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Ecumenical Anglicanism for the Coming Decade


Lambeth Conference 2022 should be most memorable for its principled and strategic employing of an ecumenical lexicon for Anglican life together. Archbishop Welby deserves high marks for his sustained welcome to the voices of other Christians — Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics — right the way along. Yes, in our Western-historical context, Anglicanism is both Reformed and Catholic, as the archbishop emphasized in his third and final keynote address. On that count, if the vast majority of Anglicans today (and bishops at the Lambeth Conference) are evangelical, then the recurring voices of Roman Catholics in particular helped to fill out the whole of our identity, calling us to our best and fullest selves. Cardinal Kurt Koch’s keynote wins the prize for Ecclesiological Clarity and Coherence. But it was also striking and moving to hear from Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle in the final plenary. The conference organizers gave his remarks a simple title, without explanation or apology: “The Decade Ahead.” The decade, that is, by implication, for all Christians, set forth by a Roman prelate to a conference of some 650 Anglican bishops. Here indeed, the Lambeth Conference 2022 simply took up an ecclesiology of and for the whole Church, within which, as Abp. Welby emphasized, Anglicans might again seek and find a place of provisional faithfulness.

Viewed in this light, we might suppose that Anglican churches can only, in the coming decade, follow well-established courses and paths for Christians seeking, again, what we — Anglicans and others — have long aimed for but found elusive: full communion, founded in a shared faith and order. We recall here, as ever, the amazing vision and courage of bishops of the Episcopal Church, gathered in Chicago in 1886, to call the Protestant churches to “co-operate with them on the basis of a common Faith and Order,” and so “discountenance schism” and “heal the wounds of the body of Christ.” To be sure, the American bishops did not imagine, in issuing this summons, that Anglicans might not be able to articulate together “the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world” (BCP 1979, p. 877). But the full-blown Anglican Communion of today, comprising over 40 independent and autonomous churches, was also unknown at the time.

By 1920, the bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference had a clearer idea of the challenges at hand, when they called explicitly for an “intensified” articulation of Faith and Order, lest the forces of “mere federation” carry the day in the rapidly diversifying Anglican Communion. But they also recognized, just as we have in 2022, that Anglican coherence and difference — unity in diversity — will be a gift to the wider Christian world just to the extent that we can manage to figure out how to give it. That is, they knew both that the purpose of the Anglican Communion was to serve the larger whole in doctrine and mission and that Anglican unity was likely not going to be easy. They were right on both counts. Just so, the work to which they committed themselves, which the bishops present in Canterbury this year likewise faced and accepted, remains ours to do.

Whither, therefore, the Faith and Order summons of 1886 and 1920 in the ecumenically shaped Anglican Communion of the coming decade? Already in 1999, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was parceling out synodical homework for both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and the assignments were different for each side. For Roman Catholics, walking along the “common way” of Jesus (see John 14:6, Mark 10:52) would require “a strengthening of local and intermediate structures,” while Anglicans would do well to “reach towards universal structures which promote koinonia” (Gift of Authority, §55; cf. 34). Jumping ahead, Pope Francis’s enthusiastic embrace of this very work (in the wonderfully named Synod on Synodality now underway) should inspire the Anglican “instruments of synodality” (Gift, §39) to likewise dare to dig into a curriculum of structural reform in a key of evangelical obedience. For Christians called to unity, there can be no finessing the actual work of taking counsel, reaching agreement, and setting out afresh on the road together, all of which activities are synonymous and interchangeable.

Of course, the Anglican Communion is wonderfully diverse, just like the body of Christ, by God’s design. The deeply indigenized diversity of the Anglican family, led by a college of bishops (Gift, §37), remains the most interesting and moving aspect of the Anglican Communion experiment. It should inspire many to lives of service. The young should enlist and prepare for decades of sacrifice that will bring the greatest satisfaction life can deliver: taking up Christ’s cross in grateful solidarity, and so joining his transformative ministry of truth-in-love.

Division, by contrast, amounts to a corruption of divinely ordained diversity, as the failure of Christians and churches to agree together about the essentials of the faith and so maintain visible unity. ARCIC spoke about this prophetically in 1999 with reference to an Anglican willingness “to tolerate anomalies for the sake of maintaining communion. Yet this has led to the impairment of communion manifesting itself at the Eucharist, in the exercise of episcope, and in the interchangeability of ministry” (Gift, §56). We saw this impairment again at Lambeth Conference 2022 in the inability of all the bishops to share Holy Communion, and in the boycott of the conference by the churches of Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda in toto, along with some bishops from Kenya, South Sudan, and other provinces. Just here, the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches was right in its post-Lambeth communiqué to mark with sadness the lack of full communion among Anglicans, echoing in this respect The Virginia Report of 1997, as well as recent Faith and Order documents from the Church of England. The all-too-ecumenical reality of Anglican divisions reminds us that we find ourselves very much mid-journey along the road of faithfulness and obedience to our sojourning Lord.

If the ecumenical order of the day is traveling metaphors — walking and running along the way, sometimes at a distance, in an always imperfect communion: the pilgrim Church of Vatican II — then the next decade for Anglicans is shaping up as a time of variegated travel. In multiple caravans, embarking at uncoordinated times and traveling at different speeds, we seem to be heading for divergent — divided — destinations, though that will be for the commonly professed Lord to decide. Here again, the ecumenical lexicon, which we Anglicans have done so much to develop, helps us to say that we are indeed in impaired but not entirely broken communion; we share what St. John Paul II called “imperfect but real communion” (Ut Unum Sint, §84). We are all baptized, and we share the same faith in many, if not all, regards. We need, therefore, to cultivate a generous respect for one another’s discernments, even when they seem misguided.

Christians and churches imperfectly walking the road of discipleship together must seek differentiated consensus, as Abp. Welby has observed. Accommodating our disagreements as necessary, we agree to settlements and distinctions in a spirit of collegiality and brotherhood, however trying this is. In the Episcopal Church, we are learning to call this communion across difference. Good fences make good neighbors, even in a singular Church called to share all things in common, including a common mind. Just so, the coming decade of Anglican peregrinating should take up with energy the work of consulting, comparing notes, and drawing up plans for a newly diversified peace that will make space for our differences rather than denying or suppressing them.

The whole Anglican Communion will need to show up. Moreover, the powerful — mostly white, rich, native English-speaking, Western and Northern — minority cannot dictate the terms or anything else to the overwhelming majority of the Communion, which is comparatively poor, African and Asian, non-native-English speaking, and culturally Southern. Sacrifices of power must be made by those accustomed to controlling the conversation — especially the English and the Americans, in different ways — even as financial generosity must not come with strings attached. The road we are walking is long, and need not be traversed at the same speed or in the same vehicles, just as we need not agree about the best way to get there, or the most felicitous sites at which to stop and rest en route. Faith, hope, and love, however, are non-negotiable, placed in the paradoxical service of seemingly “more” and “less” respectable members of the body (1 Cor. 12:23-24).

A wonderful opportunity to test this mission will be the proposed Anglican Congress, if we can manage it. It will not be cheap, and will require Western generosity. Such a meeting, in the Global South, hosted and organized by the Southern majority, would mark a most welcome meeting point for our global family, and an opportunity to reclaim the vision of a “mutually responsible and interdependent” Communion, articulated at the last congress in 1963. We need many more organic occasions to elicit unscripted creativity and the drawing of connections. And the Global North needs to receive Southern hospitality humbly, and to listen more than we speak.

Serving one another in Christ, the Anglican family can, by God’s grace, continue to help heal the divisions of the body. God, who superintends the Church, and calls her to visible unity in the Spirit so that the world may believe, will do the rest.


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