Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently articulated his understanding of the status of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), formed in 2009 by a coalition of a dozen groups that chose to break communion with the Anglican Church of Canada and, in the United States, with The Episcopal Church.
ACNA, said the archbishop in an October interview with the Church of Ireland Gazette, “is a separate church. It is not part of the Anglican Communion.” Instead, he described ACNA as “an ecumenical partner.”
The Anglican Church of Canada has a number of ecumenical partners. One, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, has become a full communion partner with which we enjoy a full and mutual recognition of ministry and sacraments. With others, like the Roman Catholic Church and the United Church of Canada, we’re still on that journey-an admittedly longer one.
To be an ecumenical partner means to repent of our divisions and to understand them as a scandalous contradiction of the will of Christ. It means to fervently desire reconciliation with the churches from which we are separated, and to manifest this desire in prayer, dialogue and action.
To be an ecumenical partner also means recognizing that the other with whom you are seeking to reconcile demonstrates signs of the Holy Spirit at work, even if you are in disagreement about some significant issues.
It’s far from clear that ACNA yet manifests these qualities of an ecumenical partner. Its repentance is, according to its constitution, limited to “things done and left undone that have contributed to or tolerated the rise of false teaching” in the Anglican churches from which it has chosen to walk apart. It’s still in a legal fight over property with two dioceses in the United States. It seeks recognition as a new North American province of the Anglican Communion without desiring reconciliation with those already existing.
The pain of this separation is very fresh, and a personal reality for many people. Time may not heal all wounds, but the history of the ecumenical movement tells us that it’s often a necessary ingredient in reconciliation among churches.
It took Anglicans and Methodists 150 years before they could recognize their mutual heritage and discuss reunion. It took Roman Catholics and Lutherans 500 years to acknowledge they shared a common understanding of justification. It took Eastern and Oriental Orthodox theologians 1,500 years to see their consensus about the natures of Christ got lost in translation.
In each case it was distance from the polemics and politics (not to mention excommunications, anathemas and persecutions) of the original division that allowed the separated churches to see their differences in a new, more dispassionate light. So it shouldn’t surprise us if reconciliation between the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church of Canada seems unthinkable less than a decade after our separation. But such reconciliation is possible-and imperative. It may just take some time.
And humility. Repentance walks both sides of the street. For any kind of reconciliation to begin, both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Church in North America will need to acknowledge that we have both in our own ways contributed to the creation and perpetuation of this sad division, one that compromises the credibility of our witness to the gospel and our fulfilment of God’s mission.
Archdeacon Bruce Myers is the General Synod’s co-ordinator for ecumenical and interfaith relations.