By Marshall Scott
My wife and I are foodies - or, at least, we cook. I like to cook. It's a form of recreation for me, with immediate feedback (I'd usually say, "No pun intended;" but I like that one).
So, because I cook, I know something about sauces. I can deglaze a pan. I can make a roux, and I can make it as dark and as rich as you want. I can even do a reduction, that slow, steady process of cooking down a liquid until the color is deeper, the consistency thicker, and the flavor more intense than one could ever imagine from the original.
Perhaps that's why it got my attention when Archbishop Williams said this in his Presidential Address to the recent General Synod of the Church of England:
"The Communion we have: it is indeed a very imperfect thing at the moment. It is still true that not every Primate feels able to communicate at the Lord's Table alongside every other, and this is indeed a tragedy. Yet last week, all the Primates who had attended GAFCON were present, every one of them took part in daily prayer and Bible study alongside the Primates of North America and every one of them spoke in discussion. In a way that I have come to recognise as very typical of these meetings, when talk of replacing Communion with federation of some kind was heard, nearly everyone reacted by saying that this was not something they could think about choosing. We may have imperfect communion, but we unmistakably want to find a way of holding on to what we have and 'intensifying' it – to use the language I used last summer about the proposed Anglican Covenant. Somehow, the biblical call to be involved with one another at a level deeper than that of mere affinity and good will is still heard loud and clear. No-one wants to rest content with the breach in sacramental fellowship, and everyone acknowledges that this breach means we are less than we are called to be. But the fact that we recognise this and that we still gather around the Word is no small thing; without this, we should not even be able to hope for the full restoration of fellowship at the Eucharist.”
What concerns me is this thought of "intensifying what we have." In the first instance, I’m not sure we really have agreement on “what we have.” Actually, I’m certain we do not. I’m not sure what to make of his experience that “when talk of replacing Communion with federation of some kind was heard, nearly everyone reacted by saying that this was not something they could think about choosing;” for if we’re not agreed what we have now, we don’t know what it would mean to choose a “federation,” and so why “this was not something they could think about choosing.” We are a group of “regional and national member churches” (that’s what the Anglican Communion Website says on its front page: ”regional and national member churches”). Sometimes we speak of a “fellowship,” and sometimes a “family,” both terms well represented in Christian rhetoric. On the other hand, either a fellowship or a family can be disparate or enmeshed – too loose to work together, or too tight for all members to work to full potential – and arguably a “communion” can be, too. Is what can be accomplished by the Lutheran World Federation somehow less important or less successful or “less church,” than what can be accomplished by the Roman Catholic Church?
And if we’re not agreed what we have, what would it mean to “intensify” it? Would that mean clearer rules and clearer values? Would that mean tighter rules around common values? Would it leave us with more facility in including, or in excluding – or, perhaps, both?
This wasn’t made easier by the next paragraph in the Archbishop’s address. He said,
“Underlying this is something that dawned on me last week with a renewed force. We have not yet got to the point where we can no longer recognise one another as seeking to obey the same Lord. To make a very simple point, common Bible study would not be possible if we did not see in one another at least some of the same habits of attention and devotion to Scripture, whatever the diversity of interpretation. We can see that the other person is trying to listen to God's self-communication in scripture, not just imposing an agenda. But this entails a more complex and challenging point. If we recognise this much, we have to recognise that the other person or community or tradition is not simply going to go away. They are near enough to be capable of conversation, shared prayer and shared discernment with us. They are not just going to be defeated and silenced. For the foreseeable future, they are going to be there, recognisably doing something like what we are doing. We can't pretend.”
That would all be wonderful, if some of the points weren’t demonstrably inaccurate. I wish it were true that, “We have not yet got to the point where we can no longer recognise one another as seeking to obey the same Lord;” but the rhetoric of many who would see the Episcopal Church restrained or excluded says just that: that they no longer recognize us as seeking to obey the same Lord. That is the stated reason that “it is still true that not every Primate feels able to communicate at the Lord's Table alongside every other.”
I like his statement that, “common Bible study would not be possible if we did not see in one another at least some of the same habits of attention and devotion to Scripture, whatever the diversity of interpretation. We can see that the other person is trying to listen to God's self-communication in scripture, not just imposing an agenda.” But neither is that entirely accurate. We might see in one another “some of the same habits;” but how many would be required to support “communion?” In the American context (and I would bet in the British as well) it’s quite common for folks to cross denominational lines for common Bible study. At another level, one with which the Archbishop is intimately familiar, scholars do it all the time. And every person involved brings an “agenda,” a set of expectations based on what they’ve learned elsewhere – largely in their various churches – even if he or she doesn’t seek to “impose” it.
Granted, those on both sides – on all sides, since I for one think there are more than two – aren’t going to simply disappear. Indeed, they might well be “near enough to be capable of conversation, shared prayer and shared discernment with us.” They may be “recognisably doing something like what we are doing;” but, how “near?” And, how “like?” Christians, Jews, and Muslims are, at least in some contexts, “near enough to be capable of conversation, shared prayer and shared discernment.” All communities that recite one or another variation of the Golden Rule are “recognisably doing something like what we are doing;” but we wouldn’t say in either case that all were “near” enough, “like” enough, for something we would call “communion.”
Perhaps what we forget to do is to step back. We commonly say that communion, and so the Communion, is God’s gift to us, and not simply ours to determine, much less to structure. There have been discussions about a distinctive Anglican charism, our own unique spiritual gift. Perhaps we need to rethink how we want to consider that gift, that charism. We have assumed that it is there, without thinking about why it is there.
That question of why is important. Paul says consistently that the charisms, the gifts of the Spirit, are given, not for their own sake or for the glory of the recipient, but for the building up of the Body of Christ. If communion is such a gift, then surely it has such a purpose. We think we want communion and this Communion, and we think God wants it; but what do we think God wants it for?
Perhaps that would provide a renewed starting point (if not an entirely new one) for us as Episcopalians to consider our relationship with the Anglican Communion, both as we have had it and as we discover it coming to be. It would allow us to be clear about what blessings we saw in participating, and what price; what we would expect of it and what we would be willing to let go of to be a part of it.
In the meantime, there is more than enough heat, more than enough simmering, to intensify things. All the more reason, then, that we need to be clear what we are working for. Would this be a roux? Then the longer we simmer it the more intense would be the flavor, but the weaker the thickening power, the cohesion to hold together disparate elements. Would this be a reduction, with the flavor and color defined and strengthened, but at the cost of significant loss in volume? And how long would be too long for things to simmer? For if the heat is maintained long enough, however low and measured, eventually the sauce will be scorched, unfit for use.
I think, especially for us as the Episcopal Church, this is the unfinished task. Before we might agree to the value of “intensifying” something, we need to be clear, at least for ourselves, what we think we have, and what we think we want. This is a General Convention year. While Convention is not always the best forum for clarity or definition, it is the widest and the broadest forum we have for such discussion. Can we this year as a gathered community address these questions? If we can, we can take our part in this process of intensification; and perhaps produce together a sauce fit even for the heavenly banquet.
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.