Vol I No. 7
Anglican Communion

From Clubs to Communion: in a Different League ?

by sinetortus



It is said that the Metropolitan Club in New York founded in 1891 –with J.P. Morgan as its first President –was launched in consequence of outrage that a certain other Club had failed to elect particular gentlemen to membership.  In the world of gentlemen’s social clubs it is clear thus that, in the case of difficulty, one answer is simply to set up a new one, even if the more recent clubs tend to be looked down upon by the older or more exclusive ones. (A mischievous sentiment captured in White’s in London (founded in 1693)  where it is sometimes suggested that Brooks’s across the street -estimable and historic as it is, being founded in 1762 — is ideal really for leaving one’s coat and hat while in Whites.)

Tempting as some might find it to suggest that setting up a new church when you have a problem with an existing one is a project of like character, most Christians would strongly disagree. This prompts the question of why? What makes the two kinds of project so different?

Admittedly,  there is a tendency among some Christian traditions to be more fissiparous  than others, but in every case it would likely be said that the action of division or separation is never of itself a good thing and can only be done legitimately as a last resort.  (A situation classically defined quite strictly as arising when remaining would put one  in a position of having to act in breach of one’s conscience.). In part, this reflects the common view that a church (and certainly the Church) is unlike any other form of social organisation. No one holds, for example, that the church is a wholly owned creation of its members or merely a voluntary association.  Instead,  in a highly important sense, it is uniquely and radically different in belonging to or even partaking of God, as comprising the body of Christ,  the “blessed company of all faithful people” to recall the familiar language of the Prayer Book.

Then again, much like the concept of grace, the church can be further seen and understood in rather different ways or, to put things more delicately, under different aspects.  In the case of grace this can be understood either, or as both, a power conferred by, or a disposition on the part of, God to or upon us, his fallen creatures. While the Church may be understood as containing the reality it signifies even though, at the same time, it also helps to bring that reality about.

But this is to get ahead of things, when it might be better to ask why such questions are so relevant right now and in particular for the Anglican Communion.


First, there is a major and enduring crisis among Anglicans about our ecclesiology.  While the seeds were long sown, matters have come to a head since the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and the sharply differing responses to what it affirmed, most particularly in the area of human sexuality.  Certain Anglican Provinces (notably the USA, Canada, Scotland and New Zealand) have felt not merely free to act in breach of what was there affirmed, but actually that that they have an obligation to do so on the basis either that they are called to do so by a new understanding and spirit of prophecy, or the view that the church must keep step with the social changes in the surrounding social culture

In response, other Provinces and leaders have felt that such actions take the bonds of the Communion past breaking point and have in turn felt called to assist those unable to accept the new positions within those provinces where they have been promulgated.

All this has thus also led to the reality of fracture within such Provinces as the United States and Canada,  with very damaging and painful legal disputes underway (with the situation in South Carolina being especially current and poignant) and further questions about the status of the new groupings that have arisen  and even about the recognition of the Orders conferred within them, as well as the status of their bishops in relation to the wider Anglican Communion.

Secondly, there is now the very particular chronological context framed first by the third Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) about to convene in Jerusalem and second the next Lambeth Conference which is due to convene in the summer of 2020 in Canterbury.  While they are quite separate, these two gatherings will both relate to these challenges.

It is therefore timely and interesting that the GAFCON movement is  showing some signs of engaging with the whole matter of ecclesiology even if this has not hitherto been a primary focus, since participants are typically more drawn to activity and direct evangelism than to the more abstract aspects of theology. Yet this they must address too if they are fully to respond to the pressing issues that now arise.

One notable contribution is emerging from the formidable pen of Dr. Stephen Noll the former Vice Chancellor of The Uganda Christian University at Mukono.  He has responded robustly to what he sees as an exotic form or neo-Papalism employed by the Anglican Consultative Council and most specifically its Secretary General, ​Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon whom he quotes as stating in particular (here quoted as some length) that,

“For Anglicans, communion with the See of Canterbury – and with its Archbishop – is the visible expression of our communion with one another.

the relationship with the See of Canterbury is essential for Anglicans. You cannot be in the Anglican Communion without it.

The fundamental character of this relationship was spelled out by the 1930 Lambeth Conference which refers to the Anglican Communion as “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…

Similarly, the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council defines member churches as “the churches in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury whose names are listed in the Schedule to these Articles”.

As recently as 2012, the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order said in its excellent report “Towards a Symphony of Instruments” that the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury is integral to the way the Anglican Communion is made up: “it is not possible for a Church to be a member of the Communion without being in communion with the archbishop as bishop of the See of Canterbury”.


Of all this Dr. Noll observes that, “This assertion represents an extreme interpretation of “primacy,” edging toward papalism. In fact, it suggests that Canterbury is not just unique feature of Anglicanism but the unique feature.” And he notes in particular:

“the use here of the word essential. Being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury is not only required for formal recognition as a Province of the Anglican Communion, but it is required to call oneself an Anglican”.

And Dr. Noll goes on to conclude (even if the two questions he raises – here emphasized in italics) might be better kept separate:

“The issue has been engaged: what does it mean to be Anglican and what constitutes the Anglican Communion? It is my contention that what we are seeing is the emergence of a communion of churches which builds on the heritage of the Church of England and represents the emerging leadership of the former colonial churches of the Global South. This may represent God’s true judgment on and redemption of our international family and our rich tradition.”


First then,  there is being in Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Second,  there is being recognized by the ACC as part of the Communion,  which Dr Idowu-Fearon makes clear has to do with being listed in a “Schedule” which the ACC keeps pursuant to an Article in the ACC constitution (And presumably updates from time to time as has happened most recently in the case of a new Province being formed in South Sudan.)

While it seems, thus far that, those recognised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and those in Provinces on the ACC’s schedule have coincided, there no reason to see why this must necessarily be the case, not least because a Province relates to a geographical area whereas being in Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury does not and has particular application to Bishops.

The second criterion, after all, is simply what the Constitution of the ACC happens to say at present. But the ACC is itself a contingent body that is the creature of the Lambeth of Conference and as such may itself be changed. So this point is a technical and specific  point relating to membership of the ACC. It is doubtless important in various ways (as the enthusiasm of the American Episcopal Church to remain part of it clearly demonstrates). And the ACC clearly is membership based organisation that has dues and so forth and there is necessarily something of the feel of club administration about it but the AAC is not itself the Communion.

While on the one hand, there are between  Drs. Noll and Idowu-Fearon quite deep areas of divergence about the nature of Anglican Ecclesiology, in a rather paradoxical way,  there is also evidence of shared temptations (in common with most Anglicans these days it seems)!

By this is meant a tendency to want to reduce the Communion to a membership body or voluntary association after all — taking things back to the idea of a Club that seemed so generally unwelcome above.

For some, the church is defined essentially by those holding correct beliefs about doctrine and morals, where being Anglican then tends to look slightly secondary to being Evangelical (and an identity that is perhaps thus even a matter of the accidents of history). While for others,  the church is defined by a set of membership rules to which beliefs are actually secondary. And here there is a further move being made of devolving membership of individuals to autonomous local clubs which can then perhaps (in a manner rather fitting to this Season of the World Cup in Football) be thought to  belong to a global Anglican League. In this picture the local Club is autonomous in terms of its rules and practices (including beliefs about morals and doctrine) while its global identity is defined by membership of the League and there can be a highly legalistic approach to League membership.

But in both cases the Anglican Communion in terms of being itself a Church (wherein the local always looks to the whole) seems on all sides to be fading – not perhaps the kind of area for consensus and agreement that might have been expected.

To be continued…..