Looking to the January meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion, the first that all expect to attend since 2009’s meeting in Egypt, we should pray for ressourcement of a Virginia Report and Windsor Report variety, relying on their rich ecclesiological catechesis. Archbishop Justin Welby’s reference to Lambeth 1998 and subsequent primates’ meetings in his invitation rather evokes this field, but sustained theological engagement of communion is needed.

Something very much like the Covenant remains, in Oliver O’Donovan’s memorable phrase, “the only game in town” (originally said of The Windsor Report), for the simple reason that it delivers a synthesis of Anglican thinking about the Church wrought as a vision for the future. The alternatives to the Covenant school are amnesia at best, innovation at worst — of an invisibilist or otherwise weakened sort that perceives the Church as simply affective gathering in mission across difference. In ecumenical terms, the pressure to opt for mere “Life and Work” would have us surrender the upward call to a common “Faith and Order,” as if the two are separable.

Anglicans have, from the late 19th century, sought to hold the Church’s missionary and teaching work together, neither surrendering to a social or conversionary gospel without remainder nor seeking a uniformity that might squash licit diversity. Pace those who found in the Anglican Covenant a volley in the culture wars, the Covenant provided — and provides — a comprehensive synthesis, gathering the best of Anglican communion and associated missionary energy from roughly 1867 on.

What would be gained by a primatial threading of the communion needle? Ecclesial confidence: restating who we are on the way to hearing what God is calling us to be.

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  • We have historically catholic structures, with a catholic ambition: bishops, archbishops, global councils, and a commitment to full, visible unity, reaching out to all Christians and churches across the oikumene.
  • We therefore seek a common faith and order.
  • At the same time, we know that we have had, to date, decentralized structures, with some degree of autonomy for churches/provinces,
  • With, however, an important caveat or “fundamental limit,” namely, communion itself. As The Windsor Report said: “Communion is, in fact, the fundamental limit to autonomy” (§ 82).

This being so, what next steps can (1) preserve our ecclesiological commitments that form us in the space of communion, (2) while respecting the conscience of those who, for various reasons, cannot travel as far down the path of common life?

Answer: something like the notion floated by Archbishop Rowan Williams in his important pastoral letter to the Communion after the Episcopal Church’s 2006 General Convention, “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today” (is.gd/ChallengeAndHope), namely, degrees of communion. The notion is borrowed from ecumenical discourse, as a way of making sense of the paradoxes of division, according to which our unity is impaired and imperfect but not cut off. As the ecumenical movement teaches, our persistent divisions are scandalous yet we cannot escape one another, since the scandal is located within the wounded body of Christ. In such a view, would-be Anglican communion, like all Christian communion, finds its vocation in service of the healing of the one body, which requires both a patient accompanying of one another amid difference and insistence that difference and division are not and cannot be the end point. Degrees of communion, wheels within wheels, even within the Anglican family, prove useful as a way of sorting out the rights and obligations of both freedom in Christ and deepening accountability.

The Anglican Communion, hopefully gathered around Canterbury, can only continue to seek and serve the fullness of the one Church and its faith and order, which the Covenant called “intensified” communion (Intro. § 5) as itself “the vocation of Anglicanism” (2.1.5). If some of our Anglican brothers and sisters — even whole provinces, or parts of provinces — cannot (yet) agree to this path, for various reasons, their discernment must be honored, as we respect and strive to cooperate with all baptized Christians. At the same time, such persons or provinces should not seek to obstruct but rather encourage the movement of the Communion toward ever-deeper fullness, while we all await further apostolic instruction “through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2; cf. 1 Cor. 11:34) and pray for the courage to obey.

Such a grammar could well serve as the starting point for the Primates’ Meeting, since it recalls the most longstanding ecclesiological commitment we all, at one point and another, have made. The last Primates’ Meeting (in 2011), sadly skipped by GAFCON-affiliated primates who also missed the Lambeth Conference, set a bad precedent for trying to make decisions without everyone present; its resolutions cannot be authoritative for the meeting in January. They might be understood as trial balloons, the flights of which were instructive, if unsuccessful.

Everything points back to the main curriculum: mutual responsibility and interdependence; self-sacrificing love; cooperation “on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world” (Chicago Quadrilateral of the American House of Bishops, 1886). In short, let the primates preferentially opt for the Anglican Covenant.

The featured image of the primates at Lambeth 2008 was taken by Flickr user Scott Gunn, and is licensed under Creative Commons.  

About The Author

In continuous publication since 1878, The Living Church served throughout the 20th century as the Catholic-minded magazine of record in the Episcopal Church in the United States, in firm support of the advancing ecumenical movement and the rise of a global, interdependent Anglican Communion.

In the 21st century, it remains focused on the whole state of Christ’s Church, amid major shifts in the landscape and culture of global Christianity. We are champions of a covenanted Anglican Communion as a means of healing the wounds of division in the body of Christ.

The members of the governing Foundation and Board of the Living Church are communion-minded and -committed Anglicans from several nations, devoted to seeking and serving the full, visible unity of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

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