Monday, August 14, 2023

Keys to Anglican unity in a fractious age: ecclesiology for Anglicans qua Anglicans

The genesis of this post is not division within the Communion or in ACANZP over homosexuality. There are - believe it or not - other faultlines in the Communion and in our church and it is the general, longstanding aspiration of this blog to argue for Anglican unity and away from division, so the concern here is that we look again at the theological "why" of  always working collaboratively to bridge faultlines and thus prevent them from becoming chasms.

What is church? Just about any answer you or I read in a book on "ecclesiology" (study of church) is more or less going to be along these lines: that church is people gathered together in response to the call ("klesia") of the God of Jesus Christ to meet for prayer, praise, proclamation and participation in the eucharist, and from such meeting together, to engage in practices of pastoral care and provision for the needy.

Critical to understanding what it means to be church is: 

(1) God forms the church - God, not us, is in charge - Jesus Christ, God's Son has been appointed Lord of the church; 

(2) church is people bound together, united as one body of people by virtue of God calling all to come together - yes, each individual is called by God to respond to Jesus Christ as a matter of "personal" salvation, but a series of discrete saved individuals is not "church". Church in the NT is always associated with cooperation, collaboration, community and communion of the saved ones.

More, of course, can then be said about "one body of people" because Paul develops the notion of such a body (= group, community, association) as a visible, physical representation of the body of Christ on earth: body of Christ means the association of people is (should be?) a union of people knit together like organs and muscles and bones in a human body, held together by ligaments etc and contained within one skin.

Unity of the church, in Pauline theology, is not a slogan but a reality of understanding who we are in relation to Christ through whom God has called us into being the church: a communion, a union, a body of people actually like a human body which is both "in Christ" (Christ is our Lord, our life together as communion/union/body is life within the very life of Christ) and "Christ in us" (Christ through the Spirit lives within the church, empowering us to be what we are called to be as church).

Put in different words, we should not, when faced with faultlines, let alone church-chasms, resort to pleas to be "united" or "more united", as though obeying a command to be united is more important than living out the reality of union. 

We should, instead, talk about what it means to be church, to live out what God has called us to be, to work together on how we either overcome our differences (an NT example is found in Acts 15) and/or live with our differences (an NT example is found in Romans 14) and/or respect our differences (an NT example is Paul's exposition of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12: we cannot all be toes or ears or hearts).

"Talk about what it means to be church" means we gather at the table of discussion - we do not stay away from it - even if we are struggling with gathering at the table of the eucharist!

All this, of course, can be approached in similar but not exactly the same way, via Johannine theology of church, because in that theology, unity of disciples of Jesus is paramount (John 17), and (com)union of disciples together in Christ and indwelt by Christ is Christ's vision for the future of his mission (e.g. John 6); and John 21 specifically envisions the church of difference and different personalities remaining the one church of Christ, of those who obey the command, Follow me.

Although I write as  Pākehā , everything here relates to important Māori concepts and life-practices of whanaunatanga (relationship, kinship, connection, unity) and manaakitanga (hospitality, generosity, respect, support).

So far, so "church" in general. Church understood biblically and theologically means staying together, being present to one another, and resisting temptations to walk apart on different pathways.

There is a specifically Anglican aspect to church staying together and not letting faultlines develop into chasms. It goes like this.

Rightly (so Catholics, Orthodox, some Lutherans and Methodists might say) or wrongly (so others might say), we Anglicans have a settled on being an episcopally-led, synodically-governed church, bound together in various ways (so dioceses (are) compact(ed)/contract(ed) together to form a province/national/international church;* so provinces/national/international Anglican churches voluntarily come together in bonds of love and affection to form the Anglican Communion).

Our commitment, both in love (in Christ, for one another, for God's church) and in specific promises made when (e.g.) being ordained, being licensed to a lay or ordained position, accepting office such as churchwarden or synodsperson, as Anglicans, is then to abide by the lawful authority of our bishops (and archbishops) and of our General Synod/Convention/like and of our local synods.

As Christian Anglicans we should, of course, go above and beyond any mere duty ascribed by canon or statute or liturgical rubric, so "to abide by the lawful authority etc" is not only about obeying the rules but also living into them - growing and developing relationships with one another in Christ, including those in authority over us, whether an individual such as a vicar or bishop or archbishop, or a committee/synod/council whom otherwise we might be tempted to cast aside as a bunch of faceless bureaucrats! [A temptation, I must confess, I have not always resisted through my lifetime!]

Put more simply, Anglican church members are members of the body of Christ and members of a specific body or association of people with agreed rules, procedures, officers and governance groups, and thus as both kinds of members, have obligations to the well-being and good order of the church, and the well-being and good order of the church is always about our union/communion with one another in Christ.

Faultlines may develop, chasms should not.

*ACANZP is an international church, covering the jurisdictions of NZ, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa; likewise TEC is an international church, including a few countries other than the USA; etc.


  1. Lots to like in this fine OP, but I have a quibble, the qualm, and a question.

    The quibble: if eucharistic fellowship were just an opinion club, the gospel would be false. Indeed, believers should be making eucharist with as many with whom they disagree as possible, the better to glorify the inexhaustible creativity of God. They should also meet with many non-communicants, of course, but such meetings however cordial are in principle with non-believers. This grates against Constantinian sensibilities, I know, but open the door and look in the street.

  2. The qualm: Insofar as denominationalism is a modernist fence against nihilism-- eg recent schismatic appeals to theories of Anglican tradition-- it dangerously and maybe faithlessly eclipses gospel and dogma intrinsic to any being in Christ in any possible church. The glory of the C16 English reform was that its reset to ancient universals was scrupulously non-sectarian. Reducing that to a tribalism that asserts tribal authority seems unfaithful to the Creator.

  3. The question: when members think about what is personal, individual, unique in their local participation in the Body have they any faithful alternative to thinking of it as their calling to that place and people under the Creator's providence? The law/gospel dialectic does not pre-empt churchly order per se but it does complicate some kinds of appeals to it.

    The idea of *denominations* was a modern solution to a modern problem. The postmodern decadence and desuetude of these creatures is not surprising or troubling.

    But there have always been affiliations within the Body and they may actually be more lively in an ecumenical future. The sort of thinking that + Peter is doing arises because we live between the times. It will continue until the end.


  4. Thanks BW

    My, obviously, very "Anglican" point(s) challenges us to think about whether we can find a better Anglican way towards unity than currently [over some matters etc] but the backdrop question is, If we cannot do this within a smallish body of Christians, why would be presume we might engage in a larger body of Christians in the work of unity?

    Having said that about working within the human construct of "denomination", nevertheless, I acknowledge that a failure of Anglican to find unity among themselves might lead to a reconsideration of whether the Anglican denomination is worth persevering with, that is, whether there is another way of being church [whether that is another denomination or not] that is worth persevering with. [That is not my personal question - I am too old now to worry about beginning a journey with another form of the worldwide church].

  5. "a better Anglican way towards unity"

    Possibly, Peter, I am too Episcopalian to feel the weight of this problem in quite the way that you do Down Under. Do you recall your reader/commenter in New York who had compiled a database of the many tiny schisms from TEC? Perhaps because it was nearby and risibly grandiose, my favorite one was the now defunct Anglican Orthodox Patriarchate that was enthroned for a time in a dilapidated mansion somewhere in the rural northern counties of Virginia.

    From your New Yorker's perspective and my own, every generation in our churches has had and will have a few souls who drift from the English reform's careful balance into lopsidedly Reformed or other enthusiasms and then out the door to something that better fits what they truly believe. The object of controversy changes-- saying "altar" rather than "table," putting candles on it, having three holy orders rather than two, wearing clerical collars, wearing copes, allowing lay presidency, revising marriage canons, etc-- but the fissiparous result is perennially the same. If this is a problem, it is not one of church unity.

    "If we cannot do this within a smallish body of Christians, why would we presume we might engage in a larger body of Christians in the work of unity?"

    Here, my evangelicalism may be the log in my eye. In normal times, I have seen evangelical pastors realize effective local unity in actual towns and cities. Usually, this unity has informal personal leadership but lacks sacramental visibility and interoperable canons. These are defects, but there are free church theologians like say Miroslav Volf up here or Myk Habets down there who see and repair them.

    Conversely, the denominations fragment the Body in each place, disallow collaborative "home rule" in all of them, and tether bishops to synods that are non-resident, not very local, and not at all magisterial. Here we have the sacramental signs and some provisional order, but also self-defeating institutional resistance to the local unity that is their only point.

    So Almighty God does not want those denominations to perfect themselves at any scale large or small. He wants them to do the work that merges jurisdictions and devolves power so that his good people of Christchurch or Cairo or Cambridge or Chicago or Cancun are more united on the ground to the praise and glory of his Name. Full stop.

    "whether there is another way of being church [than the Anglican one]"

    Probably not. Any churches that flourish in a post-Constantinian future will recapitulate the reforming Church of England's distinction of essential faith and order from failed innovations and peripheral concerns. In the C16-17, this required a scriptural and patristic sensibility carefully balancing and in places integrating Lutheran and Reformed ideas. Insofar as Karl Barth-- the most accomplished and only paradigmatic theologian since the C13-- did the same, there may be no good alternative to what Anglicans have always done.