by Andrew Gerns
Archbishop Justin Welby is calling together all the Primates of the 38 Anglican churches around the world (plus one outside the communion) to talk about the future of the Anglican Communion. According to the headlines, he is saying that the Anglican Communion is a failure that it is falling apart. So to stop the bleeding, we are told, the future of the Communion is looser ties with one another.
When I first heard this, I had to check my urge to panic. On the one hand, I do not want a return to the Anglican Wars of the last decade or two. On the other hand, I don’t want some of the people in other Anglican churches (in and out of the Communion) to beat up the Episcopal Church (and, by extension, me).
And, I am worried that churches that at least periodically prayed and worked together would suddenly start ex-communicating each other.
Well, if it is the end of the Anglican Communion, my first question is “what do you mean by that?” My hope is that he will try to put an end once and for all to the idea that the Anglican Communion is some kind of Super Church or Super Denomination that spans the globe. And I hope that we can preserve the idea of the Anglican Communion as an idea, a fellowship, and, perhaps, as an ideal. I like the idea that 38 different churches from all over the world can be so different and yet somehow still be connected.
The notion that the Anglican Communion is mainly a membership organization with rules, regulations, and membership requirements has not worked very well. The more formal things got, the screwier they became. Instead of it being a gathering of roughly national churches who were in full communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, it became (or tried to become) an organization whose member churches had to agree on certain litmus test matters.
It used to be that the test was simple. Does your church believe in the Old and New Testaments as the word of God? Does you church accept the Apostles and Nicene Creeds as the central statements of the Christian faith? Does your church accept baptism and Holy Eucharist as the two chief sacraments of the Church instituted by Jesus? Does your church accept the historic and apostolic ministry of Bishops?
In addition, do you have a direct, historic relationship with the Church of England either through colonization or mission work by that Church? Do we share a style of worship that is grounded in a Book of Common Prayer?
In those days, the Anglican Communion was an idea, a recognition that these separate churches shared something unique and special, and that for all our differences we express a common witness around the world.
But it was a muddle. Who was “in” and who was “out?” Anglican Churches in Portugal, Brazil, the Philippines and Japan were in, but the Lutheran Churches of northern Europe (and who would be in full communion with the Church of England and who met all four of the criteria of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral) were not. Individual members of the Anglican Communion could enter into full communion relationships with non-Anglican churches but that didn’t make them part of the club. Generally speaking, there was one member of the Communion per nation, unless you were in Europe where Church of England and American Episcopal congregations live side by side.
The muddle extended to the varieties of liturgical usages and theological preferences. Some members of the Anglican Communion stuck to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and other member churches never really ever used it (like Scotland and the United States). Some were founded by Catholic minded Anglicans and others by evangelically oriented missionaries. The Prayer Books of the various churches can be quite different.
But somehow the idea came into being that we, despite all these differences, could act as One Big Denomination or something like that. We began to think that member churches could regulate one another and, if they disagreed, toss each other out. So when Episcopalians in the United States and Anglicans in Canada ordained openly homosexual persons as priests and bishops, others in the communion thought they could (and should) toss us out. So the Lambeth Conference stopped acting as a conference and more like a synod and the Windsor Report was transformed from a report into a policy statement.
In short, the less we prayed together and the more we tried to regulate one another the less we acted like we were in communion. The more we tried to define membership in the Anglican Communion according to conformity, the more the Anglican Communion began to fray.
Screaming headlines that “The Anglican Communion is dissolving!” only make sense if you think of the Anglican Communion as anything more than an idea. If you want the Anglican Communion to be something more than churches of Christian people who share a common heritage and certain general notions about what it means to be church—if you want it to be some kind of global Super-Church—then Welby’s gathering of Primates will be a disappointment.
We still need each other, and we still share much. It would be a good thing if we would continue to pray together, support each other’s mission work, recognize each other’s orders, and go to each other’s congregations when we are visiting. It would be good if our several dioceses and parishes would partner to educate, disciple, and do mission.
I think we should let the Anglican Consultative Council be a council of Anglicans who consult, instead of being an ongoing policy body that will need some kind of enforcement mechanism to enforce its will. Let the Primates meeting be a meeting of Anglican Primates, not some kind of House of Lords. Let the Lambeth Conference stop being a once-a-decade synod and be what it is, a conference of Bishops from around the globe who get to remind one another of their (and our) common bonds. Instead of laws and pronouncement, let’s let the Bishops pray, worship, and study together so that the resulting relationships might result in more mission.
Here’s the truth: the idea of the Anglican Communion as a big global denomination with local offices has just never gelled. Instead, it’s been an occasion for mischief. With this idea, people in this country who hated the direction the Episcopal Church but who were losing in convention and ballot box were able to pull in people in Africa, Asia, and the Middle-East into controversies not of their making and which were of secondary concern to their ministry. The idea of enforced unity took the ability of building natural affinities away, and certainly drained the joy out of the partnerships, replacing them with suspicion.
And if we have to, we can let go of the idea of One Anglican Church per Country, even if that means living with an ACNA church down the block that is also in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. After all, my ELCA and Missouri Synod Lutheran sisters and brothers seem to have figured this out at least on every local level I’ve witnessed…even if they do it by largely ignoring one another! I hope that the Episcopal Church and ACNA will one day sit down together…or really kneel together…and lay out our differences in humility and prayer. If we promise not to steal each other’s members and property and stop trash-talking each other, it could work.
We’ve said some mighty hurtful things to each other along the way. We sued each other over money and property. Our clerical leaders have dragged congregations into our fights. We have lots to repent of. If we can agree to stop calling each other names, it would be a good start.
We used to call Anglicanism the “middle way.” Maybe the Anglican Communion was “the muddle way.”
If the idea of “looser ties” means returning to the muddle where we consult, meet, pray, and share communion from time to time for the sake of Christ and His mission, then I am all for it. The cost may be that, at least for a time, certain Bishops and Churches will only gather with their own kind. And they might give themselves important sounding names, and make important pronouncements. But, in the end, how different is that?
Muddle is what Anglicans do best. Whenever we’ve departed from our comprehensive heart, things have not gone well. Queen Elizabeth I — who once famously said that she “would not build windows into men’s souls” — created modern Anglicanism by finding a way to allow Puritans to be pure and Catholics to be catholic under the single monarch and the single prayer book. Certainly, today we can find a way knit together a global communion while at the same time resisting the need to regulate one another.
And if we do, it will be a muddle. There will be carping about “fudge.” Some of the solutions we come up with may seem lame or even silly. But it would be distinctly Anglican, doing what we do best. In looking for the unity, in choosing to stay together, in seeking Christ’s face, especially in the people we strongly disagree with, and in daily choosing mercy over regulation in our dealings with one another, we will find uncounted blessings, and we will bring Jesus’ hope, healing, and new life to people all over the globe.
The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is Rector of Trinity Church, Easton, PA and a contributing Editor to Episcopal Café