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A Tale of Two Ecclesiologies

By John Bauerschmidt

The connection between ecumenism and ecclesiology is fairly straightforward: when we consider the question of the unity of the Church, we are quickly brought up against our understanding of the nature of the Church itself. This year’s Lambeth Conference underscored this connection, not only in relation to the unity of the Church, but also in relation to the unity between the churches of the Anglican Communion. At the same time that the Christian churches seek to overcome their historic divisions, so too the churches of the Anglican Communion attempt to preserve their own unity.

Lambeth Conferences are often graced by ecumenical visitors. The reflections offered on August 4, as part of the plenary dedicated to the Lambeth Call on Christian Unity, were worthy contributions in a longer tradition of Lambeth addresses. In particular, the reflections presented by the Rev. Anthony Currer on behalf of Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and by the Rev. Anne Burghardt, Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation, bracketed the session.

Koch and Burghardt both agreed that there is difference among the churches in their understanding of unity. Both made the connection between ecumenism and ecclesiology; each offered a converging diagnosis and contrasting prescriptions. In doing so, they offered insight into the ecumenical challenge of expanding the communion that we already share, as well as the complexity of preserving the highest degree of communion possible between the churches of the Communion.

Koch’s analysis bore mainly on the prospects of unity between the churches. He described an “ecumenical emergency” (“What Unity Do We Christians Seek?,” 7), where the church’s witness is hindered by its lack of unity. Tracing the modern ecumenical movement to the first World Mission Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, with its concern that disunity handicapped mission, Koch observed a drift from the movement’s goals. Some of the churches and ecclesial communities arising from the Reformation have “abandoned the original common goal of visible unity in faith, the sacraments and church ministries, replacing it with the postulate of mutual recognition of the varied church realities as churches and thus as parts of the one Church of Jesus Christ” (2).

As Koch outlined in his reflection, disagreement about the meaning of unity is implicit in the differing ecclesiologies of the churches of the Reformation. “As every church and ecclesial community has, and practises, its specific idea of its ‘being church’ and its unity, and so aspires to transfer this confessional conception onto the level of the ecumenical movement as well, there are basically as many different ecumenical goals as there are confessional ecclesiologies” (3). According to Koch, the churches of the Reformation tend to privilege diversity and difference, as a function of their historical context. The original break in Western Christendom in the 16th century led to further ecclesial division, creating a plural religious universe where the churches now dwell at ease.

Today the churches seem to be comfortable with division. “In its endeavour to regain the unity of the Church, ecumenism today faces another great challenge, about which we cannot keep silent. In the pluralist and relativist Zeitgeist that is so widespread nowadays it is running into a strong headwind” (5). Here Koch looks to philosophical foundations, in which the plurality of churches leads to an ecumenical praxis, reified in pluralism and philosophical post-modernism. For the post-modernism on which this Zeitgeist is grounded, reality is plural, and attempts to impose unity are totalitarian. “With this postmodern mindset, any quest for unity seems premodern and antiquated” (5).

Burghardt, in her address at Lambeth, referenced the classic statement of unity from the 1961 Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi (the unity of “all in each place”), an articulation rooted in the concerns first surfaced in 1910 at Edinburgh (Lambeth, Day Nine, Live Stream Programme). But an exclusive focus on institutional unity, she suggested, may actually hinder ecumenical progress. The twin poles of the traditional formulations of “faith and order” and “life and work” mutually shape each other, whether we begin with doctrinal statements or with human experience.

In her reflection, Burghardt asked whether we ought rather to be talking about koinonia, the unity that exists between different churches engaged in a common purpose, rather than institutional unity. Here she referenced the family of full communion agreements between Lutherans and Anglicans in different parts of the world: The Porvoo Agreement in Northern Europe, The Waterloo Declaration in Canada, and Called to Common Mission in the United States. These are instances of “reconciled diversity,” in which churches with different histories and formularies find grounds for sharing the sacraments on the basis of a common faith.

Here there is a convergence of diagnosis on the part of the two speakers, but one that leads to a divergence of prescription. Koch also identified “reconciled diversity” as an umbrella term under which ecumenical discussion now proceeds; and a useful and positive ecumenical methodology as far as it goes. But for Koch it is a means to an end, a step along the way to full visible unity, rather than the goal itself. The question of the church’s unity, in service of her mission, must be kept “gently but firmly” on the agenda (6).

Koch pegs unity as a Catholic concern, but uneasiness about “reconciled diversity” as the terminus ad quem of ecumenism is more broadly shared. Dame Mary Tanner, the influential Church of England ecumenist, commented in a 2003 essay, “Sometimes it seems that partners in dialogue agree things about faith, or sacraments, or ministry, or even authority, without understanding the implications that such agreements have for the sort of visible life that they seek to live together” (“The Goal of Visible Unity: Yet Again” in The Unity We Have and The Unity We Seek, p.181). The Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order report, Receiving One Another’s Ordained Ministries, from 2016, put it this way: where a relationship of “full communion” exists between churches in the same territory, “full visible (or organic) unity” should be the explicit aim of the developing relationship.

For Koch, different practices and articulations of the faith can be reconciled as long as they are not church dividing. “Hence, again and again the question arises as to how much unity is necessary and how much diversity is possible and desired” (6). We ought to seek a middle way between dictatorship and anarchy, between totalitarianism and chaos. Koch’s comment points to the inadequacy of pluralism, especially when it comes to prescribing the limits of diversity.

“I am not afraid of pluralism or post-modernism,” Burghardt said, implying that the churches shouldn’t be either. This seemed to be a rejoinder to Koch’s earlier reflection on philosophical foundations. For Burghardt, pluralism gives space for a variety of perspectives, undercutting the monism and the totalizing tendencies of ecclesiastical uniformity. Post-modernism itself offers the possibility of de-constructing our churches self-contained structures, which create barriers to unity. These are critical tools for advancing our ecumenical goals.

The eschewing of fear in the face of pluralism and post-modernism, however, begs a question. Perhaps fear is overly defensive, but is not some suspicion of these philosophical trends in order? Our elites are generally besotted with the virtues of pluralism: a trend that has a complex history and some worrying effects in the present. A more balanced view sees unity as the natural context for diversity. In other words, without unity diversity ceases to be itself and becomes something else: a series of disconnected artefacts with no center. Again, to cite Tanner’s essay, “A graced structure is required to sustain diversity and to safeguard against illegitimate diversity that destroys communion” (187).

In her reflection, Burghardt also connected the broader issue of the unity of the Church to the question of unity within the “world communions” themselves. This question of the unity of the Anglican Communion itself formed the backdrop against which the work of the Lambeth Conference proceeded. The question is, in Burghardt’s words, how much do we need the other churches to look like us? Or as Koch put it, when it comes to unity and diversity, what are the boundaries, and who prescribes them? Are we able to settle for “reconciled diversity” between the churches of the Communion when there is no commitment to a common life and the structures that go with it?

In his presidential address to the Conference on August 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury borrowed from Catholic Social Teaching in identifying the autonomy of the churches with the principle of subsidiarity, balanced by the principle of solidarity, the expression of our interdependence. The principal of subsidiarity, as he expressed it, requires us to work at “the most local level possible” (“Third Presidential Address”). In spite of this, the old conciliar principle, “What affects all ought to be decided by all,” trumps a desire for more limited and subsidiary engagements. The rub here is that we don’t get to decide for ourselves what parts of our life have an effect on others. Others decide that for themselves.

The 1930 Lambeth Conference provided a modest Anglican response to these questions posed by Burghardt and Koch, in describing a Communion that is sustained in part by “the common counsel of the bishops in conference” (Res. 49). The 2022 Conference provided scope for relationship building between bishops, informally and in Bible Study, but did not provide a forum for the bishops to engage in plenary discussion of the most acute questions before them. When it comes to the questions of unity and diversity within the churches of the Anglican Communion, and drawing upon our ecclesiology, it is safe to say that if bishops can do any work, it is surely this.


  1. ‘…the old conciliar principle, “What affects all ought to be decided by all,” trumps a desire for more limited and subsidiary engagements. The rub here is that we don’t get to decide for ourselves what parts of our life have an effect on others. Others decide that for themselves.’

    This is the heart of the matter. Appeals to subsidiarity would only participate in a vague ‘diversity and independence’ lacking this crucial consideration. The movement (encouraged by the former ABC) toward acknowledging this reality via various conciliar instruments (including a covenant process) appears to have been set aside in the present season. What the present ABC articulates isn’t a third option, but what the LWF Secretary promotes using other terms.

    • Thanks for your comment. There does not seem to be much practical difference in the result of Burghardt’s advocacy of reconciled diversity and Welby’s appeal to subsidiarity. Koch’s point (and Tanner’s) is that “reconciled diversity” cannot be the place we settle down to live, but rather a camp site on the road to full visible unity. The excruciating possibility is that for Anglicans it is a refuge on a journey away from the full communion of our churches that we have enjoyed in the past.

      • I agree. Along with Burghardt’s position is likely a continuation of the reformation era Lutheran position that the Catholic Church is in no special position to posit anything along these lines — it was in full error at the time, and it is only one ‘denomination’ alongside all the others on a diversity grid at present. Present-day Lutherans who believe there is only one visible church (Luther himself did not dispute this in any robust way; he simply declared the Roman church in Exile) are also at present able to say the claims of Koch are correct. One thinks of Wilken, Marshall, Neuhaus, et al.

        I am not sure the 16th century claims of a ‘territorial Catholicity’ located at Canterbury have proven durable over time; witness the present confusion and deterioration. Witness the toggling of views since the 1920 Lambeth Conference, and its more robust assertions (which may have made sense at the time). Can Anglicans simply assert something like a ‘catholic diversity’ ecclesiology? It seems they are trying to. Others are happy to fudge–or avoid–the term ‘catholic’ altogether. This unstable landscape makes for confused ecumenical life, and ‘journeys’ (as you state it) with unclear destinations.

        • In that 2003 essay Mary Tanner claims that Lutheran ecumenists have a bias toward leaving their confessional family intact, yielding a preference for a “reconciled diversity” model. Perhaps: if so, a worthy commendation of their theological tradition. But Burghardt’s preference seems un-rooted in these confessional concerns, and more a straight up valorization of pluralism.

          • Thank you for your essay and for this exchange. Not unlike New World Lutheranism (itself now riven, far beyond genial ALC vs LCA divisions from the 90s) and Anglicans in NA (what is it,15 denominated fissures?), Tanner represents her particular tribe. So ‘their theological tradition’ is as differentiated as ours, even as ‘confessional concerns’ helpfully distinguish them more readily than the tribes of the heirs of Anglican identity in our zone.

            Happy Thanksgiving.


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