Who should decide the future of the Anglican family?

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of the Church of Southern Africa has given a major address on “Finding the Heartlands of Anglicanism.” A press release from the archbishop’s office is below. The full text is available beneath the keep reading button.

The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, has called for a global Anglican gathering that is “much more representative than the Lambeth Conference” to explore the current challenges facing the Anglican Communion.

“The future of our Anglican family is far too important to be left just to Bishops, even meeting in the breadth of the Lambeth Conference,” Archbishop Ndungane said during a Roundtable – Finding the Heartlands of Anglicanism at Trinity Theological College in Melbourne, Australia on Thursday 16th 2006.

“If we are to take the radical step of pursuing a Covenant, I would like this process to be owned and driven by the widest possible representation of the church.

Archbishop Ndungane warns that sidelining laity, including women and young people and parish clergy from critical church decisions runs against the essence of “authentic, orthodox, Anglican self-understanding.”

“We need a large gathering with a flexible, open agenda that allows people from across our global family to meet one another in informal encounters, to listen to one another, and to recognise the marks of Christ in one another, and to get to know one another’s cultures and challenges,” Archbishop Ndungane says.

“In this context we can discuss how we should live together, including whether a Covenant – and if so, what form of Covenant – would best enhance our shared life and calling.”

Archbishop Ndungane suggests that the central themes that emerge during such a gathering could inform the Covenant Design Group, for presentation at a special meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council.

The proposal to develop a Convenant must reflect a commitment to “enhance and strengthen the calling of all Anglicans, throughout the whole diversity of the globe, to faithful mission and ministry in the years – even centuries – ahead.”

“We can afford to take our time over this and ensure we get it right – even ten years is a very short time in Christian history. We must not be railroaded into a quick fix that merely meets the concerns of one part of our constituency.”

Archbishop Ndungane says that the task of the Church is not self-preservation, rather “the building up of God’s people for God’s mission and ministry within God’s world.”

“We desire to be a Church in which abundant, God-given, Christ-shaped, life can flourish, and this life can be shared with the world for the building of God’s kingdom. This is a task for the whole Church together.”

“This is God’s church, and we are in his hands. Therefore I am optimistic about our future.”

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane

“Finding the Heartlands of Anglicanism”

Trinity Theological College, Melbourne

16 November 2006

Sisters and brothers in Christ, it is a great pleasure to be with you this morning. Thank you for this invitation.

In 1832 [eighteen-thirty-two] Thomas Arnold, then head of Rugby School said ‘The Church of England as it now stands, no human power can save.’

Well, over a hundred and seventy years later, the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion, are still standing. But once again, we might be tempted to look at our situation and say no human power can save us.

I would agree with this. Because it is not by human power that we stand or fall – it is by God’s grace.

This is God’s church, and we are in his hands. Therefore I am optimistic about our future.

Anglicanism has had a tumultuous history. There have times when we have been deserving of refining by fire. But through it all, God, by his grace, has preserved us. And he has preserved us in ways that have maintained what is recognisably a distinct Anglican character.

It is this character that I reflected upon earlier this year, in my paper entitled ‘The Heartlands of Anglicanism.’ I was prompted in this by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflections on ‘The Challenges and Hopes of Being an Anglican Today.’

Let us begin by revisiting the essence of these papers.

Scripture, Reason and Tradition – Catholic, Reformed and Culturally Engaged

Most of us are very consciously Anglicans, because we believe that, more than any other denomination, Anglicanism offers us a far richer, broader, deeper, spiritual soil in which to pursue our calling to follow Jesus – both as individuals and as members together of the body of Christ.

This richness is rooted in the area described by the interplay of Scripture, Reason and Tradition.

Yet there is a further richness, another three-fold richness – we are very Trinitarian here! – that weaves itself through each of these three dimensions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury described this as entailing:

· ‘reformed commitment to the absolute priority of the Bible for deciding doctrine,

· a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons,

· and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly.’

We are Catholic, Reformed and Culturally engaged, through Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Combining both these three-fold approaches allows us to describe an area, a matrix, within which there is space for us to live and grow and mature.

These elements inform and shape not just our theology, but also our ecclesiology, and the way we handle our relationships with one another.

We need to hold fast not just to the content of our faith, but to the right operation and development of Anglican organisations including both Provinces and the Instruments of Unity. We need to be loyal to the best of Anglican style, characterised by God-given, God-graced virtues of trust, tolerance and charity across the variety we encompass.

This is why I am so concerned that the future of Anglicanism should not be debated as if the limits of conservatism and liberalism, and the sort of language they employ, were the only options before us. If we lose our breadth, we, and our faith, are diminished.

Exploring Legitimate Diversity

One of the strengths of the Anglican way of being Christian is the enrichment that comes from legitimate diversity.

The word legitimate is very important.

Because the faith I am describing is certainly not ‘anything goes’.

Exploring what we mean by legitimate diversity is one way of responding to today’s title of Finding the Heartlands of Anglicanism.

Take Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

First, Scripture. There is good scriptural exegesis, and there is bad exegesis. We must draw, critically, on the best of contemporary scholarship.

I was intrigued to read in a recent edition of the English Church Times newspaper how, two-hundred years ago, those within the Church who opposed slavery were criticised for being cultural liberals, going against the plain meaning of scripture, which clearly endorsed slavery!

This illustrates what a difficult job it is to understand what is appropriate enculturation of the gospel, and what is inappropriate syncretism. But we cannot shirk this task.

Nor can we pursue biblical scholarship apart from our best heritage of tradition and reason. We also need to bring to bear the very best from across the breadth of Anglicanism’s catholic and reformed perspectives and cultural/intellectual engagement.

We pursue discernment in each area of our matrix, always informed by the parallel ongoing process of discernment in all the other areas. Each informs, and is informed by, all the rest. Taken together they help us avoid becoming imbalanced in any one area of faith, and continually draw us back towards the heart of what we believe – to Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.

So too with Tradition. As I stressed in my paper:

Tradition is not a dispassionate history of institutional life, the dry and dusty account of some external observer. … Tradition is holy remembering – remembering as Scripture teaches us to remember. … ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ are Jesus’ words to us.

… Holy remembering is both to recall and to participate. It is to be caught up into the unfolding narrative of God’s involvement with his people in every time and place. It is to recognise God at work in our church throughout the centuries, and to know ourselves in living continuity with his faithful people in every age. To remember is to take our place within God’s story of redemption.

And this understanding of tradition also unfolds in dialogue with Scripture and Reason, and must encompass the best of our Catholicity, our Reformed nature, and our intelligent engagement with our context.

Alongside this, we also need the best of Reason.

The Enlightenment fallacy, that we can occupy some neutral position, independent of our context, and deliver timeless abstract truths, has collapsed. This allows us to reverse Descartes’ misleading statement, ‘I think therefore I am,’ ‘Cogito ergo sum’.

Before Descartes, philosophy had understood that being (‘esse’) preceded thinking (’cognoscere’). It is because we exist that we can think – and of course, we exist because of the prior action of the Creator, who pre-exists all that is, and who holds all that is in being.

The reason which we must employ today can stand comfortably within the traditions of ‘faith seeking understanding,’ re-appropriating for our own times the intellectual rigour of Thomas Aquinas and other great Christian thinkers of the past.

Therefore we do not need to worry that in place of the Enlightenment the only option is unrestrained post-modernism where all truths are relative. By no means! God, and the truth of his gospel, are far greater than the dominant mind-set of any age or culture.

Sixteen centuries of faith, before Descartes came along, understood that it is not a failure of faith to say that we do not know the total, absolute, objective truth of all that can be said about God.

Rather, we have a relationship with our living Lord and Saviour. Through this relationship we recognise the one we encounter as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And we know that we will come to an ever greater and unfolding understanding of that Truth as we walk in his Life-giving Way.

In other words, we can engage with, and recognise that we are engaging with, the One who is the absolute, objective Truth – even if we cannot fully grasp him. He is continually revealing himself to us in new and fuller ways. Therefore, there is a place both for right certainty, and for right humility, in our reasoning, and in what we claim to know.

Jesus, our Touchstone

This is why, when it comes to finding the Heartlands of Anglicanism, Jesus is the touchstone.

He is the solid centre to which the balanced, dynamic, interplay of the elements of our faith continually return us.

He is the standard against which we measure the quality of our exegesis; of our understanding of God’s redemptive action in the world throughout history; and of our own engagement with the world. The question always is, does this conform to what Jesus is asking of us?

In the same way, Jesus is the touchstone as we explore and enunciate what constitutes the best of our Catholic, Reformed and Intellectual/Cultural engagement with faith, in our own times and places and cultures. Are we being true to the Jesus of Scripture, of the Creeds, of centuries of Tradition demonstrated in lives of the heroes and heroines of the faith?

This is a far larger subject than I have time for here. But I am sure that pursuit of a clearer enunciation of the Heartlands of Anglicanism requires us consciously to embark on a wider process of understanding Jesus as the yardstick against which we judge the content of our faith, the interweaving of all the strands of belief.

The best of Anglicanism, which is our desire, is the authentic best insofar as it is true to Jesus, who promises that we will continue to be led into all truth.

Our relationship with Jesus and our Christology provide far clearer measures of the nature of our faith than where we stand in relation to human sexuality. If others insist on judging me, then let it at least be on the quality of my love and faithfulness towards my Lord and Saviour.

Anglican ‘Style’

The next area which I want to underline is our need to address Anglican ‘style’.

Authentic Anglicanism lies not just in what we say, but also in the way we say it, and the way we live with one another within the Anglican family.

I earlier characterised this as the God-gifted, God-graced virtues of trust, tolerance and charity across the variety we encompass. A distinct gracious magnanimity of spirit towards one another has been an explicit part of our self understanding, certainly since the Elizabethan settlement.

It is true that there have been tensions within Anglicanism between various streams of Christian expression – as my opening quote demonstrated. But at out best, we have been people of generous and open hearts.

The fundamental question is this. Do we recognise one another, for all our differences, as those who bear the marks of Christ? Do we understand one another as members together of the body if Christ, brothers and sisters in the family of Christ? Do we accept that those with whom we disagree are nonetheless also acting in good faith, dedicated to pursuing the truth as best they can?

Alas, from the tone of some utterances, it might be easy to deduce otherwise.

Yet there is too much at stake, to act as though we consider separation and division as inevitable, and that all we are doing now is arguing about how it is to be codified.

What Unites is Greater than What Divides – Division is not a Solution

If any Province is equipped to talk knowledgeably about schism and disagreement, I am sure it is Southern Africa! And our experience is that walking apart solves very little.

The very first Lambeth Conference was called in part to address the terrible argument between my predecessor Bishop Gray of Cape Town and Bishop Colenso of Natal. He was a controversial personality, some of whose theological views would still be on the margins of Christian orthodoxy. But he was also far ahead of his time in understanding the need for the gospel to be appropriately encultured and find authentic expression in its African context.

But the two clashed, and, to cut a long story short, in 1866 Bishop Gray excommunicated Bishop Colenso.

Meanwhile, Bishops in Canada had asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to call together Anglican Bishops from a round the world. They were concerned that as Provinces developed their own life, they should not inadvertently move apart. They also wanted to avoid giving different answers to controversial questions – some things never change!

So Archbishop Langley called a Lambeth Conference in 1867. It went ahead only after agreement that it should be purely consultative, with no decision-making authority. The legacy of this decision remains contentious today.

Likewise the shadow of the Colenso conflict remains with us in Southern Africa. In 1985 our Provincial Synod affirmed his ‘courageous leadership … in the areas of pioneering biblical scholarship, cross-cultural mission and the pursuit of social justice.’ We are still considering how we can appropriately acknowledge the fruits of Colenso’s ministry in the life of our Province. Excommunication solved nothing.

We face other anomalies of Anglican history, notably with the Church of England in South Africa (which is not part of the Anglican Communion, but has close ties to some parts of the Communion, notably the Diocese of Sydney), and the Ethiopian Episcopal Church.

My point in listing these is to say that ‘walking apart’ brings its own complications, which re-echo down subsequent centuries. All these current ‘cousin’ relationships have roots over a century old, and the anomalies they bring are likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future.

We are forced to ask whether it would have been better if those concerned had worked harder at holding together.

But Southern Africa’s experience of the tensions of living with diversity, and the limits of what is acceptable, extend to the current era too!

We disagreed over the question of how apartheid should best be opposed, and what our attitude should be towards the armed struggle, and towards sanctions, and on whether Anglican chaplains should serve in the South African Defence Force. As you may imagine, the whole spectrum of views were found within our ranks, and some did leave the church.

But for the main part, we did recognise that we were members together of the body of Christ, and that God’s will would be best served by us wrestling together with these issues. So we held on, and argued with each other. I think I speak for us all when I say we thank God for the rich life that we now share together.

Indeed, we have one of the most diverse Provinces in the Communion, with thirteen recognised languages. In ethnic and cultural terms, we span the whole of Southern Africa’s complex population. We are also hugely diverse in our theology, ecclesiology and churchmanship, including High Church Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic, and more liberal perspectives. However, I must say that social engagement, especially given poverty levels and the high incidence of HIV-AIDS, is on the agenda of everyone.

In many ways Southern Africa is a microcosm of global diversity.

Conscious of all of this, our Synod of Bishops discussed the state of the Anglican Communion when we met in September.

Our firm conviction remains that unity is a divine given, which requires constant effort to be realised, and that we must continue to strive for this, living together in sacrificial love. For we are certain that what unites us far outweighs what divides us.

And, meeting later in the same week, the Provincial Synod reaffirmed our commitment to the breadth of historic Anglicanism as the heart of our identity as Christians.

Anglican Structures and Polity

Let me turn to my final topic, the importance of Anglican structures and Anglican polity.

If we are serious that the essence of Anglicanism, is worth preserving, we must work within Anglicanism to find Anglican solutions.

This does not mean that there can be no change in the way we structure Provinces and Communion. Indeed, our whole history is of the gradual evolution of our polity to allow us better to meet God’s calling.

But it does mean that we cannot throw baby out with bath-water, by ignoring, sidelining and generally disregarding our current polity and structures; and then expect to call ourselves authentic, orthodox, Anglicans at the end of it all.

Nor can we pick and choose between particular outcomes that suit us, rejecting those that don’t.

So I am very disappointed at some of the criticisms voiced against the Lambeth Design Group, given that the majority of its members are from the Global South.

I am very disappointed that documents such as the draft report ‘A Road to Lambeth’ under consideration in the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa, seem to brush aside decisions of the Primates about the processes we should follow, even though at the time Global South and CAPA Primates expressed themselves happy with those decisions.

I am also very disappointed at the way inordinate attention is paid to some Lambeth Resolutions and not to others.

We hear so much about 1.10 on human sexuality. But we rarely hear of 2.2 which refers to the Lambeth Conference as a ‘significant consultative body’ – underlining that its resolutions are not binding. Nor is 5.13, which reaffirmed resolution 72 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference on Episcopal Responsibilities and Diocesan Borders, given anything like the status of 1.10. And we must not forget that resolution 5.1, with its particularly strong language condemning homosexual practice, was actually defeated. So we should think twice before attempting to reinsert such language into the debate.

No, we can do better than this.

One of the great strengths of the Windsor Report is that it counsels a process to be pursued within the current structures of Anglicanism, even as it invites us to reform them. It recognises the autonomy Provinces now have, and the limitations of the Instruments of Unity. Yet it also suggests ways of rebalancing our common life, and pursuing more appropriate levels of mutual commitment and interdependence.

The Covenant is a proposal to be considered in this light. I must say that I have some misgivings. We need to be very sure that we are creating an instrument that really will enhance and strengthen the calling of all Anglicans, throughout the whole diversity of the globe, to faithful mission and ministry in the years – even centuries – ahead. We must not be railroaded into a quick fix that merely meets the vociferous concerns of one part of our constituency. We can afford to take our time over this and ensure we get it right – even ten years is a very short time in the two millennia of Christian history.

Yet there is an even more fundamental issue at stake.

It is no secret that I have misgivings about the communiqué issued in Kigali at the end of the Global South Primates’ meeting. One of these was that by listing provinces present, it implied we had all signed up to the text itself!

But my deepest concern, reflected in both the content and the handling of the communiqué, is the question of how seriously we take our self-understanding as a church that is both episcopally led and synodically governed.

God is at work, through his Spirit, in all the baptised. As St Paul reminded the Corinthians, every member of the body of Christ is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12:7). We best pursue that common good, when we pursue it all together.

The whole debate since the election of Bishop Gene Robinson, has been far too much driven by Bishops, and, what is worse, particularly by Archbishops!

It does not help when we issue statements like that from Kigali, which claim to be associated with Provinces which have had no opportunity to share and debate them across all orders.

If we want to pursue a truly Anglican solution to our current predicament, we cannot sideline laity, and parish clergy, as we are currently doing.

Now I am going to make a very radical proposal – which I can freely do, as I shall be retiring on January 31, 2008!

If I were in the shoes of the Archbishop of Canterbury – and I thank the Lord almost daily that I am not! – if I were in Rowan Williams’ shoes, I would say that what we most need now is not yet another gathering of Bishops, in the form of the Lambeth Conference.

We have a far greater need for a coming together of a much larger, and much more representative, gathering of Anglicans from around the world.

I do not mean we need another Anglican Consultative Council. The ACC is good, and plays an important role within our structures. But it is also constrained by the procedures and agendas with which we have saddled it.

I would rather see a much larger gathering, with a better balance between Bishops, Clergy and Laity; in which participants can freely speak their own minds. I would like to see a very flexible and open agenda, that concentrates on informal encounter and the sharing of faith. We need space to get to know one another, our contexts, our cultures, our challenges. We need to listen to one another and our faith journeys, and recognise the marks of Christ in one another.

Perhaps if all of us had a better understanding of the lives of Christians in other provinces, we would not have come to the situation we now face.

If we had a large Anglican gathering, brothers and sisters of Christ in all our diversity would be able explore together the questions of how we understand ourselves as Anglicans, and how God want to leads us forward in our common life. We must find such ways to together listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. As a representative microcosm of our Global Family, we could explore how it is we should live together, and whether a Covenant – and if so, what form of Covenant – would best enhance our shared life and calling.

Whatever preparatory work the Covenant Design Group is able to do before the middle of 2008 must be offered for the consideration of the full breadth of the Anglican Family. It is far too important to be left just to Bishops, even meeting in the breadth of the Lambeth Conference, let alone Archbishops!

And then, after all this had been discussed and debated, I would ask the Design Group to pull the conclusions together, and to present them to a special meeting of the ACC, as the most fully representative of all of our Instruments of Unity. If we are to take the radical step of pursuing a Covenant, I would like this process to be owned and driven by the ACC. And then, of course, any draft will have to be adopted under the due processes within each Province – which again returns it to the full debate of Synods of all orders meeting together.

Let us not forget this.

The task of the Church is not self-preservation. If that were the case, well then, let the hierarchy get on with debating their narrow concerns, and good luck to them!

The task of the Church is to build up God’s people for God’s mission and ministry within God’s world. We desire to be a Church in which abundant, God-given, Christ-shaped, life can flourish, and this life can be shared with the world for the building of God’s kingdom, and for his glory.

And the pursuit of such a way of being Church is a task of the whole Church together.


Well, I have spoken at some length – and my greatest regret is that so much of our time and energies are being taken up by these internal quarrels, when we should be bringing Jesus’ gospel good news to all who need it.

But I will end as I began, by saying that I am optimistic. This is God’s church, and he is always working his purposes out, in spite of the confusions of our minds.

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