The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has sent the following Advent letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion and Moderators of the United Churches:
‘Your real life is Christ and when he appears, then you too will appear with him and share his glory!’ (Colossians 3.4)
St Paul writes as though the reality of Christ’s life in his people never completely becomes visible in this life, in this world: the deepest truth of who we are in Jesus Christ is hidden. When we try to pretend that the holiness of Jesus is triumphantly visible in the Church, we are in danger of turning our minds away from the fact that the enduring power that sustains the Church is Christ alone, not our measures of success or coherence.
But it is still true that – as Paul can say elsewhere, in II Corinthians, for example – the glory of the future can be seen from time to time in lives that are fully turned to the face of Jesus. As we advance into Advent, we need to keep both these insights in our minds: the treasure of the gospel is in earthenware pots, yet the glory of Christ can be seen in human faces. We have not arrived at the end of all things, but we long for it because we have seen something of its radiance and joy in the life of the Christian community and its worship and service.
In the past ten years, these things have become more and more clear to me in my involvement in the Communion’s life. Our Communion has endured much suffering and confusion, and still lives with this in many ways; yet we are still privileged to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in different ways within our common life, and so are reminded by God’s grace that it is still Christ who lives secretly at the heart of our fellowship, and renews it day by day.
Despite many questions about how our decisions about doctrine and mutual responsibility are made in the Communion, and some challenges to the various ‘Instruments of Communion’, the truth is that our Communion has never been the sort of Church that looks for one central authority. This doesn’t mean that we are not concerned with truth or holiness or consistency. It simply acknowledges that all forms of human power and discipline can become corrupted, and that in the Church we have to have several points of reference for the organising of our common life so that none of them can go without challenge or critique from the others. Our hope is that in this exchange we discover a more credible and lasting convergence than we should have if someone or some group alone imposed decisions – and that the fellowship that emerges is more clearly marked by Christlikeness, by that reverence for one another that the Spirit creates in believers.
Another way of saying this is that (to use the language of a great Anglican theologian of the early twentieth century, J.N. Figgis) we are a ‘community of communities’. And perhaps in our own time we could translate this afresh and say we are a ‘network of networks’. Certainly this language has something to recommend it in an age when, so we’re told, networks are the decisive social fact for most younger people, often networks that are maintained through the new electronic media.
But what has brought this alive for me is the experience at two successive ACC meetings of how the official networks of the Communion function to keep our relations alive. In our recent meeting in New Zealand, I was deeply struck by how important the networks had become, and how they were increasingly shaping the possibilities and hopes of our provinces, almost without exception. In the work done around evangelism, healthcare, the environment, the rights and dignities of women and children and of indigenous peoples and many more areas, what drew people together was this halfway formal model of a global community of prayer and concern maintained by deep friendship and common work. This is where you are probably most likely to see the beauty of the face of Christ in the meetings of the Communion; this is where the joyful hope of Christian believers is most strongly kindled. And this also reminds us most forcefully of the fact that what we aspire to as Anglicans is not to be a federation of loosely connected and rather distant relatives who sometimes send Christmas cards to each other, but a true family and fellowship in which we share our hopes and know that we are responsible for each other’s well-being and integrity before God.
As I said at that meeting in New Zealand, we should never think that we are allowed to put off the work of the Kingdom until we have settled our differences and solved our problems. God’s call to us is always for today. Sorting out our large-scale worldwide structures, our decision making and mutual accountability, is important; but this should not give us an excuse for turning our eyes away from what is actually done by the help of God through these less formal, more relational ways of connecting us. And the truth is that we shall never sort out the bigger questions without the humble practical work represented by the networks, and the way they build trust and love among often unlikely partners.
As I leave office at the end of the year, there will of course be some self-questioning for me at the thought of much left undone and unresolved; but more importantly there is also a great sense of thanksgiving and celebration for the many moments when the hidden Christ has shown his face for an instant in the holiness, the common witness, the service or the suffering of faithful Anglicans in so many places. In saying goodbye as Archbishop of Canterbury, I want also to say thank you to God for these moments and the friendships that surround them, and thank you also to all with whom I have had the privilege of ministering in this decade in every province of the Communion.
I thank God also that we now have as my successor such an outstanding servant of God as Bishop Justin Welby, and I know that you will hold him and his family in your prayers as he prepares to take up this ministry early in the New Year.
To all of you, as you prepare to celebrate the coming of the Lord, I wish every blessing and the ‘crown of uprightness’ promised to ‘all those who have longed for his appearing’ (II Timothy 4.8)