That they may be one...

The word schism is one you seldom see in headlines. In fact, most talk of schism preceded the printing press and the era of headlines. But today's Boston Globe carries just such a head on its front page - above the fold: Episcopal leaders act to avert schism.
The Episcopal bishops of the United States, attempting to head off a schism over gay rights and biblical interpretation, yesterday promised to "exercise restraint" by not approving more gay bishops and not authorizing a formal ritual for blessing same-sex couples...

The pledge, part of an eight-point statement issued in the final minutes of a six-day meeting in New Orleans, reduces the likelihood that the Episcopal Church will be ousted from the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion, according to many US church officials. Only one of the approximately 160 bishops in attendance could be heard voting against the measure, although several of the most conservative bishops had left the meeting Friday.

"I think it lessens the possibility of schism," said Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts. "I think this is going to meet the needs of the archbishop of Canterbury, and it shows how much we want to be part of the Anglican Communion."

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, referred to the statement as a clarification of positions already articulated by the US bishops, but said she hopes that "our sacrificial actions and united actions" will help stave off schism...

In the statement, the bishops not only agreed to a moratorium on approving gay bishops and rites of blessing, but also criticized actions by Anglican bishops from the developing world who have agreed to oversee conservative American clergy and congregations...

The bishops also said, "we call for unequivocal and active commitment to the civil rights, safety and dignity of gay and lesbian persons..."

The American bishops issued their statement under extreme pressure from within the Episcopal Church, which dozens of parishes and thousands of individuals have left because they are upset about the church's liberal direction. Pressure has also come from elsewhere in the global Anglican Communion, particularly from the developing world, where several leaders say they are reluctant to continue belonging to the same denominational family as a church that is affirming of same-sex relationships.

(Read Michael Paulson's entire article here.)
The issues threatening schism in the Anglican Communion are several but certainly chief among them are questions of biblical interpretation, especially as related to acceptance of same-sex relationships. My purpose here is not to delve into those hot-button topics but rather to observe in the midst of such controversy the Anglicans' desire to maintain communion internationally in their provinces and dioceses.

(It might be helpful to point out that while communion here includes sharing communion in the Lord's Supper at his table, it has a broader application in reference to the unity and integrity of the Anglican Church and its relationship to the See of Canterbury in the Church of England, and thus the Archbishop of Canterbury in whose person and ministry is found the unique focus of Anglican unity.)

While those on both sides of these intensely debated questions maintain their theologically differing positions, both also recognize that there is a reality to be safeguarded above and beyond the particulars of what divides them and that is their communion as church.

Although the Roman Catholic Church does not find itself on the eve of schism, we should recognize that there are many issues tracing lines of division within Roman Catholicism, especially in the dioceses and parishes of the United States. Again, my purpose here is not to rehearse those issues or divisions but rather to raise the question of communion in Catholicism. (As above, the word communion here is not exclusive of sacramental communion but refers to that broader sense of communion that is ours as we relate to the See of Rome and thus to the Bishop of Rome in whose person and ministry is found the unique focus of our unity.)

As I have written before, there is in American Roman Catholicism a growing self-understanding of congregationalism. I say this not in any to impugn those churches which proudly identify themselves as congregational but rather to point out that communion as understood in Roman Catholicism values unity of the many over the authority of the local congregation.

That the body of Christ be one was the prayer of Jesus at supper on the night before he died: "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me." (John 17:20-23) This is precisely the kind of communion at stake in these theological debates.

It would be a scandal and a shame for the Anglicans' "call for unequivocal and active commitment to the civil rights, safety and dignity of gay and lesbian persons" to be muted or lost in this struggle. And it would be a greater shame if the unity of Christ's body in the Anglican Communion be further splintered over a theological disagreement. My prayer is that the Anglicans find ways to continue to struggle constructively with their disagreements and at the same time maintain or, better, nourish the communion that binds them and which they treasure.

We Roman Catholics, especially the American variety, would do well to watch what happens in the Anglican Church and to work at understanding how deeply they value the communion that is theirs. While the structure of the Roman Catholic makes the threat of schism much less likely than for our Anglican brothers and sisters (their bishops already enjoying far more autonomy that RC bishops), we are in great need of understanding, safeguarding and working for the deepening of communion within our own Church.

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