It was suggested to me that I might usefully write something around the evangelical-catholic vision of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, of blessed memory, and about how that vision might illuminate the issues we currently face.
I would first say: if you have never read Ramsey's wonderful book The Gospel and the Catholic Church, you should drop everything you are doing, find a copy and read it. Ramsey combines a very lucid and straightforward style with uncommon insight into Holy Scripture's deepest meanings.
With respect to unity, per se, Ramsey explicitly devotes an entire chapter to the subject – appropriately enough that chapter is called "The Meaning of Unity". But of course what he says throughout The Gospel and the Catholic Church bears on the issue of Christian unity.
The value of Ramsey's vision is that it is anterior to the fractious debate over human sexuality ongoing within the Communion. Whatever one's view on human sexuality, one is free to embrace Ramsey's evangelical-catholicism. Indeed, if the debate within Anglicanism could be shifted to THIS level (an attempt at shifting represented by the proposed Covenant), a way forward might be found for the resolution of particular contentions around human sexuality, and whatever else.
In what follows I will develop Ramsey's suggestions, on the one hand that the unity of the Church is an entailment of Jesus Christ's having given his life for her sake; and on the other hand that for individual believers, and for particular groups of believers, communion with Jesus Christ -- living into his given life -- is constitutive of their participation in the sacramental life of the One Body. Lastly, I will suggest ways in which Anglicans, and particularly Anglicans in North America, both "conservative" and "liberal" (I mean for the quotes to indicate the inexactitude with which those terms apply to churchmen as such, given the terms' inevitably secular connotations), might practically inhabit Ramsey's vision of the Church as both evangelical and catholic.
The purpose of the Church, according to Ramsey, is to gesture toward the cross, to point the way toward "the question-mark of Calvary at the centre of its teaching." The Church is there as the fellowship instituted and sent by Christ to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Christians "are sent to be the place where the Passion of Jesus Christ is known and where witness is borne to the Resurrection from the dead" (p. 4).
This is indeed the Good News for which the world had groaned, and for which the hearts of many in the world remain restless. So the scribe Ezra writes: If I have found favor in thy sight, O Lord, show this also to thy servant: whether after death, as soon as every one of us yields up his soul, we shall be kept in rest until those times come when thou wilt renew the creation, or whether we shall be tormented at once? (4 Ezra 7.75) For the advent of the Messiah was the advent of creation's renewal. His sufferings herald for all who receive him, who believe in his name, "power to become the children of God" (John 1.12). In Christ therefore is the fulfillment of God's promise to his people, that he will take them to himself, that they will be his, and he theirs; that they will know that he is the Lord, their God (Exodus 6.7). In Christ, God has remembered his promise of mercy.
Christ is manifest in his obedience-unto-death as the chosen of God, the Father's only "biological" heir -- the only One with whom the Father shares his essence. Jesus Christ is at once the ekklesia, the race elected by God to be the custodian of his promises, gathered into one flesh, self-offered in perfect devotion, an anamnesis of the promises of God. Ramsey quotes Wellhausen: "The Messiah is the Incarnation of Israel's universal rule, He and Israel are almost identical, and it matters little whether we say that Israel HAS or IS the Messiah." On the cross "Israel rejects Israel, and in the isolation of Calvary Jesus alone is Israel, the Son, the Servant. The vineyard has been lost to its former husbandmen, and the PEOPLE OF GOD consists only of the ONE who, rejected by His own, is dying on the Cross, alone the Servant who obeys and alone the place where the name and the glory and the will and the promises of God are seen. Jesus Christ, in His solitary obedience, IS the Church" (p.21).
Yet the death of Christ at once shows the essential unity of the Father and the Son, and consummates the mutual society of God and man. "From the first, the will to die was a part of the Messiah's identification with men" (p. 23) – the Son left his divine prerogatives, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and came to earth not to be served but to serve. The self-giving of God manifests itself in history, within the context of fallen creation, as the humiliation of the Son. Yet we know the self-abandonment, the kenosis of Jesus as the revelation of Messiah, as the drawing-near of the Kingdom – because the Kingdom is where God reigns, where his will is done, and on Calvary Jesus Christ does the will of his Father. On Calvary, God's Kingdom comes (John 19.19). Thus the Cross manifests the essential unity of Father and Son, in a bond of love that is itself divine. "Behind the historical events there is the unity of the one God. This unity overcomes men and apprehends them through the Cross" (49).
The identity of the self-abasement of the Son with the inheritance of the Kingdom in history cannot be apprehended by "those who are perishing". Therefore the Cross is the destruction of the wisdom of the wise, and the thwarting of the cleverness of the clever (1 Cor. 1.18). As Ramsey says, "the philanthropist, the reformer, the broad-minded modern man can never understand, in terms of their own ideals, what the Church is or what it means" (4). "For the Church exists for something deeper than philanthropy and reform, namely to teach men to die to self and to trust in a Resurrection to new life which, because it spans both this world and another world, can never be wholly understood here, and must always puzzle this world's idealists" (8).
The world will never understand the Church because the world will never understand the Cross – because the life of the Church is the gift of the Crucified. The broad-minded modern man sees in the Church a society constituted in renunciation of the telluric contexts within which the modern man seeks to earn a living, within which he looks for life. For the Church's fellowship "springs from and bears witness to the events of Jesus in the flesh. The events created the fellowship and the fellowship mysteriously shares in the events" (48). In his beautiful systematic work Hymn of Entry, Archimandrite Vasileios of Stavronikita asks "What is my calling? It is, if possible, to die in God."
Thus not only is the historical life of Christ the wellspring of ecclesiality, but in an event of mutual recognition -- which is the epicenter of every relationship, and of relationship itself -- the Church finds her vocation in bearing-witness (marturew – 1 Cor. 15.15) to God in Christ. Her essential work is in gesturing towards the Bridegroom, in recommending him to those beyond the borders of her common life, that all people might find fraternity in the bond of Christ's peace, that he might be all in all.
This side of the Last Things, the ecclesial life, and the UNITY of this life, is constitutive of the Godward gesture that is the Church's vocation in history. "…This unity is connected with the truth about Christ Himself. It is the unity of His own Body, springing from the unity of God, uttered in the Passion of Jesus, and expressed in an order and a structure" (47). And because ecclesial unity is at once a gift, as well as an historical making-known of the truth of God in Christ, its universality precedes its locality. "Thus each group of Christians will learn its utter dependence upon the whole Body. It will indeed be aware of its own immediate union with Christ, but it will see this experience as a part of the one life of the one family in every age and place. By its dependence upon the Church of history it will die to self-consciousness and self satisfaction" (44). And "by their place in the one Body they are to learn to be humble and dependent and to die to self. Let them consider the Body and exist only as members of the Body, and they will learn of Christ's Cross whereby men are lost as separate 'selfhoods' and found as members of Christ and of one another" (52).
Ecclesial life – life in Christ – includes a conviction of the valuelessness of the local – of individuals and individual groups – outside the terms of the local's being an instantiation of the universal (cf. St. Paul's phrase "the church of God which is at Corinth" -- 1 Cor. 1.2). A group or an individual's membership in the one Body therefore "includes the redeemed man's knowledge of death and resurrection through his place in the one visible society and through the death to self which every member and group has died" (50). Acts of disunity are thereby betrayed as inimical to the life of Christ – as in a real sense anti-Christ. Yet any act uninformed by the life of the whole Body is just such an act of disunity. "For every part of the Church's true order will bear witness to the one universal family of God and will point to the historic events of the Word-made-flesh" (50).
Innovations, "new things" or new truths putatively undertaken or revealed by the Holy Spirit to an individual or group within the one Body must therefore be explicable in terms of the witness (martus) they bear to the Gospel – to the historical reality of God in Christ – as well as in terms of their status as gift to the whole Body. And here naturally issues of mutual recognition, inter alia, arise. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God" (1 Jn 4.1), and "if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God… For God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (1 Cor. 28, 33). Ramsey notes St. Paul's rebuke of the Corinthians for their factionalism and self-consciousness, for their failure to die to separate selfhoods and become alive in Christ: "To possess a gift is to feel no pride of possession, for only in the life of the one Body is it of use or of significance" (53). Ramsey might have gone even further: a gift is only realized as such in the gratuity of its being-given; "to possess" a gift is to nullify its character as gift (cf. Jacques Derrida in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money). Gifts are for giving.
Anglicanism has become factious in the extreme, and one cannot help but wonder if the spirit of Christ-like gratuity, of self-effacement for the sake of the Body, has been quashed by a climate of hyper-self-consciousness. One wonders whether TEC might not be given pause by the non-recognition with which its "gifts" have been met by the one Body (both within the Anglican Communion and within and among our ecumenical partners). One winces at the self-awareness of TEC's rhetoric: "our church law… our canons… our autonomy… our Constitution… our founding principles… our own liberation from colonialism…" etc. (cf. the TEC House of Bishops "Mind of the House" resolutions from March 2007) -- all of which are held up as our exclusive possession as well as our first order commitments. One would do well to ask whether TEC has not "succumbed to the peril of thinking of these gifts as possessions of their own and interpreting them in terms of human wisdom, knowledge, and individual ownership" (51) – terms born of the spirit of Anti-Christ, as we have seen, inimical to the life of the Body.
Neither has TEC given an adequate theological account of how her innovative gifts bear witness to God in Christ. There has been much talk of "justice" and of the making-possible of our gay and lesbian brethren's appropriation of what is theirs by right. But if same-sex sexuality is to have a place within the one Body, it must be accounted for in terms of the given life of the one Body. It is not enough that it should be accounted for in terms of the autonomous life of the Body's members -- in terms, in other words, of the rights and prerogatives of individuals and groups. We know something of the iconography and sacramentality of the gift of human sexuality. But the one Body has rooted human sexuality in the differentiation and complimentarity of the sexes, which our Lord himself placed under the rubric of creation and grace in one of his very few explicit teachings on the subject: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh…?" (Mat. 19.4). And as intimated by St. Paul in Ephesians 5, the Body has known the gift (the datum) of sexuality within the one Body as complimentarity within differentiation, as iconographic of the mutual self-gift that takes place between the different but complimentary natures of God and man in the one flesh of Jesus Christ, the theanthropos – the consummation of which is constitutive of the one Body's given life.
How might Anglicanism gesture "toward the question mark of Calvary at the center of its teaching" (4), even amid the difficulties and disagreements we face? Here are some far-fetched ideas:
1. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the liberals are right: a.k.a. how might TEC be Christ-like? –
If, as TEC seems to be claiming, the gift of sexuality must be revised or elaborated, let this revision or elaboration take place within the context of the common life of the one Body, within the spirit of mutual recognition and self-gift which alone characterizes the love by which our Lord said we would be known (Jn. 13.35). Let TEC offer her gifts in patience and humility, knowing that love is patient, kind, and does not insist on its own way (1 Cor. 13.4-5) – knowing that in autonomy she is nothing (1 Cor. 13.2). And if it is true that TEC's interlocutors in the Communion at large are blinded and ignorant, as many within TEC have suggested, let TEC bear the burden of their brothers' and sisters' blindness and ignorance, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6.2). Let TEC bear it "with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4.2).
2. Assuming, for the sake or argument, that the conservatives are right: a.k.a. how might the dissent / Network / "Global South" be Christ-like? –
For the conservatives' part,let them listen in humility for the voice of the Spirit in their interlocutors, knowing that the Spirit's groanings are too deep for words, even traditionalist words. Let them be willing to suffer at the hands of the litigious. Let them be eager to be defrauded to keep the scandal of factionalism away from the consciousness of the unbelieving world for whom the Lord suffered and died. Let the conservatives prefer to suffer injustice for the sake of the souls of their brethren; let them know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5.20).
And in any event, whoever is right:
Would that this difficult season of disagreement in the Anglican Communion were characterized by Christians competing with one another only to give the most extravagant gifts of self, to be the most gratuitous in their outpourings for the sake of one another. Would that the secular media told stories about parishes and dioceses attempting to give away their property to one another, rather than seeking to hold onto it at almost any cost, like ravenous dogs snarling over scraps. Would that when Anglican Christians sat down to eat, they might wait for one another, that the world might know that the Father sent the Son.