Icons and Unfolding History

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Images and Icons

Pictures, images, structures, and icons are helpful in illuminating the Christian faith for us. They are not the faith themselves; rather, they help us see and understand the faith. They can also help us administer faith and remain faithful. They are, however, signposts that point to the Kingdom if we have eyes to see.

Take, for example, the principle of Diocesan or Provincial “boundaries.” The boundaries are a structure that has been set up in order to preserve and promote Gospel faith. Boundaries can set up clear lines of accountability, responsibility, and protection. They are a structure that emerged to serve a purpose. Over time, however, the boundaries in some places no longer served to preserve the Gospel, they were perverted and actually began being used to subvert the Gospel and undermine Biblical fidelity. When it became obvious to some of us that there was a full blown crisis, one of the things that was done was to convene a gathering of ethicists to ask the question of how to deal with the competing issues arising out of a corrupt situation where the bishop of a diocese would not allow Biblically faithful ministry to be brought to people in “his territory.” To go in would violate the structure. To fail to go in would mean that people would be deprived of Christian care and discipleship.

What the ethicists articulated was that it is not an ethical violation to transgress a structure that was set up to preserve a principle, when the structure had been corrupted and was being used to subvert the very purpose for which it was designed. In other words, despite the fact that some measure of institutional chaos would result from ministering across boundaries, the result was less damage than leaving people languishing without care and Gospel ministry. Of course, there are people who disagree, but the tragedy of supporting the structure over the faith is a failure to see the eternal consequences of withholding Gospel ministry.

Canterbury as an Icon

Many Provinces (and individuals) in the Anglican Communion have in their documents the understanding of the definition of what it means to be Anglican as being those who are “in Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.” It would be irresponsible, however, to assert that the relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury (often referred to as the ABC) is without limits. The point is that the ABC has been an icon of Anglican faith for centuries. That may have been sufficient when the extended community was thoroughly committed to historic Biblical faith. In a convinced Christian community, being “in communion” with Canterbury was a shorthand way of saying that there was shared faith, belief, practice, and discipline. Recent years have demonstrated, however, that none of those things are still shared by everyone who is institutionally connected with Canterbury. Further, the current Archbishop himself has made it clear that he does not see himself asserting discipline about the matters of faith. The only areas of clarity he has been willing to express have been about institutional structures. The problem with that position is that the institutional structures are signposts that point to spiritual realities. When the structure exists without fidelity to the faith it is designed to serve it is a “whitewashed sepulcher.” Don’t get me wrong. This is not to suggest that the Archbishop is the source of the current destructive fire that is raging out of control. Obviously, he inherited the crisis. One could certainly argue that his selective addressing of the issues has exacerbated the crisis, however. The other structures of the Communion also share the responsibility. When the Communion was being organized, no one ever imagined that discipline needed to be built in at the scale now required. Despite that, I am convinced that there was a solution to this crisis pretty early on. Perhaps it would not have worked, but the Archbishop is responsible for failing to use the fire extinguisher that was at his command. I think it could have stopped this mess.

I am quite certain that the Archbishop would say that that the contents of his “fire extinguisher” are not adequate to have extinguished the flames. The problem is that we will never know because he didn’t use it. Now the blaze is of forest fire proportions. So… what to do?

Every 400 years or so…

This is where we go back to the issue of icons. Remember that icons represent something beyond themselves. Police use their badge to challenge people to conform to the law. It stands for something greater than how imposing the policeman is personally though. The badge is a symbol of authority that also points to power. If authority is ignored, then power will follow. That is what has happened in the Communion.

Instead of simply asserting the icon, the GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem articulated the faith that was supposed to be epitomized in the structures and icons of the Communion. When the current structures proved inadequate to illuminate the faith and the consequences of departing from it, the Faith itself has been articulated. The Jerusalem Declaration delineates the faith that the “Instruments of Unity” were supposed to maintain. This is not about people who lack reverence for the Anglican Communion acting in an unruly manner. It is about those who love it and the faith that it has promulgated for a very long time reasserting the faith.

It is obvious that we cannot have both the faith that we have inherited and the current structures as they are. If one is pursued then the other will change. There is no contest about which is expendable. No one goes to Hell if a structure is changed. The same cannot be said if the faith is.

The Anglican Church in North America has not only been launched, it is prospering. It is not the faith. It is a structure in which we live out the faith. It has become necessary because the existing structure in North America was institutionally, officially, and structurally leading people away from the redeeming love of Christ. However they may try, opposing voices are insufficient to restore the structure to Biblical fidelity. It is not adequate to say, “I disagree with the actions and the direction that has been taken. I am going to stay and bear witness that this is the wrong direction.” The reason that is inadequate is that there are innocents aboard who are being led to perdition. Perhaps some of the church members are naively uncritical, but the witness must be adequate to the crisis. Putting up a safety poster in my office is not an adequate response to the spiritual destruction that is taking place. In addition, the old structure draws some measure of support, even if it is small, from the numbers who are still aligned with them.

The GAFCON Conference and Primates Council have reasserted what it means to be faithfully Anglican. Only the most superficial examination of the situation will result in the pursuit of yesterday’s institutional norms. Those who love the Lord that the structures historically served with wake in increasing numbers to the reality of the situation as the substance of faith is manifest in the ACNA more and more clearly.

In the life of the Church, every four hundred years or so, something happens that redefines not the faith, but the lay of the land. I think that the linked work of GAFCON and the Anglican Church in North America fall into that category.

This is history unfolding; and I think the Father is glad.