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The Church of England’s Trinitarian schizophrenia: Full, visible unity or Fresh Expressions?

Editor’s note: I first started drafting this piece back in the spring, immediately before the 16th Anglican Consultative Council. Due to various online discussions criticizing the Anglican primates, as well as divergent narratives emerging after the ACC, I instead published two different pieces: “Anglicans on primacy: A selective amnesia” (April 4), and “Narratives and counter-narratives: the case of ACC-16” (April 19).

However, as the Jubilee events for the Anglican Centre in Rome draw near, my mind is once again on ecumenism, and Communion ecclesiology. This is especially true since the Living Church Foundation is about to host a seminar on Vatican II and Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in Rome, followed by cosponsoring a study day on a similar topic in Norwich.

I offer the post below, regarding two different trends of theological and ecclesiological reflection among contemporary Anglicans.

For 50 years, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion have pursued the thesis that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is immediately relevant to a series of questions surrounding ecclesiology, mission, ecumenism, and eucharistic presidency. This emphasis arguably flows from a broader theological consensus in the late 20th century that some form of “social” or “ecclesial” Trinitarianism is essential to the Church’s witness in the contemporary world: Trinitarian doctrine must be shown to be pragmatic.[1]

Anglicans, and the Church of England in particular, have lately taken that position to its most ridiculous conclusion through a sort of reductio ad absurdum writ large, by using Trinitarian doctrine to undergird diverse and perhaps even contradictory projects.

Although various strands of Trinitarian reflection may be found in the contemporary C of E, I’d like to discuss briefly the differences between how the doctrine of the Trinity is used to support the goal of full, visible unity and how it is used to justify Fresh Expressions, often outside of diocesan or parish boundaries. (I leave aside for now the justification of extra-provincial structures, or so-called “continuing” or replacement structures, which usually draws on different sources.)

The first stream: ecumenism, catholic order, unity

In a number of documents, reflection on the Trinity is frontloaded before discussions of ecclesiology, especially traditional church order. Here, the full, visible unity of the Church is a priority: one body of Christ with shared doctrine, practice, governance, and liturgy.

A great number of our ecumenical agreements have stated that Anglicans share with Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox a common understanding of ecclesiology. That is, they argue for the necessity of historic, catholic order expressed in the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons organized according to diocesan structures and governed by collegial relations among bishops and by primates.

This ecclesiology is frequently grounded in Trinitarian theology. For this perspective, see:

  • The documents from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, beginning with ARCIC I Final Report (1981) and the final agreed statements on the Eucharist, ministry, and authority. (These were all noted and affirmed at Lambeth 1988 [Resolution 8:1, 8:3], albeit with some questions on “infallibility, collegiality, and the role of the laity.”)
  • The Church as Communion (1990), from ARCIC II.
  • The Church of the Triune God, the Cyprus Statement agreed to by the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue 2006. (The Trinitarian elements are emphasized here; they were less evident in The Dublin Agreement of the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission [1984], which nonetheless asserted similarity of ecclesiology.)
  • See also Eucharistic Presidency: a theological statement by the House of Bishops of the Church of England (1997), which counters the idea of lay presidency at the Eucharist; Bishops in Communion: Collegiality in the Service of the Koinonia of the Church (2000), a statement of the C of E’s Faith and Order Advisory Group at the request of the House of Bishops; and The Eucharist: sacrament of unity: an occasional paper of the House of Bishops of the Church of England (2001).
  • Finally: the World Council of Churches’ Lima document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982); and God’s Reign and Our Unity, the report of the Anglican-Reformed International Commission (1984), esp. § 91-97. (Trinitarian overtones are less pronounced here, but collegiality, “unity-in-diversity,” and the threefold ministry are generally approved.)

Most often, these documents deployed the principles of unity-in-diversity or shared communion in the Church despite differences of role to argue for the importance and distinctiveness of ordained ministry, the celebration of the Eucharist as the pinnacle of the Church’s worship, and traditional hierarchies and church governance as part of the divine mission in the world. The gathering of ethnic and cultural diversity into the practices and worship of the one Church was frequently celebrated as well.

Similarities in approach and language can be seen in recent documents addressing inter-Anglican unity, such as:

In these documents, the unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion is always related to Trinitarian theology. Such a focus is no accident: it flows from the earlier ecumenical documents and from specific discussions in or position papers from the C of E’s House of Bishops, and the trajectory is evident from direct citations.

For example, according to the ever-underrated Anglican Covenant, “This life of the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, shapes and displays itself through the very existence and ordering of the Church” (Introduction, § 1). Further sections of the Covenant note Anglican commitment to the episcopate and catholic order (1.1.6, 3.1.2-3.1.4, 4.1.1), to “shared patterns of common prayer and liturgy” (1.1.7), and the importance of eucharistic communion (1.2.7). Again, the Church’s unity in doctrine, practice, and order is what gathers together the diverse tribes and cultures of the earth (2.1.1); within Anglicanism, this takes place in the context of traditions stemming from the apostolic and patristic eras and from the English Reformation, in the energy of the great missionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries (2.1.2, 2.1.4).

Meanwhile, the Anglican Covenant grounds in reflections explicitly in earlier ecumenical dialogues, whose theological arguments serve as its largely unstated substructures.

The second stream: Fresh Expressions and church planting

What is perhaps surprising is that amid a vigorous working out of a particular ecclesial Trinitarianism in ecumenical and inter-Anglican discussions, a second stream emerged with almost entirely different consequences, resulting in the emphasis on Fresh Expressions in the past decade, a devaluing of traditional structures, and a general sense that older or more traditional ways of being the church are a hindrance to mission.

Moreover, it seems to me that the strong divergence of these two streams was masked in the second by deliberate reference to the theological work of the first: In its chapter on theology, the working party that produced Mission-shaped Church lifted a paragraph on the Trinity from Eucharistic Presidency in order to argue for a “mixed-economy” church. This mixed-economy church is to be especially marked by vigorous church planting, in which new churches share neither the culture nor most of the distinctive practices of the congregations that initially planted them. A repeated emphasis on the Trinity has popped up elsewhere in writings or reflections on Fresh Expressions and other emerging communities.[2]

In other words, the very social or ecclesial Trinitarianism that emphasized our unanimity of mission and structure with Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Anglicans around the world was instead deployed to justify mission strategies that many in those same groups would find abhorrent. Here, unity-in-diversity has been deployed to argue for a varied ecclesiology that finds room for cell church or coffee church or a rugby group to stand on equal footing with parishes and the structures of catholic order, even as these new ways of being church operate partially outside of, or in competition with, diocesan and parochial structures.

These too are “proper” churches, we are informed.

Incompatible contributions?

The general incompatibility of these two streams, especially in their fruits, is perhaps obvious to many, but I believe the putative roots of both in reflection on Trinitarian doctrine has gone largely unnoticed until now. It is worth asking some questions, however, which I will attempt to answer in a later post.

  1. Is it possible that the two streams actually are compatible? Might catholic order and Fresh Expressions both be grounded in our understanding of the Triune God and his mission? Do they share strengths?
  2. Alternatively, do these two streams share common weaknesses (e.g., in the limitation of divine life to community or unity-in-diversity or community-in-mission)?
  3. Is it an accident that ecumenical dialogue is generally associated with the Catholic wing of the C of E, with Anglican Communion theologians, and with theologians, while Fresh Expressions has been largely associated with C of E evangelicals and with bishops and church planters? Are these “party” ecclesiologies worked out on a national and international stage, or to be associated with reflective vs. pragmatic approaches?
  4. How has one effort of the C of E (Fresh Expressions) flourished or come to dominate so much discussion, despite a lack of connection to Anglican ecumenical efforts in the past 50 years? Are those involved in Fresh Expressions, especially the bishops who have advocated it most forcefully, unaware of these previous ecumenical dialogues? (Obviously, such a statement could not be true of Rowan Williams, but what of others?)



[1] I don’t have space to note the degree to which Karen Kilby, Mark Husbands, and many others have subjected this thought to a withering critique.

[2] Noted especially by Ian Mobsby, Emerging and Fresh Expressions of Church: How are They Authentically Church and Anglican? (2007), pp. 51-56, 71, not least in the apparent centrality of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity to the thinking of various groups. See also Graham Cray’s chapter in The Future of the Parish System, edited by Steven Croft (2006); David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts, and Michael Volland, Fresh! An Introduction to Fresh Expressions of Church and Pioneer Ministry (2012), pp. 34-37; see “God is revealed as community-in-mission,” “What is the mixed economy?” or “What Christian principles underlie Fresh Expressions?” on the Fresh Expressions site).


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