From Chaos to the Cross – a reflection on Justin Welby’s remarks to the Anglican Consultative Council

JustinWelbyJustin Welby reported today to the ACC today regarding the status of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion.

“There is a time limited restriction in governance and representative roles; the Primates said that for a three-year period the Episcopal Church, TEC, should not take part in decisions on matters of doctrine or polity,” the Archbishop of Canterbury told the gathering of delegates of the Anglican Consultative Council at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Lusaka, Zambia on Friday, April 8, 2016.

“They can speak but we suggested that they should not vote, nor should they represent the Communion on external bodies such as those dealing with interfaith or ecumenical matters,” he said.

However, the Episcopal Church, is still “walking together” in the Anglican Communion, even as they are “walking at a distance.”

“We live in two worlds at the same time,” he explained. “One is a world of layer upon layer of difference, with boundaries but still complicated. The other is the sharp focus of the pearl of great value, the call from the Kingdom of Heaven to be those who worship and bear witness.”

Bear witness to what?

M. Scott Peck wrote in  A Different Drum, that “once individual differences surface, the group almost immediately moves into chaos. The chaos centers around well-intentioned but misguided attempts to heal and convert. Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to obliterate them. It is a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle. It is no fun.” That sounds like the state of the Anglican Communion today. For at least the past twenty years it has been descending into chaos.

Indeed, Peck reminded us that “It is common for members to attack not only each other but also their leader, and common for one or more members—invariably proposing an ‘escape into organization’—to attempt to replace the designated leader.” We’ve seen that all ready, with Rowan Williams throwing in the towel when he hit the chaos. Justin Welby, who has also drawn attention as he attempts to manage the chaos, told the ACC delegates, “I am not a human being, I am an Instrument of Communion and for that matter a focus of unity.”

Chaos, however, cannot be managed no matter how many good intentions we may have to do so.  “However as long as the goal is true community, organization as an attempted solution to chaos is unworkable,” Peck wrote. Anglicans and Episcopalians know this to be true.

The members of the Anglican Consultative Council (and many other formal and ad hoc  Anglican and Episcopalian organizations as well) continue to try to organize their way out of the chaos. But the reality is—no matter how we try to dance around this—the state of the Anglican Communion is chaos and it will remain in chaos until we finally give up.

It’s difficult to imagine the relinquishment, the “emptiness” that follows chaos will happen on the national or international level of this thing called the Anglican Communion. But where we will find it then?

Emptiness is the place we find ourselves when we are ready to give up, to let go, to repent. It’s so powerful it’s a major part of recovery for those in twelve-step programs. We hit that empty place and recognize that we know nothing. We are not able to save ourselves or anyone else. We recognize that we cannot fix it. We relinquish control. We give up.

Like Mary on that early Sunday morning, we go the tomb expecting that all is lost. We are empty. Again, Peck describes what this is like:

It is the hardest and crucial stage of community development. It means members emptying themselves of barriers to communication. The most common barriers are expectations and preconceptions; prejudices; ideology, theology and solutions; the need to heal, fix, convert or solve; and the need to control. The stage of emptiness is ushered in as members begin to share their own brokenness—their defeats, failures, fears, rather than acting as if they “have it all together.”

This is the sort of thing is not expected to happen at politically-charged meetings. It might happen in small informal gatherings in our homes, at the communion rail at our churches, or on our knees when we are lingering on the edge of despair. Like Mary, when she looks into the tomb, all she expects to see is death. All is lost. When things are not as she expects, she rushes to the edge her own despair, pleading for help to find a solution. She is so distraught with her horrified thoughts, she does not recognize who is actually speaking to her as she stands in the empty tomb. It isn’t until he says her name that she sees him.

Moving from chaos and into the emptiness is like Mary looking for death in the tomb and fearing even the worst. The promise is that when we “go there” in whatever we are facing that takes us on this journey, we can’t believe that in that place, in that very place, that is when we see Jesus.

It not a place we like to go to—and will do often whatever it takes to avoid it. Certainly, while Mary goes the tomb, the rest of Jesus’ friends are hiding out in the Upper Room.

But here is what happens to Mary:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20

Note Mary’s grief and despair. She is weeping, desperate to fix a horrific situation. She is so distraught she does not recognize who is speaking to her. Again, it isn’t until he says her name that she recognizes his voice and finally his face. Her immediate response is to throw herself at him and not let go. She is so surprised by joy.

He reminds her he’s not leaving yet and then right away gives her the healing gift of community. This is the healing gift of Jesus and it’s the first thing he does after reassuring her he will not abandon her. “Go,” he says to her and tell the others.

Justin Welby alludes to this in his remarks to the ACC. “The call of Christ to intentional discipleship cuts through the immense complexity of our lives and the lives of our churches, and enables us to focus on the essentials. And the essentials, as we went through them in January at the Primates’ meeting, really come down to two things: that we are to be a people of worship and a people of witness.”

What is not said here is that the pathway to being a people of worship and witness is in giving up. We cannot have reconciliation, we cannot “walk together” until we dare to walk into the emptiness of our own ambitions and struggles for power and give up. Jesus said that there is no greater love than to lay down our life for our friends. That is the pathway to reconciliation and healing—to lay it down, to relinquish the quest for power to change the world into our own image, to repent. We dare to approach the tomb of our own hearts and find the stone has been rolled away.

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51)

Justin Welby described what his world is like right now.

“We live in two worlds at the same time,” he said. “One is a world of layer upon layer of difference, with boundaries but still complicated. The other is the sharp focus of the pearl of great value, the call from the Kingdom of Heaven to be those who worship and bear witness.”

“If we are too much of the complex diversity and difference,” he said, “we lose sight of the breath-taking and beautiful salvation that is ours, we become bogged down, like so many human institutions. If we are too closely focussed on the simplicity and clarity of our call we become pietistic, unable to speak with authority and fellow feeling and suffering into a world of difference.”

But the desire to control the chaos seems to be the desire to find what he calls “balance.” The balancing is in what he describes as “freedom, order and human flourishing.”But really, isn’t the bottom line a deep and abiding conflict about authority?  The overwhelming result over the years to “balance” power and authority (a less compelling description of what he calls freedom, order, and human flourishing) is chaos.

“As a Communion and as churches where authority emerges primarily out of loving one another more than through rules and regulations, or hierarchies, this trio of freedom, order and human flourishing is of huge importance,” Justin Welby said. “It anchors us in the breaking down of barriers, in facing each other, in the beauty of human interaction in love.”

Sadly, it doesn’t erase the conflict of authority and power. It’s an illusion. We teeter back into pseudo-community, only to go careening forward into chaos. This is a pattern of the past twenty or more years. It doesn’t break down the barriers because something is missing. Managing the chaos does not solve that problem and in fact exacerbates the chaos as it further erodes trust and truth.

We cannot manage the chaos.

“Trouble has come whenever one element of those three has overcome the others,” Welby said correctly, as this is how chaos ensues. “Order often masquerades as a hunger for power. It often overcomes freedom, and neglects human flourishing. Order is essential, but it exists to make sure we wash feet and that we love, not that we dominate.” That is as good a description as any of what chaos looks like. It is full of masquerades, hunger of power, neglect and domination.

“It was out of these tensions of holding together order, freedom and human flourishing that Anglicanism emerged and developed a relational model of authority,” Welby said.

But did it really? Wasn’t that “relational model of authority” based on relationships forged in a 19th century colonial empire, not on scriptural fidelity and the doctrines found in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer?

In fact, the first member of the Anglican Communion was the Episcopal Church and it was not based on a relational model of authority, but whether the individual dioceses were subject to the doctrines found in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Some churches in New England never were recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury because they could not conform to the doctrines in the prayer book.

It is no accident the crisis began in the Episcopal Church where those relationships based on the colonial empire model never existed. One reason the crisis of authority in the Episcopal Church spiraled out of control is because those relationships in the wider-communion weren’t there at the deepest levels.

What we are left with is the struggle for power. What else sent Jesus to the cross?  And what is at the heart of the struggle for power but sin?

As a result for this struggle of power, chaos ensues over the battle for authority and the remedy he recommends is what he calls “balance.” But no one, no one, can balance sin.

“At the heart of the process … was seeking to find this necessary balance of freedom, flourishing and order,” Justin said.  “It is only when the balance is held that we can see as a Communion the pearl that is before us, and as a Communion it is only then that we have the capacity to let go of everything in order to hold the pearl.”

But how does anyone “let go of everything?”

Our equilibrium is not restored by holding in tension the struggle for power. There is no way to balance sin.  At the heart of our troubles is our rebellion, our sin. We are in rebellion, against God and our neighbor. We are conforming to the world. The solution is not balance, it’s repentance.

“The transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires little deaths in many of the individuals,” we learn in A Different Drum. “But it is also a time of group death, group dying. Through this emptiness, this sacrifice, comes true community. Members begin to speak of their deepest and most vulnerable parts—and others will simply listen. There will be tears—of sorrow, of joy. An extraordinary amount of healing begins to occur.”

We see this after Mary arrives in the Upper Room. The disciples have been through their own “little deaths,” their betrayals of running away, of despair, of giving up, of hiding out. They are empty. And here comes Mary with the most amazing news—they can see something has happened by her very presence, she has been with Jesus. They run to see for themselves, it is true. And in a little bit, Jesus is present with them as well. He is risen.

Mary and the disciples find freedom and reconciliation through the cross of Christ. They who were far away are brought near. They are redeemed.

The cross does not restore balance, it restores relationship—our relationship God and with one another.

“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We don’t conform to the world by balancing autonomy and conformity, rather we are “surprised by joy”—by the work of Christ on the cross as we go into the world.

The expression of the transformation work of Christ is quite diverse in the Anglican Communion, but spiritual authority does not come from balancing human power, it comes from the cross.

Father, may we eagerly seek repentance as a gift from you that sets us free, truly free to be a community  that loves one another through the Cross of Christ, and to share that redeeming love with a suffering and broken world, for the sake of your son, Jesus. Amen.