Some years ago I had an angry argument with my mother. The issues have long been resolved, and the specifics are not important. What was important at the time was a recognition that struck me in the midst of the turmoil: I suddenly had the realization that, as I thought at the time, there was no room in her world for my world. From her perspective, my perspective simply had no meaning.
What brought that to mind is the repeated concern that “the Primates do not understand our polity.” I have come to question just how accurate that statement is. I have come to believe that many, and certainly those who most want to separate from us, do indeed understand our polity. Unfortunately, some disapprove, and some simply don’t care. That doesn’t mean they don’t understand.
At the same time, I’m pretty sure we do not understand their polity, their institutional structures. We in America are parochial on many subjects, and I fear this is one of them. I wonder if we are even aware of the wide variety of institutional structures in this family of churches called Anglican.
For example, how many Episcopalians have a clue that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada meets every three years, as does our General Convention, while the General Synod of the Church of England meets three times a year? How many know that Canada and England vote in three houses (rather than our two), while the Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia has three different, and apparently nonterritorial, “tikanga” (analogous perhaps to the nine provinces within the Episcopal Church) organized on “cultural streams” more than on territories?
We take pride in the republican structure of the Episcopal Church, with elections at various levels from parish meetings up to a bicameral General Convention. We note how like the government of the United States it is (although arguably we had it first; I sometimes say the Episcopal Church was the pilot project of American Constitutional democracy). That’s not really all that strange in this cultural environment, and most American Protestant bodies reflect that political/cultural heritage to a greater or lesser extent.
But how well do we understand how the various political and cultural heritages found within the Communion have affected the institutional practices of other Anglicans? What does it mean in the Church of Nigeria – Anglican to be a “Knight of the Church?” What does it mean in a South African context to be King of the Zulu or of the Xhosa, titles that certainly have meaning in South African politics; and how has that political/cultural heritage shaped the practices of the Church in Southern Africa? Rwanda has delegated examination and trial of some genocide cases to GACACA courts, the traditional (pre-European models) community courts. How does that cultural heritage, blended with Belgian models (certainly different from the English Common Law tradition familiar to us) shape their lives, and their lives in the Church?
I’m not an expert on these things. I am perhaps somewhat better read than most Episcopalians. It’s not that there’s so much I do know. I simply have a better sense of how many things I don’t know. But that’s my point. We are concerned that they don’t know us. We need to consider how little we know them.
Indeed, they certainly have some sense of us, or at least of the political and cultural environment in which we live. It’s coming at them constantly, and at high speed. I don’t know that that really results in understanding; but it can’t but help a perception. It used to be a commonplace of American civil rights discussions that “a black man understands white culture better than a white man understands black culture, because the black man has to!” The rest of the world seems to feel they need to “understand” our culture, because they have to. And it’s really not helpful to argue that the Episcopal Church doesn’t reflect that culture. We may be more critical of it than we get credit for; but it is absolutely the culture within which we find our life and our ministry, and it has shaped how we do things.
And these differences may well be very important. When the House of Bishops speak in their statement of "a family of Churches, all of whom share a common mother in the Church of England," how sensitive are they to the wide differences in models of "family" across our varied cultures? And yet those differences certainly shape different expectations as to how families are structured, and how family members treat one another.
Does this mean the cultural differences are too great for us to remain in koinonia or even in conversation? To follow Paul, “By no means!” It does mean that we would do well to seek to understand these other institutional structures and practices, even as we want them to understand ours. Nor does it justify those outside the Episcopal Church pronouncing judgment without hearing from us. A perception of American culture is not the same thing as an understanding of how the Episcopal Church seeks to proclaim the faith within it.
Perhaps, then, we need an additional Communion-wide initiative. In the Tanzania Communiqué the Primates agreed to a Communion-wide study of Biblical hermeneutics, the various ways in which we interpret and use Scripture. Perhaps we need a parallel initiative on the various institutional structures and practices of the Communion, and the differences in ecclesiology that they represent. Prior to any decisions of who’s in and who’s out of the Communion, and prior to any reception of a Covenant, that would seem an important study. Certainly, those committed to reception of a Covenant would want to understand the procedures by which that reception would actually take place.
Sure, that would take time. But if we are truly interested in reconciliation, it would be time well spent. For after all, if I do not love my Anglican sibling who I can see and touch, how shall I love God whom I have never touched? And if I am to love my Anglican siblings in all their variety, it’s worth my time to learn more about the varieties of their lives and cultures, especially if I want them to take the time to learn about mine.