues, but upon doctrine, African leaders tell Anglican Ink.