Is it time for Anglican communion by free association?

The report on Men and Women in Marriage, a document in the Church of England, is making the rounds of the pundits and apparently is providing a complex way to say the British Government can do what it wills about recognizing gay marriages, but the church is not going there. Thinking Anglicans gives a long list of those comments and a url to the report itself. Apparently this will be one more occasion where The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Church of England(CofE) find themselves thinking differently on matters of faith, ethics, and social justice.  We do, you know. For instance we believe that our Presiding Bishop is a bishop, and they don't have women bishops yet, so when Bishop Katharine is in England there is a problem with her wearing a miter. Well there it is. That will change, so we just live with it for a short while. 

The Marriage thing is different. Their Faith and Order Commission statement sounds a bit more final. It's not a case of  "we don't have bishops now but we will...bear with us." It's more like, "Marriage is about a man and a woman, period."

But I wonder.... the writer of "I Could Be Wrong," Jonathan Hagger, has written a fine piece on the whole matter, with the title, "The Church of (an) England Long Gone."
Jonathan's fine mad hand is there, but also a thread of reasoning that has stuck with me.  

He suggests that the CofE has bought into the business of being the cornerstone of the Anglican Communion, with its Archbishop as head of the Communion,  and therefore sets its policies and polity based in part on the role of its Primate in the Communion It is therefore open to pressure regarding its own decisions from those churches in the communion who are both large and vocal, and reminders of the CofE's less than stellar past as colonial and slave trading.

Well, on one level, that is part of the notion that we are interdependent. What some do affects us all, etc. So good for the ABC paying attention to what others in the communion think.  Of course, it is a selective matter. What the churches in mid Africa think is apparently more important than what the churches in say, the US or Canada think. 

It struck me that perhaps the CofE is also attempting to retain its residual rule as "first among equals" over the spiritual British empire just as the Royal presence has tried to maintain "first among equal" status in the civil British empire.  I have long been an opponent to the idea of thinking of the Archbishop of Canterbury as "first among equals." (See my book The Challenge of Change), believing that this is precisely a continuation of the way of thinking of England as the core of what makes both the Commonwealth and the Anglican Communion work.

Through a wonderful migration of authority, the question as to who is in the Anglican Communion has moved from simply who the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) invites to Lambeth, to consulting the "list" at the end of the CofE Canons that lists the churches with which the CofE is in full communion, to consulting the list provided by the Anglican Consultative Council. That is it moves from princely prerogative, to consultation within the Church of England as to who they are in communion with and why, to a board of the commonwealth of Anglican Provinces.  Although it looks like a move to greater collective decision making, it is also a move to maintain the titular head of the Communion as the ABC by way of the ACC and other "instruments" that maintain the fiction that the ABC is indeed first among equals. The list has moved to the ACC, but would they dare include on that list a province not in communion with Canterbury?  

That could be put to the test and certainly the ABC would just as soon not have to deal with a Province out of communion with Canterbury but in the ACC. So paying attention to Uganda and Kenya and Nigeria, et al, who mutter about impaired communion is understandable.

Now, of the possibilities that are out there, I am all for a world wide communion of churches gathered around the office of the ABC and the mother church of this strange mish-mash of churches that makes up the Anglican Communion. It beats having a Pope, and probably beats having all Provincial heads being like Orthodox Church metropolitans.  We can have a Presiding Bishop and Nigeria can have an Archbiship of all Nigeria. We are not required to have our organizing principles be the same as those of the church in the Sudan, or in the CofE or of New Zealand, although we in TEC could probably learn something from each of them.

But this last strangeness from the Church of England on Mand and Woman in Marriage has made me think:

What would it look like if all the current Anglican Provinces and even those who are not Provinces but want-to-be Provinces simply listed those churches with which they were in mutually agreed on full communion.  The rule would be that any two Provinces could only declare full commmunion status when they both acknowledged that that was true. 

Each Church (Province) would have its list. They would not all be the same. In some instances one Province (say Uganda) might pressure another (say South East Asia) by saying that the Church of Uganda would not be in full communion with any church in full communion with The Episcopal Church. So Uganda would force the hand of South East Asia - us or them.

What constitutes full communion? Well for a start, recognizing one another's sacramental actions as valid (not necessarily agreeing on just who is party to inclusion in this or that sacrament), some norms about jurisdiction and boundaries, agreeing that clergy do not have to be reordained but only licensed to serve across Provincial lines, welcoming members of the full communion partners into the life of each church, working together on mission efforts as the occasion warrants. 

What would get in the way?  Well, for one party to claim the other was not a carrier of the faith, or heretical, or so wrong as to raise questions of th validity of sacraments, orders, common life and canons. Unresolved jurisdictional issues and competitive missionary activity (join us, don't join them) could get in the way.

The whole thing could be complicated, but surely not much more than it is already.

But one thing would be easier. We could stop worrying quite as much about the future of the Anglican Communion, and the ABC could stop thinking of himself as the head of some sort of commonwealth of spiritual nations and therefore having to rescue said commonwealth from splintering.  

There would be no Anglican Communion, not as currently envisioned. There would be a free association of national and regional churches. Perhaps a sizable number of provinces in communion with Canterbury and each other would constitute a cooperative body consulting together for mission (pretty much as it is now with the ACC, but without the Primates Meeting) but the glue would not be that the ABC is first among equals, or spiritual head of the religious commonwealth, or charged with "keeping the Communion together."

The ABC would be freed from being "head of communion." Rather the churches, in communion with each other and with the ABC, could choose its own minimal leadership and entrust its programatic work to a variety of agencies of the various Provinces working together. 

The end result might then look like this:

A body of churches in communion with each other and Canterbury, no "first among equals" and joint action when helpful to the work of the various churches and the needs of the world. This might well be called "The Anglican Communion" but I would hope not. Perhaps something like the Alliance of Anglican Churches - Churches here meaning national or regional synods.  (Hopefully they would hold on to the name Anglican Communion so it could not be used elsewhere.)

Another body of churches, perhaps all in communion with Uganda, could coagulate. Maybe the core of this is the current "Fellowship of Confessing Anglican Churches" or something else, perhaps the Confessing Anglican Churches.

There might be other lumping together of churches all in communion with one another - say a regional council of Anglican Churches in South East Asia. 

But there would be no sense of a world wide Anglican Communion with anything like a Patriarch. No power brokering with the Romans and Orthodox, whose problems are no one's idea of improvement on lesser kingdoms.  

What we would lose is a central voice speaking in ecumenical gatherings for all Anglicans worldwide.  It is just as well we end the fiction of such a voice. For any ecumenical action relies on the actual churches of the communion buying into the work of the ecumenical councils or committees.  Instead we would have a more honest set of conversations that reflect the realities of the various Anglican Churches.

What about the problem of who gets to call themselves Anglican.  Well, that is already out of anyone's hands anyway.  In addition to the many groups world wide that call themselve Anglican and are not in communion with Canterbury and there are some who deliberately do not call themselves Anglican but are by episcopal lineage from the bishops of the Church of England. 

Nothing really changes in thinking of the gathering of Anglican churches as a free association sort of thing. While it appears that the Anglican Communion is a world wide Church, it isn't. It is already a free association. While it appears that the ABC is "first among equals," he isn't. He and Canterbury are respected, of course, but respect and obedience, or even deferential acceding to leadership, is a very different thing. 

Mostly, free association would mean that the CofE can work out its own problems with its government and people, and we can work our ours, without assuming that what the CofE thinks about this or that matter is normative for the churches now of the Anglican Communion. (Since no one thinks that what TEC thinks about matters of faith and society is normative for the Churches of the Communion we are pretty well safe there.)  We would be in full communion as along as we would wish, by mutual consent, to do so. 

It's not simple. But then it is more like what we really have in the Communion now - Anglicans in communion by free association.   



  1. In this the obvious, million dollar question is:

    Since there are Episcopalians who want to be in communion with GS churches, can the allegedly 'liberal' TEC stop renouncing their orders and allow them freely to associate with those they wish to, as your proposal intimates?

    And, can this happen best at the diocesan level? Can individual parishes then associate with dioceses that so choose, perhaps the one closest to them?

    Because at present we have a TEC which acts as it deems appropriate vis-a-vis the AC but then in addition, demands that all conform to this. Soon we will have a BCP with rites that individual Bishops will never permit. What then?

    This proposal suggests that one way forward is to allow them to associate as they wish, and to cease the million dollar litigation juggernaut.


  2. I trust my previous note has not gone missing. SCM

  3. PS.

    I am confused about this assertion, "the fiction that the ABC is indeed first among equals."

    Strictly speaking this is not a 'fiction'. Don't you mean to say something like, "the ABC is first among equals but I don't like it and would like to oppose it and will see if this could transpire"?

    For strictly speaking, the only way the ABC would cease being first among equals is if the incumbent took the necessary steps to make that so.

    I don't see that in the offing.

    The real question facing this ABC is how he deals with the Primates.


  4. I subscribe to the notion that conformity is death. With conformity no one thinks outside the box. With conformity a bad idea or an unjust practice that eeveryone buys into will never be challenged. It is the path to Hell where one does not admit to a sin and ask forgivness, because one does not realize that one is sinning.

    In the Episcopal Church we welcome all christians to the table: Romans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Covenanters, Missourri Synod Lutherans, Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers, etc. (whether they invite us to the table in return or not). I will enter into communion with any other Christian whether they wish to be in communion with me or not.

    Our (by which I mean Christianity's) use of the Eucharist as a tool of division rather that the symbol of unity in Christ that it was intended to be is the greatest scandal of the Church. I'm certain that it also causes God more distress that any other things we do.

    TEC's door is open. All who choose to enter are welcome. All who choose not not to? Well that's their choice. And if they wish to close their doors to us, that's their choice as well. I will not lose sleep over it.

  5. A fine post, Mark. It is time to rethink the whole Anglican Communion thing. I have suggested a way of defining communion in Anglicanland (see “Some Mathematical Reflections on Communion”). Even I kept the Church of England at the center of things, but perhaps even that should be rethought. My definition of communion implies that all Communion churches would have to agree to bring, say, ACNA, into the Communion.

    We seem to agree that the Primates’ Meeting, a great source of mischief, should be scrapped. This would make the Standing Committee unnecessary. I would also scrap the Lambeth Conference in favor of a gathering of all orders of ministry (including the lay order, of course). I have mixed feelings about the ACC. What the Communion most needs is a Web site and an associated staff.

    In any case, the Archbishop of Canterbury should concentrate on his duties in the Church of England. (This was my suggestion to the commission charged with choosing the next archbishop.) The Church of England is clearly in trouble—anyone who doesn’t believe that should read “Men and Women in Marriage.” If it continues to ignore the people of England in favor of listening to the primates of East Africa, we will soon be writing the obituary of our putative Mother Church.

  6. Fascinating to see people who have no say about the role of the ABC and Primates say what should happen to them. Obviously TEC can withdraw from the AC and set up a different model. But it has no say in what the ABC does or what the Primates do.

    Go ahead and design a new TEC type communion/federation.

    Let others stay with what exists at present.


  7. As far as the bloody-handed AC and its ABC have done and want and are, I think the comment from Fr. Bill at Thinking Anglicans concerning the ridiculous Marriage Report is the best response:

    A line from E. E. Cumming's poem "i sing of Olaf glad and big" best sums up, I think, the views of many in the pews and the vast majority of those who aren't in the pews:
    Olaf (upon what were once knees)
    does almost ceaselessly repeat
    "there is some sh*t I will not eat"

    Time to stop being nice just because we're liberal. If they want to pretend we're not AC, fine, but we have the authority to get oust those who don't conform with TEC. The difference is we do have authority and they don't. Stop indulging these silly fantasies otherwise.

  8. It is the prerogative of the ABC to decide what role he will have vis-à-vis the Primates and Lambeth Conference and the AC as such. This is what it means to belong to an historic Communion in line with its own self-identity and governance.

    The 'unqualified accession' TEC gives to the ACC is of course of such a character that it can always withdraw. (This is the same language that has the same meaning with dioceses in a voluntary association as well).

    So perhaps the Deimel Communion should begin by withdrawal and then move to redesign and implementation phases.

    The Harris idea of 'free association' itself invokes the polity of TEC in respect of its dioceses, mirroring that of the AC at large. All may, some will, none must.


  9. Trying to equate a "communion" which was never anything but a vanity project for those feeling jealous of Roman global imperialism, and the polity of a real organization, e.g. The Episcopal Church, is a transparent attempt at false equivalence. If you don't want to be Episcopalian, don't, but don't call yourself that. Be "fancy-dress Baptists" or whatever.

  10. Mr Brunson--I couldn't agree more. Let the TEC you want be what it is wants. Let those of TEC who want to associate with the bulk of the AC do so. Cut out the litigation.



OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, 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.