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Anglican Imaginaries

By Mark Edington

Late last year, on my brief return visit to the United States, an American colleague and I were talking about the past summer’s Lambeth Conference. I remarked that — watching the proceedings from the perspective of an Episcopal Church bishop with a responsibility outside the United States — the event had seemed largely a Church of England affair, with a few prominent contributions from other leaders from around the Communion.

“Well,” my colleague replied, “we don’t really theologize the importance of England sufficiently in the Communion.”

I confess that it had never really occurred to me that this was a hole in need of filling. But it immediately gave me the gift of a way of understanding how it was that so many bishops of churches from the Anglican Communion could spend 14 days together in the same meetings and sharing the same worship experiences, and yet come away from it with such different understandings of what had taken place—and what enduring meaning it would have.

A great deal has been written, not least in these pages, in an effort to subdue the meaning of the phrase “Anglican Communion”; Google Scholar will give you 134,000 citations to pursue. Efforts have been made to define it; to capture it in a Covenant; to isolate its instruments; even to decry its incoherence.

Yet when most of us imagine such an elaborated structure as the gathering of churches in communion with the See of Canterbury — which is, at least in the view of this essay, the sine qua non of what it means to be part of the “Anglican” in “Anglican Communion” — what we have in our heads is not a gathering of texts or a compendium of Lambeth Conference resolutions; we have a picture, a visual impression of a concept hard to capture in any other way. And that is a matter of no small consequence. In the same way that most of the theology our people learn is contained in hymnody, the picture we hold in our minds has power to shape our convictions about how complicated organizations ought to work.

As I’ve thought about that, I’ve realized that among the colleagues I met at Lambeth—and, indeed, among the people in the pews I’ve met in the Episcopal Church, both in and beyond the United States — I’ve encountered ideas of what the Communion is, or should be, that have shaped what people think of their church, and how they believe it should move into the future.

This is not an incidental matter, at a moment when the Anglican Consultative Council, meeting in Ghana, has been presented with a document from the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order (IASCUFO) that posits, inter alia, “our own Anglican Instruments of Communion are of recent origin and may need adapting to our current challenges.” My New England roots read this and twitch at the sense of a creeping demand for uniformity.

So what mental picture do you conjure when you think of the Anglican Communion? In reflecting on the conversations I’ve had with colleagues and parishioners, I can identify three distinct and very different understandings of the Communion that yield very different views of how it should operate. Here’s the first:

If you are reading these words in the United States or Canada or Scotland (at least), this is an image that probably speaks to you. It is an image aligned with words uttered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, during his pivotal address to bishops considering the “Lambeth Call on Human Dignity”: “I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. … We are a Communion of Churches, not a single church.”

This is an image of provinces joined in a single communion of churches that are autonomous, self-governing, yet voluntarily willing to be in relationship to one another for their own reasons — chiefly reasons of a (vaguely) shared history. They have, through the years, agreed on certain shared fundaments (the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral), but managed their affairs largely independently of each other. They have interacted in mission work, and occasionally exchanged ministries, but see themselves more as independent than interdependent.

One piece of the pie may be closer to its neighbors — geographically, doctrinally, historically — than others. But the whole is an “imagined community” in the sense of Benedict Anderson’s work, a grouping of people who sense an inchoate but significant common bond that joins them in a common narrative and purpose. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Anderson thought that the “imagined communities” that are the basis of nationalism emerged as the result of print capitalism — which also brought about, not incidentally, the Book of Common Prayer both as object and rule.

Then there is this image:

This image may speak to you if you are reading this from the perspective of a member of the Church of England. Outsider that I am, it certainly was the impression one received from the experience of Lambeth. The intersection of the conference’s leadership, and indeed the majority of voices and faces on the stage, and the Church of England was difficult to miss. Yes, of course, there were other prominent participants from other parts of the Communion; but the sense of it all was much more an English gathering to which others were invited than a family reunion of equals.

Now, I am the grandchild of English immigrants to the United States; and I confess before you and all the whole Church in heaven and on earth that growing up in my family, this was pretty much how I understood the Church. At least, that is, until I moved away from home for study, and soon found myself invited to serve on a vestry. And there my journey began.

If you are familiar with Johann Galtung’s ideas about center and periphery in his structural theory of imperialism, you’ll immediately see how this idea might play out in the life of the Communion. Elites tend to have similar views; those on the margins find more in common with each other. Leaders of former colonial powers still send their children to Oxbridge; ambassadors posted in Europe seem far more likely to be found in a Church of England chaplaincy than an Episcopal Church, despite the shared experience of having shed the colonial yoke.

If this is the image you hold in your mind, then it seems natural to you that the Church of England should be regarded (or perhaps, in my colleague’s word, “theologized”) as a sort of pure form of the Anglican idea, of which the rest of us are emanation — some faithful reproductions, others less so. (Probably the C of E bishop I met at Lambeth who politely observed to me that the polity of Episcopal Church is “deficient” — I suppose because of the relatively circumscribed power of our episcopate and the authority of our bicameral Convention — holds this sort of image in view.)

But here is one last visualization to consider, one I sense having increasing grip on the imaginations of some:

The data used to create this image can be found in the Wikipedia entry for the Anglican Communion; it simply is an area-relative graph of reported membership of the various provinces. I have made one change to that data, viz, changing the number reported for the Church of England to reflect not the claimed number of baptized members but the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey, which reported in 2017 that 15 percent of adults in the United Kingdom identify as members of the Church of England. (The chances that someone would be an Episcopalian and not already captured in the data of the annual Parochial Report strikes me as vanishingly small.)

When Archbishop Justin said of the “Lambeth Call on Human Dignity” that “[it] states that many Provinces — and I say again, I think we need to acknowledge it’s the majority — continue to affirm that same-gender marriage is impermissible,” he is gesturing in the direction of this visualization. (Indeed, the word “majority” appears in Welby’s short address no fewer than five times.) So, too, was a writer in these pages who, not once but twice, criticized the outrageous notion that the people of the diocese of Northern Michigan, and by extension their bishop, should have an equal voice in the counsels of Lambeth. (He might just as well have said the same of me — or, for that matter, any of the smaller dioceses whose bishops attended the Council of Nicaea.)

The question with which to interrogate these images is, can common purpose and mission exist in each of them — and if so, how? Frequent at Lambeth was the noise of hammer blows on the anvil of “the mind of the Communion” — but of course the notion that there is only one right way of thinking is something more suited for Orthodox (or colonial) intellectual structures. It is the charism of the Anglican world, not its curse, that it does not have a magisterium.

In the first image, there is no one dominant view on matters at the intersection of doctrine and social ethics. There is, instead, a realization that the histories, injustices, and struggles of the various cultures in which God calls us to mission in the world cannot be addressed by a monolithic “mind of the Communion.” The lack of uniformity inherent in such an approach aggrieves ordered minds, who regard it as compromise — or apostacy.

In the second, privilege is accorded to the fount of the Anglican idea — the Church of England — in setting the course and speed of our response to God’s call. It was not wrong, on this view, that the Episcopal Church moved in 1976 to ordain women to the priesthood; it was simply wrong in doing so ahead of the church that by rights ought to have set the pace. More broadly, the argument here is that there is a cultural and deliberative primacy that is rightly accorded to the first ecclesiae Anglicana in determining the acceptable range of latitude, in either doctrine or ethical teaching. I certainly do not agree with that view; but it is a view with very real influence — and not only in the Church of England.

The last image, though — one I sense commands increasing influence among doctrinal conservatives in the churches of the Global North — completely recenters authority in terms of “majority rule.” Those who live in developed democracies — and whose churches are governed by democratic processes—cannot refute an essential fairness in this idea. Yet it radically shifts the locus of influence and perspective away from traditional centers in the Anglo world to the churches of Africa and Asia.

One might think (and clearly those in the Global South Anglican Fellowship do) that this is long overdue. Too long the churches in poor nations, growing while wealthy churches across the developed West decline, have been infantilized and marginalized. They, more than we, live on the frontiers of interreligious contention and conflict; they, more than we, are significant sources of both civic influence and economic resources in the places where they worship and witness. Is it not right that their views and voice should now be given preponderance, that their hand should be given the helm?

Certainly all of this suggests to our own forthcoming General Convention that we ought no longer to simply assume our relationships with churches in the Anglican Communion need no attention from us. Our work with ecumenical and interreligious partners should expand to consider, intentionally, our place in and partnership with churches in the Communion. What impact should the various “Lambeth Call” statements have on our thinking? What overtures might we make, what bridges might we build, between ourselves and churches both in communion and in contention with us? Should not we bring to bear the deliberative force of our own governance to consider these questions?

Those gathered in Ghana each bring with them their own Anglican imaginary. Perhaps, together, they can forge a new one, transcending both custom and conflict, that would secure and widen the space created at Lambeth to acknowledge and accept the fact of differentiation while thickening the texture of communication and exchange. We ought not allow something as curiously contrived and blessedly vague as the Communion between our churches be infected by a mundane contemporary polemicism that sees only division and discord as a path, and only power as a goal.

Mark Edington is the bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.


  1. This is excellent. Thank you, bishop. I’m reminded of when I had the chance to hear from a Sudanese bishop who reminded all of us sitting in the cathedral in Miami that “you can take the entire United States and put it in the Sahara and there will still be more Sahara” when trying to get us to fathom the size of Africa and just how much is going on there in terms of the gospel.

    In terms of imaginaries (and as a fan of William Reed Huntington’s work on conceptualizing the Anglican Communion—despite his troubling insistence on the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon), I’ve come to think of Anglican Christianity akin to the federated concept now growing in social media, where uniquely constituted “instances” become compatible by virtue of shared protocols (the on-the-rise platform known as Mastodon is perhaps the best known example of this). Some instances are larger, some much smaller, some adapt the rules to fit their specific communities, but what they have in common are set protocols and agreed upon rules. Some instances “de-federate” another (while other instances remain in “communion” with each other despite that de-federation, etc.). I see us in a similar light. Right now there are very large instances that have de-federated us Episcopalians, but nothing can change the fact that we continue to subscribe and use key protocols. (I don’t want to carry the metaphor too far…)

    • Both of you are so knowledgeable. I just think about the history of colonialism, conquered people got a white king or queen and the religion that came with it. Thank you that Archbishop Welby is speaking to this.


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