In Praise of the Anglican Communion: A rumination.

For more than twenty years I have been directly engaged in matters concerning the Anglican Communion – in missionary sending and as a partnership officer for the Episcopal Church, in graduate study, in publishing, as executive of a mission organization (Global Episcopal Mission Network) and on several committees of General Convention and Executive Council. In recent months I have been asked if there is any reason to continue to want to be part of the Anglican Communion. This rumination is an effort to respond. The response here is not about ecclesial niceties, since I do not believe the Anglican Communion is primarily an ecclesial device. Indeed, at its best moments I believe the Anglican Communion is part of a dream of God.

The Breaking of the Bonds:

We must begin by reminding ourselves that the crisis of broken bonds of affection is not new and because women are discounted so easily anyway the crisis slips by too easily from past issues to the present ones, unless of course you are an ordained woman, a friend of an ordained woman, or in any way touched by a call for justice.

The ordination of women severely strained the “bonds of affection” and transferability of orders has not been a reality throughout the communion since that time. One can not assume that clergy of this church will be accepted in some Provinces unless they are willing to suspend their support of women in ordained ministry and certainly refrain from advocating for such ministry.

The insults suffered by women clergy of this church, by supporters of women’s ordination, and by some of the leadership of this church have mostly gone unacknowledged. The myth of reception so glossed over in the Windsor Report is just that, a myth. Bishop Ann Tottenham has stated the case very succinctly in her article, A Reflection on the Windsor Report.

The point in reciting this disgraceful bit of Anglican history is to suggest that the wringing of hands and the bemoaning of stretched communion and breaking of bonds of affection is no new thing, and the current high crisis mode is the doing of people and organizations that have been waiting the day to complete the work of reordering, realigning, the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church to meet their sensibilities.

I will suggest in another essay that much of what is going on now in the Anglican Communion blood bath is the result of unresolved problems in the Church of England, and in particular is the result of competing missionary visions spread throughout much of the world and now coming to fruition. But for now, it is enough to suggest that the Anglican Communion is paying the piper for long overdue bills.

The question for this essay is, given all the claims that the Anglican Communion is coming of age, and that doing so (according to some) means becoming a world church, what reason can there be to want to belong to something called the Anglican Communion? Is there any word of praise, any source of pride, and any thanksgiving that can be made for the Anglican Communion that would lead any Christian of progressive, or let us say in the “old fashion” sense, liberal, persuasion to continue to want to claim interest or the wish to be included?

Let this then be a small praise of the Anglican Communion. In it I will draw on several articles written for other purposes: (i) a short piece, In the Still of the Night, (ii) Contending with Anglican Realignment ,(iii) Mystic Sweet Communion is One Thing, the Anglican Communion is Another, (iv) A Fourth Way and (v) The Anglican Communion. Much of this paper is drawn from this last article, published in the Witness just prior to General Convention.

In Praise of the Anglican Communion.

Being an Anglican or a member of a church in the Anglican Communion is important to many people, and I must confess, to me. Not as important as being faithful to my belief that Jesus is the One in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Still, important. Being Anglican provides many of us with a vocational context for living out that faithfulness to Jesus. It gives a sense of belonging to a world wide more or less like minded community committed to the Way that is Jesus, the presence of God.

Anglicanism is primarily incarnational in its focus. Urban Holmes, in the classic What is Anglicanism said this, “Anglicanism is a mode of making sense of the experience of God…Anglicanism is a particular approach to the construction of reality, or to the building of a world.” “One way of understanding Anglicanism is to know that it is a unique way of looking, making sense, and acting in the experience of God disclosed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.” (pgs 1-2)

Anglicanism is a many faceted and I have no doubt that a person can be an Anglican without being part of the Anglican Communion. But I am writing with the understanding that being part of the Anglican Communion is, on the face of it, evidence of being an Anglican.

Here are things in praise of the Anglican Communion. I will state them in terms of that for which we can give thanks:

We can give thanks that the Anglican Communion is a gift of mutual regard:

The Anglican Communion is a gift we have received from God, not a prize to be won. Our involvement and inclusion in this fellowship is a gift, one that we ought not to take lightly.

The Lambeth Conference defined the Anglican Communion, as follows:

The Conference approves the following statement of nature and status of the Anglican Communion, as that term is used in its Resolutions:

The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:
  • they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;
  • they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and
  • they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.
The Conference makes this statement praying for and eagerly awaiting the time when the Churches of the present Anglican Communion will enter into communion with other parts of the Catholic Church not definable as Anglican in the above sense, as a step towards the ultimate reunion of all Christendom in one visibly united fellowship. (Lambeth Conference of 1930, Resolution 49)

The understanding that the churches in this fellowship "are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference" means that the Anglican Communion is a product of mutuality, itself possible only as God gives the grace, not a principality to be won, conquered, owned or held as a prize.

We can give thanks that the Anglican Communion is a fellowship which from the outset has represented nothing resulting from our merit and everything of God's reconciling grace.

It is indeed something of a miracle that conversations across the divisions of power, colonialism, race, gender and nation have continued at all, much less to the increase of ministry throughout the world. And they have.

The Anglican Communion as a fellowship is not an organic unity of member Churches, but a dynamic unity of friendships among members of those Churches and Provinces. The Anglican Communion is thus a vehicle for companionship in mission, not an end in itself. Nor is organic unity the goal of our communion as Anglicans: our goal is rather companionship within the one Body of Christ.

We must constantly remind ourselves that the Anglican Communion is a way of being IN the Church. It ought not be touted as THE Church, or even as A church. Churches belong to the Anglican Communion. It is a way of staying connected with fellow travelers while going about the task of the whole Church – “to carry forward the work of Christ.” When this way of being in the Church has served its usefulness it will die, and hopefully be well remembered.

The Church is the Body of Christ. Its unity is not in question, for that Body is not to be confused with the disunity of the various churches and their authorities, all of which are subject to the temptations of worldly power. Christ is one, and we who are companions in Christ are one by that fact -- not by the organized structures of any national or multi-national church.

We are “untidy,” as Archbishop Tutu once remarked. Untidy enough so that justice found its way in even when we were not looking; just enough so that reason, reasonableness, got its foot in the door. Untidy enough that the doors are not locked against the stranger and the fool, the difficult and the lost.

We can give thanks that the Anglican Communion is an instrument of Companionship in Mission and its churches are committed to common prayer and common action.

We in the Episcopal Church ought to give thanks for being part of the Anglican Communion as an instrument of companionship in mission. We begin that vocation in prayer for one another and for the world, and in particular in common prayer. The fellowship of prayer and action is essential to the life of the Communion.

We in the Episcopal Church need to look beyond the issues of party conflict to the important expressions of our life in companionship and in mission with others. The tragic encouragement of the myth that the Episcopal Church would withhold funds for needs in dioceses or Provinces who were not sympathetic to its own processes or decisions, and the concurrent decisions by those churches to refuse “tainted” money that might have strings attached, is an insult to the best of such companionship and a scandal of broken fellowship.

We can give thanks that the Anglican Communion is not the Church, it is not a church, it is a Fellowship, and fellowship requires laughter and joy as well as tears and sorrow.

The Church, that “wonderful and sacred mystery” is, in its existential reality, extremely untidy. Nothing about its various forms in this or that actual institutional church does it justice. Its divisions are as edifying to our sense of the mystery as are its moments of unity. Sometimes those difference can bring out the underlying common humanity of believers.

At one time or another various provinces have decided to support and sanction a variety of matters: birth control and family planning, remarriage after divorce, the ordination of women. Provinces have come out against slavery and against capital punishment, allowed polygamous persons to membership in the Church, and in recent days to accept openly Gay and Lesbian persons into leadership and into acknowledged and blessed same sex relationships.

All of this has been untidy – not every Province has entered into the spirit of each of these decisions. Still, we have muddled along in fellowship, not unlike the first disciples of Jesus who could get caught up in their own untidy ways at the drop of a hat. We even argue still with one another as to who will get to sit at Our Lord’s right or left hand!

Perhaps a smile or even a bit of laughter is in order. Perhaps it is not after all for us to know the seating arrangement at the heavenly banquet. Maybe it is enough to be a fellowship, a koinonia without place cards.

In all the calls for discipline, demands for realignment, charges of schismatic or heretical actions, betrayals of trust, duplicity, conspiracy and the like, it is too easy to lose sight of the joy we have sometimes had as members of this peculiar fellowship. All of us blessed to experience life in various parts of the Communion know that joy and laughter are as much part of the witness as tears and sorrow. Companionship involves transformation to being with others in common life in all its fullness.

Such joys are there or else the struggle to keep the Communion alive would be of no value whatsoever. We sometimes forget that there are many times when the untidiness of our common life is a source of delight and wonder.

We can give thanks for the Anglican Communion as a peculiar form of ecumenical fellowship:

A fellowship is not at all the same as a church; it is a
koinonia, not an ekklesia. Certainly in our day no one would confuse the Anglican Communion for a world wide single organic whole. The Anglican Communion is in no wise to be understood as a parallel to the Roman Catholic Church, or even the Orthodox Church. Nor should it be. It is inherently ecumenical, building as it does on the premise of self-ruling autonomous churches. As the Anglican Communion we are churches in koinonia, connected by distinct acts of companionship and fellowship – sharing communion (eating a sacred meal) and stories of mission origins (family history). We are peoples who sit at common table with members of our wider community.

We can give thanks for the Anglican Communion as an attempt to model Ecumenical Hospitality:

Being at table fellowship with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other representatives of Anglican provinces is to be desired every bit as much as sharing the meal in the smallest village church in a companion diocese, since all such
koinonia echoes some aspect of the heavenly banquet. Koinonia is always a gift of hospitality to be received as a gift and not to be grasped as a matter of right or property.

There is great authority in hospitality, for those who offer hospitality speak for the household from which they come. But the only power in that hospitality is that of invitation. All other powers ascribed to the host derive from the desire of those who wish to be invited to table. And ascribed power is idolatry, not fellowship. There is no place for coercive power in fellowship and no fear should accompany a break in fellowship.

I suggest we can praise God and give thanks for the Anglican Communion in all these ways. Praise and thanks must not blind us to the possibility that there are some who will misuse these features of the Communion and turn them to more rigid structures: It is possible for the gift to go sour; for it to become a community of merit; for it to forget God’s mission; for it to become a community permanently “in crisis,” a thing of sorrow only; for it to cease its ecumenical sensibility; for it to no longer wish to be organic and impermanent.

To praise the Anglican Communion for what it is or might be is not to avoid the possibility that it can be turned into an institution devoid of the features for which praise is given.

The Episcopal Church and its future with the Anglican Communion.

We need not apologize for being the Church we are or for the path that God has set before us. Nor should we take on the illness or guilt ascribed to us and leave our own members with the impression that this Church is ill to the point of death. The so called crisis need not be our crisis at all.

We are not bound to surrender our strength or vision as dioceses bound together in this Episcopal Church simply because critics have told us they are in disagreement with the decisions this Church has made or the way this Church understands its vocation within the Body of Christ. And we should be clear that the ecumenical fellowship we have had with other churches in the Anglican Communion does not blind us to the possibility that good ecumenical relations (even the very best, as represented in the Anglican Communion) can at times go sour. As concerns unity, the Church universal has a terrible track record, and we would be naive to think that we can more easily hold everyone together than were our forbearers able.

What we can do is work at the matter realistically, understanding that the Anglican Communion is a rather unique modeling of ecumenical relationships, one that requires special care.

The majority of the members of the Episcopal Church must stand opposed to anything that replaces this fellowship with an institution that furthers the already existing scandal of competing patriarchal churches. Gatherings of those concerned to maintain the Episcopal Church as autonomous and yet related by true bonds of affection to as wide a community of churches as possible, and in particular to the community of churches we call Anglican, are vital and important.

I believe that those speaking in reaction to what the Episcopal Church has done, and what little it has achieved regarding inclusion on many levels, are wrong about what it means to be Anglican, what it means to be in communion, and what it will take to live more fully into our vocation as the Anglican Communion. They would propose that the Anglican Communion be realigned, with the Episcopal Church read out of the Communion and replaced by another church entity in the United States.

If we, when considering questions about our relationships and actions in the Anglican Communion, uncritically allow the propositions of those seeking realignment to go unchallenged we risk rejecting the gift of the Anglican Communion as a product of God's grace and a means through which we experience that grace in working together for reconciliation and justice in the world. If we presuppose the existence of a crisis and assign its cause to our disobedience, we will become participants in our own oppression.

Progressives need to reject this crisis mentality and its idolatrous base and instead embrace the Anglican Communion for the gift we believe it to be.
Should it prove not to be a gift, but a millstone, that is another matter.


  1. Mark, this is really splendid! There are so many people I wish would read this (but they won't, or would blow a gasket if they tried).

    Thank you for this (& now I shall backtrack & follow some of your links).

  2. Very compelling and thoughtful. I think your distinction between the fellowship of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches is absolutely key. Thanks

  3. Sadly, given the seeming "turn" such that Lambeth 1.10 and Windsor are now law, I'm not sure that this vision of Anglicanism will survive and we will end up with some version of a conciliar Roman Catholicism with a sola Scriptura biblicism, especially given the way history with regard to both Lambeth 1998 in the passage of 1.10 and in the Windsor Report have been manipulated so that certain portions are law, certain portions lie about the complexity, certain portions remain advisory amidst episcopal persecution.

  4. Rev. Harris,

    This is an edifying reflection.

    Still, in painting a picture of a Communion which can, “muddl[e] along,” in spite of its disagreements, and casting the American church as the oppressed victim, you leave aside the question of how ECUSA treats its own.

    The ordination of women is regarded as invalid by many that hold to what they see as authentic Catholic and Apostolic faith and order, a judgment that is bolstered by the concurrence of the two Communions that are themselves indisputably Catholic and Apostolic. That this opinion is an honest and faithful one has been expressed by Rowan Williams, who himself takes the opposite view. Yet, as you know, the freedom of conscience that was promised on this issue has been rescinded, and the desire to crush the Dioceses of Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin beneath the wheel is great. Even you see dissenters as “insult[ing],” “disgraceful,” and transgressing against “justice.”

    In light of this, it is fair to assume that, with respect to current issues, the time will come when only one perspective is valid. I see nothing wrong with dissenters moving to protect themselves before facts on the ground render the dissent moot, and, if the Communion can assist in that endeavor, so much the better.

  5. Richard III19/9/06 1:04 PM


    I would assume from your comment "The ordination of women is regarded as invalid by many that hold to what they see as authentic Catholic and Apostolic faith and order, a judgment that is bolstered by the concurrence of the two Communions that are themselves indisputably Catholic and Apostolic." that you also feel the same way. How sad that you feel women are less than equal to men, I presume you think they are only good for servicing the desires of a man, having children, and cleaning house. It's the 21st Century in case you missed it's arrival and even though a large part of the population of the world still thinks we are living in the pre-modern era, the majority of America doesn't.

    I don't think most of us who are progressive or liberal want to crush the conservative diocese under any wheel as you put it, we'd just like to agree to disagree and get along like real Anglicans, rather than have 'it's our way or no way' shoved down our throats.

  6. Richard III,

    I do feel the same way. How interesting that you've been able to discern all of the following views based on that opinion. Would you care to explain the logical linkage there?

    Also: if I tell you that men are unable to bear children, does that imply men are less valuable than, or not equal to, women?

    Finally, no, those of you that are progressive do not want to "agree to disagree" with respect to those dioceses that do not ordain women, at least if General Convention is a guide to your thought. The church was initially assured that there would be freedom of conscience on the issue, but GC has now mandated that a way be found to force these remaining dissenters to comply.

    As I said above, I fully expect the same thing to happen with gay "marriage," and so it makes a lot of sense to seek protection against that eventuality while there is still a critical mass of traditionalists in ECUSA that can make it happen.

  7. As a complement to this reflection, folks might be interested in the recent article by Bishop Terry Brown of Melaita in the Province of Melanesia, "Conversation: Abandoning the Hegemonic Model," in the most recent edition of The Journal of Anglican Studies. You can link to this brief but interesting article on line at http://ast.sagepub.com/current.dtl.

  8. Phil, Imago-Dei-made-female are MORE "indisputably" priests (and bishops), than are Rome and Constantinople "indisputably" Catholic and Orthodox!

    [Not that I am disputing the latter. Just degrees-of-certitude, y'know... ;-)]

  9. Now come on y'all - while I take issue with 90+% of what he writes, let's not play "pile on Phil" here. Just because he doesn't agree with the idea of women priests (another area where we disagree) doesn't automatically imply he's the biggest misogynist ever...

    Would I be surprised if someone of his position on women priests exhibited some of the other traits Richard III described ? Sadly, no. Does that mean Phil himself can be accused of them ? Without further information - absolutely not.

    I've had it up to here (/me makes slashing motion above his head) with the abundance of logically fallacious arguments I hear from the "reasserter" side. We don't need to be doing the same...

    OK, down off my soapbox now :)

  10. Why, thank you, David.

    I learn quite a bit from all of you, by the way (even if it doesn't show!). Discussion with people with which you already agree is fun, but can get a little stale.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with comment moderation but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.