Catholicity Outweighs Autonomy

Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By Paul Avis

The future of the Anglican Communion is in jeopardy. The Windsor Report proposed an Anglican Covenant, centering on mutual commitment, to secure a unified future for the Communion. The Anglican Covenant is the only credible proposal that I am aware of to help hold this family of churches together. The alternative to the Covenant is to allow the present sharp tensions to be worked out in the formal separation of some churches of the Communion from others — and that means schism, and the fracture and possible dissolution of the Anglican Communion.

The Covenant is not perfect and it is not completely clear to me how the “consequences” aspect of it will be worked out, if it comes to that. But I don’t think that is the most important thing about the Covenant. The key, for me, is that by subscribing to the Covenant, Anglican churches will signal in a serious way their intention to remain together. They will signal this to themselves, to all the other Anglican churches throughout the world, and to other Christian world communions, who are watching anxiously and do not want to see the Anglican Communion finally fail as a worldwide fellowship of churches. Such a failure would indicate a serious weakening of Christianity and its witness on the world stage. It would also bring grief and heartbreak to millions of Anglican Christians around the globe.

But is the Anglican Covenant asking too much of member churches? Does it fatally compromise the hard-won autonomy of the “provinces”? I think not. “Autonomy” cannot be the first thing that we have to say about ourselves as Anglican churches. I think the attributes of the Church of Christ in the Creed come much higher up: unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.

The very first thing we want to say about our church is that it belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. But if we belong, with others, to something much bigger than ourselves, then we belong together and not in autonomous isolation. So interdependence must be a key denominator of Anglican ecclesiology and polity. The Covenant seeks to flesh out in practical terms what interdependence might mean.

For churches that exist in a relationship of interdependence, it seems not too much to ask of us that we consider the common good of the Church as a whole and of the Anglican Communion as a part of that whole. This takes us to the heart of what is meant by catholicity. “Catholic” is from the Greek kat’ holon, “according to the whole.” To be catholic is to be deeply conscious of being part of a wider whole and to act accordingly. The virtues of forbearance, patience, restraint, willingness to consult and to accept a degree of accountability to others come into play here. “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Is the Anglican Communion that important? Is it worth saving? Is the Communion worth fighting for? My answer to that question is an unequivocal Yes, and there is a profound theological reason for saying that. Communion (koinonia in the Greek New Testament) is not something that is man-made. It is not a human artifact and is not at our disposal.

Communion — whether between individual Christians in the Body of Christ, or between particular churches within the universal Church — is something given in the realm of grace. It is intimately connected to the sacraments. In baptism we are brought into communion with the Triune God and one another; in the Eucharist — Holy Communion — we are sustained and strengthened in that communion. Communion is God’s greatest gift to us in this life and it will be completed and fulfilled in the next.

Any expression of communion is to be treated with great respect and care. It is an imperative of Christian love to seek communion with our fellow Christians. We are called to seek, maintain and extend communion. To do that we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is sometimes conceived as the bond of communion between the Father and the Son. Ultimately, then, the future of the Anglican Communion is not a political matter, but a spiritual issue. I believe we should consider the Covenant in that light.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Avis is the general secretary of the Council for Christian Unity and canon theologian of Exeter Cathedral. He is the editor of the journal Ecclesiology and the author of several books on Anglicanism, including The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (T&T Clark, 2008).

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.


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