By Eugene R. Schlesinger

While reports of the Anglican Communion’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, the decline of some of the Communion’s constituent churches has not, nor have the declines yet been faced with full seriousness and sobriety. Ours is a Communion in turmoil, and as the 2020 Lambeth Conference approaches, the turmoil only seems to deepen.

Predictably, an increasing number of Global South Provinces, particularly those aligned with GAFCON, announce their intentions to decline the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to attend Lambeth 2020. The Instruments of Communion have failed, they tell us, and nothing will be resolved by pretending otherwise and propping up ineffectual tools capable only of maintaining a problematic status quo. This is not the place to evaluate GAFCON’s assessment of the Instruments of Communion, except to note that the refusal to engage with them becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we face this uncertainty about the future of the Communion, we must be attentive to the very real danger of a myopic understanding of Anglicanism. Why do we seek to preserve the Communion? If our rationale cannot carry us beyond preserving the Communion for the Communion’s sake, we are almost certainly operating within a myopic framework. 

At one level this myopia is exemplified in a growing consensus within GAFCON, recently restated by Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria, that a church need not be in communion with the See of Canterbury to be authentically Anglican. This statement is patently wrong, at least on one level. As long as there have been Anglican churches, communion with Canterbury was not regarded as optional or dispensable. 

At first this was a de facto reality: for the most part, Anglicanism was the Church of England, and as the British Empire expanded, missionaries accompanied this expansion, establishing daughter churches. These became autonomous churches that maintained their ties of communion with the English church. Eventually it was necessary to reflect more definitely on what makes a church Anglican. Once this began, the consistent answer has been that

The Anglican Communion is 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. (1930 Lambeth Conference, Resolution 49)

Yet beyond this factual matter, a deeper problem is hidden. When we frame the issue in this way, our focus becomes fixated on Anglican identity: Who properly and authentically embodies what it means to be Anglican? Remaining at the level of Anglican identity risks thinking of Anglicanism as an end in itself, as something ultimate. This is the case when GAFCON seeks to redefine Anglicanism by insisting the Anglican Church in North America or the Anglican Church in Brazil are provinces, while suggesting a future without Canterbury. It is also the case when these attempts at redefinition are met with nothing more than a reassertion of Anglicanism’s identity markers. 

Put in starker terms: it may be that Archbishop Okoh and his confreres in GAFCON find that their Christian conviction demands they walk apart from the Anglican Communion. Should this occur, it would be a blow to the Communion, not only in lost membership, but also in lost diversity, lost witness, lost connection. But losses to the Anglican Communion are not ultimate losses. Similarly, the Church of Nigeria and other provinces would suffer loss in their departure from the Communion, but the loss of their status as Anglican is hardly the most important. When we evaluate these issues solely in terms of contested Anglican identity, we miss the deeper tragedy of division, and obscure the meaning of the church. 

Anglicanism is good, but it is not ultimate, only provisional. Only Jesus Christ is ultimate, and one day, even if only on the Last Day, all denominational identities will give way to the creedal and confessed one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

At its best, Anglicanism is a portion and faithful expression of that Church, but it is only a portion, only an expression, not its fullness. Recognizing Anglicanism’s provisional and partial character is a practice with venerable Anglican pedigree. The Lambeth Conferences of 1920, 1930, and 1948 gave witness to this, noting that Anglicanism’s future was for “its ideals … [to] become less Anglican and more Catholic. It cannot look to any bonds of union holding it together, other than those which should hold together the Catholic Church itself” (1920 Lambeth Conference, Report of the Committee on Reunion).

The Lambeth conferences recognized that, rather than something to be maintained for its own sake or at all costs, 

The Anglican Communion is seen as in some sense an incident in the history of the Church Universal. It has arisen out of the situation caused by the divisions of Christendom. It has indeed been clearly blessed of God, as we thankfully acknowledge; but in its present character we believe that it is transitional, and we forecast the day when the racial and historical connections which at present characterize it will be transcended, and the life of our Communion will be merged in a larger fellowship in the Catholic Church. (1930 Lambeth Conference, “Committee on the Anglican Communion”)

Or, as Michael Ramsey poignantly put it, Anglicanism’s 

greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. (The Gospel and the Catholic Church [Cowley, 1990], p. 220)

None of these observations arise from any sort of Anglican self-loathing or desire to mitigate the importance of the Anglican Communion. My ecclesial migrations into the Episcopal Church have stemmed from a conviction that Catholic Christianity can be believed, professed, and lived here, and that membership in the Communion matters. But these voices from our past ought to remind us that we are part of something larger, larger even than the Anglican Communion. They ought to remind us that the life of our Communion is not an end in itself, but ought to serve that larger reality. 

It is not that Anglican identity does not matter or should not be upheld, but that Anglican identity is oriented toward and at the service of a larger Catholic fullness. There are, no doubt, treasures in the Anglican patrimony that will be received by the wider church when God, in his mercy, heals our sad divisions and full visible unity is restored. No less a figure than Pope Benedict XVI recognized this when he established the Anglican Ordinariates. Yet our primary task is not to hold onto them, but to put them at the service of the universal Church. Our primary task is not to propagate Anglicanism, but to spread the gospel of Christ, and to promote the unity of his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. 

As the 2020 Lambeth Conference approaches and the issues facing the Communion grow more pressing and fraught, we must beware a myopic shrinking of our vision. The Anglican Communion and its churches exist for the sake of that universal church for which Christ died. If we lose sight of this vocation, then it matters very little how we resolve the question of our identity, or whether there remains any institution to bear that identity.

About The Author

Eugene Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. The author of Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (Fortress Academic, 2019) and Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017), and the editor of Covenant, he understands his vocation to be an Episcopalian who does Catholic theology.

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Richard Grand

Not very helpful, really.

Richard Grand

Not very helpful, really. The idea that we depend on the actions and judgement of Benedict to verify that Anglicans have gifts to offer the Church is especially odd.

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my essay, Richard.
I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that we are dependent upon anyone else, least of all Pope Emeritus Benedict, to confirm that Anglicanism has gifts to offer the church. All I intended to do was note that he also has recognized and affirmed the value of the Anglican patrimony.

Christopher SEITZ

There was at the time a clear theological and sacramental argument in favor of a reformed catholic chuch in England. That argument was neither Lutheran nor Reformed, and it turned on the ecclesial role of the monarch, grounded in a certain figural reading of the OT and NT scriptures. Elizabeth was anointed with oil and given charges that cohered with this understanding. One can appeal to recent statements about fellowship with the See of Canterbury. But this need not attach itself to the governing logic of the separation of the Church of England from Rome. Given changes over time, furthermore,… Read more »

These are excellent questions for which I thank you, Professor Seitz. It is true that the established character of the C of E provides a good deal of color to the way Anglicanism has developed, especially with its emphasis on national churches. I think you’re probably also right to note that there is a shift somewhere between that older Anglican understanding and the Lambeth tradition. I think there may be an analogue there with Ramsey’s *Gospel and the Catholic Church.* In that work he clearly regards the English Reformation as justified (in a certain sense at least), but then seeks… Read more »

Christopher SEITZ

Much that you write in the ecumenical vein I agree with and Ramsey’s work is important to call to mind, as you rightly do, when it comes to CofE identity. His writing is a “long time ago” when it comes to the sensibility of most CofE worshippers, most of whom are elderly and few of whom are under 25. I fear that CofE rank and file 1) do not want a Communion role for the ABC that does not shore up Englishness and its (perceived) cultural wishes, 2) equally resent the idea of an alternative to this arrangement, creating an… Read more »

Many thanks for the kind words. And, please allow me to register my gratitude for the ACI, which made my own sojourn into the Episcopal Church imaginable.

Matthew Kemp

“This is not the place to evaluate GAFCON’s assessment of the Instruments of Communion, except to note that the refusal to engage with them becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”


Thank you for this ecclesiologically-grounded (if sobering) reflection.

[…] While reports of the Anglican Communion’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, the decline of som… […]

Jimmy McDonald

If the Anglican Communion was only meant to be temporary/provisional, why do we delay reunification? Why do we not now either join the Roman/Maronite Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox? This would seem to be the solution to many problems if at Lambeth 2020 the bishops decided to rejoin the historic churches.

Thank you for reading my work and offering this question. Obviously, I can’t speak for the Anglican tradition as a whole, but I would just note that reunion with some other church, while a good, would still fall short of the unity desired by the 1920 Lambeth Conference where the bishops articulated their ideal of the Catholic Church in terms of a union of all Christian peoples in and with Christ. So, even if there were no differences of doctrine and discipline to sort through, for the Anglican churches to wholesale join with the Catholic Church still leave us out… Read more »

M Fitzpatrick

In many ways Gene’s essay is a long overdue pronouncement on the recent claims to “authentic Anglican Christianity” that bedevil (the word is apt, isn’t it?) our beloved Communion of late. The very idea that we need to battle for the identity of who is Anglican, and who isn’t, betrays a loss of Anglican identity, since to be Anglican was to be convinced that Christianity is a multi-faceted and constantly reforming work of God that must always be connected in roots to the story of God in scripture and the story of God in the history of the Church. Today,… Read more »

Fr. Reeves

“all denominational identities will give way to the creedal and confessed one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”. As the father of the creeds would tell you, being the One, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” has theological definitions which call us to some core of non-negotiable truth. To say otherwise is capitulate to some kind of individualistic Gnostic chatter with every person believing and interpreting scripture and tradition according to their “in their own eyes”. This honest, creational, God-ordained way of ordering his creation – ideas actually have content – seems lost in this article that there are Anglicans that are… Read more »

Fr. Reeves

My apologies…tried to edit the above and ran into computer issues (read: fathers of the creeds). I understand that all Anglicans have provisional beliefs that need and must pass away. My problem is with the assumption that our various “factions” worldwide have an agreed-upon definition for what being the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” actually is. Without this clarity, we have no authentic hope for unity and no true definition or understanding of being either a holy or catholic church (and thus, no hope of accountability). This is where we are VASTLY DIFFERENT from the EO and RC churches… Read more »

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Fr. Reeves. I think that, so far as I understand you, we’re not in any substantive disagreement. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church actually *is* something, like the apostolic faith, and is not subject to our redefinition. It is, rather, our responsibility to faithfully pass on what has been received. On this front, I am working with the basic understanding articulated by the 1920 Lambeth Conference, of the full visible unity of all the baptized with all the baptized in and with Christ. This is the ideal and anything… Read more »

Fr. Reeves

Eugene, Thank you for you thoughtful reply, and for clarifing my wrong assumptions about the article. I am encouraged by your grounded focus, and so desire (and am praying) for our unification as Global Anglicans amongst first things. I am truly glad that we Anglicans allow freedom “amongst debatable matters”, but after my 10 years now as an Anglican priest, I have been dismayed by how many bishops, clergy, and parishes on both sides of the culture wars have decided againt our Patristic and Nicean informing tradition. It is almost as if our “Tudor pragmatism” (embolden by our enlightenment infused… Read more »