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.