Archbishop calls for Wesley's "catholic spirit"

The turmoil of the Anglican Communion has been so complex in recent years that I've blogged on it less. Here is a very simplistic overview:

In 2003, The Episcopal Church (in the USA) made an openly practicing homosexual man a bishop, contrary to the teachings of the Bible, the Christian tradition, and the Lambeth Conference (when every Anglican bishop in the world meets every 10 years or so).
This innovation caused massive turmoil and friction within the Anglican Communion, with several American dioceses defecting from the Episcopal Church altogether and coming under the provincial supervision of other, more orthodox, Anglican provinces (national churches; mostly in Africa and South America). A number of provinces of the Anglican Communion declared themselves to be in impaired or even broken communion with the Episcopal Church.

In response to this crisis and to avoid an all-out schism, Anglican leaders began developing a "Covenant" that would bind the various provinces of the Communion more closely together and would provide mechanisms to deal with Communion-wide disputes in the future.
In the meantime, matters have been complicated further as the Anglican Church of Canada has moved forward in developing rites to bless and celebrate life-long homosexual unions (while being very careful thus far not to call them "marriages") and the US church has recently elected a second bishop living in an openly homosexual lifestyle.

The Lambeth Conference of 2008 met with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (pictured right) presiding, but was content to discuss these matters and engage in a listening process, rather than making any judgements or declarations. However, a large percentage of the more orthodox and traditionalist bishops did not come at all in protest. These no-show bishops, along with many who did attend Lambeth met together later that year at the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem, which issued a statement of fundamental Anglican beliefs and values.

At this point, the Covenant document has now been completed and submitted to the various Anglican provinces for their consideration and endorsement. Some liberals complain that it will be "punitive" in practice, while many conservatives claim that the final version of the Covenant lacks the disciplinary teeth that are necessary to deal effectively with the crisis that led to the creation of the Covenant to begin with. The provinces are now considering the Covenant, and will be for a couple years.

The Church of England, the mother church of world-wide Anglicanism, recently took a step towards endorsing the Covenant at its Annual Synod. Amid debate over the merits of the Covenant, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, strongly endorsed the Covenant, calling for the synod to embrace the "catholic spirit" described by John Wesley (Anglican priest and Methodist revival leader, pictured left):

A day ahead of the debate the Archbishop of Canterbury used his presidential address to make what was undoubtedly the decisive intervention in the Covenant debate. He cited a famous sermon by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, on “The Catholic Spirit,” which “is neither a climate of imposed universal agreement nor a free for all.”

He continued: “Wesley wants us to be settled in the basics of the faith, ‘fixed as the sun’ in our allegiance to the creed and the doctrine of a free and God-given atonement for sin.” This however is “consistent with readiness to hear arguments against what we believe without panic... [and] consistent with the knowledge that opinions vary even when doctrines are shared.”

Coming directly to the proposed Covenant he said: “It is an illusion to think that without some changes the Communion can carry on as usual, and a great illusion to think that the Church of England can somehow derail the entire process. The uncomfortable fact is that certain decisions in any province affect all.”

Wesley's idea of a catholic spirit is often summed up in the quote "In essentials, unity; In non-essentials, liberty; In all things, charity." There is a core of essential Christian faith that must be affirmed for any church unity to exist, which Wesley highlights in this sermon and in other places. It is that faith "once delivered to the saints" (to quote St. Jude) and which has been "held in all times, in all places, by all faithful Christians" (to quote St. Vincent of Lerins). Yet beyond these fundamentals, there are less-essential doctrinal or devotional areas in which differences of opinion should be allowed honestly. In all things, the Christian community, even in its disagreeing, must conduct itself with "agape" (self-giving love or charity). The trick has always proved to be deciding which beliefs and practices belong in each category.

The synod voted overwhelmingly to move the Covenant process forward. Check out the entire article from Living Church and also Wesley's original sermon, Catholic Spirit.

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Anonymous Todd Stepp said...

I would guess that those in the global south would say that those in TEC have missed the mark concerning the core doctrine as Wesley describes it, as well as what Wesley says is implied in one's heart being right.

It has been my experience that many whose views seem to be quite unorthodox like to quote Wesley with the "if your heart is right . . ." and "if we can't think alike . . . love alike," but they seem to show little evidence that they have actually read Wesley's sermon. Rather, it seems that they have simply picked up the quotes.

I think the "rest of the sermon" shows the sticking points for those in the Anglican Communion, which makes the "catholic spirit" very difficult. Or rather, as Wesley points out, it makes what is asked for something other than having a truly "catholic spirit."

On the other hand, it is cool to see the ABC using Wesley!


10:57 AM, December 03, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

It seems to me as well that people who like to selectively quote Wesley's exhortations to magnanimity and love are often quite content to leave ambiguous just what is the content of the Christian faith that is "essential." Indeed such individuals may even be unaware (from lack of reading) that Wesley, throughout his writings, wants to make clear what those essentials are and that in doing so he condems Universalism and insists upon beliefs like Trinity, Sin and Atonement through the Cross of Christ as being among those "essentials" wherein we should not disagree.

Wesley is certainly not advocating a sort of bland "inclusive" message that isn't too picky about what one actually believes or practices, though people sometimes quote him in an attempt enlist his support for that sort of position.

Wesley makes slightly different lists in different places about what should be the fundamental content of the Christian preaching, but he certainly has one in mind.

3:23 PM, December 03, 2010  

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