By Marshall Scott
I have been reflecting on Michael Poon’s paper on the Communion and Covenant, “The Anglican Communion as Communion of Churches: on the historic significance of the Anglican Covenant.” The Revd Canon Dr Poon is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore. At this point I want to address an issue that he does not directly address, but that his paper raises, or perhaps illuminates for me.
One of my favorite books of Christian history of the last decade is Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras. It involves the search for and discovery of the most important monastery rising from the earliest missions of the Church to China – from the West in the Seventh Century. The Church that reached China in the Seventh Century was the Church of the East, the ancient Assyrian Church, now under so much stress in Iraq, and virtually lost in much of Central Asia. Traveling eastward along the Silk Road, in 635 A.D. a bishop names Aluoben arrived with his party at Xian, the capitol of the Tang Dynasty.
In discussing this history, Palmer discusses important differences between what he calls the Church of the West (which in this case includes the Imperial Churches that would become Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and the churches springing from them) and the Church of the East. While he addresses the communication difficulties that resulted in the Nestorian controversy, theological differences are not really the most important in his description. (He does note the development of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Armenia, but for his purposes these are neither “West” nor “East.”) Rather, it is an important cultural difference: the Church of the West was the Imperial Church, linked for centuries to both spiritual and temporal power. The Church of the East was a minority, and often persecuted. The Sassanian Empire came to treat Eastern Christians according to the Empire’s relations with Rome. When the Roman Empire and the Sassanian Empire were on good terms, Christians were a tolerated minority in a Zoroastrian culture. When the Empires were at war, Christians were seen as possible enemy agents, representatives of the political and military power to the west (and we thought that started in the Fertile Crescent only with the Crusades!).
This resulted in Churches with different corporate cultures, seeking to answer different questions.
The Church of the West, having won the battle to convert the Roman Empire, began to turn inward, through intellectual giants such as St. Augustine of Hippo, who explored what constitutes a Christian state. In contrast, the Church of the East developed its own distinct spirit, one that allowed a greater freedom of belief and that was dedicated to preaching the message of Jesus. Unlike the Church of the West, it never dominated its cultural world to the exclusion or suppression of other faiths. Instead, it worked out a modus vivendi by which it could function as a minority among other faiths. This made it a first-class missionary Church.His point is that the Church of the West became committed to a unity of structure and confession in no small part because it served the needs of the Empire. The needs of the Church of the East never sought the same sort of unity because it never served in a majority, or in concert with political leaders.
I think that underlying our current issues in the Anglican Communion (and, although I’m no expert, I think other Christian bodies) is a difference of corporate culture of different content but equal importance.
One issue that is central to a society is the process by which personhood or personal identity is defined. (I know as a clinician those are different, but for my purposes at the moment they are functionally the same.) That process involves some balance, and perhaps some negotiation, between the individual and the society within which the individual functions. Here, I think, is where the rub is in our current difficulties. In much of the world, the weight of power or authority or influence in defining personhood is with the group – family, tribe, nation. However, in the industrialized West, the balance is with the individual. This is not to say that there is no response to the “Group” in the industrialized West, nor to the “Individual” elsewhere. However, once again, the weight – indeed, the greater influence as recognized by the society as a whole – is respectively as I have described it in both instances.
Folks in North America, and especially in the Episcopal Church, complain often enough that folks in other parts of the Communion “don’t understand our procedures, our structures.” I don’t think that’s true, not in the intellectual sense. Rather, I think that they see our structures and procedures through a more “communalist” or “communitarian” prism; and refracted through that prism our structures and procedures seem at best fragmented and nonfunctional, and at worst anarchic. By the same token, I think we see their structures and decisions through an “individualist” prism, through which we see their structures and decisions as dependent of codependent at best (terms that really only make sense from an individualist perspective), and at worst oppressive. Again, individual cases, and even individual cultures, address in some sense both individual needs and societal accountability. They differ significantly, however, in points on a spectrum, and therefore on perspective. And of course each person and each society as an entity sees its own perspective and its own point on the spectrum as “normal” and normative.
One point that needs to be made, then, specifically about the Episcopal Church’s perspective (I hesitate to speak for the Anglican Church of Canada, but I think this is also likely to be true for them) is that this isn’t really a new situation. It may seem new to our siblings in other parts of the Communion, but that’s largely because until the past generation or two the various gatherings of the Communion were really gentlemen’s clubs, and most of the gentlemen were from the industrial West. One could argue that, because they shared a largely “individualist” prism, it was ironically easier to use “communalist” rhetoric. First, they shared roughly the same balance of “individual” vs. “communal” influences; and second, to use “communalist” language was in fact to challenge the excesses of the society around them.
But this situation isn’t new. Indeed, the limitations on the powers of bishops in the Episcopal Church date to its original Constitution. (Armentrout and Slocum, Documents of Witness [Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994) pp.24-26) It was apocryphal after Lambeth 2008 for American bishops to speak of Third-world bishops asking them how they would act “if they were really being bishops.” Many American bishops suggested that this was evidence of the misunderstanding of structures. However, I think it was more profoundly a misunderstanding of the culture within which the Episcopal Church was formed and had developed. There has never been a period in the Episcopal Church’s history when lay and (non-episcopal) clergy could not challenge and limit the activities of a bishop. Perhaps it speaks to the esteem in which the episcopate has been held that in fact bishops have been able to exercise from personal authority power that Constitution and Canons did not actually establish.
A second reason that we in an “individualist” culture have used “communalist” language is that the cultures in which Scripture was formed were “communalist.” This does not really “decide the matter,” as it were, for two reasons. The first is that many of us would say that the uniqueness of Christ and his focus on individuals has resulted in the model of salvation in “a personal relationship with Christ,” a markedly individualist model, and certainly different from the models of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Recall, for example, that one of the most popular hymns in American culture says, “I walked in the garden alone… and he walked with me….”) That has shaped Western culture as much as it has been shaped by it. Second, many of us would say that our mission is to speak in and to the culture we find, and that culture is so different from Scriptural models as to make a difference.
It is very interesting to me, then, that as Dr. Poon thinks about alternative models for what a “universal church” might look like, he highlights the models of the Holy Catholic Churches of China, Korea, and Japan. These might make some sense for us for two reasons. First, they are (or have been, in the case of the Church of China, largely replaced I think by the Three Self Christian Movement) demonstrably Anglican, with their roots in English and American Anglican missionary activity. Second, they would seem remarkably good parallels to autocephalous Orthodox bodies in those nations.
However, what I note about them is that they are in clearly and remarkably communalist societies. Americans of my acquaintance have thought quaint the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” until they had worked with Japanese colleagues. I do not speak so much as an expert on East Asian cultures. I do, however, want to raise the question whether these churches, however Anglican they may be, are not so shaped by the cultures within which they have been formed, and within which they have found their mission, as to be thoroughly communalist in mindset.
I would raise a similar issue about many of the African voices in the Communion. I have noted, for example, the continuing importance of tribal identity in Nigerian culture. Nigeria is certainly a democracy, but Nigerians have also found a political role for traditional tribal leaders. Even in the West I’ve been aware that dynamics of tribal identification and political identification have been intertwined in recent events in Kenya. My point is not to see these as problematic. I only want to note an aspect of how Nigerians and Kenyans have structured their societies that I don’t think most North Americans appreciate. I would ask, however, whether these models of leadership have contributed to understandings of the role of a bishop in those cultures. That might explain, more profoundly than Roman or other models of the episcopate, the differences in the experiences of North American bishops and of African bishops. A Third World bishop, acculturated to the social prestige and socially sanctioned authority of a tribal elder or chief, might well ask a North American bishop, “but how would you decide if you were really being a bishop?”
I could be wrong, of course, but I’ve been thinking about this for some time. I think it sheds light on the illustrations I suggested, and perhaps some others, such as our understanding of the roles of the Instruments of Communion, interpretation of the Anglican Covenant draft, and whether we are “episcopally governed and synodically led,” or “synodically governed and episcopally led.” It especially illuminates the critical different perceptions as to whether actions in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada do or do not affect the lives of other churches in the Communion.
I fear it also suggests to me that the Communion cannot stand. I am among those who have note that we have already lost “the-Anglican-Communion-as-we-have-known-it,” beginning with the assertions expressed not first but most widely in the Windsor Report about the roles of the Primates’ Meeting. However, I fear it goes deeper than that. This is not, at least in theory, an insurmountable difficulty. However, it would require a generation of thoughtful conversation to really understand one another. A “communalist” appreciation in the Communion, however, calls for a rapid resolution. Whether we “individualists” understand it, our “communalist” siblings really do see our actions as harming them. While I can’t agree, I can take them seriously. Therefore, they cannot but press for clear resolution in a Covenant, and for acceptance of this Covenant draft without alteration. They may even want to take seriously our “individualist” perception that this is not grounds for haste, but for more individual conversations, but their perspective limits how they can – as our perspective limits us. So, words will be said, and actions taken, and lines drawn; and the Communion will divide.
Over the next few generations this may well change. For the past century rapid change in the rest of the world brought on by the power and attractiveness of Western economic and technological influence has been perceived as both opportunity and threat. If the next century becomes dominated economically and technologically by China and India, the challenge may well be in the industrialized West.
But right now, we are where we are, and who we are. We see the world as we see it, including how God is working in it. I will mourn when things fall apart; but I cannot see how it will not. We can love one another, and talk to one another as best we can. I just don’t think we’ll be able to address this difference soon enough to change our trajectories.
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.