Someone asked me a bit ago why we cared about the Anglican Communion and why it should be relevant to us today. This question has been especially weighing on me as we approach General Convention this summer because the Episcopal Church is going to be asked to decide on the ways it plans to respond to requests and suggestions made in the Windsor Report. (The Windsor Report is a document that has been constructed to suggest a way forward to manage the confict between various parties in today in the Communion.)
The formal idea of the Anglican Communion developed about the time that the steamship made international travel reasonably safe and reliable. The Archbishop of Canterbury began, in the late 1800’s, to invite bishops from around the world from the churches that had been or where formed from the colonial expressions of the Church of England to join in a once a decade event of mutual consultation. Over the past 100 years, this event has been the driving engine for the development of the very concept of a Communion.
The question, “Why is the Anglican Communion important to the Episcopal Church today?” has, to my mind, a three part answer.
The first part of the answer has to do with the relevance of the Communion in terms of practical matters. The existing Communion structure, primarily expressed in the Anglican Consultative Council (or ACC) allows the national provinces of the Communion to coordinate work done on behalf of all by the various provinces. It is through the ACC offices and in cooperation with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office that we can hold talks on ecumenical relationships with other denominations and religions. It is through the work of the Communion that we coordinate our response to emergencies like famines and outbreaks of disease around the world. And it through the Communion that we are able to build connections and bridges with other christians around the world who have been formed out of the same historical forms of prayer and liturgy that we have been.
In other words, the Anglican Communion lets us work together to do things more easily than we could manage to do them by ourselves. It also allows those who are rich in one thing (whether money, spirit or wisdom) to share with others who have needs.
The second part of the answer speaks to the spiritual relevance of the Communion. It is very easy for us here in America to become focused on ourselves and lose sight of the importance of our relationship with others. By committing to being part of something larger than ourselves, than our parishes, than our dioceses, we are forced to recognize that we live as part of a larger community. And because we are part of something larger than ourselves, we have a way to see ourselves as others see us. This is an important spiritual tool, because it forces us to take a hard, honest look at what we do and who we are.
For instance, a few years ago I traveled to the southern part of Africa and visited with the people of the Diocese of Swaziland. It was only when I traveled outside of Pennsylvania and visited the developing world that I really came to understand just how powerful, privileged and wealthy each one of us in this room are. I had always thought of myself as being comfortable, but not rich nor powerful. I had never thought of myself as being privileged. But meeting people nothing compared to what I had and yet who considered themselves lucky and well off pushed me to take a look at my life through their eyes.
I traveled to Swaziland as part of the coordinated work of the Anglican Communion to the scourge of AIDS. While I was there I stayed with other Anglicans. And it was through their lives, witness and faith that I learned how far I have to go in my own spiritual journey. This is what i mean when I say that the relevance of the Communion is that it allows us to see ourselves honestly and through the eyes of other people. As I have become older in the faith and more spiritually mature I have begun to realize just what an important gift this is.
The final piece of this answer is that I believe that the Anglican Communion is a great political experiment which is inviting us to see if it is possible to create a larger community than the one in which we live. There are many forces in the world today that act to break people apart from one another. Some of these forces are things like fear, hatred, and prejudice and are obvious in their actions. But others are more subtle and move us into smaller and smaller groups of people just like ourselves. This idea of an Anglican Communion, made up of people from all around the world who have to struggle to agree on anything, much less whether there actually can be an Anglican Communion is one of the few things in our lives today that are inviting to step out into a larger set of experiences. If we can figure out how to keep the idea of the Anglican Communion vital and alive, perhaps we can learn too how to live with other cultures here in the United States and in the larger world.
The spiritual reason is, for me, the most compelling one. Given the increasing polarization of debate in society, the inward focus of so much of our daily life and the way that people are managing to only speak to people they agree with and avoid those with whom they differ – any thing that draws us out of our comfort zone and out of ourselves is valuable and relevant. While the present conflict is over the question of the full inclusion of Gay and Lesbian people into the life of the Church, even if that would be resolved tomorrow, there are other controversies (such as the role of the 39 articles, the interpretation of Scripture and the role of women in the clergy leadership of the Church) that we can expect to arise as well.
Do keep the matter in your prayers these coming months. If you have questions or would like to share your thoughts, both Hillary Dowling and myself are going to be at General Convention serving as deputies this summer.