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Schools of Anglican Synodality

The following essay is excerpted from a chapter in When Churches in Communion Disagree, ed. Robert Heaney, Christopher Wells, and Pierre Whalon (Living Church Books, now available from Amazon.com).

By Christopher Wells & Pierre Whalon

All Anglican churches, including our own Episcopal Church, have been “conciliar” according to a recognizable pattern of self-government and decision-making by synod, with an at least aspirational interest in larger councils and synods of the Church Catholic, starting with the Anglican Communion. The question of integral relation between Anglican synods has, however, never been settled, partly because its perennial broaching yields various responses, each of which inspires distinct lines of argument, research, and would-be reform. Anglican ecclesiology has, since at least 1867, the date of the first Lambeth Conference, found itself in a near-constant state of creative, ecumenically influential flux.

The Lambeth Conference has, in fact, since its founding, served as the principal school in Anglican ecclesiological development, even amid — and because of the — near-constant change in social and institutional centers and networks of relation that give flesh to our global family. We write now on the eve of Lambeth Conference 2022, delayed due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulty of persuading all the bishops of the Communion to attend, just as several provinces, numerically amounting to one third of the members of the Communion, boycotted the last conference of 2008. That the “Lambeth School,” to propose a metaphor, has managed to keep its doors open is a marvel, attributable to the celebrated instructors and dogged student body, all of whom have braved a continuously evolving curriculum, shifting standards of evaluation, and on-again-off-again accreditation. Viewed positively, we have specialized in learning by doing, adjusting to new realities in a spirit of openness and trust in God. Rather more experimental in its pedagogical philosophy than many parents have wished (and, truth be told, lurching from one module to another, led now by this reserved institutionalist, that spiritual visionary, and still another restless reformer), the conference has suffered lately from a loss of students to one or two newly chartered ventures that seek to deliver more reliable outcomes, borne of objective standards and sustained testing.

Just here, one stubbornly difficult question, among others, facing the churches of the Anglican Communion concerns the reality of autonomous provincial synods arriving at differing conclusions on matters of Christian doctrine. The difficulty of the question presents itself insofar as these churches seek to be in communion: seek, that is, when they do not insist that they already are and probably always will be in communion, and/or — on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday — admit defeat, allowing that communion is broken, irreparable, and possibly not of particular interest or import anyway. That churches in communion disagree, therefore, not only describes a difficult aspect of our life together at present but also amounts to a question or questions. The fact of disagreement between and among Anglican churches forces us to reckon with what we mean by disagreement, a challenge in its own right, and with the meaning of communion. Holding the two together scripturally and theologically demands an account of the nature and contours of the Church as given and received, as well-established yet developing, and as constituted in Christ sacramentally, according to the pattern of the Paschal Mystery.

One thinks, in recent Anglican history, of our experience with the ordination of women to the priesthood — first in Hong Kong, Canada, and the Episcopal Church — and subsequently to the episcopate. The Windsor Report’s history of this period emphasizes the Communion’s ordered process of discernment, reception, and decision-making, centered on successive Lambeth conferences, but the process was not easy, and resulted in reluctant acceptance of “impaired communion,” with which we still live today (see Windsor Report §§12-21). Our current struggles over marriage and sexuality have, in many ways, reprised and amplified the previous synodical anxiety about ordaining women, underlining again the need to arrive at a common articulation of Anglican structures, sources of doctrine, and decision-making, if and as we can.

To be sure, many believe that we cannot, or perhaps should not try. The differences are too great, the distances between our views and contexts too vast. The Episcopal Church’s General Convention of 1976 not only authorized the ordination of women to all three orders but also passed Resolution A069, stating that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” Since then, numerous contested questions (not only for Anglicans) have arisen in this field — concerning the proper rights and responsibilities of gay and lesbian Christians, the nature and extent of pastoral care owed to them, appropriate expectations for ordained leaders, especially bishops, and, of course, questions about the teaching of Scripture, received and evolving traditions, wider ecumenical discernments, and a range of canon-legal considerations. Scanning the contemporary Anglican landscape, we see simply at the level of practice a diversity of teaching and discipline on these matters, largely reflective of our varying cultures, though few if any of our churches have reached a comfortable accord or resolution internally. We all struggle with difference and disagreement, as the ground shifts under our feet.

Des the Anglican Communion have a doctrine here? Resolution I.10 of Lambeth Conference 1998 recommended a standard of Communion teaching about homosexuality that has remained a constant touchstone and constant point of conflict, as churches have variously counted upon and sought to move beyond it. Lambeth Conference 2022 will address these questions again, as will the Church of England in its current General Synod, jumping off from the substantive suite of resources gathered as Living in Love and Faith. The Episcopal Church accepted a compromise on the matter in Resolution B012 of the 2018 General Convention, which made space for the teaching and practice of self-styled Communion Partner dioceses as a minority voice alongside a majority embrace of same-sex marriage. The 2021 report of the Episcopal Church’s Task Force on Communion across Difference, working in the wake of the compromise, suggested that the occasion of its convening might signify a “kairos moment, given providentially by God at this time to help Episcopalians and Anglicans find a path forward together.”

Lofty words but fitting for a would-be “Communion across Difference School,” seeking to articulate a theologico-spiritual methodology for persisting patiently in churches and communions characterized by deep disagreement. (Full disclosure: Christopher served on the task force.) Structural solutions are not foreclosed in this school, but neither are they forefronted. Rather, something more fundamental and remedial is proposed: a curriculum of compassion, that is, suffering with others, in their company (cf. Matt. 19:14: “suffer the children”), in the hope that God will make clear in time next steps to be taken. Rooted in a clear articulation of baptismal solidarity and a recognition of the mixed-body character of the Church, this School would have us take brothers and sisters at their word when they profess faith in Jesus, even if full communion remains out of reach for now. The “School of Reconciliation” associated with Archbishop Welby and others as an intuitive methodology for muddling along in charity fits here, if we understand it as not foreclosing further structural discernments on principle but simply setting them aside to start.

The Task Force on Communion across Difference sets out its vision in a series of hope-filled rhetorical questions:

Can we view our present disagreements through the lens of a given communion in Christ, and can we imagine ways of walking together that enact the respect, forbearance, and Christian love to which we have long committed ourselves? Stated in terms of the foregoing kinds of communion [namely, baptismal, ecumenical, and denominational]: since we share an initiating and transformative communion in Christ and “have left everything to follow” Jesus (Mt. 19:27), can we express this faithfully despite, and even through, our disagreements over marriage? Can we imagine ways of living together, both affectively and structurally, that will accommodate our difference, and permit us still to say that we share a common faith and order as Episcopalians and as Anglicans — while peering, like our forebears, over the horizon to the larger body of Christ? Finally, if our differences seem quite fundamental, as this Task Force believes they are, might we nonetheless find some old or new means of flexibility (“local adaptation”) that could permit us to carry on in one church and one Communion? If so, our witness may again be heard as resounding testimony to the love of Christ in a time of great division in our country, our Communion, and our world.

Presuming a basic commitment to accompanying one another across difference, the task force recognizes that more Faith and Order work remains to be done (“structurally”), and adverts to a need for episcopal leadership in a “locally-adapted” key of creative flexibility. The reference to local adaptation is drawn from the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, marking a reception by the Lambeth Conference of a resolution passed by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church at the General Convention meeting in Chicago two years’ prior. As the task force report narrates: “Arising from an American context of inter-denominational self-awareness and a pragmatism placed in service of the gospel, Episcopalians seeded the notion that structural differences might be accommodated both between and among Christian denominations.” Were this to be retrieved today by Episcopalians and Anglicans as a resource for our struggle to sustain communion-in-disagreement, we might mark this era “as a time when we began giving the gift of the Chicago Quadrilateral to ourselves to enable all to flourish.” How so? The task force continues:

Locally adapted disagreement with respect to marriage might take various forms, ranging from simply deciding to accept [inter-diocesan] diversity, as we have done recently in the Episcopal Church, to more ambitious structural reforms, of a sort that others in the Anglican Communion are attempting. There may be good reasons for both at different times, and some degree of flexibility can aid experimentation on the way to wise and peaceable settlements.

In these texts, the Task Force on Communion across Difference helpfully adverts to one more school of Anglican ecclesiology, the “Structural School,” which seeks to gather, study, and receive proposals for articulating and developing Faith and Order, not only for Anglicans but for all Christians and churches. Traditionally, churches have matriculated into this school in order to think through the properly bounded nature of the Church as an institution (see Augustine of Hippo in the 4th and 5th centuries), and to articulate how a newly defined church should situate itself relative to others in a presumptive Whole (as Richard Hooker did in the 16th century). Since the dawn of the ecumenical era, the Structural School has modified its curriculum to accommodate churches seeking paths to fuller unity with other Christians and, conversely, those seeking paths to amicable differentiation in a baptismal key, explicable with reference to degrees of communion.

From Lambeth Conference 1867 to the founding of the Anglican Consultative Council (1968) and Primates’ Meeting (1979), to the advent of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission (1994), specifically Anglican questions about doctrine, authority, and decision-making have understandably landed in the Structural School — and have taken on an ecumenical hue, by dint of the logic of ecclesiology, rooted as it is in Scripture, sacraments, and early Church precedents. We have mentioned the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as the founding text for Anglican-structural thinking in the Communion era, which rightly should be read with reference to the impassioned prologue published by the Episcopal House of Bishops, enunciating the synodical mandate with an eye to mission: “this church does not seek to absorb other Communions, but rather, co-operating with them on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world.”

Lambeth Conference 1920’s “Appeal to all Christian People” comes next in terms of influence, and still resounds in its clarion call to council:

We believe that God wills fellowship. By God’s own act this fellowship was made in and through Jesus Christ, and its life is in his Spirit. We believe that it is God’s purpose to manifest this fellowship, so far as this world is concerned, in an outward, visible, and united society, holding one faith, having its own recognized officers, using God-given means of grace, and inspiring all its members to the world-wide service of the Kingdom of God. This is what we mean by the Catholic Church.

The Toronto Anglican Congress and its summons to Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ (1963), the Virginia (1997) and Windsor (2004) reports, the Anglican Covenant (2009), and 2012’s Towards a Symphony of Instruments, published by the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order, all wrestled for a blessing from the structural curriculum in a key of query. To these, we may now add the current round of discussion by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, set out in a first of two texts, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be the Church—Local, Regional, Universal (2018). The dialogue team argues for a recovery of ecumenical synodality, of a sort that would challenge both Roman Catholics and Anglicans to press more surely into consultation, consensus, and a right application of subsidiarity, so that the local and the universal (or worldwide) are properly attuned to one another.

The trajectory of this last seems especially pertinent as the Anglican Communion has turned more and more to ecumenical ecclesiology to explain its own “internal” life. Ours is a collocation of churches with historic connections, called — we are saying, with both hope and trepidation — to walk together as an icon of charity-in-difference, recognizing how difficult that is. Walking together need not mean walking abreast, or even at the same pace. As the primates noted in 2016, it is possible for pilgrims to advance together along the same road of visible discipleship and obedience at a distance from one another — indeed, even differentiated from one another, out of respect for varying views and needs. The Anglican Covenant, for all its limitations, recognized this when it offered “intensified” communion for those desiring it, with freedom for churches to “opt-in” (in the words of then-Archbishop Rowan Williams) or otherwise take a pass on grounds of conscience or differently discerned vocation. Something like this may still be the best way forward, and in any case is an option on the table, as in the proposed “Covenantal Structure for the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches” (adopted in 2019, updated in 2021), proffered as both complement and supplement to the Anglican Communion as currently organized. As one, prominent course of study in the Structural School, covenantal proposals seeks to recover and reclaim the ideal of visible consensus so memorably vindicated in the Chicago Quadrilateral and at Lambeth 1920.

On pain of the coherence of the gospel and the authenticity of the Church as its bearer, there can be no escaping the call to council, which necessarily follows from communion with God. Let us not tire in striving to heed the prayer of our Lord that his disciples “may become completely one, so that the world may know” the love of God in his Son Jesus Christ (John 17:23). And let us “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). Face to face, with humility, in charity, we Anglicans, and all our brothers and sisters in the Body, shall know the truth, and the truth shall set us free.

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director of the Living Church Foundation. The Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon served as the first elected bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe from 2001 to 2019.


  1. “.. which made space for the teaching and practice of self-styled Communion Partner dioceses as a minority voice alongside a majority embrace of same-sex marriage.”

    There are a handful of these, of course. Is it possible to imagine that, after the retirement of the present incumbents, their successors will be given that same (restrictive) permission to carry on as before? Consents processes will give the green light to successors who say they want the same carve-out? I ask this as a genuine question. General Conventions have become so odd that it is very hard to predict anything on this score. My sense was that the carve-out was not envisioned as permanent. To say that would imply a TEC not on the progressive move! I suppose the answer will come when +TN, +Dallas, +CFL retire and the consents process is engaged to give a yea or a nay to who they elect..

    Individual parishes being allowed to do this or that in future seems obvious enough. But for an ‘Episcopal’ Church, this is a different matter of course.

    In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much, given TEC’s small size in the wider Communion. At some point the declining provinces–including the Church of England–will have simply to figure out how to survive.


  2. I’m not certain that “synodality” counts for very much when traditionalists try to negotiate/ converse with ideological ‘progressives’ in the Church. We tried it — for years — when I served on the International Anglican Theology and Doctrine Commission. Our (i.e. theological traditionalists’) sincere efforts to lay the groundwork for an international compromise came to nothing.

    • It has also been my experience that the progressives in power actually like to be “givers of gifts” to traditionalists. a) They get to be the givers; b) they know the gift is theirs to give; c) they give the gift knowing they are in control of it, and its expiration date.


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