Quick Thoughts on the Reformed-Anglican Dialogue Report, “Koinonia”

The Anglican Communion and World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), to which my EPC belongs, issued a joint report last week on “koinonia”, which comes from the Greek word κοινωνός (koinonos), meaning fellowship, communion, or participation. The report was initiated as part of the effort to renew global Anglican-Reformed dialogue, which had lapsed after a 1984 report discussing ecumenical cooperation. To that end, the report is generally weak and innocuous, and its strongest moments were when it quoted the 1984 report on baptism and Christian communion (e.g. §20-22, 40, 64).

The report refers to κοινωνός as “koinonia” throughout, rather than translate the term, which initially struck me as odd. The reason became clear after rereading the report. Rather than treating koinonia as a definitional communion with God and his people, koinonia is a pseudo-substance that, as a gift or challenge (§7),  served as an invitation into communion with God, and is a gift of God to creation, whether or not people are joined with him in redemption. If κοινωνός was translated, rather than transliterated as a distinct term, the weakness would have been made clear. For instance, 2 Peter 1:4 describes those with faith in Christ as κοινωνοὶ, (koinonoi, “participating” or “communing”) in the divine nature. Peter’s meaning is simple: salvation is union with God, which can be describe as partaking, fellowship, or communion (koinonia) with him. “Koinonia” is not a gift independent from God, albeit one that comes from him, but a way of describing the character of what it means to be united to him. This is what the Apostles’ Creed means when it references the “communion of saints” (cf. Heidelberg Catechism 55). The report heads in this direction a few times (e.g. §23: “Koinonia is not merely a form of Christian behaviour or a spiritual exercise to be practised, but a relational way of being together in Christ…“) only then to veer off towards koinonia being some sort of additional gift that comes from Christ, rather than a definitionally sharing in Christ (“…The very nature of koinonia as communion and relationship means it is a gift to be received”).

Grounding koinonia in creation, the report only states that Christ renews and intensifies it in his person and work (§17-18). Sharing in koinonia as a gift of God, given in creation, is how people become one in their communion with Christ (§14, 17-18). This inverts biblical koinonia, which is an expression of oneness that comes from being joined to Christ in faith. The report makes it appear that koinonia is creational, meaning that people naturally share in it from birth (§35) apart from redemption, which in turn only deepens koinonia: “We encourage our two communions publicly and consciously to recommit to deepening that unity we already share in the koinonia given in creation and uniquely renewed in Christ” (page 4). This koinonia was given by God in creation, and is continued to be given in creation, something which both the Anglican and Reformed parties “strongly” affirm (§57).

Drawing on the 1984 report, this dialogue argues that the language of two denominations being “in or out of communion” with each other, the historical language used to describe whether two churches recognize each other as legitimate expressions of the body of Christ by allowing ministers to freely move and work between them, is inappropriate. Since koinonia is a gift and reality shared by all, then communion is not “impaired”, but koinonia is “variously received” (§35, 60). On the one hand there is truth to this: all Christians share in Christ and are therefore united to each other. But on the other hand, a great number of Christians disagree on the issues of baptism (brought into koinonia) and the Lord’s Supper (communion!) such that communing with each other, i.e., fellowshipping together in worship and sacrament, is well, impaired, precisely because they do not believe that practice of koinonia to be legitimate. The irony here is that the report essentially affirms the idea of a spiritual unity (koinonia) of the church often asserted by Baptists and Congregationalists.

Rejecting the language of “in or out” of communion in favor of “variously received” koinonia reveals the unhelpfulness of this endeavor. As the quoted 1984 report states, “If we are as realistic about baptism as the apostolic writers, then we are already by our baptism one body, and the continued separation of our two Communions is a public denial of what we are already in Christ.” Anglicans and the Reformed have some significant differences that are barriers to unity (chiefly polity and confessionalism), and yet this report does not even acknowledge them. You can say, “Because of baptism we’re really in communion already!, we just have variously received koinonia” all day long, but the reality is that the ministerial and visible unity (koinonia) of the church is fractured. Until those divisions are addressed, all reports about koinonia are just finding fancy ways that avoid facing the basis of impaired communion.

Interestingly, one of the report’s strongest segments is when it states that to say “I have no need of you” in the spirit condemned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:21 is anathema to the koinonia of God (§38). What makes this interesting is that it seems that the only time ecclesiastical condemnation is considered warranted is when a church asserts “I have no need of you”, such as when the WCRC’s predecessor body suspended several South African churches for their practice of apartheid (§72). That was appropriate action, but appears to be the only time this sort of actions have been implemented.

Two final thoughts. The report states that one of the implications of koinonia is affirming life, and discusses this at length (§49-53). For some reason, the practice of abortion as rejecting the value of life does not seem to be a consideration of the report, perhaps because the Episcopal Church, PC(USA) and their European counterparts support it. Secondly, John Calvin certainly did not initiate the Reformation in Switzerland (§75). There was an entire generation that preceded Calvin and invited him to join them.