Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is the Anglican Communion a church?

I guess until recently my mind was a little hazy about whether the Anglican Communion is a church or not. I think I would have said 'yes, of course, it's the worldwide Anglican church.' But increasingly I realise this is not so. (Yes, some of my friends would remind me that they pointed this out to me ages ago)! The Communion is a fellowship of Anglican churches. Each of these churches has a constitution and a governance structure, including a means of securing legally binding decisions around matters of discipline and doctrine. Each of these churches thus has the means of being a church in the sense of Article 19, 'The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.' That is, the constitution, governance structure and means of securing legally binding decisions around matters of discipline and doctrine ensure that each Anglican church preaches the 'pure Word of God' and duly ministers the Sacraments, albeit according to the understanding of each church.

But the Anglican Communion has no constitution, governance structure and means of securing a legally binding decision. It has the semblance of a constitution and governance structure through its 'Instruments of Communion', at least to the extent that individual member churches of the Communion comply with the lead of the Instruments. But it has no means of legally binding any member church (let alone individual Anglican). So in the end the Communion cannot ensure that the pure Word of God is preached (having no means of declaring authoritatively what an impure Word might be) and the Sacraments duly ministered. It is not a church though it might reasonably be called an ecclesial community or ecclesial body.

The push towards a Covenant is, ultimately, a pressing of the question, Will we become a (world) church? And that question inevitably raises the question of authority: who will be our governors? Those agin such governors readily put the question, 'Oh, so we are going to have a Curia, are we?' Useful to invoke our anti-Roman Catholic heritage when it serves us!

Its been very painful to have to consider these questions in the last decade, but, in hindsight its easy to see that the questions needed to be put at some point. A generally expanding Church of England on the back of colonialism with a series of ad hoc decisions along the way about setting up Synods not subservient to the British Parliament and appointing bishops not signed off by the British monarch, along with a series of fortunate developments such as the Lambeth Conference, and a huge amount of goodwill have taken us so far ... but they have not established a world Anglican church.

Do we want to become a worldwide church?

That's not an easy question to answer. But if we either say 'no' or put off answering, then there are some consequences. First we simply have to accept as beyond legal redress, the 'provincialism' which has led the Diocese of New Hampshire with the support of TEC in one direction and the Diocese of Sydney in another in respect of previously unchallenged aspects of Anglican order (i.e. on the one hand that bishops will be celibate or married; on the other that only priests and bishops will preside at communion). Secondly, there will be ongoing competition by different groupings within the Communion (and beyond it) to assert either 'we are the best expression of Anglicanism' or 'we are the true expression of Anglicanism'. Thirdly, there is no reason not to accept the right of two or more Anglican churches to exist in the same territory. Neither is accountable to some higher Anglican world authority; each may enter into fellowship with other Anglican churches as is mutually agreeable; each may claim to be the 'best' or the 'true' expression of Anglicanism - the sole judge with any kind of authority will be the popular following they gain. Indeed each may be valued by the wider Communion as valuable expressions of Anglican characteristics otherwise submerged if contained within one Anglican church.

But the hardest to measure consequence will be to the mission of God in the world. Will it be helped or hindered by the Anglican Communion not becoming a church?

Finally, if we do not become a church, it is by no means guaranteed that the Anglican Communion will continue more or less as it is. The inauguration in early December of a new province for North America will pose a very sharp challenge. Will the Archbishop of Canterbury recognise this new province? If he does there may be an eruptive reaction from TEC; if he does not there may be a (complete) loss of confidence in the office of Canterbury by GAFCON and Global South churches. How does the Anglican Communion proceed if (say) half its provinces recognise the new province and half do not? It may be able to live with the ambiguity (a specialist Anglican trait)! But it could prove to be a bridge too far in attempting to join the disparate streams of Anglicanism together.


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

In a sense, Peter, there's no such thing as "a" Church, just the whole company of Christ's faithful people — the Catholic Church. We become part of it by baptism.

The term "Anglican" was not used a descriptor for a denomination before, I believe, Gladstone in 1838.

The Church of England is simply a Christendom establishment, which happened to survive; a chunk of late medieval Europe that got detached, and has only had to start playing denominational identity games in the past hundred years. Overseas Anglican churches (small c) had to consolidate and develop their identities in a much more coherent way because they weren't established. But the lack of an overarching centralism has been vital to them in doing this, allowing them to be autocephalous, as Orthodox and early Churches were autocephalous.

As Christianity enters a post-denominational age, this places the C of E in a remarkably propitious place, as usual, entirely by accident.

I don't buy the thought that what we need is some kind of Roman style super centre is ludicrous. Rome itself didn't have that before 1870!

All the covenant can be is some descriptor of what we hold in common, apart from an English language heritage. But the English language heritage, intriguingly, is not to be sniffed at — Engoihs is increasingly coming to have the kind of role that Latin had in medieval Europe!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bishop Alan
I agree with much; perhaps even all you say. It is plausible for the Anglican Communion to keep more in step with the autocephalousness of the Orthodox churches than to move to RC centralization. The covenant would then frame what we have in common rather than a code with disciplinary implications.

But autocephalousness a la the Orthodox churches is not always a happy experience around the world (e.g. as the X Orthodox and the Y Orthodox fight a turf war somewhere in the new world). Further the commonality of Orthodox theology and praxis is a lot tighter than we find in the Anglican world! Its inconceivable (to me, at least) that any Orthodox church would question the role of its priesthood (as Sydney is doing) or harbour atheists or Muslims in its ranks of ministers (as at various times and places Anglican churches seemingly have been able to do)!!

Not that there are not difficulties with the RC model ...which needs, incidentally, to be pretty tightly controlled to work ... my sense 'down under' is that a semi-autonomous RC church in Oceania would have had married priests years ago, and may be even women priests since the turn of the millenium, and certainly much greater diversity in its liturgies!!

Anonymous said...

There are married RC priests in Oceanea
and married RC deacons