The Anglican Communion as airline map

By Frederick Quinn

What does the Anglican Communion’s actual operating structure look like? The question is important because each person holds in their head an implicit diagram of the power structure of any organization of which they are a part. Who is in charge? Who decides policy? The question frustrates Episcopalians because no ready “wiring diagram” exists about the Anglican Communion. And the top down centralized model currently being test driven in the draft covenant proposal doesn’t work either, in part because historically power has always been diffusely distributed in the Anglican Communion, through what has come to be called the via media or middle way. But what does such an actual middle way look like on a diagram today?

An aviation model of church structure was sometimes employed in discussions at the Anaheim General Convention of the Episcopal Church in July 2009. In one version, if the left and right wings pull against one another the plane will spiral downward and crash. In another, the plane shakes as it approaches the sound barrier, but once it pushes through, a smooth flight usually follows. Possibly a third aviation-related model might describe the Anglican Communion at work, day to day.

On the ground the Anglican Communion in action resembles the route maps in airline magazines where hundreds of thin, graceful semicircles connect points all over the globe, London with Shanghai, Jakarta with Singapore, and a thousand other in between points as well. Such an image suggests a horizontal model of widely diffuse power sharing, not a vertical one of concentrated power. In this “many arcs” model young people, laity, and congregations are recognized as the principle focus of mission power as they build churches, teach classes, distribute antimalarial nets, exchange life stories, and share prayers and the holy meal in a hundred different languages. Each congregation and diocese establishes its own connecting routes, and when counted, they will number in the thousands. A business representative who regularly visits Brazil fills his luggage with supplies for an Episcopal school there. An energetic group of young people from New York City’s St. James’ parish work purposefully with a diocese in rural Malawi to build a clinic and a rectory and share meals and pray with the mothers of H/AIDS infected children.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori described this mission model of Anglicanism in a July 12 Anaheim sermon at the United Thank Offering ingathering, “All over this church, and beyond, God’s people are feeding, and healing, and announcing peace and the reign of God. The First Nations Kitchen in Minneapolis welcomes Native Americans to a meal of traditional and healthy foods, in a healing community. Teaching ministries heal deprivation and hopelessness in Boston, Taiwan, and Quito. Physical illness is being healed in the clinics of la diocesis de la Republica Dominicana y la diocesis de Honduras, in the nursing school of Haiti, through elder care in Native communities in Alabama and Minnesota, in the hospitals in Oregon, Texas, Long Island, and Jerusalem. Camping ministries in the Central Gulf Coast, West Texas, California, and Mississippi teach children and adults to travel light and to eat whatever is set before them.” What is the policy message? “Mission is our life, and it is a life spent on the road, traveling light, anticipating hospitality, and sharing what we have.”

Recently I spent a week at a Christian educational center in the Philippines where lay and ordained representatives from at least twenty Asian countries gathered to study and pray together. The shelves outside the center’s chapel were filled with treasured handicrafts left by earlier participants, a carved water buffalo, a small national flag, an elaborately stiched piece of lace, a cross made from local wood, etc. We sat in a circle on cushions in the chapel as prayers and chants were offered in various Asian languages, and after the service walked about the spacious grounds and shared stories. When I boarded an airplane for the long homeward journey the Asian airline route maps with their arching points of origin and destination somehow connected with what I had experienced. “Yangon ” became a lay teacher’s face, “Chang Mai a medical missionaries’ story, “Columbo” an orphanage, etc. The hundred blue semicircles of the route maps took on new meaning. They visualized a model of wider mission and ministry suggestive of the Anglican Communion — where constant, grace-filled power flows horizontally, not vertically.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn writes extensively about world Christianity. His most rcent book is “The Sum of All Heresies,” The Image of Islam in Western Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Past Posts