As someone deeply committed to the vision of a unified and faithful global Anglicanism, I am usually invested in the gatherings of the official instruments of the Anglican Communion, such as the Primates’ Meeting, the Lambeth Conference, and the Anglican Consultative Council. The most recent meeting of the latter has been no different (and it’s not quite over yet). I have followed along on Twitter and Facebook as best I can in the midst of pressing real world matters, such as a yet unfinished dissertation, an impending addition to our family, and preparation for a new job that begins this fall. Nonetheless, the Anglicans were meeting and so I paid attention.
For those of you who do not know, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) has met every two to three years since 1971, and the gathering in Lusaka is its 16th meeting (hence the shorthand “ACC-16”). Each of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion sends a delegation, and it is the only Instrument of Communion to include lay people, deacons, and priests, as well as bishops. According to the ACC page on the Anglican Communion website, the ACC’s purpose is to
facilitate the co-operative work of the churches of the Anglican Communion, exchange information between the Provinces and churches, and help to co-ordinate common action. It advises on the organization and structures of the Communion, and seeks to develop common policies with respect to the world mission of the Church, including ecumenical matters.
A plain reading of this mandate, and the name of the organization itself, would suggest that the ACC’s role is to further coordination through shared consultation. Thus, the ACC does not determine the doctrine, discipline, and mission of the Anglican Communion. Instead, it helps the Communion work better together in living out its vocation. This need not imply that the ACC is insignificant. Shared mission helps make us a communion and not simply a local church limited to one nation or ethnic group. Put differently, shared mission and ministry is a manifestation of catholicity.
This particular meeting of the ACC had an enhanced importance because of the recent meeting of the Anglican primates. (I know this is a weird term for non-Anglicans. See the definition here). In response to the recent actions of the Episcopal Church (changing its marriage canon), the primates made a request. Their statement said:
It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.
The question before us is whether the particular “consequences” of the primates’ communiqué have been upheld during ACC-16 and will continue to be. (In asking the question this way, I leave aside the question of whether these consequences were sufficient.)
In any fair reading of the events of ACC-16, it seems that the meeting has thus far heeded the requests of the primates. I make this claim for the following reasons:
- No member of the Episcopal Church has been elected or chosen to run for a place on the ACC’s standing committee.
- The members of the Episcopal Church who were on interfaith and ecumenical bodies have resigned.
- The ACC normally does not decide issues of doctrine, as its role is consultative. Even though the ACC helps to shape shape issues of Anglican polity, the ACC has not voted on such matters in this meeting. (As of this moment, this meeting is just starting to vote on resolutions.)
But if ACC-16 has heeded the request of the Primates’ Meeting, what does this mean? While many might have liked some stronger pronouncement regarding TEC’s actions to come out of the Primates’ Meeting and ACC-16, especially some clarity on what is supposed to happen three years from now, the two meetings are significant. For the next three years, the Episcopal Church will not play an official role in the ecumenical life of the Anglican Communion. When other churches meet with and listen to the voices of the Communion, it will not be the Episcopal Church that they hear. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of human sexuality, this result seems fair; or, as Presiding Bishop Curry has put it: “adult and mature.” The views of the Episcopal Church are out of step with the rest of the Communion; to have us speak as if we represented the whole would be to misrepresent ourselves to our ecumenical partners.
More importantly, it would seem out of place for the Episcopal Church to set the agenda for the wider Communion through participation in the ACC’s standing committee. Our General Convention chose to make decisions that the rest of the Communion has repeatedly said contradict received Anglican teaching.
What should the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion do in light of all of this? I am not sure. But strangely enough, even though my province has been sanctioned ever so lightly, I feel more a part of a communion than I have in quite some time.
Why? Because if the Anglican Communion is to fulfill its vocation to be a manifestation of the church Catholic, the things that it says it believes must matter. Otherwise, we are speaking to the wind. Thus, the fact that the Anglican Communion cares enough about the Episcopal Church to tell us that we are wrong means that the Communion takes itself seriously as a communion. It also means that if the Communion truly cares about the Episcopal Church, it will lovingly continue to tell us, at every moment, when we are wrong. It will continue to ask us to face up to the consequences of our actions.
This is what it means to be in a communion. If I wanted a “perfect” local expression of the Church, with no one to disagree with me, I could plant a non-denominational church and write a confession of faith that suits my theological tastes. But in the providence of God that was not the path I chose.
I became a priest of the Anglican Communion, and thus I am under the authority of my bishop. Long ago, I chose to become an Anglican and in so doing I made an implicit claim about what the Church is. It is the communion of the baptized — the laity and the clergy — governed ultimately by bishops in council (with each other, with their presbyters and deacons, and with their people, the laity). National councils help each local diocese recognize that true catholicity must transcend regional perspectives. In the U.S. the South is not the Northeast. Nonetheless we are one church. In the same way, the international councils of the church help us escape the trappings of our national cultures so that together as we reflect on the Scriptures in light of the historic creeds we might discern the will of God.
The Anglican Communion seems to be, however frustratingly and slowly, making such a discernment. The Episcopal Church would do well to listen.
The Rev. Esau McCaulley is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews, and is a priest of the Episcopal Church. This fall he will begin a new position as associate professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. His other Covenant posts are here.
The featured image comes via Anglican Archives.
 Emphasis added. I should note, though, that this description comes partly from the “new” constitution of the ACC, when it was reorganized as a charity under U.K. law. The description of purpose in the constitution approved in the 1970s by the whole of the Communion is slightly different.
 The ACC votes on the admission of new provinces to the Communion. It also votes on the division of existing provinces.