Vol I No. 7

Editor's Endnotes

Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff

some reflections upon the anglican communion divisions and the challenges ahead

The “love of freedom without the spirit of union” is a tempting summary of what may lie at the root of the current woes.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby is not known to have identified himself with the Roman Emperor Augustus, but certain parallels of circumstance do come to mind. They have each inherited, albeit in different forms, an empire of sometime universal aspirations which the course of history has only served to frustrate and from which they have each – in differing degrees– had to withdraw. In both cases too, the empire came to face a disruption contrived by the unruly inhabitants of Britain.

In the words of Edward Gibbon about imperial Rome, while the “..first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs… it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils. Inclined to peace by his temper and situation it was easy for him to discover that Rome in her present exalted situation, had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms”. Moreover, his experience “added weight to these salutary reflections, and effectually convinced him that, by the prudent vigour of his counsels, it would be easy to secure every concession which the safety or dignity of Rome might require from the most formidable Barbarians…” While, “Happily for the repose of mankind the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus was adopted” there was one exceptional combat which was allowed to intrude upon the general tranquility. This was “undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors” and comprised the forty year conquest of Britain itself.

Of the ferocious but disorderly inhabitants of those isles, who were eventually subdued, Gibbon further observed that, while they had many martial virtues, they had also two fatal flaws, namely “valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union”. 

It is these very derelictions which come once again to mind, in the context of the churchly empire hitherto known as the Anglican Communion over which it has been the unhappy lot of Justin Welby to preside. The “love of freedom without the spirit of union” is a tempting summary of what may lie at the root of its current woes.

Welby’s Quest to Define Communion

Looking back over the course of his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his increasingly acute difficulties in trying to be both Archbishop of all England and Primus inter pares of the entire Anglican Communion, it is telling that, in one of his earliest addresses to the English Synod in 2014, he declared that “First of all, and this needs to be heard very clearly, the Anglican Communion exists” thus evidencing that he understood this point, even then, to be in doubt. As he went on to explain, “There has been comment over the last year that issues around the Communion should not trouble us in the Church of England because the Communion has for all practical purposes ceased to exist.”1Presidential address to the General Synod of the Church of England, November 17, 2014. https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2014/11/archbishop-welby-the-anglican-communions-challenges-and-the-way-forward.aspx

But in rebuttal he asserted that, “Not only does it exist, but almost everywhere (there are some exceptions) the links to the See of Canterbury, notwithstanding its Archbishop, are profoundly valued.”

Nonetheless, the character of its existence and the evidence he adduced for it, had a certain theological modesty. The Communion existed on a primarily functional level, as he saw it, because Anglicans are going about their business in roughly 165 countries, where there are, he suggested, no less than “2,000 languages” and perhaps “more than 500 distinct cultures and ways of looking at the world”. This led, naturally, to his further point that “Anglicanism is incredibly diverse” with differences, “on all sorts of matters including sexuality, marriage and its nature, the use of money, the relations between men and women, the environment, war and peace, distribution of wealth and food, and a million other things”. Nonetheless, he concluded, “there is a profound unity in many ways” if “Not in all ways…” for “underpinning us is a unity imposed by the Spirit of God on those who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour”.

Archbishop Welby thus defined the Communion’s reality using a largely phenomenological perspective, based upon all the activity there is to observe among those who identify themselves as Anglican. Such a perspective is notably different from the tendency to a legal approach, evidenced by Anglican Consultative Council, as well as the approach which would see Anglicanism as a defined by shared beliefs widely held in Provinces of the Global South. But for Archbishop Welby, the Anglican Communion is primarily a practical body of Christians in our present experience, rather than something more theologically and perhaps even metaphysically, constituted.

Nonetheless, Welby added two interesting qualifiers to this initially mundane perspective. The first emerged from his stating that there was “a unity imposed by the Spirit of God” even now, though he did not explain what that meant concretely. Then, secondly he suggested that there was –beyond all this business in this world — another Communion, namely the Anglican Communion of the world to come, which “under God is beyond anything we can imagine or think about”. Nonetheless, ahead of this ineffable future state, he saw a goal to be pursued in the present world, namely “the prize (which) is visible unity in Christ despite functional diversity.” 

In one way, the Archbishop thus framed the Communion as poised amidst the perpetual tension that has always existed for Christianity between being a putatively universal faith, offering salvation to all everywhere, and yet at the same time also understanding itself to be a community defined as the body of all those who believe, and more particularly in Jesus Christ. This is a tension which also underlies the difference between those tempted to suppose that Anglicanism is comprised of what happens to have been believed (or even by what has not been believed) by any and all who have considered themselves Anglican anywhere at any time, versus those who see there to be unitive thread of particular belief and liturgical practice which defines (and limits) what Anglicanism is.

Thus did Welby, from the very beginning of his tenure as Archbishop frame his hope. This was a hope placed within the tensive polarity of present events and future institutional salvation. Accordingly, he urged that for now, “we must learn to hold in the right order our calling to be one and our calling to advance our own particular position” and then further, the “discipline of meeting with those with whom we disagree and listening to each other” while, “celebrating our salvation together and praying together to the God who is the sole source of our hope and future, together.” 

In combination, this perspective is seemingly both other-worldly and very this-worldly. But he ended this analysis with a somewhat bleak note, that now looks all too prescient, when he acknowledged even then, ten years ago, that, “Our divisions may be too much to manage.” and that, “I have to say that we are in a state so delicate that without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures.” 

In a subsequent interview with Michael Binyon, in The Times of London in December, 2014, the Archbishop further explained that the Communion will most likely “look very different…” and even that, “I don’t quite know what it will look like” nonetheless, he concluded that the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury will endure and –contrary to his initial expectations, “there’s going to be something in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is still the first among equals. Exactly how the links work is yet to be decided.” 

Thus the bonds with the See of Canterbury, as such, constituted in his eyes a spiritual reality, and not a jurisdictional one, that he saw as enduring, despite being tested frequently by events. Such a view had to be in some tension however, with the earlier merely phenomenological view of the Anglican Communion. 

All of which invites curiosity as to how this new and improved Communion can be realised and function, short of the Eschaton, or is it perhaps that –in an echo of Moltmann– the true meaning of Communion, on this account , will in fact only ever be known with “eschatological verification”? 

For the present, it is evident that the Archbishop invites use of the word “communion” in several quite different senses, that variously allow for a Communion that can both exist now all around the world in one sense (as a practical phenomenon), while not existing in another (the theological sense), since the Primates it seems have been for some time unable to celebrate a Eucharist and to share Communion together. While, in a yet further sense (eschatological) it seems that the truest Communion is yet to come and comprises a challenging future hope that has yet to be realized, although (intriguingly) when this does happen, it will feature the recovery of that visible unity presently being lost.

The Repudiation Crisis

Amidst these practical, phenomenal, theological and eschatological senses of Communion, there is a risk however, of losing sight of some very sharp and immediate realities. If the Lambeth Conference and the Primates’ Meeting can no longer convene, and if Primates cannot celebrate a Eucharist together or even be in communio in sacris then an historic moment of profound change has surely arrived, and surely this exactly set the stage for the recent steps that followed the complicated decisions in regard to allowing same-sex blessings made at the Church of England Synod of February 2023. 

For that precipitated the further step taken by Provinces in the Global South Fellowship, together with those in GAFCON, of stating2The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches Press Statement of February 20, 2023 that in the light of the decisions of the Church of England Synod in February 2023,

  1. “the Church of England …has disqualified herself from leading the Communion as the historic “Mother” Church” and that they deem that, “the Church of England has chosen to break communion with those provinces who remain faithful to the historic biblical faith expressed in the Anglican formularies” and the signatory Provinces are
  2. “no longer able to recognise the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Hon & Most Revd Justin Welby, as the “first among equals” Leader of the global Communion.”

Such a state of affairs conveys a clear and very negative answer to the percipient question posed to the Lambeth Conference in 1948:

“Is Anglicanism based on a sufficiently coherent form of authority to form the nucleus of a world-wide fellowship of Churches, or does its comprehensiveness conceal internal divisions which may cause its disruption?”

It seems entirely evident that we do now indeed live within a disrupted Anglican Communion which must therefore find ways to address the challenges that result.

The Challenges Now to be Faced

At this stage, a number of key matters arise, including such questions as:

a. What is needed to structure the day-to-day working and mutual relations of the individual Anglican Provinces?

b. How do the Provinces repudiating Archbishop Welby now articulate the basis and nature of their continuing identity as Anglicans, when they are not in communion with him as Archbishop of Canterbury?

c. How will these new realities affect the workings of, and participation in, the Anglican Consultative Council, Primates’ Meetings and any future Lambeth Conference?

At a theological level, it may be possible to draw constructively upon the resources of Ecumenical thought and see the ultimate recovery of visible unity as part of a wider ecumenical vision and not something to be achieved by, and now even within, Anglicanism alone. While such a perspective is bleak insofar as it recognizes the depth of separation that is now unfolding between Provinces of the historic Anglican Communion, it is also in some degree constructive, in offering at least some positive framing. Thus, where once the concept of communion was seen as of an “all or nothing” character which, like pregnancy, failed to admit of degrees, the legacy of past ecumenical thought offers less narrowly binary possibilities. 

The Report of the Third World Conference on Faith and Order (in Lund in 1952), for example, suggested a range of vocabulary for those situations which fall short of “the fulfillment of that complete unity [koinonia] which we believe to be God’s will for His Church”. And Resolution 14 of the 1958 Lambeth Conference, suggested “that where between two Churches, not of the same denominational or confessional family, there is unrestricted communio in sacris, including mutual recognition and acceptance of ministries, the appropriate term to use is “full communion” while “Intercommunion” was recommended for lesser degrees of communion. (All of which presumed that the Anglican Communion itself lived in the state of koinonia, that form of fellowship comprised of a yet more perfect unity than that designated “full communion” –from which state the Communion has in fact already fallen away significantly). 

Hence it readily followed that the Eames Commission could observe that “the juridical notion of simply being ‘in communion’ or ‘out of communion’ with another church has been shown to be insufficient” given that a degree of communion can be recognised even where Eucharistic communion is not possible. So by time of the Lambeth Conference of 1988 such qualifiers to communion as ‘impaired’, ‘restricted’ or ‘imperfect’ had all been advanced with varying rationales and subtle distinctions. Though the hard fact remained that in all cases, as the Eames Report observed delicately: “communion is less full than it was”….

But again, there are practical and theological aspects that remain to be worked through. This challenge is likely to be addressed over the coming months, ahead of the future meetings by Global South leaders and provinces in 2024 at which they will look to come up with new inter-Anglican structures. Thus there are practical matters, as to what formal inter-Anglican identities they will share while, in addition, there are theological issues in regard to establishing the theological basis of their specifically Anglican identity.

A Once and Future Anglican Covenant?

In this regard, a proposal that failed to attain the approval needed from a sufficient number of Anglican Provinces, which goes back to the Windsor Report may yet bear fruit. This is some form of Covenant which would be entered into by Provinces wishing to give formal expression to their shared Anglican identity. It would also provide for the obligations and constraints, which such a shared identity could be judged to require, if it is to sustainable over time.

Archbishop and former Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, offered an illuminating perspective on the original Covenant proposal in an article published in the Living Church in June 2017 entitled “The once and future Anglican Communion Covenant project” 

He opened by stating quite clearly that:

“The question the Covenant seeks to resolve is one that Anglicans have asked since the creation of the Lambeth Conference in 1865: what does it mean to be churches in communion with one another? And subsequently, what structures, instruments, and ways of acting together best serve a common vision of what it means to be in communion?” 

He then pointed out that,

“The Lambeth Conference emerged at a time when doctrinal incoherence threatened the unity of the Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Quadrilateral arose in 1888, along with the 1920 “Appeal to all Christian People,” in the very new context of a fresh awareness of the abnormal state of Christian disunity, of the urgent quest for Christian unity, both at the global and local levels. The Primates’ Meeting arose in the crisis to communion with the ordination of women, with an impairment of mutual recognition of ordained ministries. The Eames Report was written in the context of the ordination of women as bishops. The Virginia Report was also in this context, but through the 1990s leading up to the 1998 Lambeth Conference it was in the new context of tension over diverse attitude towards homosexuality. With much regret, the debate that led to Resolution 1:10 overshadowed the important insights of the Virginia Report.

And the Archbishop next recognised that:

“None of these initiatives has completely resolved the underlying issue of what it means to live as a communion of churches in diverse contexts when communion is strained. And subsequently, what best serves our common life in communion. These initiatives have all become a part of the narrative or tradition around what it means to be the Anglican Communion of churches. I would hope that the story of the Covenant is not over, but even if no more provinces adopt the Covenant, it will have played a vital role in defining at least what the communion is not. Whatever happens to the Covenant, the question itself remains, and we need to attend to the question.”

His stated his own personal view thus:

“For some Anglicans, like me, the Covenant is the ecclesiological text that sufficiently defines who we are, and how we can best deal with disagreement. I continue to believe that the Covenant, rightly read and received, offers the best hope for keeping our Communion together.”

While the original formal process for seeking acceptance for the original Covenant failed to command sufficient assent from the individual Provinces to succeed, it remains an open question as to whether the Covenantal model itself may yet have a future in helping structure and define the mutual relations of those who would be Anglican and in particular those who will do so under the aegis of the Global South Fellowship.

This gives added interest to the way in which Archbishop Welby articulated the common bonds and future hope that can yet reunite all Anglicans one day, as rooted in, “a unity imposed by the Spirit of God on those who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour”. This is entirely a vision in terms of our fundamental common faith as Christians and says nothing about this future being specifically Anglican. Is the matter of being Anglican itself now merely one of our seemingly ever more numerous adiaphora? Is not the implication that the recovery of visible unity is likely to be in a world that is “post-Anglican” where the former identity of Anglicans is subsumed into some new and greater whole and passes thus into history? What is not in any way indicated however is when, so this might be in ten years or several hundred.

Clearly, as Christians we all share one initial and common requirement for membership of the Christian Church in baptism. And certainly using this minimal framework, as Paul Avis in particular has urged3See his Anglicanism and the Christian Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989., could accommodate a Communion made of up of participating churches which each retain their differences, including potentially decisively different understandings of the nature of authority itself, and consequently in doctrines and discipline. But such fraternity would seem closer to a loose federalism in which mere fraternity would replace structural unity. And it is at the least open to doubt if such relations could come to constitute “visible unity” in that fullness that is constitutive of koinonia.

Key Questions that Have to be Addressed as New Communion Structures Take Shape

All this needs to be engaged for the wider context which Archbishop Welby’s dramatic appraisal of the Anglican Communion has now set out. 

Archbishop Welby asked in his 2014 Presidential address, exactly the questions now about to be addressed in ways likely to take more formal expression exactly ten years later in 2024. As he put it in 2014:

The key general point to be established is how the Anglican Communion is led, and what its vision is in the 21st century, in a post-colonial world? How do we reflect the fact that the majority of its members are in the Global South, what is the role of the Instruments of Communion, especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, and what does that look like in lived out practice?

Sustaining the Historic Anglican Theological Charism

But what of the common theological heritage itself – quite aside from the formal structures?

One of the most senior bishops in the Church of England (now retired) often used to say that there was a need to have something more to hold the Communion together than a body of amusing stories about the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey. The same bishop went on to point out that, while we have the assurance of knowing that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, that offers no specific guarantees about the Anglican Communion. 

But that reference to Archbishop Ramsey belies the point that there was much weight of Anglican history and theology behind some of his succinct observations. Indeed, words of his from 19844In his concluding reflection to the volume of essays edited by Arthur A.Vogel, Theology in Anglicanism, Morehouse, CT, 1984. still offer an important perspective that is distinctively Anglican and highly apropos to the ultimate task ahead which we must hope is of Anglican renewal. What he wanted to highlight were things about the nature of Anglicanism that transcend immediate challenges and such matters as exactly what formal structures are needed. His focus was rather on the distinctive character of the Anglican theological way. Thus he observed,

“…the characteristic theology of Anglicans is grounded not on a confessional position akin to other confessions of the Reformation, but rather upon a conviction that the Anglican Church claims identity and continuity with the Church of the Scriptures and the fathers, and is called to teach and to live the faith to which the Scriptures and the fathers witness. Thus the Thirty-nine Articles had their significance not as a confessional definition but as an aid to the recovery of the scriptural and primitive faith,…” 

“…from the time of Hooker till today two special characteristics of the Anglican way have been apparent, and both their distinctive witness and the interplay between them have helped to shape the Anglican story and to determine the Anglican role in Christendom…

  1. “the bond between theology and spirituality.” For, “It is very significant that the formularies of the Church of England included not only the Articles but the Ordinal and the Book of Common Prayer as well. The Church’s theology is thus closely related to the Church’s worship, prayer, and spiritual life and with the work of the pastoral priesthood. The inquirer about the Church of England was invited not only to study the documents but to share in the worship. This characteristic of Anglicanism represents the true role of the Christian theologian. He is called, by the very nature of theology, not only to cerebral processes of study and teaching, but to the knowledge of God which comes by prayer and contemplation.
  2. “a reverence for the human reason, not only as part of the process of knowledge but as an aspect of Man created in God’s own image…”

“But there are limits; and where and how are they to be found? Here the first Anglican characteristic comes as an aid, helping the Lex Credendi by the Lex Orandi as the heart of Christianity is the worship of the God who became incarnate… The critical reason can help to free worship from fancy and false sentiment, and the spirit of worship can help the critical mind to find the agnosticism of awe and mystery.”

“…the unity to which Christians are called is far more than theological synthesis and structural oneness. In the seventeenth chapter of St. John, Jesus prays for the unity of the disciples in truth, in holiness, in mission to the world, and in the indwelling of the Son and the Father. The truth of God revealed in the incarnation is one with the indwelling of the incarnate Son in the lives of the disciples, and this is indeed the meaning of the Holy Catholic Church. Hence unity involves the renewal of lives in the worship of God, in the service of humanity, and in the holiness of which heaven is the goal. As Ireneus said, “The glory of God is a living man, the life of man is the vision of God.” 

Archbishop Ramsey characteristically then concluded with words that should both challenge and reassure, at this time of so much tumult and difficulty, namely that always:

“To the pure in heart there is the promise of the vision of God.”


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