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Augustine, Church Unity, and GAFCON

Augustine, Church Unity, and GAFCON

By Fr. Mike Niebauer
Special to Virtueonline
October 16, 2013

One of the central topics to be discussed at the upcoming Global Anglican Future Conference will no doubt be the unity of the Church, and in particular the future unity of the Anglican Communion. To that end this essay will attempt to discern St. Augustine's view of Church unity and show how his ecclesiological vision might guide GAFCON moving forward. Augustine's vision, honed primarily through his interaction with the Donatists, was characterized by:

1. Unity in Love-True happiness comes only in loving God and in turn loving others. To be perfectly united with God is to be perfectly united with his people. However, the one true church will only be made manifest at the eschaton, thus bishops should not attempt to enact that separation on their own in the name of minor pastoral disputes.

2. Conciliarism to Clarify Proper Unity-Councils are required to discern when disputes are minor, or whether they threaten the salvation of individuals. Bishops should maintain peace in the midst of disputes, exercising charity as they await the clarification of Holy Scripture through councils representing regional and global churches.

3. Intervention to Enforce Conciliar Decrees-When councils are spurned and the salvation of souls are jeopardized, intervention is necessary to correct obstinate bishops. One of the primary responsibilities of a bishop as the shepherd of souls was the rooting out of schism and heresy. The purpose of this intervention is pastoral and salvific-it is the shepherd's duty to prevent his flock from going astray, and this may include the active intervention into the pastoral territory of another if necessary.

This simple threefold notion of unity helped maintain a strong degree of cohesion in the Western Church for a millennium, and while it is impossible to perfectly retrofit Augustine's ecclesiology onto the church catholic, given its still manifest divisions, it can be an extraordinarily valuable guide for particular denominations today, especially the Anglican Communion as it exists today in its current crisis. Specifically, applying Augustine's view of unity today, in preparation for GAFCON II, provides three judgments:

1. The Global Anglican Future Conference is an ecumenical council, and should be conducted and appropriated as such. One of the critical flaws in the international Anglican structures is a lack of clarity. For Augustine, matters of dispute were handled by the simple gathering of bishops to discern and clarify Holy Scripture, with the hope that such gatherings would include as large a representation of the church catholic as possible. The current Anglican international structures of unity consist in a muddle of invitations, "conversations," gatherings, and bureaucratic filings. Conciliar unity is eschewed for a procedural unity centered not upon the prayerful discernment of scripture but instead upon a genteel respect for process. GAFCON holds the potential for streamlining and bypassing these flawed processes, and should be conducted and appropriated as an ecumenical council. This means that the gathering should be centered upon fellowship and the prayerful discernment of scripture. This also means that clergy and laity in local Anglican congregations should first look to this gathering and its pronouncements as the unified voice of the Anglican Church catholic.

2. Those gathered in Nairobi should heed Augustine's advice to bear with each other patiently in the midst of minor pastoral differences. There are those who, while heralding GAFCON as the future unified voice of an orthodox Anglican communion, nevertheless have very particular opinions on how such a communion should be ordered. Since the Elizabethian Settlement, Anglicans have had to accept an appropriate firmness on matters of scripture and salvation while embracing a generous broadness on worship and structures. Such a unity is emblematic of Augustine's call to bear with one another in order to better foster love of God and love of neighbor. GAFCON should embrace just such a broadness of worship and structure, though now, not of the Elizabethian one between Reformation Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, but of a worldwide fellowship of evangelicals, Pentecostals, traditionalists. There will be some gathered who do not want such a communion, instead wishing to assume their localized Anglican experience as normative for the whole.

3. Beware of those who have a false notion of unity. Perhaps the most difficult challenge to the future of the Anglican Church comes not from those that so obviously flaunt their rejection of scripture and Christian morality, but from those who adhere to Biblical orthodoxy yet are unwilling to discipline such notorious heretics. Here, again, lies the potency of Augustine's thought-he is equally able to emphasize the unity of the Church for the sake of the love of God and espouse a vigorous interventionalism for the sake of such unity. Here, unity and discipline are both acts of love-the decision of a bishop to not separate themselves from the church over minor disputes and a bishop's decision to intervene into the business of a heretical bishop are both loving actions.

There is a sizeable minority of bishops and theologians who would consider themselves to be orthodox yet are unwilling to embrace any sort of discipline. For these, any act of separation or division is seen as sinful, and a violation of Christian unity and a Christian's duty to love one's enemies. What is missing from such adherents is the Christological and missiological ground of the Church's unity. The walls that separate Jew from Greek, male from female, slave from free, are shattered by Christ's resurrection, and the newfound unity in Christ is made manifest by the Holy Spirit in the gathering of the Church and churches that bear witness to the resurrection. It is only as the church filled with the Holy Spirit and testifying to the truth of the resurrection that these walls are broken and true unity established.

Those that ignore discipline for the sake of unity subvert the reality of the resurrection, attempting to establish our unity with God and with others on platonic, philosophical, or other foundations foreign to the gospel. Such views can only be held by those who have a diminished and compromised notion of hell and who clearly whitewash all portions of the New Testament that encourage discipline and the separation from false teaching. Such acts of discipline are meant to both notify the recipient of the potential danger of eternal separation from God as well as protect those under the care of false teachers from the same fate. To neglect such acts is a sign of a church unwilling to engage in the difficult and often messy task of shepherding souls in and through the resurrected Christ. The failure of the Anglican church in its calling to shepherd souls is as much symbolized in the failed censorship of Bishop Pike as in the approval of Bishop Robinson. Those gathered at GAFCON need to prayerfully consider how to discipline those that are unwilling to discipline.

The upcoming gathering of bishops, clergy and laity in Nairobi for the Global Anglican Future Conference is an historic occasion that symbolizes the emergence of a large, growing, and robust orthodox Anglicanism throughout the world. As the gathering approaches, it is important to prayerfully consider the type of unity such an assembly desires. Augustine's threefold ecclesial unity provides in appropriate launching pad for such discussions, as he articulates clearly a vigorous conciliar unity that is based upon the patient discernment of Holy Scripture and the willingness to engage in difficult pastoral intervention for the sake of a true unity grounded in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Such a vision helped maintain the unity of a large portion of Christian churches for several centuries. Our prayers should be that GAFCON might be the beginnings of such a lasting unity.

Fr. Mike Niebauer is rector of Redeemer Anglican Parish, a family of 7 ACNA congregations on Chicago's North Side connected with the Greenhouse Movement of Multiplying Regional Churches. He contributes to both thecommonvision.org and thegospelcoalition.org and can be reached at mike@greenhousemovement.com

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