The Living Church

Year Article Type Limit by Author

The Living ChurchApril 30, 1995The Puzzle Over Koinonia by RALPH N. McMICHAEL 210(18) p. 10-11

The Puzzle Over Koinonia
In an effort to achieve koinonia, the bishops are unwise in trying to piece together truth.

Koinonia, and its Latin equivalent, communio, is a word that appears often in a variety of ecclesial arenas. It is used primarily as a model or description of the church, and as such, it can be found in several ecumenical documents as well as in statements issued by individual churches.

In this age of ecumenism, koinonia has become a helpful way to relate various churches to each other. Likewise, in this age of theological pluralism, koinonia provides a framework in which theological differences can be tolerated, reconciled or embraced.

This resurgence of koinonia is not lost on the Episcopal Church. I would like to point to three recent usages of koinonia in the Episcopal Church.

At the most recent meeting of the House of Bishops at Kanuga [TLC, March 26], the Presiding Bishop addressed the house concerning the presentment brought against Bishop Walter Righter by 10 bishops [TLC, Feb. 19]. These bishops started the proceedings against Bishop Righter, retired Bishop of Iowa, because he ordained a publicly homosexual man.

I am not taking up the topic of human sexuality and its driving issues: ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions. As important as these matters are, I wish to deal with the issue of koinonia.

In the course of his remarks, the Presiding Bishop appealed to koinonia and implied that this presentment does not serve koinonia but threatens it. Bishop Browning stated: "Our community of bishops was well embarked on another process before we began the canonical route mandated by the presentment. We were in the process of discerning Christian truth."

He described this process, now thrown off course by the presentment, as koinonia: "We have been living our koinonia and developed our torah." This koinonia has been a process "to follow a course that is going to help us enter each other's truths," and "this presentment is not the way to go deeper into the truths of one another."

Simply put, the Presiding Bishop is deeply concerned that the presentment has violated koinonia because it has derailed the process by which the bishops can journey together into each other's truths.

The second use of koinonia provides the theological background for the Presiding Bishop's remarks to the House of Bishops. It is well known that after the 1991 General Convention in Phoenix, the bishops gathered at Kanuga to get their house together. At this first Kanuga meeting, they began the process of koinonia to which the Presiding Bishop is now appealing. In the most recent issue of the Anglican Theological Review (Winter 1995), Bishop Craig Anderson, dean of the General Theological Seminary, wrote an article that describes the theological method adopted by the house.

In his article, Bishop Anderson used the word koinonia four times. One use occurs within his account of that first Kanuga meeting: The bishops "gathered at a new habitat (Kanuga Conference Center) and tried new habits (prayer, Bible study, small group discussions, a limited agenda and a consensual process) in hopes that a new habitus (koinonia/covenant community) might be realized" (pp. 36-37).

Bishop Anderson then explicated the theological method followed by the bishops. In this article, koinonia is used as a place of dialogue (a word that Bishop Anderson frequently relies upon). In other words, koinonia is a process toward the discovery of truth; bishops are to gather and to share their truths in common reflection so that they might arrive at an emerging truth (the ah-ha! experience).

The third use of koinonia that I wish to note is the "Statement of Koinonia" issued by several bishops at the Indianapolis General Convention last year. Readers might recall that this statement was written by Bishop John Spong, and signed by other bishops, as a response to the amended sexuality study and the "Affirmation" - a statement of traditional sexual morality prepared and signed by numerous bishops.

The "Statement of Koinonia" never addresses what it means by koinonia; rather, it states that the signing bishops will not exclude practicing homosexuals from holy orders based upon this fact alone. It wishes to make clear that although the House of Bishops amended the sexuality study toward a more traditional stance, and in the face of a majority of bishops who do not share their view, they will go on with their experienced truth.

In my view, the three usages of koinonia I have recounted are either distortions or betrayals of what koinonia really means. Furthermore, those 10 bishops who began the presentment proceedings have not derailed koinonia; they have sought to restore it.

The church and the House of Bishops are koinonia only insofar as they live the life of the Trinity. Diversity is only possible as it proceeds from the unity-in-difference that resides in the life of the triune God. Diversity in search of unity cannot succeed as long as diversity (or pluralism) remains an excuse to do one's own ecclesial thing. Diversity masked as ongoing dialogue, when accompanied by those who act on their own while appealing to such dialogue, is an apologetic for the tyranny of a few over the many.

Koinonia is not an excuse for doing one's own episcopal thing, even when you can get other bishops to sign on; rather, it is our common commitment to live the life of the Trinity alone. We are not to pattern our life on the Trinity; our life is to be the Trinity. We are not to share and enter into each other's truths so that we can establish truth by consensus or mutual tolerance; all truth unifies because it proceeds from the unifying God. Koinonia is not a process or simply a context for meaningful dialogue; koinonia is its own truth.

The truth of God is indeed expressed through others, and we can hear this truth as we attend to how truth is voiced by others. However, God's truth is not bound nor qualified by the process of dialogue. The House of Bishops is not a jigsaw puzzle of scattered truth-pieces which can be put together through dialogue on the Kanuga card table. Our efforts at putting together the pieces of truth through recognition of possible points of convergence between our shared individual experiences will fail. Koinonia occurs only insofar as we are ordered by God's life and God's truth. It is not the same as a consensual process of committed dialogue, even though it must involve such dialogue. Koinonia is a reality only as it proceeds from the Trinity; God's communion is the sole basis for our communion.

If the House of Bishops wishes to live in authentic koinonia, it cannot allow some of its number to strike out on their own into theologically unchartered territory. Bishops are to act from common agreement and commonly held truth. If they do not, they are not imaging or living the life of the Trinity, which is the life they have been consecrated to proclaim to a fragmented world wallowing in its individual truths. q

Koinonia is not an excuse for doing one's own episcopal thingThe Rev. Ralph N. McMichael teaches systematic theology and liturgy at Nashotah House.