Reconciling Differences: The importance of symbolic actions

Our various ecclesial communities are bound together internally through different structures and by means of different patterns of authority. Within the Anglican Communion the “Instruments of Communion” are fourfold: The Archbishop of Canterbury (the “Focus for Unity” of all the instruments of Communion and ‘primus inter pares’ of the primates of the different provinces); the Lambeth Conference (a gathering of Anglican bishops around the Communion taking place approximately every ten years); the Primates’ Meeting (the gathering of chief archbishops or presiding bishops, in each province); and the Anglican Consultative Council (comprised of laity, archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons meeting approximately every three years).

But these are outward structures of ecclesial unity, they are themselves built on a foundation of scripture, the ancient creeds, distinctive ways of worship (lex orandi, lex credendi rooted in the Book of Common Prayer), doctrinal statements, important texts (including sacraments and bishops), and continuing discussion. That last one – continuing discussion – and how it relates to the foundational Anglican expressions of faith, is where things often go awry. It is no secret that serious tensions and worse, schisms, have been at the centre of global conversations in Anglicanism in recent decades, some of it based on culture and context, some of it based on different emphases of the ‘foundations’ of Anglican faith.

I’ve just returned from Hong Kong and the 17th Anglican Consultative Council meeting where the reality of the local and the universal, of unity and difference, and of the difference in expression between voted resolutions and liturgy toward being Church were on full display. I was first reminded how glorious it is to work and pray and study together in diversity. As with many global churches, the Anglican Communion is spread around the world, and meetings are often shaped by a consistent table fellowship, where bible study, prayer, conversation, reflection, and voting takes place by means of a group of people assigned to sit together. At my table were Ireland, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa, Japan, England, the Vatican (as an ecumenical visitor), and Burundi, as well as the diversity of holy orders in laity, deacons, priests, and bishops. That consistent building block creates community across differences and concretely sustains the bonds of unity.

Unity with differences threatened to come apart towards the end of the full ACC meeting, however, when the issue of human sexuality arose in regard to a resolution re-committing the Communion to the listening process around questions of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. What happened was first structurally amazing – the meeting stopped for prayer, annd then the short tea break stretched to almost an hour. The Archbishop of Canterbury began an informal session with a heartfelt apology for how invitations to the upcoming Lambeth Conference were extended (or not extended), and promised, as the focus for unity, to “initiate a listening process…with supportive and independent facilitation in order to hear the concerns and voices of people, especially those who have felt themselves marginalised with regard to sexuality.” Then a vote revealed virtually universal support for the new resolution (there were three abstensions). But it was the third step that had the power to change hearts as the key bishops on opposite sides of the issue agreed, for the sake of unity, to not walk away, but to walk together in addressing their different interpretations of scripture and the tradition of the church.

There is a widely disseminated photo of the bishop from the US (Oklahoma), from Nairobi, and from Burundi greeting each other with a hug. What is not easily seen in the photo but noted in the room was another gesture, kissing the episcopal ring of the other with whom one disagreed. While the kissing of episcopal rings by laity and other orders was fairly common at one time, it is not as regularly practiced in many Western Christian communities today. It is historically a gesture of submission or a pledge of allegiance to the authority which the ring represented. What prompted the Kenyan bishop to begin this way is not known, but it was a striking ritual action with layers of meaning, as only symbolic action can communicate. In a moment, an ancient gesture became the bearer of new meanings – the temporal expansion of symbol pointing beyond itself to new interpretations of understanding. The witnesses of these actions spontaneously broke into singing the Taize “Bless the Lord, my soul”, which is itself symbolic of what kind of music is capable of being sung from the heart across many cultural differences.

What remained was to celebrate the Eucharist together, the sacrament expressing and creating unity, a celebration that took place the next day in the Cathedral of St. John. Neither the meeting itself, nor the resolution decision will solve all the problems of the Anglican Communion. But the tradition of the church, gathered around the archbishop, celebrating what has been handed down through generations and cultures by means of ancient and new elements, the inculturated and transculturated dimensions, what is always new and always the same, was again the beginning and the end, both the foundation and the way forward for the all-too-human struggles of this ecclesial expression of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Thank God eucharistic prayers always call us back to the ultimate movement of the eucharist, “Lord of all life, help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.” And gratitude that the prayer comes near its conclusion by praying that God bring us together: “look with favour on your people, gather us in your loving arms and bring us with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, and all your saints, to feast at your table in heaven.” Amen, and in this Easter season, alleluia!

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