Words and meanings: communion & community

By Marshall Scott

In this brief space between GAFCON and the heart of Lambeth, I have been indulging in word play. It can be a vice. It can be seen as silly. But, here’s the thing: we are people of a faith in which words have meaning. God created by speaking. God came among us in the Word; and it is in the written Word that we in our generation know of these things. So, while playing with words might sometimes seem indulgent, for us as Christians it is a meaningful enterprise.

Specifically, I have been playing with the words “communion” and “community.”

Believe it or not, it was GAFCON that led me to these thoughts. I have been considering the recent statements from and in response to GAFCON. I think much of the time those meeting in GAFCON and those responding to them (from Canterbury on down) have been talking, but past each other and not really to each other. From the GAFCON Statement to Canterbury’s response to the recent paper by Canon Gregory Cameron, many things have been said or written, but little has been compelling. I don’t have much sense that anyone has been persuaded to move too far from where they already were.

The reason has been that the two polar positions have represented two different paradigms. Oh, we’ve spoken more of ecclesiology or of “ways of being the Church.” Many of us have been aware of individual differences (a more literal use of Scripture vs. historical critical method; focus on guidance from the our Scriptural history vs. guidance from the Spirit in the present; and there are others); but I don’t think we’ve considered the possibility that our very frameworks of interpretation are sufficiently different that our very words have different meanings. We end up talking while feeling we’re never heard; because, after all, if we were really heard the listeners would find our words as compelling as we do.

The GAFCON folks have tried to establish a new, or at least a different model (for I don’t think I see much really “new” about it). And as I considered their efforts to express it in an institutional structure (beginning with a Council of Primates), I began to think about our own model; and I began to play with words.

I began to play particularly with the central word of our difficulties: “communion.” We use it in so many ways, all related but all different; and we even agree that all these usages are authentic, even as we disagree profoundly which usages are more critical. We speak of the Anglican Communion, a construct so precious that we’ve reified it into a quasi-institutional reality. We speak of communion, meaning sharing together generally in the Christian life and faith. We speak of communion, meaning sharing specifically in sacramental practice. And all too often we speak – sometimes we speak most loudly – of when and where we can’t share.

And so communion is broken – from the communion rail to the Communion Instruments, communion is functionally broken. As a result, I think we have two opportunities. We can restructure Communion by reassembling with those with whom we can share communion (from the communion rail out); and we can seek new models, new words to express how we might be together.

And so I began to play with “communion” and “community.” I began looking for differences of denotation, of formal definition; and as is my habit in the search for denotation, I went back to my old Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Much to my distress, I found it somewhat unhelpful. Of course, the OED has so many usages of any given word, and certainly of a word used as widely and frequently as either “communion” or “community.” But, by the time I’d peered through the magnifying glass and pored over both words, they simply had too much in common, at least in denotation. Both had their common, political, and even religious definitions; but there was too many commonalities to offer much help.

That wasn’t helped either by my own sense that there is a difference in connotation, in common usage. “Communion” is used more in religious conversation, while “community” is used more in political discussion. Again, that isn’t to say that there aren’t religious meanings for both words; but we do, I think, commonly make that distinction. As a result, I think we feel in a way that “communion” is somehow more intimate than “community.” As a result, I fear we are prone to actually create a greater sense of “who’s in” and “who’s out” around the word “communion” than we do with the word “community.”

That sense of difference brought me back to two words in the life of the Church that would hold that same sense of difference: koinonia and ekklesia. It seems to me that those two words in our tradition have some of that same sense of distinction between the religious and the political, and between the more and the less intimate. Perhaps it would be easier to describe the difference this way: ekklesia (reflecting the Hebrew qahal) is about the structure, the gathered assembly; while koinonia (for which there appears to be no real Hebrew equivalent) is more about the quality of the relationship among and perhaps binding the gathered assembly. So, the difference seems to me much the same as the difference in connotation between “communion” and “community.”

Of course, there is much more to ekklesia than simply the gathered assembly. Looking at the article, “Church, Idea of” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 1962) emphasizes four “basic meanings of ekklesia” in the New Testament:

1. An assembly of persons which has been summoned for a particular purpose.

2. A community of believers which has been gathered from the inhabitants of a specific area.

3. A community gathered by God through Christ.

4. The eschatological people of God.

In essence, then, what makes for ekklesia is not the assembly in and of itself, but the assembly gathered for a purpose. More particularly for us, it is the assembly gathered by God in Christ for God’s purpose, to participate in God’s eschatological plan.

I think this should be meaningful for us. It is, first and foremost, consistent with what many of us have said about any covenant process: that the goal should be a covenant focused on mission instead of on either a defined understanding of “the faith as this Church has received it,” or on authority defined in institutional structures. Indeed, it emphasizes our efforts to work with others toward shared goals, without needing or expecting narrow agreement on all aspects of the faith.

It is certainly consistent with an Episcopal perspective on the Christian life. The Baptismal Covenant, so precious to us and yet largely unknown through most of the Communion, describes not only the faith of the Creed, but also the life that expresses, incarnates that faith in the world. We confess that faith, not only to affirm the content, but to claim our personal stake and responsibility in pursuing God’s purposes, and not our own.

It affirms the ecumenical enterprise as we have seen it in North America in this generation. We have long ceased pursuing one institution as the sign of unity in favor of “a communion of communions;” and so often those expressions have begun as individual congregations and judicatories found common cause and common goals with other Christians. It affirms our ongoing ecumenical conversations, even with those who, like the Roman and Orthodox churches, will not soon recognize our orders or our perception of the Spirit; for there remain common goals in the Kingdom that we might pursue together.

Indeed, it will allow for continued relations with those who claim the Anglican tradition, but who are concerned about how they see it in us. Even in these times of “broken” or “impaired communion,” many, many common ministries have continued. They have continued precisely because they have focused on common mission, and not on ideological identity. It could in time allow for us to converse with smaller bodies that claim the Anglican tradition but are not in communion with Canterbury. This could be especially true of those small bodies that are more inclusive and more progressive in some ways than the Episcopal Church. Interestingly enough, that idea arose from reflecting on this in light of the Common Cause Partnership. They have opened themselves to conservative groups claiming the Anglican tradition. There are in fact a few groups claiming the Anglican tradition that are more progressive (one can find them on the “Not in Communion” page of “Anglicans Online.”), and finding common goals might allow us to reach out to them.

Most important, focusing on ekklesia instead of koinonia, at least for some purposes, might well allow for conversations with less invective. The intimacy we associate with “communion” can make every difference not simply an argument, but a family argument, and all the more bitter. To think of ekklesia instead of koinonia, of community instead of communion, turns us again to our opportunities to gather and to the purposes God might have for our gathering.

This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t also pursue koinonia, communion, with all our hearts. These models are not mutually exclusive. However, we in the Episcopal Church have been among the first to call for continued gathering to do God’s work, even in the face of our difficulties of Anglican tradition and identity. We have affirmed, as well, that koinonia is a gift from God, and not ours to mandate. So, let us pray for and seek koinonia, “communion,” that in God’s time we might all be one. And in the meantime, let us also consider and live into our call as ekklesia, as the community of the faithful, gathered by God in Christ to pursue God’s purposes.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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