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Is There a Rationale for the Anglican Communion?

The following essay is excerpted from a chapter in “God Wills Fellowship”: Lambeth Conference 1920 and the Ecumenical Vocation of Anglicanism, ed. Christopher Wells and Jeremy Worthen (Living Church Books, forthcoming this spring).

By Ephraim Radner

What might a substantive or “thick” rationale for the Anglican Communion look like? Thin rationales for communion tend to focus on one or two things only — a rule, a precedent, a principle. They tend to rely on divine presumption: since this is what God is already after, we don’t need to worry about our role too much. And they tend frankly to end up subtracting, not contributing to communion, because what doesn’t fit the rule or what seems to demand too much is easily discarded or ignored. A thick rationale, by contrast, is filled with a range of ends, demands lots of work, imagines God doing all kinds of things.  And it results in a wider and deeper communion as a result. The contrast of thin and thick as I use it is ultimately metaphysical, and speaks to the nature of reality, in a manner explained by, among others, the philosopher Robert Nozick. Reality is full, complex, varied, ever challenging, and must be described as such. So is communion.

In its historical emergence, the Anglican Communion was informed by thicker rationales, culminating in the 1920 Lambeth Conference’s “Appeal to All Christian People,” which dealt with attitudes and actions of all the churches, and finally with the nature of God. Over the past decades, however, we’ve been holding on to thinner and thinner rationales. For instance, we say that the Anglican Communion is a vehicle for promoting certain forms of social progress; or that the Anglican Communion is a body that articulates and develops certain dogmatic truths of the Gospel; or again, that the Anglican Communion is a place where different people come together in benign respect, according to certain strict principles of governance or limited legal relationships. Precisely because these kinds of rationales are thin, they do not cohere with one another, nor do they offer the means or openings to engaging, including, reforming, and mutually remaking one another. There is, as a result, a fair degree of conflict in our midst — conflicts between thin rationales, you might say — such that the Anglican Communion is today characterized by churches that are not in communion with each other, or that are in something called “impaired communion,” or that ignore one another, or are practically ignorant of each other, and so on. At the same time, individual members have left the Communion for other churches in search of some better rationale for their commitments. All this is what happens with thin rationales: they cannot bear the weight of actual ecclesial reality, which is thick. A thick rationale has room for the Church as it is, even if it makes heavy demands upon the Church’s members.

I certainly make no claims to knowing much about this. But one thing I bring to the discussion is simply having lived through changes in rationale, as well as through the conflicts themselves: through thick and thin, or rather from thick to thin.

My first work of ordained ministry was as a young American Episcopal priest in the Anglican Church of Burundi, working alongside British Church Mission Society (CMS) missionaries. It was a tough row to hoe. American smug self-confidence meets British know-it-all-ness, amid an alien world with its own gifts of faith. I was initially sent for a couple months to CMS’s then training college, Crowther Hall, in Birmingham. I could feel myself being sucked into a heavy atmosphere of smiling British evangelical Anglian re-education — getting me to learn to trust my betters, learn the well-ordered ropes, and squeeze out my callow, New World self-assertions. They were right to be anxious about me, as it turned out. In any case, it was with a certain trepidation and resistance that I then joined my British colleagues in Burundi, within a classic mix of mutual cultural suspicions.

What ended up happening, though, was that the British and the American in this case became deep and fiercely loyal friends. It was simple, really: our inculcated and sparring confidences inevitably dissolved, over time, in the face of the tremendous challenges we shared within our lives and work. With the burdens came often hard-won blessings of breaking through a far more difficult set of cultural demands embodied in our common life with Burundi colleagues and neighbors — Anglicans, Catholics, government employees, police, merchants, soldiers, goatherds. Hard-won indeed, though real. There were illnesses, lies, wants, injustices, AIDS, arrests, the memories and ongoing realities of violence, and the search for a Gospel stronger than our wretched incapacities and angers. Not once, but many times, this reality drove us all — British, American, Burundi — literally to our knees. We were driven there by each other, to be sure, but eventually and necessarily with each other; and it was clear, at last, for each other too.

A thicker rationale for communion — and thus a thicker Anglican Communion — must be bold, in the tradition of Lambeth 1920’s great proclamation that “God wills fellowship,” a statement that functioned as an undergirding rationale for the Anglican Communion for decades. Perhaps it still does.

Thick communion will be eager to face failures, learn from them, and change, and to develop patience with one another in the process. Such a thick communion will be more grateful for what we have received as God’s gifts from both the apostles and the fellowship itself. And it will be more willing to admit in humility, not disdain, that the Pentecostal movement has brought those “far off” into a new place of honor, perhaps greater than those “nearby” (Eph. 2:13). A thick Pentecostal rationale for communion — any Christian communion — provides a textured setting in which constructive proposals can be engaged.

It does so in at least four ways.

First, a thick Pentecostal rationale for communion offers a benchmark for evaluating the current ordered structures of our particular communion. If God willing fellowship means obedience to this Pentecostal movement, then, from a limited Anglican perspective, we can judge — or rather God will judge — our activities and structures accordingly. This would include the next Lambeth Conference; the way the Anglican Consultative Council does its work; the manner of speech, life, and gathering of the Primates; the Archbishop of Canterbury’s own words and witness; as well as the commitments of all bishops and their clergy, the shape of synods now and in the future, and our formal teaching. The edge of the Pentecostal movement will properly cut all of this. While it is true that our structures emerged out of this movement, it is hardly clear that they are today reflective any longer of its thick identity. But that is something we must assess with fierce honesty in the light of God’s will.

Second, a thick Pentecostal rationale provides a benchmark for evaluating alternative pathways before Anglicans. Some of the recent suggestions of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, such as a common eucharistic prayer and common catechism, fit well with elements of the Pentecostal gathering of apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 2), in terms of prayer and learning (see ARCIC, Walking Together on the Way). By the same token, it is not clear how ordering Anglican life more centrally around Canterbury fits with or furthers the rationale. But the rationale itself is precisely the place to reflect on these matters. Without it, or something like it, we are left to the vagaries of what is now a dispersed set of competing energies, rather than the Spirit’s multi-lingual press toward a univocal acclamation at the Lamb’s High Feast.

This leads to a third gift of robust rationale of Pentecostal communion, namely, the freedom simply to order ourselves anew. We are given both ear and tongue to receive the word of God’s great works together. We are granted conversion of heart, in their echo, to repent and to change. We are offered freshness of vision and act, that we might gather in renewed humility and solidarity. These are not simply claims for a course correction. Such reformation is the substance of living in fellowship. I continue to believe that something like the Anglican Covenant, with greater catechetical, missionary, and synodical depth, is a good thing; and that finding a way to integrate and reintegrate protesting bodies like the Anglican Church of North America into the formal Communion is in keeping with the Pentecostal call to repentance and gathering. If I am mistaken in these judgments, it will not be because they transgress former habits, or current canons, or settled antipathies. The fellowship God wills is not captive to such restraints. It frees us from them.

Finally, a thick Pentecostal rationale for communion exposes the ultimately non-Anglican character of the hope for the world’s destiny that drove the 1920 Lambeth Appeal in the first place. Communion is not a peculiarly Anglican concern. It is ours only because it is God’s for all Christians. Communion, even this struggling Anglican form of it, doesn’t belong to us. Because fellowship is God’s will in both senses of the term, as God’s gift and as God’s command, communion can be taken away from some and given to others, as St. Paul makes clear (see Lk. 20:16; Rom. 11:22). It is manifested across Christian traditions, human time, and cosmic promise, and our own obedience is measured only in those far-reaching terms.

In other words, Anglican communion, and “the Anglican Communion,” demand ecumenical transformation, now more than ever. Lambeth 1920’s own discussion of peculiarly Anglican communion was set precisely within an ecumenical context, however limited. The appeal to all of Christendom arose not from arrogance but from the demand of a divine fellowship that far outstripped what the bishops rightly recognized as both struggle and incapacity among Anglicans left to themselves. Lambeth 1920 initiated its call not because Anglicans were better leaders in the Pentecostal movement, but because the movement itself had relativized all leaders, driving all of Jerusalem and the world — Canterbury and Rome, Geneva and Azusa Street — to search for the other. Christians cannot ask who does Pentecost better but only how it happens at all.

Four ways or applications, therefore, of the Pentecostal rationale for communion: present judgment, future possibility, freedom to change, and the wider world’s promise. Lambeth 1920 said that this is how God’s will is done on earth. God has in fact done something and is doing it still. The right side of history, we may say, has embraced aspects of our Anglican life, but only as that life has gone beyond itself toward the Lamb’s high throne with myriads of others similarly called through the long traversal of Pentecost. The days of a special Anglican charism are probably over, except as a residual set of habits, histories, and relationships. I don’t want to dismiss these; they still function in important ways. But we must ask what they are for. They are not for specialness itself — special liturgies, special attitudes, special histories, customs, and clothing. They are for getting us somewhere with and for others, in the posture of Jerusalem’s impassioned, repentant, self-offering crowds who constituted the world’s future. All Christian communion is given, and called forth, for this purpose, and this is just the communion that God wills.


  1. Thank you Ephraim. To my mind the essay serves a useful service in establishing what ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ give us, along with your appropriately logical conclusions about what a communion genuinely is (if the word is not to be reduced to nonsense; we have entities out of communion, in impaired communion, in sub-communion phalanxes — this you know and lay out fairly and accurately. None of it is in real doubt, and has been established now for at least a decade).

    I say useful because of course the advocates of thin will say it is the ‘genius’ of Anglicanism; Anglicanism is supposed to be ‘messy’; ‘local option and freedoms’ are Anglican hallmarks, and the list goes on.

    This lines up nicely, as you know, with use of the word ‘catholic’, which like ‘communion’ comes with its own patent and trademark. The problem is of course that the words cease to make any kind of sense. The ‘Anglican Communion’ is a container (a thick one) of various species of impaired community. The word is properly sociological. That is the ‘genius’ of Anglicanism.

    What makes no sense is using the word ‘communion’ to try to cover for this factual reality. Thin proponents have held on to a term that was seeking coherence, perhaps, in 1920, but in no way does now. Courage and intellectual honesty would seek a different noun, not an adjective like ‘thin’ applied to X or Y.

    But that is not going to happen. We have Anglican thin community/ies. And the C word is meant to refer to that.


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