The religious story of the past few days has been the news that the Pope has extended an olive branch to disaffected members of the Anglican Communion (Church of England/Church in Wales etc). The full details will not emerge for another two weeks but it appears that an accommodation is to be made in which Anglican priests and parishioners will be welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church and maintain their current status.
Commentators are agreed that this is a very big deal, perhaps the most important shift in relations between the two churches for hundreds of years. What the talking heads are also agreed on is that politically, this is a brilliant manoeuvre by the Pope. After almost forty years of negotiation and consultation, the Pope has sidestepped the Archbishop of Canterbury in a move Shane Williams would be proud of, and made a direct appeal to the to the Anglo-Catholic stream of Anglicanism. The Archbishop has been left looking like a flatfooted defender as he confessed in a letter to his bishops “I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage.”
As a Christian who has spent most of my life in independent churches, I must confess that I find the established church very confusing. The three streams of Anglicanism (it seems wrong to describe something as having three wings) are very different. Firstly, the Evangelicals, the stream to which I feel an affinity, and who have had a considerable positive impact on the whole church. Then the Anglo-Catholics or high church, for whom church traditions are very important, and finally, the Liberals, who don’t appear to believe in anything apart from the need to move with the times. These streams share communion yet from the outside it’s difficult to see the common ground.
In the west, the Liberals have won victories with the ordination of women (supported by some evangelicals), described by the influential Roman Catholic Cardinal Kasper as a block to further unity, and soon the ordination of women bishops, not to mention the appointment of openly gay bishops in the USA. These victories have left the remaining streams facing difficult decisions and feeling isolated and it is in these circumstances that the Pope has made his appeal to the Anglo-Catholics.
The implications are monumental for those tempted to cross to Rome, in that although there would be unity on some issues, huge stumbling blocks that have existed for centuries would remain like elephants in the room. There would be Papal authority, the position of Mary and the Mass to point out the obvious, not to mention the practicalities of individual congregations, priests and buildings. There would also be problems for Rome with an influx of married clergy into a communion that advocates celibacy for its priests.
I am forced to ask myself, is this brilliant political move merely that… a brilliant political move. That is, to play politics? The leadership model that Christ advocates is pictured in himself, one who came to be a servant and washed his disciples’ feet. He taught;
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
It may be unfair but there seems to be little room in scripture for the maneuvers that we are currently witnessing.
In all this discussion of who can get together with whom and who gets what, it is easy to miss the point. The Christian faith is not about empires, politics and buildings; it is about a personal faith in Christ and in what he has achieved for us at Calvary.
Paul tells Timothy that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5) and the writer to the Hebrews opens up the wonderful picture of Christ the Great High Priest. That means believers have a direct relationship and not a chain of command. Paul also tells the Philippians that knowing Christ is really what it’s all about, everything else is rubbish when compared. The Lord Jesus calls people into a relationship with God through him, an intimate relationship where they walk by the power of the Holy Spirit and live in the way that God intended.
The Anglican Church is an easy target for those who would like to mock, it is after all the most visible expression of the Christian faith in our land. For other Christians to join in the mocking would be I believe a mistake, when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer.
Rowan Williams could yet surprise us with a bone crunching tackle; after all he does have an uncanny resemblance to the former Wales captain and open side flanker from the early 1970s, John Taylor.
Let us pray for Anglican Christians as they seek to live out the gospel at this difficult time and that God’s word will be a lamp to their feet and a light to their path.