It is perhaps no accident that when Jesus turned his mind to the subject of the church, he used a rather riveting analogy: "I am the vine, you are the branches." Even for an apparently homogeneous organisation like the Church of England (let alone the Anglican communion), "branches" offers a better descriptive fit than most of the labels on offer. It suggests intra-dependence yet difference; unity and diversity; commonality yet independence; continuity and change; pruning [Bishop of Durham?, roundup here] yet fruitfulness.He concludes:
In other words, the analogy sets up a correlation between particularity and catholicity. This is, of course, a struggle that Anglicans are all too familiar with. There is a constant wrestling for the "true" identity of Anglicanism. The church finds itself easy prey to a variety of interest-led groups (from the theological left and right) that continually assert their freedoms over any uneasy consensus. The assumption made here is that any one branch is "free" from the others.
Technically, this is correct. But the illusion of independence threatens to impoverish a profound catholic aspect of Anglicanism. The right to express and practice particularity is too often preferred to the self-restraint hinted at by a deeper catholicity. Thus, one branch will exercise its assumed privilege of freedom - fiscal, political, theological or moral - over the others. The consequence is that the branches attempt to define the vine.
As the Anglican primates meet next week in Tanzania, there will be much to contemplate. How to hold together amid tense, even bitter diversity. How to be one, yet many. How to be faithfully catholic, yet authentically local. In all of this, an ethic of shared restraint - borne out of a deep catholicity - may have much to offer the Anglican communion.