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The Anglican Communion is alive and well…
… and living in Rome. And in Europe. And elsewhere as well. Away, in fact, to the ends of the earth.
But my latest experience of it was last week in Rome during the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Eternal City. While many people must, I suppose, think of the Anglican Communion as an abstraction, one fading away, here it has become very real, very incarnate to me.
Why an abstraction? For most of us Anglicans, being part of the Anglican Communion goes no further than belonging to a congregation in which, from time to time, the priest speaks about that remote thing, the Diocese, and its sort-of-wizard, the Bishop (note the capitalization, please). Then one might hear even less frequently about the Presiding Bishop, or the Archbishop, or some such super-wizard. Since one does see the local wizard occasionally, the Presiding Bishop/ Archbishop seems even more exotic. All of this of course is about The Denomination, a.k.a., Organized Religion, which in certain countries like Pakistan is a matter of life and death, or in America, almost of no consequence.
And then beyond The Denomination there is that rare bird indeed, the Anglican Communion. It used to be not so long ago that we spoke about the fact that, like the Roman Church, you can find an Anglican congregation almost anywhere on Earth—in 163 countries, in fact. That was all one needed to know about the Anglican Communion, except that it had something to do with that Ultimate Wizard, the capo-di-tutti-capi-but-not-a-pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He holds the whole she-bang together, because all our churches are In Communion with him.
For the most part, there wasn’t much more to hear about the Anglican Communion, except one other thing: there was a way to make good things happen in the world because we had a connection to Christians like us around the world. That connection is not juridical, like the Pope’s recently-acquired (1870 is recent, trust me) universal ordinary jurisdiction. It wasn’t through some centralized Global Federation of Fairly-Likeminded Christians. No, our global connection is less easily defined. In fact, with all the charges and counter-charges being flung all over the World through the Wide Web about Real Anglicans (“you’re not!” “am too!”), it becomes ever more elusive-seeming, an abstraction that is a plaything for rhetoricians speaking for The Right Side. And so most Anglicans around the world tune out the clergy and other obsessives and hunker down in their pew. It’s hard to get people excited about the Anglican Communion these days, unless they want to own it, run it, split it.
Which brings me back to Rome, home of the Bishop of Rome, but where I also experience some of the reality of the Anglican Communion. In Rome we Anglicans have two churches, All Saints, which is under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, and St. Paul’s-Within-the-Walls, which is in the Presiding Bishop’s jurisdiction but of which I am Bishop in charge (Got that? Good.) Don’t ask who the real wizard is, we are Anglicans, and can live with anomalies, although this one is, even by our standards, a doozy. Nevertheless, as Dr. Johnson once said, nothing concentrates the mind of a man more than the knowledge that he shall be hanged in a fortnight. Similarly, nothing brings out that elusive Anglican connection, that Communion, that having to do one’s ministry in the shadow of the Vatican. The very real differences of English and American do perdure, of course, but they are not of real consequence. We have to get along, we need to work together. Furthermore, there are all sorts and conditions with whom to minister: lots of Africans, Asians, South Americans, Italians, and yes, Americans and English. Most of these people are rather transient, and so we who stay in Rome need to learn how to have healthy congregations in the face of this impermanence. It is somewhat like Florida parishes who have to learn to live with the Snowbirds—you know, they go south at the first sign of snow up North. But ours roost for several years at a time.
Unless of course they are the truly transient, the refugees who crowd the only daytime shelter available in the city, which is housed —where else? —at St. Paul’s-Within-the-Walls. After all, if you were marooned in Rome, Italy, wouldn’t you look for the nearest Episcopal church? No? Well, they do. They come from wherever the latest crisis is happening: Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, African illegals, guest workers lured to Italy from Romania by false promises of work. Many are Muslim; so many the parish recently put footbaths in the bathrooms for them.
And then there is the Anglican Centre, the center/centre for study and reflection on Anglican and Roman Catholic questions. It sounds grand, being housed in a palace in the center (centre?) of Rome. But when I arrived on the scene, the floor had collapsed and the then-director, Bishop Richard Garrard and his wife Ann, had to stay in an unheated redundant convent for four winter months. But they were wonderful at their job, which is keeping Catholic-Anglican dialogue alive in Rome and people around the world thinking, as are the present director and spouse, Bishop John Flack and his wife Julia.
And so, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made his first official visit since Josef Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, these disparate elements came together in a very natural and unforced way. We have been working on relations with the Vatican up close and personal for years now. The Centre’s director is the Archbishop’s Representative to the Holy See. He works in tandem with other ambassadors to the Holy See. At St. Paul’s, a Roman priest and nun help out every day in the refugee center, and each refugee is given help individually from the Vatican’s office of refugees, in consultation with the staff of the Center, named for Joel Nafuma, the Ugandan priest who launched it nineteen years ago.
So putting together the Archbishop’s visit was just another job for an inter-Anglican, ecumenical and interreligiously sensitive team of clergy and people who happen to hail from all over the world. They don’t even use the same Prayer Book… 1662, 1979, Common Worship, &c. They are not necessarily linguistically united either, as St. Paul’s Latin American Community has higher average attendance than the Anglo congregation and worships in Spanish. But as we came together last week, it was the Anglican Communion. After Archbishop Rowan’s brilliant lecture to the Pontifical Academy on Social Sciences on the theology of Christian political engagement in secular and Muslim societies, one bedazzled cardinal remarked to me what a blessing it must be to have as our top bishop such a remarkable theologian as we do. Indeed we are, even if some don’t realize it, I could have replied (but didn’t). As Anglicans we are fortunate to have an Archbishop who understands that the elusive connection we share does not grow stronger by strong-arming people, but only by allowing that connection to manifest itself in concrete acts of Spirit-led ministry in the Name of Christ, in solidarity with other believers.
During his visit to St. Paul’s, the Archbishop had a little time (not enough) to contemplate Edward Burne-Jones’ extraordinary mosaics that cover the walls. And he also had some time to enter the refugee center, and meet the Iraqi Kurd who manages it, himself once a refugee who found help and Jesus at the center. And rather than just contemplate our treasure on the walls, we had him sit with our human treasures on short loan from God, and watch the pleasure on his face as he launched into polyglot conversation with them.
This is the Anglican Communion, where high sophistication meets the ground-down grunge of poverty for coffee. Where nationalities no longer matter, where words of different languages are traded like baseball cards, where religious affiliation is less important than human suffering—and joy; where Bishops do not fight over jurisdiction of land but rather work together to help unite hearts. Where Nigerians joyfully bring up the gifts of bread and wine, dancing and singing and playing percussion instruments from their homeland to an altar party with seven different passports in their pockets. Where a Canadian Roman priest reads the Gospel so that a Welsh Anglican can preach it, and a German Cardinal can admit to the world that his church has had to show its “wounds and weaknesses” to us Anglicans, who are ourselves so wounded.
Please do not think this is confined to one city. I see the same dynamics across Europe, down the continent of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, through the Pacific to South America, up its slender middle all the way to the Hudson Bay. The world in microcosm was manifest last week in Anglican Rome.
But it’s not ours. None of it. And that is why the Communion is so elusive, like the Shekinah Presence of God in the Hebrew Bible, like Jesus whom people were always trying to catch so they can nail him down. And yet this is how, through the connections we share around the world, we are in communion with each other, so that our God, so elusive and yet closer than our very breath, might be lifted up through the relieving of sin and suffering and the fear of death by the Good News of Jesus.
Are you a liberal-conservative-Anglocatholic-evangelical-charismatic-broad church-backtobasics-progressive kind of person? (I myself am a Hobartian…nice title, eh?) Try to break out of the ghetto of your church party for a minute. Take a peek over the wall of your faction. Think about what the your church and the world would be like if your connections are severed. Look around the world, the world for which Christ died, and see that he lives and transforms and loves people to the ends of the earth through, among others the 80-odd million odd Christians who call themselves Anglicans.
Unless you are French, or French-Canadian, or otherwise Francophone. Then please, nous vous en supplions, call us…
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at email@example.com.