Communion is not a new issue

CanterburyNuke2So here is how things stood early this morning in the ongoing drama that many call "As Canterbury Turns." A cheery Los Angeles Times story informed the world:

DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA -- As leaders of the world's 77 million Anglicans gathered here amid fears of a split in the church over divergent views on gay bishops and same-sex unions, a spokesman said the first day of discussions was characterized by "intense listening."

There was, we were told, no talk of schism. A spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church was encouraged by a positive report on the status of her church and the wider communion:

"I think it's very positive that they saw past some of the rhetoric and looked at what the church is doing," the Rev. Jan Nunley said. "It's clear that there's still work that has to be done and conversations that need to continue, but it's very encouraging that they're dealing with us squarely."

But a statement by a group representing conservative Episcopalians criticized the report for minimizing or ignoring evidence that the church had not complied with the requests for change.

However, it appears that things were not going quite this smoothly at levels deeper than the public remarks of spokesmen and spokeswomen.

Thus, it was not long until Ruth Gledhill was back -- read this online for all the links -- with a digital blast under this headline: "Communion broken in Dar es Salaam." Here's some of the key information:

Seven Global South Primates declined to share in the Eucharist at the Primates' Meeting in Tanzania today. A further two, including Bernard Malango of Central Africa, went to the service but did not communicate. This is significant because Malango was one of the 'Gang of Four' who authored yesterday's [Episcopal Church] report. ...

(F)eelings are running high enough for the GS Archbishops, led by Nigeria's Peter Akinola, still to have felt unable to take communion alongside TEC Primate Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori. This was the first communion service of the meeting ... ."

Click here to go to the website of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, to read the statement by the conservatives who took this very public and painful stand. However, here is a key quote:

We each take the celebration of the Holy Eucharist very seriously. This deliberate action is a poignant reminder of the brokenness of the Anglican Communion. It makes clear that the torn fabric of the Church has been torn further. It is a consequence of the decision taken by our provinces to declare that our relationship with The Episcopal Church is either broken or severely impaired.

Scripture teaches that before coming to sit with one another at the Lord's Table we must be reconciled. (Matthew 5:23-26 and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29) We have made repeated calls for repentance by The Episcopal Church and its leadership with no success. We continue to pray for a change of heart.

Want one more detail? Gledhill also notes that, during an Evening Prayer rite, Jefferts Schori read -- off her laptop? -- the following:

"But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned."

The mainstream news and Anglo-blog coverage of this is just getting started as everyone awaits the crucial draft of a new doctrinal covenant that the British are finishing up right now. (Yes, I saw the Washington Post articles today. All in due time.) It looks like the release of this text will be delayed until after the Sunday newspapers are printed and, perhaps, even after the pre-purchased airline tickets of many of the reporters and bloggers have forced them to go home. (Someone correct me if I am wrong on that.)

Here is the crucial point, for journalists covering this emotional and complex story. You have to remember that this Eucharistic Communion story is not new and it is not linked to sexuality alone. I first heard about this highly symbolic gesture almost 15 years ago. Here is a look back at that, in a column I wrote for Scripps Howard that focused on a stand taken in the United States by Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison, an Anglican historian and the long retired bishop of South Carolina:

... (It) has been a dozen years since he decided he could no longer, with a clear conscience, receive communion during meetings of the U.S. House of Bishops. During a Bible study, several bishops had said that they believed they worshipped a god that is "older and greater" than the God of the Bible. Others said they could not affirm this belief, but would not condemn it.

"This is apostasy," Allison said.

When it came time for all the bishops to go to the altar and receive communion, Allison declined. "If you do not share the same faith, you cannot share the same communion," he said, recalling that moment. "When people start talking about new revelations and creating some kind of new faith, that's when the red flags have to go up."

holytrinity finalrich r2 c1The key is that some people truly believe the ancient standards on the issue of Holy Communion, that it implies a recognition of a common faith and common doctrine.

That is not what Communion means to millions of modern Anglicans, but, then again, there are millions of other Anglicans who still believe that. It is hard to have a communion when people do not agree on the meaning of Communion or Holy Communion.

As Bishop Jack Spong likes to put it, he can say the Nicene Creed and believe what he is saying because he has, in his own mind, redefined many of the words.

There are millions of Anglicans, and quite a few bishops, who do not accept that approach to the Catholic faith. Thus, they do not want to be in Communion with Spong and those who share his beliefs.

So here is another question worth asking: Are there any significant doctrinal differences between a Jefferts Schori and a Spong (the speaker at her 2003 retreat for her clergy while she was bishop of the Diocese of Nevada)? Perhaps that is the major question in Tanzania right now. If so, there is more to that question than the issue of same-sex unions.

However, reporters who are paying attention are sure to notice one other thing: There were fewer archbishops who declined to attend this Mass than there were at a similar meeting in 2005. The financial and neocolonial power structures of the Anglican establishment may be winning.

Stay tuned. Perhaps this is just getting started.

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