Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

The dynamic nature of doctrine

Here's the full text of the third section of the WFWG report

Way Forward Working Group  |  22 Feb 2016

This section explains the theological platform upon which the working group’s proposals are made.

One of the Collect prayers in our Anglican tradition says this:

Almighty God,
 you have made us for yourself,
 and our hearts are restless
 till they find their rest in you;
 so lead us by your Spirit
 that in this life we may live to your glory
 and in the life to come enjoy you forever;
 through Jesus Christ our Lord.

These words recall those of the late fourth and early fifth century church father, St Augustine of Hippo.  They derive from his Confessions, a work in which Augustine (writing in mid-life) recalls the ups and downs of his youth, and evokes the strong sense of wanting to seek God in his life.  Augustine’s words and the contemporary prayer evoking them reflect the strong sense that there is a gap in all our lives which can only be filled by experience of God. 

As the Church of God in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, sisters and brothers together in our Three Tikanga Church, we acknowledge first our relationship to God the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and through that, our relationship to one another.  Above all, we desire to know God more fully and in that, to be ourselves more fully known.  A Scriptural passage that evokes strongly this sense of journeying and searching for God is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  This passage is a poignant reminder of the power of the story and presence of the risen Christ to transform present troubles into fresh insights that remind us of the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh to each and every generation.  There is a critical and present mission aspect to our discussions on the matter of same-sex relationships.

There are three critical questions of theological import that require further consideration.  These are addressed in turn below.

Q:   What does it mean to be human in the now?

In all our work, we acknowledge explicitly that we stand at a particular time in the life of our Church.  Human life is lived out in and through history.  To be human in the now, is first and foremost to be in relationship with God our creator (whether that is acknowledged explicitly or not), our world, and all that is in it.  Relationships create changes within those fundamentals that may give rise to a maturing of insight.  Relationship also creates difference.  Being human in the now means that we are shaped by the past and present, and live in anticipation of the future.  We are the sum of many parts, and stand on the shoulders of generations that have gone before us.  Being human in the now also means that there is capacity to be self-transcending.  We are capable of doing new things which may appear risky or novel, and which may be positive or negative.  We learn more about God and ourselves through this process.  We project forward that which indicates what we are creatively coming to be.  Reading and interpreting Scripture is part of this process; it is about more than attending to the fixity of the word, and grasping the deeper reality that gave birth to those words.  Such insight is rooted deep in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and is reflected in the way that we have grown and developed as a Church in these islands.

To be human in the now means we must relate to society.  This does not mean that we should agree with myriad directions, but we acknowledge our place within that and the response to the mission of God.  We must be open to how fresh insights may lead to change and dynamism.  Tradition is dynamic (as is discussed further below) and, as we seek to maintain our fundamental identity, this may be attained only by examining our context and its development carefully over time.  This by its very nature is complex, rather than complicated.  We have been doing this over several decades with respect to the matter of same-gender relationships.  Moreover, the Anglican Communion has also wrestled with it over decades, and continues to do so, at every turn seeking (at times painfully) to discern God’s will.  Matthew 22:36-40 gives us insight that the call to love God cannot be separated from the call to love our neighbour; those with whom we live and worship.  They are equal as gospel imperatives.

To say something is complicated is to propose that there is a system or mechanism by which we can explain and understand it.  To say something is complex, leaves open the possibility of the honest reflection as expressed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, a community that struggled with its differences: ‘for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but when we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Cor. 13:12). 

Q:   When we speak of ‘two integrities’ how can we also speak of the unity of the Church?

The answer to this question begins in comments made above about what it means to be human in the now.  We believe that human beings are made in the image of God.  The Old Testament expressly forbids the manufacture of images of God, and given the ambivalence over this matter we might suggest that being made in the image of God is more about orientation than about attribute: it is precisely in our weakness that we reflect God’s glory.  This underpins the Pauline theology of the cross.  But there is something else too.  We acknowledge the painfully separate differences amongst us when it comes to discussing the blessing of same-sex relationships.  But is difference not a weakness that has potential always to be reformed?  What would it be like if we as a Church committed to respect one another’s differences, held with integrity, in a harmonious way?

This further enables us to attend to the particularities of our context by which we mean the life of our Three Tikanga church. From one marae to another, the kawa or kaupapa may differ. Thus, we can speak of 'my marae; my kawa, kaupapa' and of ‘your marae; your kawa, kaupapa.'  There are two aspects to appreciate. Firstly, that this understanding grounds an acceptance of difference. Second, the differences themselves, the differing kawa or kaupapa, as important and treasured as they may be, are actually 'second order' matters.  This is because they are embedded in a first order patterning of what is tika- (right, just, proper or correct), when it comes to exercising manaakitanga[1] to manuwhiri[2], providing the manuwhiri a deep and reassuring structure to guide them in their expectations and actions.

An understanding of the process of talanoa in Polynesia is also helpful.  Akin to the very best understandings of the notion of dialogue, talanoa is deep listening to each other in a manner that seeks to strengthen relationships that connect people as well as respect the differences between them.  Talanoa assumes that the relationship between people is deep and abiding and this leads to a mutually attentive art of patient human interaction.  This abiding connection is found in the life of the early church.  For instance, the Spirit joins different peoples in a new community in Christ while, at the same time, without erasing the differences - "we hear, each of us, our own native language." Acts 2.9

We give glory to God in our synchrony with one another, more than in our disarray.  Whilst the Pauline tendency towards athletic imagery as a way of presenting the Christian life usually has to do with end goal and reward, might it also be another way of what is actually observed when runners compete, namely a tendency to run in synchrony with one another in the midst of competition?  To accede to this view requires trust in the observation that two distinct views may be held in integrity.  This is not quite the same as the oft-critiqued approach that presents competing views, and leaves it at that, without those views being in active and ongoing dialogue which may permit change in time.  It is also not the same as the equally oft-critiqued quest to find a middle-way on issues.  We are seeking to achieve more than that in this current process.  To become Church takes time; resolving matters is best done over time, and however frustrating that may be, that is precisely what we have sought to do in our present context. 

In his farewell discourse in John’s Gospel, Jesus says: ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17: 20-21).  Unity is not the same as uniformity.  There has never been a unity of the church that has been lost.  Indeed, from the beginning the church was marked by diversity.  When Paul presents the image of the body in 1 Corinthians 13, he describes the fruit of the Spirit (not the fruits).  Unity flourishes through variety and diversity.  The prayer that Jesus articulates in John 17 invites us to share in its hope and thus to grow more into more of its reality.  That means we are growing into the unity God is gifting to us and through us to God’s world.  Unity is not about managing the church, but discovering each other.  Mission and unity are inseparable.  Unity is God’s destiny for the church and the world.

So we should let this happen within us while attending to different integrities, rather like the Jewish proverb that ‘we bring near the kingdom by each small enacting of Torah.’  Unity is about each of us, and the church in its diversity, being turned to God, and letting God show and draw us into the fullness of a unity we sense but can only glimpse.  Of course, this requires discussion, and will include disagreement, but it is to recognise that what already holds us together is the Presence of God, in God’s triune Being.

Q:   What do we mean by saying that Doctrine is dynamic?

The beginning of the Book of Hebrews says this:

‘He maha nga wahi, he maha nga huarahi i korero ai te Atua i mua, ara nga poropiti, ki nga matua. I enei ra whakamutunga na tana Tama ana korero ki a tatou, ko tana hoki tera i mea ai mana nga mea katoa, ko tana kaihanga hoki tera o nga ao; Ko ia te kanapatanga o tona kororia, te tino ahua o tona pumautanga, e whakau nei i nga mea katoa ki te kupu o tona kaha.’

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’

‘I he kuo hilí na‘e tu‘olahi mo founga kehekehe ‘a e folofola mai ‘a e ‘Otuá ki he‘etau ngaahi kuí, ‘o fakafou mai ‘i he kau palōfitá.  Ka ‘i he ngaahi ‘aho faka‘osi ko ení kuó ne folofola mai kiate kitautolu ‘i hono ‘Aló. Ko hono ‘Aló na‘e fakatupu ai ‘e he ‘Otuá ‘a e me‘a kotoa pē, pea ‘e ‘i ai e ‘aho ‘e hoko ai e me‘a kotoa pē ko ‘ene me‘a. ‘Oku hā sino ‘iate ia ‘a e nāunau kotoa ‘o e ‘Otuá, pea ‘okú ne tatau tofu pē mo e ‘Otuá, he ‘okú ne pukepuke ‘a e me‘a kotoa pē ‘aki ‘ene folofola māfimafí.


So it is throughout Christian history that Doctrine had to be thought out, and lived out in the worshipping life of the church, with reflections and ongoing decisions made through Councils and Creeds.  In such a way, the church has developed a deeper and richer understanding of faith.  This development continues today, as the Christian faith is lived out in multiple cultures and contexts.  Scripture is read and re-read constantly alongside the tradition of the church, with ongoing debate and discernment.  We attend to the phrase Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi; as we worship, so we believe, so we live.

One way of explaining this further may be to use the example of the Creeds.  We can approach the reciting of the Creed in different ways: as information (telling us what Christian faith is if we want to believe); as participative (what we all sign up to together as Christians); as narratives (telling us something about the story of our faith); as grammar (as speech about our faith that enables us to make sense of it; note that the alternate declaration of faith in ANZPB-HKMOA adheres to the grammar aspect of Creed); as expression of what is deep within faith (we are continually formed in our faith when we recite the Creed).  In the same way, doctrine expresses what holds us in relationship.  Doctrine is about an active conversation, and requires that we keep the conversation going.  That is classically Anglican, in the pattern of Scripture, reason and tradition.

In light of the above, it is not surprising that central doctrines such as the Trinity were not always clearly understood or expounded.  Rather, meaning evolved over time, and arguably continues to evolve.  In that way, it is possible to suggest that doctrines always contain potential to mature in ways over time.  Doctrinal questions may remain in an undefined state for a considerable period of time.   

[1] Being hospitable, loving, respectful and caring - literally the act of upholding the mana of the 'other'.

[2] Other, guest, visitor, stranger, neighbour - literally a flock (or single plaited strand) of birds.