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Can anyone speak (it) theologically?

(Eds. note: this post was updated with new links.)

A coherent and widely recognizable ecclesiology has remained elusive for Anglicans, despite the efforts of luminaries such as Owen and Henry Chadwick, Stephen Sykes, and Michael Ramsey. Is there another tradition in which its thinkers so often have set themselves the task of simply answering the question, “Who are we?” Today, this particular weakness is on display in distressing high definition. And I don’t mean just the Primates’ Meeting and its communiqué but all the rapid (and often vapid) responses in blogs and media outlets around the world.

Where are the theologians? Or maybe more specifically: Where is the theological speech about the schisms that continue to rend us asunder?

What follows is an attempt simply to name some of the areas to which we must attend if we are to speak Christianly and coherently in the wake of our unhappy divisions and specifically the latest Primates’ Meeting. Let’s be clear: speaking Christianly and coherently is not what is happening most of the time. Episcopalians love to be the church where you “don’t have to check your brain at the door.” But as a (theologically, moderately left-of-center) friend commented to me, “It also doesn’t hurt.” We need to up our theological game, as it were, not to try and live up to all the talk of being a “thinking church,” but simply because it is not only “meet and right” but also “our bounden duty and service.”

1. Pray

Before writing, before attempting to think about what God’s call is to us as Anglicans — let alone what to make of the Primates’ communiqué — we must pray. First, we must pray in those ways that (the Church maintains) draw us closer to Jesus: as the Body of Christ, joined to our Savior and Head in his glorification on the Cross, offering the worship that is pleasing and acceptable to God in the Eucharist; as the Body, praying scripturally and scripturally praying the words God has told us he wants to hear in the Daily Office; and, individually and corporately, examining our consciences and confessing our sins. Second, we must pray specifically for the Church, that God will preserve her against hell’s gates and heal the breaches thereof, that God will lead the Anglican Communion to witness and to the telos God desires for her.

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2. Begin by remembering some basics of Christian ecclesiology:

  1. The Church is essential to the Christian gospel and faith. Any vision which presents the Church, especially its visible aspects (ministers, sacraments, liturgies, structure), as secondary to some more fundamental, “spiritual” realities, must be firmly set aside.
  2. The most basic reason the Church is part of the Christian gospel is that it is united to Jesus. Thus, we must speak as St. Paul does: the Church is the Body of Christ, which means the Church is as much a sacrament of Christ as is the Eucharist. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24). “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16)
  3. The task/purpose/mission of the Church is (in light of B) the same as the mission of the incarnate Son: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 1979 Catechism, p. 855). “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32).
  4. The mission of the Church is related to, but not coextensive with, the basis upon which we will be judged at “the great judgment seat of Christ” (BCP 1979, p. 122). It is simply a false dichotomy (sorry Diana Butler Bass) to speak as though theological disagreements are second or third order questions.
  5. Ecclesiology is never even remotely reducible to canon law and structures; but neither does the Church of the Christian gospel live without these practical realities. The distinctions drawn by many in their responses to the Primates’ Meeting (including the Archbishop of Canterbury himself — the church “is not an organisation but a body of people committed to each other because they are followers of Jesus Christ”) are clean but false.

3. Remember how Episcopalians officially define themselves:

The Episcopal Church self-describes the particularities of its own Anglican identity in the following way (from the Preamble to its Constitution). The Episcopal Church

is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

Note that Episcopalians choose to stand under a multi-layered and quite specific definition of the Anglican Communion, of which we claim to be a constituent member:

  • It is a fellowship;
  • This fellowship is not coextensive with but rather a collection within the Church named in the Nicene Creed (namely, the one that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”);
  • This fellowship is marked by two particular qualities:
    1. Being “in communion” with a specific bishop, namely the one who holds the See of Canterbury, the historic bishopric established by St. Augustine of Canterbury at the request of the Pope, St. Gregory the Great, in 597; and
    2. “[U]pholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.” This last piece gets a little complicated, for the first American Prayer Book was not identical to the 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England, nor is our 1979 BCP. Here we see the relatively unique way in which lex orandi, lex credendi is expressed in Anglicanism: there is no doctrinal collation, no catechism or confession in addition to the Prayer Book to which Anglicans agree they can turn. (Obviously, no church with liturgical rites would reject the principle, so we should take care not to speak as though other churches don’t also embody this basic principle).

Returning to the history of the Communion is always essential precisely because it is so easy to draft abstractions that obscure this history and also ignore what Anglican bodies and key figures have said. This brilliant essay by distinguished historian and professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary, Robert W. Pritchard, is a good place to start.

4. Scrap any so-called “Anglican” ecclesiology that could, without modification, be applied to our relating with all other Christians.

We have to name this principle because it is violated all the time, right, left, or anywhere in between. For example, here is Jesse Zink writing in a widely-shared blog post before (and now after) the Primates’ Meeting on what connects him to a Nigerian Anglican with whom he spent time in the man’s village:

He and I share a bond based not on agreement on contentious issues or a common cultural background but on a common baptism and a shared willingness to live a life shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ. It is these relationships that are foundational to and flourishing in the Anglican Communion.

This claim is true, as far as it goes: What God does in baptism is what makes us part of Christ’s one Church. But the important question is: What beyond this makes the fellowship within this Body known as the Anglican Communion?

GAFCON speaks in similarly vague and unfortunate ways. “What binds us together as Anglicans,” one statement reads, “is a common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord as revealed in the Scriptures.”

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (whatever its weaknesses) moves us a bit closer to clearer answers. For there communion is given a particular material grounding:

  • Submission to a set of texts described as “‘containing all things necessary to salvation,’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith” as well as to the conciliarly-defined catholic creeds which offer a distillation of the central teaching of a belief in the eternal Word-made-flesh.
  • This fellowship is given physical constitution in at least the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, celebrated and administered in a fashion fully recognizable to those from whom we have received this faith and order.
  • This fellowship is given a particular sort of ordering in the ordained ministry in the three-fold order and its interrelationship with the whole Body of the baptized.

This is fellowship with some very visible and definable markers, and we could no doubt list a host of other such indicators.

5. Ask if “autonomous” is being used to mean “I have no need of you?”

No one disputes that each Anglican province is constitutionally and canonically “autonomous” (literally, “a law unto themselves”). This means two things: each province has its own constitution and canons, and there is no body of law that is shared by all the provinces (though some such common canon law has been something that the Communion has considered quite seriously; see here). Fellowships may or may not have by-laws.

But the absence of such law does not mean that there is no authority. It cannot mean that the actions of one part of the fellowship do not or cannot have consequences in other parts of the fellowship. The lack of shared law also cannot erase the basic principle that all actions have natural consequences. Now “consequences” can have a disciplinary meaning, but they need not. Think of how we use the word “consequently” to indicate that one thing naturally follows a previous fact by reason of logic or relationality. (I agree with Fr. Mark Harris that Archbishop Welby’s distinction at the press conference was less than compelling in its articulation. And I also agree that the consequences sound a lot like Section IV of the proposed Anglican Covenant. My disagreement with Fr. Harris is that I cannot conceive of a fellowship like the one we describe in our Constitution where actions like ours would not have natural effects). Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio is one of the few bishops in the House who has an academic PhD in theology and was also one of the few who both expressed dismay at the discipline (his term) from the Primates along with this theologically rich request: “I hope we will accept this discipline graciously and with a clear conscience, walking with all our Anglican brothers and sisters to resolve our differences.” The bishop of Fond du Lac, Matthew Gunter, also sounded a similar note of humility in his response:

I have argued more or less in support of the position taken by the Episcopal Church. I still believe we are on a faithful path. But, I take seriously the strains this has put on our Communion. It is possible to believe that one is right while accepting that acting on that conviction might come with consequences. And then to accept the consequences.

The notion of discipline is built into the common life of Episcopalians. Remember, for instance, that we have a mechanism for excommunicating a person (that is, excluding them from receiving Holy Communion).

If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life (BCP 1979, p. 409).

But excommunication is not what is called for by the Primates, or anything close to it. Rather, they stated that in light of the Episcopal Church articulating a view of marriage that is not compatible with what is taught in the majority of the rest of the provinces, there is a “consequently.” Without legal language, we must use organic, relational language: family, fellowship, and so forth. Hence, the language from the primates after the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003 was consequently material and visceral:

We must make clear that recent actions in New Westminster and in the Episcopal Church (USA) do not express the mind of our Communion as a whole, and these decisions jeopardise our sacramental fellowship with each other … This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).

The implications and insinuations of many statements from those who affirm these developments in the Episcopal Church but reject the Primates’ decision have a double-edge:

  • We want to “walk together” but not on the terms of fellowship outlined by the majority of the family.
  • Because there is no law that gives the Primates this sort of power, you can’t speak to us this way.

In short, the rich little toe says to the rest of the body: “I have no need of you.”

Back in 2007, when I was in my curacy, the bishop came to meet with every parish after General Convention. He asked the clergy and vestry what they would like to share with him about the sexuality conflicts that were already dividing Anglicans. I had already begun to read and think more about ecclesiology, particularly in the Anglican Communion. So I said the following: “‘Autonomous’ seems like a word that Christians should never use to describe how they relate to each other.”

Can “autonomous” ever truly be a word to describe how Christians relate to one another?

6. Finally, read the actual words of the Primates’ “Addendum A.”

English theologian Ian Paul lays this out so beautifully that I won’t try and summarize it. But take the time to read the statement and his very clear guidance, noting that much of what is stated is simply a declaration of facts that no one disputes.

I draw your attention to one clear fact in light of 3 (above). Paragraph 2 of the Addendum reads as follows:

Recent developments in the Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage.

Does anyone dispute that a de-gendered articulation of marriage is a departure from the present and historic faith and teaching of the majority of Anglican provinces? While the Primates do not spell this out explicitly, such teaching is articulated in each province’s Prayer Book. Since in the Episcopal Church, the Prayer Book cannot be amended piecemeal, its developed understanding of marriage was articulated in a canonical change regarding marriage.

What are the implications of this? The basis upon which the Episcopal Church claims constituent membership in the Communion has been called into question by the Episcopal Church, and explicitly so. On the matter of marriage, the Episcopal Church does not “uphold and propagate the historic faith” when it comes to marriage.

Our Presiding Bishop’s statement explains that (at least he understands that) what is more fundamental to the historic faith and order are the implications of being “a house of prayer for all people” (cf. Mark 11:17). This is a coherent position. But it is a different position than what has been articulated by successive Lambeth Conferences and Primates’ Meetings and expressed by the various provinces in their Prayer Books and canon law. He is quite right that the Communion’s fellowship relies on “relationships that are grounded in a common faith.” But on the question of marriage, we are dealing precisely with an issue of common faith that has now officially ceased to be common.


So let us speak carefully and theologically, under prayer, and with recourse to the actual texts that outline shared life within this part of Christ’s Church. And let us do so in a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart, meekly kneeling.

V. Lord, hear our prayer.
R. And let our cry come unto Thee.

Let us pray.

Almighty God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty…

Matthew Olver‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image is a detail of St. John’s vision in stained glass at All Saints’ Convent, Oxford. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. 


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