Editor’s Note: This article will be published in the Fall Edition (2023) of The Anglican Way print magazine. It is a continuation of Archbishop Emeritus Mouneer Anis’s first entry from the Summer Edition, A Deeply Torn Communion.
In My last paper “A deeply torn Communion”, I discussed the factors that tore apart the Anglican Communion. These included the failure to agree on the essentials of faith, the departure from the faith that we once received from the saints, the dysfunctional Instruments of Communion and the loss of the most important characteristic of any Communion, which is interdependence. All these factors led to an impaired or even complete loss of communion between Anglican provinces.
In this second article, I will try to discuss some further important questions: How to raise the Communion from the current dead status? If the Communion is restored, can it be made strong enough to face future challenges? How can it fulfill God’s mission in a world hostile to God? What will be the best structure that can sustain the Communion and also ensure the autonomy and interdependence of its member Provinces?
In order to respond to these important questions, we need first to stop and look back at the history of the Anglican Communion and how it moved from a strong beginning to the current failures and fragmentation.
The Anglican Communion started in the context of the British Empire. The first meeting of bishops was held at Lambeth Palace in 1867, under the leadership of Charles Longley, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time. The conference was primarily attended by 76 bishops: from the Church of England, Ireland, Scotland, United States, New Zealand, Canada, India, South Africa, and Australia. Most of the bishops were from the British Isles. The Archbishop of Canterbury opened the conference with the following prayer that reflected the heartfelt desires of the Archbishop and most of the gathered bishops:
“O LORD God Almighty, Father of Lights and Fountain of all Wisdom, we humbly beseech Thee that Thy Holy Spirit may lead into all Truth Thy servants, the bishops now gathered together in Thy Name. Grant them Grace to think and do such things as shall tend most to Thy glory and the good of Thy Holy Church. Direct and prosper, we pray Thee, all their consultations, and further them with Thy continual help, that, the true Catholic and Apostolic faith once delivered to the saints being maintained, Thy Church may serve Thee in all godly quietness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
It is very significant also to read what the gathered Archbishops and bishops wrote as an introduction to the resolutions they made during this first conference:
“WE, Bishops of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church, in visible Communion with the United Church of England and Ireland, professing the Faith delivered to us in Holy Scripture, maintained by the Primitive Church and by the Fathers of the English Reformation, now assembled, by the good providence of God, at the Archiepiscopal Palace of Lambeth, under the presidency of the Primate of all England, desire– First, to give hearty thanks to Almighty God for having thus brought us together for common counsels and united worship; Secondly, we desire to express the deep sorrow with which we view the divided condition of the flock of Christ throughout the world, ardently longing for the fulfilment of the prayer of our Lord, ‘That all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me;’ and, Lastly, we do here solemnly record [13/14] our conviction that unity will be most effectually promoted by maintaining the Faith in its purity and integrity–as taught in the Holy Scriptures, held by the Primitive Church, summed up in the Creeds, and affirmed by the undisputed General Councils,–and by drawing each of us closer to our common Lord, by giving ourselves to much prayer and intercession, by the cultivation of a spirit of charity, and a love of the Lord’s appearing.”
This made clear that the bishops saw their visible communion as first founded on the faith delivered to them in the Holy Scriptures and as maintained by the early church and the fathers of the English Reformation. In other words, they firmly upheld and maintained the orthodox and catholic identity of the Anglican Communion. Second, they expressed their desire to see the flock of Christ united, so that His prayers for the unity of the Church could be fulfilled. They believed that Interdependence was the way to achieve that unity.
This was the strong beginning of the Anglican Communion. However, the context started to change with the expansion of the missionary movement within the different British colonies around the world. More local and indigenous congregations started to emerge and the need to equip local leadership became a necessity. More colonial and missionary bishops were appointed. Some of them were local bishops who were not usually given the authority that was given to British colonial colleagues who were appointed under the British Crown.
Although, Anglicans, from early on rejected Papacy, they continued to give The Archbishop of Canterbury the highest and most honourable position in the Anglican Communion. This not only reflected the position of the Archbishop within the British constitutional settlement, but also the Primacy of the See of Canterbury since the time of its institution by Augustine in 597. Moreover, the Church of England, at the outset, had the largest number of Anglicans in comparison to other churches in the rest of the world, as we see from before the year 1900 (please see the following table). Hence, the Church of England was seen as the “mother church” and was given a leading role in the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury was also known as the “Head of the Anglican Communion”.
During the last several decades, major demographic changes have taken place within the Anglican Communion. The membership of the global south churches has increased dramatically, while the membership of the global north has dropped considerably. This is clear from the table above. In this regard, it is important to mention too that while 26 million British people identified themselves as Anglicans in 2005, the Church of England statistics say that only 1.2 million were active worshippers.
In addition to the numerical decline, the Church of England has now sadly lost its traditional orthodox faith, upon which the Anglican Communion was founded. The recent unilateral decision of the Church of England to bless same-sex couples, in spite of the warnings from churches in the global south, gave an indication that Church of England is not taking seriously the obligations entailed by its historic leadership position in the Anglican Communion. Not only this, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, by allowing this decision to be taken, has disqualified himself from being an instrument of the Anglican Communion, a focus for unity, and the head of the Anglican Communion.
These demographic and theological changes over recent decades have torn apart the fabric of the Anglican Communion at its deepest level. The reluctance to carry out the recommendations of the various commissions designed to heal the deep divisions of the communion, has lead to further impairment of communion. We are now at a point where it has become theologically incorrect even to apply the word communion to describe what was once the Anglican Communion.
Is there a hope for restoring the Anglican Communion?
I have lived through the days when we used to say “our communion is God’s gift”, “we are united by the bond of affection between us”, “we are a family of churches”, but now, Anglicans may well ask: “Will we ever be able to use these expressions again?” The answer is yes, but only when we are ready to take the prescribed medications. These medications are the recommendations of the Windsor Report and the Windsor Continuation Group. They can be summarized thus:
1. An agreement on the essentials of faith (a covenant) that ensures theological unity and provides a framework for diversity. 2. A conciliar structure that guarantees the interdependence of the member provinces, namely a structure that clearly defines the role of each Instrument and develops an agreed mechanism for conflict resolution. This will also guarantee the advancement of the mission of the Communion.
I suggest that the process of restoring the Communion should proceed as follows:
First: Developing the Anglican Covenant with representatives from all Anglican provinces. (A lot of work, that has taken years, has already been done on in this, which will make the task more straightforward now.)
Second: The Anglican provinces should next be invited to adopt and sign the Covenant in order to join the newly reconstituted Anglican Communion as full members. Any future changes in the Covenant would need to be agreed upon by two thirds of vote of both the Primates Meeting and the Communion General Assembly, which I also propose should come into being.
The mission of each member province should involve such tracks of ministry as the General Assembly shall decide and would need to include provision for :
a) Theological Education.
b) Evangelism, Discipleship, Mission.
e) Development (Education, Health, Economic empowerment).
f) Communion relations and promotion of interdependence.
g) Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.
Third: The Primates of the member provinces should elect from among themselves a Chair who would become the Head of the Anglican Communion for a five-year period. The Chair would be Primus inter pares and convene the Primates Meetings and the General Assembly of the Communion. The Chair would also Represent the Communion in major international conferences and events. The Primates Meeting should be mainly responsible for faith and order matters as well as major controversial issues. The Primates Meeting would meet every two years. (See Lambeth resolution 18.2, 1988 & Lambeth resolution III.6.a, 1998)
Fourth: Each member province of the Communion should elect a “Provincial delegation”. Each delegation would be composed of the Primate, Diocesan Bishops, two clergy and four lay persons from each diocese. Provincial Delegations, when all gathered together would form the “Communion General Assembly “. (See The Covenantal Structure, www.thegsfa.org) The responsibilities of this General Assembly would be:
a) to determine the strategic mission priorities of the Communion;
b) to monitor the progress of the Communion mission;
c) to address the challenges facing the world.
The Communion General Assembly should meet every five years.
Fifth: Provincial Delegations of each region (continent) should meet every two years to follow the progress of the mission plan of the region and to coordinate the efforts in each track of the ministry.
I am aware that there is a need for more elaboration upon the composition and function of each of the above structural councils. However, I envisage that these councils will enhance the Communion’s capacity to achieve the following goals of:
A) guarding the faith we once received from the Saints;
B) ensuring that the Communion provinces are autonomous but also interdependent, so as to preserves the unity of the Communion;
C) enabling and embodying the conciliar nature of the Anglican Councils;
D) advancing the Mission of the Church;
E) promoting sustainable development and economic empowerment.
It is important to mention here the existing Covenantal Structure of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches. This was passed by the Global South General Assembly of 2019 and merits consideration for wider adoption by the Communion.
In conclusion, it is important to be clear that the contextual, demographic, and theological changes that have taken place over the last few decades now make it simply impossible to continue with the existing legacy structures of the Communion.
A more effective and relevant structure is now essential in order to restore the unity of the Communion and to advance its mission in the twenty-first century.
I therefore prayerfully commend these proposals for urgent consideration and adoption.