Book is a vivid snapshot of church’s diversity

By on January 1, 2003

Anglicanism, if there is such a thing, has always been somewhat strange. Often it has been difficult for our Christian neighbours to figure us out and from time to time we have difficulty in understanding ourselves. We are not ‘confessional’ as are other reformed churches, but neither do we subscribe to any absolute ecclesiastical authority or particular system of philosophy.

A noted scholar and former bishop of London, J.W.C. Wand, once explained: “We Anglicans do not seem ever to have thought that one form of theology should ever become the basis for our structural unity to the exclusion of other forms of theology, and this is a notable fact since theology is so widely acclaimed today in ecumenical discussions as a uniting factor. It could equally be urged that it is a dividing factor. It could even be urged that it is at times a ‘non-theological’ factor.”

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After reading Stained Glass, Sweet Grass, Hosannas, & Songs by Sally Edmonds Preiner, I was reminded of Bishop Wand’s reflection because this study, subtitled ‘A snapshot of Anglican Issues and Visions in Canada,’ forcefully confronts Canadian Anglicans with our diversity and the problems we face. The book was released by ABC Publishing in late 2002.

[pullquote]Conducted by the research firm Environics, Ms. Preiner directed the research resulting in this first report of a three-phase “intentional listening” process commissioned by General Synod in 2001. This was the qualitative phase, “to ensure the voice, perspective and context of Anglicans across Canada be heard and then shared with others in the Anglican community.” Focus groups of laity and clergy across Canada and intensive/interaction workshops with two councils (the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Council of General Synod) and the Huron Youth Synod participated in the ‘snapshot’ in the spring of 2002.

It is fascinating to read about our diversity out of the mouths of ‘grass roots’ Anglicans. There were many opinions with which I agreed and many others which could give rise to a heated argument. Your experience will probably be the same. There are varying degrees of concern, near despair, vitality and hope expressed as people shared their thoughts. Few surprises, but it is a good thing to have questions about our much vaunted “unity in diversity and diversity in unity” position laid bare for us.

Topics covered include declining congregations, youth involvement, multicultural interpretations of Anglicanism, styles of worship (BCP/BAS), local outreach, social justice, residential schools, homosexuality, and even what it means to be an Anglican. Among the clergy groups there was concern expressed over leadership of the church and of a sense of loss of clear communication between various levels in the church’s life.

There are some underlying worries for us. The ‘diversity’ is plain but at times the ‘unity’ appears strained. There are laity who ask what benefit to them is there in belonging to a church beyond their own congregation. There are clergy who would lead their congregations out of the church over disputed issues in theology and morality. Congregationalism has always been evident in the life of Anglican Church of Canada but seldom has it caused division. When it does it gives strength to a recent comment I came across: “Perhaps the most enduring outcome of the Reformation is the desire to separate for the sake of purity.” Further fragmentation of the church, under whatever guise, always seems to contradict its purpose under God.

In this age of instant communication there seems to be nothing more difficult than to communicate. The study leaves little doubt that many ordinary Anglicans and many clergy feel cut off from what they perceive as the “powers that be.” This probably underlines the importance of personal interaction between the different levels of the church’s life. Often heard is that bishops don’t always answer or acknowledge letters they receive from members of their flocks. And then there are those phone calls from ‘difficult’ people that don’t get returned. Pity!

I heartily recommend this study to all Anglicans who care about their church. It is full of information about the questions before the church and how the church is attempting to answer them. In the next two phases we shall learn more and consider recommendations that will be made to General Synod in 2004. Theology does play an important role in what we do but as Bishop Wand indicates, our structural unity must rest more on our common faith in Jesus Christ while we submit all our theologies to God’s judgment and forgiveness. Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, offers sage advice to all: “We must maintain the capacity to be surprised by God.”

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