. . . the sight of a Church tower, wherever it is met with, is an assurance that every thing has not been bought up for private convenience or enjoyment;–that there is some provision made for public purposes, and for the welfare of the poorest and most destitute human being who lives within the hearing of its bells. (Thomas Arnold, Principles of Church Reform, p. 94)
Of course, ++Justin did not quote Thomas Arnold in his speech at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, which has given me cause to think and write today. But he may as well have done. Except now, it is not just England, or foreign missions of the Church of England, to which Arnold’s words apply. Since 1833, when Principles of Church Reform was written, the Anglican Communion has evolved from colonial outposts and a few churches (such as the Episcopal Church) not governed by the Church of England, to a global affiliation of interdependent provinces, each with their own systems of canon law, but held together, if only tenuously at times, by the Instruments of Communion.
Perhaps more importantly, informal bonds of affection between Anglicans of different nationalities helps us to share a common set of ecclesiological commitments, while still honoring cultural differences in theological interpretations. Archbishop Welby speaks of the range of cultural, national, and linguistic variety encompassed by the Anglican Communion:
The Anglican Communion by itself – and it’s only one small part of the global Church – is in 165 countries, one of which, Nigeria, has 407 language groups by itself. We deal in thousands of cultures.
At least one member province exists on every continent except Antarctica. Physically, there may not be a parish church for miles, but Anglican pastoral care is available in almost every corner of the inhabited world. Metaphorically, there is barely a human soul that cannot be considered outside the “hearing of the bells” of this communion of churches. While that may not be unique (Roman Catholicism, at least, can make a very similar claim), ++Justin has outlined some of the things that have been gifts of Anglican Christianity to the places it has reached.
Any church is, at best, a mixed blessing to the cultures it has colonized. We are more sensitive about that then we were even when Arnold was writing. The Archbishop is right in saying that we are a “failing church”–not in the sense of numerical decline in the West, but in the sense that we haven’t always been good news in our effort to preach good news. But we realize that we are also a “forgiven church”, and do our best to learn from our mistakes and get on with it.
And what is it with which Anglican Christianity must get on? Archbishop Welby has made a stunning commitment to visit every member province of the Anglican Communion early on in his primacy. He has enumerated a few areas where the church has had a significant positive impact–not just on those who accept the Christian message, but on all who are “within the hearing of its bells.” International aid to care for the poor, and education that will help lift people out of poverty (and the associated scandals of disease and hunger), are things which the church does energetically and well. This is not just for those who “accept Christ”–that is a nice byproduct if it happens. But it is not the aim. It is the duty of the Christian Church, both corporately and as individuals, to care for those who have less. What one does for the least of these…
We stand for human dignity–not just that of Christians, but, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, every human being. Those we agree with, those we like–and most importantly, those with whom we differ. We claim to be a hospitable, welcoming, inclusive church. We don’t always get it right, but that’s our aspiration.
Arnold was right that the Church is a symbol that not everything–every building, every parcel of land–should be for private convenience, but there should be some set aside for public good. For Anglicans, at our best, that means our churches should not just be places where like-minded Anglicans can go to enjoy one another’s cozy company. They should be places where everyone–Christian or otherwise–can expect help, respect, and care.