Charting the Anglican Elliptic: The Churches and the Communion as foci

This essay is an attempt to "think through" my sense that the prevailing models for how to visualize the Anglican Communion are deficient. This is PRELIMINARY and certainly up for comment and correction.

There are wonderful connections and intersections among churches of the Anglican Communion that do not easily fit the model of churches in communion as currently understood in Anglican land. Churches that are seemingly in impaired or broken communion find themselves in places where intersection and common action is possible.

All I can say is, "Proceed at your own risk." But then you knew that.

A short preliminary rumination on elliptical and circular models.

Elliptical paths, unlike circular paths, have two fixed points or constants, with the distance from the two foci to the boundary of the enclosed area equaling a constant sum. Circles made do with a radius that is one fixed length. In the neat and tidy world of abstractions the circle seems the "perfect" form and the elliptical less so. Indeed elliptical paths are termed eccentric. The terminology of course is biased, and the bias derives among other things from the notion that the simplest form is best.

Another expression of such a bias is that of "Occam's Razor," a spiffy concept that has been expressed in two ways, "the law of parsimony" - that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity - and the principle that, all other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.
Of course if solutions are reduced to a simplicity that fails to explain certain features of the problem presented we have a mess every bit as bad as we might have for having too complex a solution. As with many aspects of real world problems, the talent in finding solutions lies, among other things, in knowing the place of balance between solutions too simple for the variables and solutions more complex then necessary.

Three circle images of the Anglican Communion.

A circle of fellowship of 38 Provinces.

Much of the thinking concerning the character of the Anglican Communion has been modeled on the circle. There is much to commend it. We can imagine the Communion as a fellowship of thirty-eight autonomous churches (sometimes called Provinces, national churches or regional churches) in orbit about the Center, each kept in their path by the attraction and pull from the center expressed in common belief, practice and discipline.
In such a case a picture of of the Anglican Communion would look something like the drawing on the right. The area in purple is the arena of contact and engagement among the Churches. The red dot in the center is the See of Canterbury. It is not necessary to connect with the ABC in order to connect with another province, but the ABC is at the center. The AC's arena, the purple shaded area, is not governed by a set of rules or a covenant, but rather is common ground, much like a commons in a village. It is the area in which all the Churches can interact if the wish. In this situation the Anglican Communion is the fellowship of Churches, and the primary sign of connection is that they are all in communion with Canterbury.

The focus is clear: the ABC is the single focus, and the Churches are arrayed around that office. Hopefully the "instruments of communion" are there to help Churches and their dioceses and people connect for good purpose. This is roughly the map of the AC today.

A Covenant Circle and Fellowship Circle model for the Anglican Communion.

We might also imagine an inner circle of an Anglican Communion as a fellowship of Churches all of whom are in relation to one another and with the See of Canterbury, and whose area of common action is more clearly governed by common rule and covenant. See the diagram to the left.
All those in this circle agree on a common set of values and form a more coherent world wide church. Beyond that inner ring there would be a second ring or tier of Churches that are willing to work in a commons but unwilling to take on a common and united covenant that would make the communion more than a fellowship. This second ring could relate to all of the Churches in the first ring and with one another, but would not understand a covenant with the ABC and one another as central.

This, it seems to me is the sort of thing envisioned in the "two tier Communion, or the notion of different levels of communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken to this possibility on several occasions.
The Anglican Communion in this instance consists of spheres or zones of compliance - those in full compliance with a covenant are in the inner zone, those in partial compliance or in limited communion or unwilling to sign the covenant are in the outer zone. All are part of the Communion but only those in the inner zone can take part in the governance of the Communion. But the "objects" in this system continue to be the 38 Churches.

A diocesan covenant model for the Anglican Communion.

A third possibility is the notion that dioceses are the basic unit of the Anglican Communion and Churches on a national, provincial or regional level are of secondary value. In that case the circle of the Anglican Communion might better look like the diagram to the right where the roughly 650 dioceses of the Communion all have equal standing around the circle. That's enough so that you don't actually see the dots, there is simply the circumference of the circle. In this diagram all the dioceses of the AC relate in the arena of the circle, with the diocese of Canterbury at the focal point, they are all in relation to one another and to Canterbury in a primary way having entered covenant with one another.

In this case the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of dioceses in covenant with one another and with Canterbury. Canterbury is central as a focus, but the dioceses replace the Churches as the "objects" in orbit. Something of this third idea seems to lie behind the essay
"A Word in Time: An Open Letter to the Anglican Communion" posted on the Covenant-Communion.com website.

The third of these models, the diocesan covenant circle, displaces the role of the Churches. Covenant sign on would be by dioceses and the diocese of Canterbury (not the Church of England) would be the focal point. The results would be an ecclesial Communion with Canterbury as its focus point.

The Circular Models fail the vision of national or regional churches in relation to one another and to the focus of unity.

The problems with the circular models, all of them, is that they assume the Churches or dioceses are all more or less equal and together surround a center point, the See of Canterbury. Some, including the model proposed by the Covenant-Communion.com group, make the See of Canterbury the ecclesial center, essentially an Anglican Patriarchy. Most other Anglican Churches, including the Episcopal Church assume that one part of the definition of being Anglican is that a church is in communion with the see of Canterbury. But there is no clarity as to what that entails. But they also assume an autonomous identity apart from Canterbury.

Little notice seems to be taken of the point hinted to in the fourth section of the Lambeth Quadrilateral where the historic episcopate is viewed as essential, but its forms and duties differently adapted in different places and circumstances. The difference in adaptation make the Provincial or "National" church systems different in the expectations of bishops and the roles of the chief bishops of those Churches.

For example, the differences between election of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a denomination among many in the US, and the appointment of a bishop in the Church of England, where the CofE is the state church, in turn affects the expectations concerning pastoral and administrative tasks. It does not make one system better than the other, but it does mean bishops in the two Churches are not cut from the same cloth.

Another example: It is on some levels a misnomer to say that the Presiding Bishop is the same sort of chief bishop that, for example, the Primate of the Church of Uganda or the Archbishop of Canterbury is. The differences have nothing to do with the peculiarities of the bishops themselves, but with the differences in adaptation, applied to the office of chief bishop as well as bishop.

These differences in adaptation mean that every national or regional church in the Anglican Communion is different from every other church, so much so that they are not on the same plane, or orbiting about the same center, but rather in different orbits and often different planes, ones that intersect on this or that issue or concern, but otherwise have quite distinct lives. Furthermore, they are not all circling a single central focus, rather they
revolve about Canterbury on the one hand and the point of focus in their own system. The national church and the ABC as the focus of unity are two points of reference, and a particular Church and its people work in the arena determined by the expectations and mandates of the national church and the communion with Canterbury. So the "range" of involvement by a particular Church looks like the elliptic on the left. The larger dot represents the "focus of unity" (the see of Canterbury) and the smaller one the primary authority in the national church. (Don't read too much into the difference between the two.)

The work of the national church, and its arena of action is indicated by the orbit and the shaded area. The national church does not "circle" the focus of unity (Canterbury) but orbits both the national authority of the autonomous Church and the See of Canterbury.
Attempting to put together a drawing of the Anglican Communion as the intersection of various elliptical planes intersecting one another and all having as one of their foci the See of Canterbury is difficult, but here is a partial attempt.

Here you can see that each elliptic has both the See of Canterbury (in red) as one foci, and the national foci (not shown) as another. The small black dots are the various Churches, orbiting about the two foci. The various churches are at any time closer to one or the other foci. Both foci are sources of unity, but they are not the same unity. (If you think this is difficult to express, go back and take another read of the Quicunque Vult - p 846 BCP Episcopal Church.)

What I would like to suggest is that the Anglican Communion exists where the planes of the various churches intersect, and no where else, save in our willingness to identify our own unities as separate Churches with the unity by way of communion with the See of Canterbury.
It is of no particular use to talk about our unity as a communion in some way that assumes the same understanding of the role of the national focus of unity and the communion wide focus of unity, or even less of the identification of the two.

The interests and even the life of the several national and regional Churches are so autonomous as to make the foci of national authority and communion authority virtually impossible.
In simple terms, the "focus of unity" in the ABC and the related "instruments of communion" and the autonomous church are two different locations and while every church in the Anglican Communion can embrace both, it is unlikely that any two will embrace them in the same way and it is almost impossible that any national church will identify fully the location of the one with the location of the other.

The End of the Imagining

I began by suggesting that there was something wrong with the circular models of the Anglican Communion, whether it be a simple circle of Churches in orbit around the See of Canterbury or a multi-orbit system with some closer than others, or a system where all the dioceses were in orbit around Canterbury. The problem, I suggest, is that the notion that there is one focal point, one center, in terms of ecclesiology, is patently untrue. The alternative seems much more complex, with various regional churches in orbit around two foci, the national source of authority and the see of Canterbury. That produces a quite complex "image" of communion.

In the end, however, it produces a greatly simplified understanding of Anglican Communion relations. Churches in the Anglican Communion relate to one another as the planes of their ellipses intersect, and not otherwise. There is no guarantee of full communion among the Churches, save that they all are in rotation around the See of Canterbury as one foci, which guarentees that at leas on some level their two systems intersect.

The intersection that is most obvious is the Lambeth Conference. But stronger intersections take place all the time and are not dependent on the formal meetings at Lambeth or among the Primates or at the Anglican Consultative Council.
The strength of the Communion lies in the common mission efforts by members of various churches - everything from diocesan companionships or links to the sharing of resources to the exchange of mission personnel and joint ministries in the world.

The best sort of Communion wide "instruments" are found where the intersections of a wide range of regional churches come together around a common task - theological education, HIV-AIDS work, evangelism efforts, etc.
This "re-imaging" makes it possible to think of the Anglican Communion as the net effect of the intersections of the various churches. When there are many such intersections the AC is considered effective, when there are few, less so. But the AC is not bound together by artificial means in this reading, but by real intersections brought on by the momentary common committment to this or that action in response to the Gospel or by longer common bonds of affection.

Well there it is.


  1. Yes. There it is, quite beautifully.

  2. Mark,

    The attraction of your conclusion to me is that it points towards the Trinity's dance - one that I would argue we are called upon to reflect to the world in the way we engage with each other as a Communion. For me, it reflects more readily the ancient theology of divinity in Christianity than the clearly hierarchical model of the circle with Canterbury at the center.

    Of course, God in Christ should be at the center - and in every other point of the model, too!

  3. "Neither is better than another"?
    Are you suggesting that there is anything at all legitimate or valuable in being or having a state church?
    It was bad enough four hundred years ago-now, having a state church is simply grotesque.
    Bishops should be out of their Parliament as soon as possible. They should no longer be appointed by the government. There should be no state churches/religions anywhere, anytime, for any reason.
    The age of Constantine is, fortunately, over.

  4. Thanks, Mark - this schematic helps me a lot to make sense of the current reality, and in all likelihood, the only reality of the future.

  5. Mark,
    At the beginning of your post you refer to the notion of a circle being more perfect than an ellipse. However, the ellipse is certainly a more natural feature since all heavenly bodies follow elliptical orbits!

    This certainly leads to interesting images of provinces/national churches as heavenly bodies that orbit around two foci (ABC and the national church), and sometimes effecting each other as orbiting bodies oftentimes effect each other.

  6. "Eccentric", when referring to an ellipse, simply means "off-center", which refers to the fact that foci are not in the center of the figure, as they are in the circle (which is actually a special case of an ellipse, when the two foci are the same point).

    The terminology is descriptive. Other meanings of "eccentric" actually have nothing to do with ellipses, though they usually have to do with being off-center in some other sense.

    I'm not sure your analogy of ellipses with two foci to orbits is as apt as it could be. In terms of actual orbital paths which are ellipses, for example, in the solar system, the Sun is always at one focus. The other focus is... empty. One focus physically determines the orbit. The other is physically irrelevant and insignificant.

    Finally, all n-body systems where n > 2 (except for certain special cases) are unstable and chaotic.

    The solar system is actually unstable and chaotic. For example, while the orbits of the planets can be predicted for millions of years in advance, Pluto's orbit is chaotic and cannot be predicted more and a few thousand years without increasing errors.

    If you added another star or another physically significant focus to the solar system, you would have complete chaos and instability, and no planetary orbit would be stable.

  7. Randy Muller...I knew I was going to be in trouble the moment I started thinking of all this. I was primarily suggesting that dioceses do not have one foci institutionally but two. Of the two the less "empty" one is the Church (Province or Regional Church) to which they belong is perhaps, like the Sun, the "real" foci. But the other, the communion makes the orbit elliptical.

    One of the images that was part of this was to say that we do not occupy a common arena, but raher our arenas intersect and there we find common ground..usually a line (of compassion?)

    I have no need to press the image. The point was to say the circles within circles doesn't do it.

    Thanks for the comment.

  8. I found particularly helpful your mentioning of the very significant differences in polity among the provinces. A further area of difference is present in the four provinces that are United Churches (North India, South India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) which are not only related to Canterbury but also to the various denominational families of their respective unions.

  9. When you say that the first model is "roughly the map of the AC today" are you not actually suggesting that this is the map as popularly conceived (like ancient maps of the world showing Jerusalem as the centre of the earth), but that in reality, the last diagram is a more accurate description of how things really are?

  10. Did you consider combining the third model (i.e., dioceses as the primary unit) with the fourth model (i.e., elliptical orbit around two foci - national church and Canterbury)? This seems to me to be a more accurate model, albeit, a tad more complicated.


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.