By Michael Fitzpatrick
Archbishop Glenn Davies of the Diocese of Sydney in the Anglican Church of Australia recently visited the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia (ACANZP) to give his counsel on the province’s decision to bless same-sex relationships. This decision has led to some parishes leaving the province, and at least one cultural stream, the tikanga of Polynesia, will not incorporate the permission.
There is much that should be celebrated about the archbishop’s visit to ACANZP, including the Christian welcome he was afforded by its primates. In an age of great unrest within the worldwide community of Anglicans, we must give thanks for such gracious and God-honoring fellowship between bishops not of one mind. We need far more such dialogue, especially between the bishops of North America and those of African provinces. To listen and commune together is the distinctive Anglican legacy.
Despite such fellowship, however, Archbishop Davies counseled his sibling province to pursue a less unified path as a way to avoid further schism in the Communion: overlapping jurisdictions, one with same-sex marriage, the other without. Davies observed that there is already a model of overlapping geography within the Anglican Communion that might be worth adopting: the space shared by the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe and the (much smaller) Convocation of Episcopal Churches. They overlap in their geography, but not in their episcopal oversight, which on the face seems at odds with the historic Anglican commitment to the parish system.
That overlap is not as contradictory as it may seem. Both dioceses grew out of a 19th-century commitment to missionary work and chaplaincies for Anglicans abroad on the Continent. The overlap reflects the lack of a national Anglican provincial structure in Europe. Whereas most provinces are organized around a national church and a national episcopacy, these churches were created to provide spiritual and pastoral care for Anglicans abroad. They lack the kind of national roots and numbers necessary to sustain an autonomous province in each nation of Europe. The two jurisdictions are in full communion with each other and with a number of Continental churches, and Anglicans have not usually sought to engage in extensive missionary efforts there, in competition with these churches.
Archbishop Davies commends this structure to the Communion as a way to create geographically overlapping provinces that are both members of the Anglican Communion. In part this is to avoid the fractures experienced in the United States, where separating churches have experienced great turmoil due to property disputes. “Distinctive co-existence,” modeled on the European dioceses, seeks a less divisive Anglican future.
Lest we treat the archbishop’s proposal as a passing suggestion, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh (chairman of the GAFCON Primates’ Council and Primate of Nigeria) has in his September letter commended distinctive co-existence to the whole Anglican Communion as a peaceful model given irreconcilable differences, using the language of divorce.
The archbishop’s proposal does have the merit of avoiding full schism between Anglicans, and he’s right to deplore the manner in which separations between province and churches have been handled in the United States. Although I believe the departure of conservative parishes and dioceses from the Episcopal Church was a mistake, it unquestionably damages our witness to the gospel when we engage in protracted, hurtful, and very public property disputes with departing churches. How is this turning the other cheek? How does it bear witness to giving our tunic when our cloak has been taken? When given the opportunity to show Christian love and mercy, we have not done so as a province, and we need to repent of such sins.
Nonetheless, how is it affirming the gospel when we believers are not “one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32)? We are to be a people united in Christ and divided by nothing else because nothing in all creation can separate us from our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:39). We are to “strive for restoration” when fellowship breaks down, and seek to “live at peace,” not choose to walk apart (2 Cor. 13:11).
The two jurisdictions in Europe do not provide a blueprint for a future Anglican Communion. First, the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe and the Convocation of Episcopal Churches are not competing provinces. In no sense do they consider each other as preaching a different gospel, and they consult and partner together in ministry.
Second, the two dioceses are in full communion with each other. There are no breaches or exclusions here.
Third, the two dioceses do not represent the same national unity, but span many different cultures and contexts. Even so, in the 1998 consultation between the European bishops, which included the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church and the Lusitanian Church in Spain and Portugal, the assumption was that if they made their episcopal structures autonomous, it would be as a single province (spanning European, rather than national, unity).
In the years since the bishops have not yet found a path to unification, but they committed in 2003 to becoming unified Partners in Mission for the express purpose of evangelism, showing visible unity to an unbelieving world. The bishops continue to meet regularly and collaborate in ministry.
Such a commitment to visible unity has even leapt traditional boundaries, leading to an active collaboration with the Old Catholic communities in their midst. The Bonn Agreement of 1931 has maintained full communion between Anglicans and Old Catholics, and the Porvoo agreement went further, providing unity between the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe and a number of mostly Northern European churches. And in 2013 the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the Old Catholic Union pledged to begin collaboration on both worship and evangelism, serving their European communities visibly with one mind and under one Lord.
In other words, the situation in Europe differs significantly from the actions taken by groups like GAFCON, consecrating missionary bishops for the purpose of establishing parishes and even dioceses within established Anglican Communion provinces, assuming that the established provinces are unfit to provide episcopal oversight and Anglican sacraments to the people in their geographical areas.
The parish system is still the right system for organizing the Church geographically. We must not fall into the consumerist trap of choosing the local church that we are a part of based on who we want to worship with. Rather, we are to worship with those whom God as called us to join (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. James 2:1-9). The parish model was built on the idea of unity in within a local community, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, political beliefs, or social class. I contend that this should include many theological differences as well.
Anglicans need each other. We bring to our sacramental life distinctive experiences, perspectives, and understandings of God. Theological liberals and conservatives each get important things right about faith in Christ, and they each have blind spots that the other can help avoid. The parish system is crucial because liberals and conservatives need each other. Both will fall short of the full faith without the pushing and prodding of the other.
In 2015 the House of Bishops affirmed this truth: that its conservative members, the Communion Partners, are an “indispensable part” of the church. The bishops affirmed a model of “communion across difference” on the grounds that “we thank God for the rich variety of voices in our House, in our dioceses, in the Episcopal Church, and in the Anglican Communion, that reflect the wideness of God’s mercy and presence in the Church and in the world.” If we follow the path of distinctive co-existence, then we will continue to divide ourselves into echo chambers that stifle the prophets in our midst sent to call us back to the fullness of the faith.
The archbishop’s proposal opens the door to an endless multiplication of provinces. If distinctive co-existence had been employed during the initial movement to ordain women to the priesthood, many Anglican localities would have two provinces, one that ordains women and one that does not. Now three provinces would be required in each geographic locality: one that supports the ordination of women and inclusion of same-sex couples, one that supports ordination of women but not inclusion for same-sex couples, and one that supports neither. Future disputes would require even more provinces.
Anglican unity depends on a generous orthodoxy: diversity within historic creedal boundaries. Its future requires patience, as we address our divisions through conciliar structures. I believe the Anglican Communion has been unique among the world’s Christian traditions, a “city on a hill” manifesting the unity of the Church envisioned in John 17 and 1 Corinthians 1. We are Christians because we share one Lord, and “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). We are to test prophets by whether they confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2), and even if we think these debates over sexual ethics are gospel issues, liberals and conservatives alike are motivated by their shared confession that Jesus is Lord. We are bound by the Body of Christ, not by whether we all agree on every application of the gospel to our fallen world.
Anglicans are divided today. But to give up on one unified province in each geographic locality is to give up on the ideal of the Anglican Communion, to allow it to devolve into an ever-growing set of miniature fiefdoms that refuse to acknowledge each other’s faithfulness to Christ, and compete for missions and churches. This is not the Anglican way, and it is not faithfulness to the gospel.
Christ “himself is our peace” who has ended “dividing walls of hostility” (Eph. 2:14), and so we “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). God has given us a “ministry of reconciliation,” and has made us ambassadors on his behalf to proclaim reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:1820). Why should an unbelieving world accept this gospel if the deeds of our faith amount to little more than distinctive co-existence?
Michael Fitzpatrick is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Stanford University and a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal-Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford. He was last seen worshiping in the Diocese in Europe at St. Edmund’s Anglican Church in Oslo, Norway.