I had planned to read it anyway, but Dr. Poon was gracious enough to email me and encourage me to do so. I had left a comment at Thinking Anglicans, and he and I had exchanged emails before on other topics of Anglican interest, and I was flattered that he was interested in my comments. I stand by what I wrote at Thinking Anglicans, that while I disagree with him, I respect Dr. Poon. Among the theologians of the Anglican Global South I have always found him thoughtful and respectful of those with whom he disagrees, and truly interested in engagement and debate.
There are several facets in my reaction to his paper, but let me begin by differing with some of my colleagues among progressive Episcopalians and Anglicans: this is not per se a paper about the Anglican Covenant. The title is accurate: this is a paper about the ecclesial character and characteristics of the Anglican Communion. Dr. Poon argues that as an ecclesial body the Anglican Communion has an “ecclesial deficit,” one that would perhaps mean that the Communion is not a “communion” at all. He then argues that the draft Anglican Covenant as we have it before us now, or more accurately, I think, a particular interpretation of the draft Anglican Covenant, is a tool to remedy that deficit.
I think the best way to understand the “ecclesial deficit” as Dr. Poon sees it is to look at two statements. The first is a sentence that he has chosen from the Report of the Windsor Continuation Group:
The challenge remains for Anglicans to come to a common stance and acceptance of the authority which we will give to the instruments, structures and processes of the Communion which can lead to decisions that carry force in the life of the Churches of the Communion.
He then reflects further on this description of “communion:”
To be sure, all Anglican Churches are willing to belong to the Anglican Communion. That is not the issue if “communion” is merely a matter of social fellowship between autonomous churches. National councils of churches and even Protestant Christian World Communions are such instances of communion. “Instruments of consultation” would do for these forms of fellowship. They are sufficient for fostering spiritual and social bonds of affection. What WCG has in mind is whether the Anglican Communion is at the verge of a historic decision. Are the Anglican Churches that are “in communion” with one another able to affirm they are indeed a Communion of Churches with one ecclesial identity?
So, the evidence of “ecclesial deficit” is that the Anglican Communion does not have “one ecclesial identity” expressed in “decisions that carry force for the life of the Churches of the Communion.”
Dr. Poon leans heavily on this section of the Report of the Windsor Continuation Group. I have commented before on that part of the Report, as well as on the related language of “separated Churches and communities… [that] we believe… suffer from defects” in the declaration Dominus Iesus written by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (and now, of course, Benedict XVI). Critical in appreciating what Dr. Poon (and cited in his paper) is this from the WCG Report:
To be a communion, as opposed to a federation or association, is fundamentally to acknowledge that the fellowship of Churches is not a human construct; it is the gracious gift of God. Churches are enabled to live in communion because they recognise one another as truly an expression of the One Church of Jesus Christ.
We are all conscious, I think, of our various (and often confused and confusing) uses of the term “communion.” In this instance, the WCG has a specific approach in mind, as raised in the next paragraph:
The question of the limits of diversity becomes acute when major differences arise in the life of the communion of the Churches which concern the faith, order or moral life of the Communion. It is then that Anglicans need a common understanding of how together, in communion, they can, guided by the Spirit, discern and decide together. What are the sources that need to be brought to bear on any issue? What are the structures through which discernment takes place? What is the nature of their authority to guide discernment, to speak the mind of the Communion and even to request restraint while open reception takes place and the Churches of the Communion come to discover the mind of Christ for them?
“What are the structures, and what is the nature of their authority?” So, for the WCG, and by his usage for Dr. Poon, authoritative structures are essential for the Anglican Communion to truly be a Communion of churches.
In that light, the language of Dominus Iesus becomes helpful. Let me return to the paragraph cited in my earlier post.
Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.
This is helpful in two ways. First, it emphasizes that the Church of Rome sees its authoritative structures as not “a human construct.” They are continuous from the time of Peter, established by the primacy of Peter (as Rome understands it), and formed and sustained by the will of God. Second, the model envisioned in the WCG Report (and consistent with the intent of Archbishop Williams), and supported in Dr. Poon’s paper, is for the Anglican Communion to be recognizable as a “true particular church” (what we might style a church whose defects are minor). I don’t know that anyone would consider that an attainable goal, as Rome continues to deny Anglican participation in the historic episcopate. That hasn’t changed since the Leo XIII, and has recently been reaffirmed, once again by Cardinal Ratzinger prior to his elevation. However, to have authoritative structures that can speak with one voice, in no small part because consistency (if not absolute conformity) is enforceable, is the model.
To me, this presents a previous question. Do we as Anglicans really want to affirm this Roman image of structures that are not a human construct? That seems in itself ahistorical in general, and denial of our Reformation history in particular. A significant part of the Reformers’ critique was that Roman structures and concepts, and especially the authority of the Papacy, were significantly if not entirely human, distortions of the models in Scripture and the experience of the early Church.
It also seems counter to the Anglican tradition of incarnational theology; for arguably it is only in our life in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, that we are able to come together in fellowship. I would hesitate to see that as somehow dependent on structure, much less a particular structure. Nor would I want to suggest that particular structures would constitute a significant hindrance to the movement of the Spirit, even though some would certainly seem to us more or less conducive.
That question, I think, shines a different light on Dr. Poon’s comments that this “ecclesial deficit” is neither “an oversight” nor “an accident.” Certainly, our current structures and relationships are not continuations of imperial structures, whether Roman or British (or Asian: I have some further thoughts about the contexts in which the Holy Catholic Churches of China, Japan, and Korea were established). However, I would ask if it were not the case that our roots in the Reformation, and especially the English Reformation, included turning away from imperial structures as models for unity. Is that not for us related to Hooker looking for his models not to the Imperial Roman Church after Constantinian but to the pre-Imperial Church just prior, with the faith of the Church taking shape between the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople. If I recall my history correctly, that period was much more open, and much less structured than the Roman Church would become once it was the religion of the Empire.
Arguably, it was also remarkably creative. I might wonder whether we would be better served in our current differences to continue discussing rather than to recapitulate structures of the past. Certainly, I can follow Dr. Poon’s argument that his articulation of the draft Anglican Covenant could provide authoritative structures (although I think his interpretation of the functions of the Instruments goes well beyond the text). I can see how the draft Anglican Covenant as we have it might produce an institution closer to the Roman idea of a “true particular church.” I’m not convinced, however, that such a structure would be faithful to our Anglican heritage and experience. Would it better pass on “the faith once delivered to the saints?” Perhaps, although I’m not sure; for our Reformation ancestors weren’t convinced it worked for Rome. From a question of mission, would it serve? It might serve ecumenically for recognition from Rome and Constantinople (although current issues of the Roman view still remain). However, would it be flexible enough, creative enough to respond to the cultural dynamics of a changing world? Once again, our Reformation ancestors weren’t convinced for Rome; nor were our more immediate ancestors so convinced for the British Empire, for they chose to recognize national and regional churches instead of continuing as the Church of England in diverse places.
One of the last statements from Clarence Pope, sometime Episcopal Bishop of Fort Worth, was that “the Catholic experiment in Anglicanism has failed.” Dr. Poon’s reflection has logic, even if I don’t find it compelling. However, it is consistent with what Archbishop Williams and his structures press for, and with the wishes of many Anglican leaders around the globe. This model may prevail; in which case Clarence Pope may well have spoken too soon.