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From Autonomy to Communion

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

Owen Chadwick claimed that the Anglican Communion was always a federation with many different bodies participating. Many others also state that Anglicanism is not a “church” but a fellowship of national autonomous and interdependent churches, united not only through bonds of affection but also by a classic tradition developed over centuries. These statements confirm that Anglicans have never fully agreed about what sort of church theirs is and should be.

It reminds me of the Eglise du Christ au Congo (ECC), a federation of 64 Protestant denominations, including the Anglican Church of Congo. It started in 1923, first as the Protestant Council of Congo, but became the Church of Christ in Congo in 1970 without a clearly defined ecclesial identity, built on its well-known slogan of “unity in diversity.” This unclear ecclesial identity and lack of a clearly defined body of doctrine have reduced the ECC to a sort of “social club” called Mutuel des églises, mostly united for social purpose. The Anglican Church of Congo, member both of the ECC and the Anglican Communion, has been confused more than ever, lacking a clear ecclesial identity nationally and internationally.

The term Anglican Communion emerged in the 19th century as a description of the ecclesiastical expansion of the Church of England, which has no denominational identity. Of course, it sees itself as “part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshiping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” As a result of this expansion, there were churches of the colonial empire, missionary churches, and others. Most of these churches were formed out of differing circumstances and means, but then forced to live together.

It is the same as with the missiological insistence of Henry Venn of the Church Mission Society that the native Christians should create their own self-propagating, self-supporting, and self-governing “native” churches that were independent of mother missionary societies. This was already a challenge for the ecclesiological identity and concern for unity.

There has never been a normative statement of faith binding each of the national churches in the Anglican Communion, nor a central source of authority. “Communion” has been merely a matter of social fellowship between autonomous churches, fostering spiritual and social bonds of affection. An ecclesial deficit therefore arose because the Anglican Communion has been undecided about its true identity, and our ecumenical partners are frustrated, because they are unclear whether the Anglican Communion can speak and act as one coherent ecclesial body.

There has been unwillingness to cooperate, a defensive communication and competition on a win-lose model in which people use position, power, possessions, and personality to get their way. Life, however, is not a competition and we cannot live each day competing with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We need the right balance between the “one” and the “many.”

If we are God’s people in mission, we must live together and get our own house in order. The Anglican Covenant does this and enables the churches of the Anglican Communion to pass on, faithfully and reflectively, the faith once delivered to the saints. It helps churches to give visible expression to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, reintegrating their concerns to the same Christian mind, recovering the apostolic tradition, and coming to fullness of Christian vision and belief, in agreement with all ages.

As Michael Poon has said, the Anglican Covenant provides the Communion with a confident and vibrant ecclesial identity to be a communion of churches. It gives a canonical structure for building up and renewing the churches, so that their common life and witness may lead to the transformation of believers to be a people of God’s very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:11-14). The Covenant gives the Anglican Communion’s churches a shared identity and cohesion and delineates communal boundaries.

This redefined Anglicanism is a call for a renewed commitment to the authority of Scripture and the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Continued rejection of these historic anchors to our faith will bring us to more crises in the life of the Communion.

The Covenant is consonant with the doctrines and formularies of our churches as they reflect orthodox biblical teachings and our cherished Anglican heritage. It articulates the essential elements of mission and our interdependence. May the King of the Church use it to lead his people in faithful discipleship and truth.

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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