[On Nov. 19] Bishop Christopher Hill of Guildford, the chairman of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity, advised that church’s General Synod of developments in South Carolina:
On Saturday, a Special Diocesan Convention endorsed the South Carolina withdrawal from The Episcopal Church. The Bishop has stated that their position would be to remain within the Anglican Communion as an extra-provincial Diocese. The Episcopal Church on the other hand maintains that General Convention consent is necessary for any withdrawal. So the legal and indeed theological and ecclesiological position is extremely complicated. And it is absolutely not certain.
It has therefore not been possible to consider the consequences for our relationships at this immediate stage. And, in my view, any statement just at this point would be premature.
Bishop Hill is right to emphasize the complexity of these issues. We consider here in summary fashion some of this complexity from the perspective of the Anglican Communion and conclude with an outline of a possible way forward that already has been accepted by three of the Communion’s Instruments.
First, one major complexity is that the Communion has no clear definition of itself. The oldest and probably still most widely accepted understanding of the Communion is that offered by the 1930 Lambeth Conference and subsequently quoted in the preamble to TEC’s constitution. It defined the 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,” which have in common “the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”; that “they are particular [dioceses] or national Churches”; and that “they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.”
As we have noted before, this definition reflects the essence of catholic ecclesiology: the people of God are united in one local church by their communion with their recognized bishop, and through the communion of all the bishops in a college of bishops the people of God around the world are joined in one communion.
It is sometimes suggested that a better definition is the membership schedule attached to the constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council. But this definition is clearly inadequate and is not in fact accepted by any of the Instruments as defining the Communion as a whole for all purposes. Indeed, while it purports to be only a definition of ACC membership, the ACC itself does not accept the schedule as performing even that limited role.
The problem with the ACC schedule is most acute in its silence regarding the extra-provincial churches. There are several of these that are accepted by all as members of the Communion; they are listed on the Communion’s website in the provincial directory; their bishops are invited to the Lambeth Conference; and most surprising of all, their members are co-opted by the ACC itself to serve as members of the ACC. At the recently concluded ACC meeting in New Zealand, two of the members were from churches not listed on the ACC’s own membership schedule and one of these has been selected to serve on the ACC’s standing committee!
If that is not complexity enough, the Instruments themselves are currently “under review” at the Communion’s request, we have a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Covenant has now gone into effect after having been adopted by several of the Communion’s churches — but not (yet) by the Church of England. And that is before we get to South Carolina!
No one can expect South Carolina’s unique situation to find an immediate solution in the fluidity that now characterizes the Communion. There is, however, a potential interim solution that already has been endorsed by three of the Communion’s Instruments, including unanimously by the Primates’ Meeting. This concept has not yet been taken up elsewhere, but might work better in the extraordinary circumstances in South Carolina than in any of the other places where it was considered.
The concept is a simple one proposed by the Windsor Continuation Group for cases of theological disputes that had led to separation. Drawing on the model of the extra-provincial churches already recognized by the Communion, the Continuation Group proposed “a provisional holding arrangement which will enable dialogue to take place and which will be revisited on the conclusion of the Covenant Process, or the achievement of long term reconciliation in the Communion.” The Group contemplated that such a provisional Communion recognition would be accompanied by openness to reconciliation in the future and respect for existing territorial boundaries in the near term. The Group expressed a preference for a conciliar Communion relationship, such as that currently in place for Cuba, rather than the older model of being extra-provincial to Canterbury.
Bishop Lawrence reiterated in his convention address last Saturday that the diocese remains open even now to “meet with them [TEC] in openness to seek new and creative solutions.” We suggest that the concept already proffered by the Windsor Continuation Group and accepted in principle by the Communion’s Instruments (and by TEC’s Presiding Bishop) might offer one possible creative solution. Litigation could be avoided, those dissenting in the diocese could receive immediate pastoral care from the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, the current status quo in South Carolina would be recognized and contained, and hope for eventual reconciliation not completely abandoned.
ACI’s affiliate, The Cranmer Institute, would be willing to fund and host discussions to explore this concept at its facility on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. We suggest that the talks be convened by Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi of Burundi, who in addition to being the chairman of the Communion’s Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order is also an expert on reconciliation.
Photo: Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi at the 2009 meeting of the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee.