Diana Butler Bass is a Christian historian and religious commentator. Four years ago, when Rowan Williams was still Archbishop of Canterbury, Butler Bass entered a debate over the identity of Anglicanism by commenting on a public exchange of letters between Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Bass saw in the exchange of letters a crucial conflict of visions over what it means to be Anglican.

The traditional vision of Anglicanism Bass argued was articulated in the letter from Rowan Williams who she says offered a “top-down Anglicanism.” According to Bass this vision of Anglicanism

is hierarchical, bishop-centered, concerned with organizational control, and authoritarian.  It is an old vision that vests the identity of the church in a chain of authority in the hands of ecclesiastical guardians who agree on “a coherent Anglican identity” and then enforce the boundaries of that identity through legal means.  This version of Anglicanism stretches back through the Middle Ages and relates to similar forms of Christianity as found in Roman Catholicism and some forms of Eastern Orthodoxy.

According to Bass, Katharine Jefferts Schori on the other hand offered a “bottom-up Anglicanism.” This vision of the Anglican church

is democratic, parish-based, mission-oriented, and (even) revolutionary.  It is also an old vision, one that vests the identity of the church in local communities of Anglicans at prayer, who adapt their way of life and liturgy according to the needs of Christian mission.  This version of Anglicanism is rooted in both the ancient Celtic traditions of English Christianity and the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury circa 600.

I am not nearly enough of an historian, theologian, or scholar of ecclesiology to know if Bass’ portrayal of these two vision of Anglicanism is accurate. I certainly do not know if Bass accurately reflects the mind of Rowan Williams or of Katharine Jefferts Schori.

What I do know is that the vision Bass attributes to Katharine Jefferts Schori feels like the little Anglican community in which I work. Where I minister, no one is interested in a church that is “hierarchical, bishop-centered, concerned with organizational control, and authoritarian.”

If I try to throw my weight around as a leader in the church where I serve, I will soon be put straight. I am surrounded by strong, independent, thoughtful, deeply committed followers of Jesus. The people among whom I minister believe that God’s Spirit is profoundly at work in their lives. I, as the “Rector”, am not the arbiter of God’s work in anyone’s life. It is clear to us all that God may and does speak every bit as much in and through every member of our community.

As a leader in the church I must listen as much, or more, than I tell. There is no place for me to give orders, edicts, or divine proclamations. It is not my job to keep things under control. I do not serve “for the good of the church.” I serve in obedience to Christ. Church members are not called upon to support “my” ministry, or to keep the machinery of the church institution operational. They are called upon to be faithful to Christ and to share in creating communities rooted in the presence and action of God’s Spirit in every person’s life.

I have a particular role as a leader, teacher, and liturgical functionary; but this is only one function in the body of Christ. I exercise the ministry entrusted to me, not to dominate, but to support the spiritual flourishing of every other person in the church.

There is a hierarchy in the church; but it may not be the one we usually imagine. In the church Jesus is at the top, the rest of the community is at the bottom. Below the bottom, are those of us who are set aside “professionally” to support and uphold the ministry of those who do the real work of the church out in the world.

The revolution for which the church stands is the revolution of inclusion and equality. The church exists to be a community in which there is a valued place for every person.

The church of Jesus is a community that, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) Jesus calls us to be a community in which we “call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)

The world today desperately needs to see a vision of community that exists to serve others rather than being driven by self-interest. The world needs models of human relationship based, not upon the demand for agreement, but upon the agreement to share together in the fellowship to which Jesus calls all human beings.  This may at times be messy. It may seem unruly, even a little chaotic and unpredictable. But the vision of welcome is the core of the Christian vision and the heart of Anglican identity.