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Visible Communion between Churches

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, forthcoming this spring).

The theology of communion is a substantial subject. In the New Testament, those who believe in the good news of Christ have him in common, and therefore are in communion with one another and with God by sharing in Christ. To believe in him is inseparable from life in him (as St. Paul insists), remaining in him (in St. John’s language), and following him (as all the Gospels display). In terms of Christian doctrine, the primary meaning of communion is the relationship of human persons with one another and with the eternal persons of the triune God that unfolds from sharing in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

To speak of communion between churches, rather than communion between persons in the church, or the communion between persons that makes the church, is thus to use the language of communion in a secondary and derivative way. We Anglicans have grown accustomed to this secondary, inter-ecclesial usage of communion in the last two centuries. In the classic texts of the 1920 Lambeth Conference, we see the primary communion of Christians in the Church described as “fellowship,” while capital-C Communion is reserved for that which multiple churches share. The two meanings are obviously interconnected but not identical.

In Catholic Christianity in the early centuries, and (with some differences) in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches today, the distinction between interpersonal and inter-ecclesial communion is not so sharply drawn. Members of different Catholic or Orthodox churches — in various geographical locales and jurisdictions — are understood simply as members of the one Church because they share a “fullness” of faith and life. They are in communion with one another in the Church on the same basis that they are in communion with others in their “particular” church, namely, by sharing in Christ. Here also, however, the need for an account of communion between churches — beyond the communion of the one Church that includes all churches — arises as we start to wonder whether one plus one always equals one (as well as two) in our ecclesial arithmetic. This is the work of ecumenism: to wrestle with realities of division and the lack of “full communion” between churches that nonetheless profess some shared bond of faith with those from whom they are, to varying degrees, divided.

For our part, Anglicans traditionally have insisted both that our churches are part of the one catholic Church and that, added together, they do not constitute a single, Anglican Church. One can explain this irreducible plurality in terms of a historic Anglican aversion to forms of universal authority in the Church, together with a theological instinct that Church should carry with it specific expectations regarding authority and oversight. Our accustomed Anglican way of thinking and speaking also follows directly from the historical intertwining of the roots of the Anglican Communion with the roots of the ecumenical movement. Lambeth Conferences up until at least the mid-twentieth century understood Anglican churches as first and foremost part of the Catholic Church in their nation or country. Accordingly, the communion between Anglican churches across national boundaries must be different from the union that should exist visibly between Anglican churches and every other part of Christ’s Church in every single and specific place.

In this classically Anglican perspective, “our” Communion of churches becomes both a passing sign and a potential instrument of the one communion in Christ that should bind together — again, visibly — all the united, catholic churches in every place. In this view, the Anglican Communion in no way serves as a substitute for local union; communion between parts of Christ’s body in different places, however salutary, does not obviate the call to unity with all Christians and churches in each place. For this reason, we have, as a global communion of churches, avoided the term Anglican Church. There are only local Anglican churches seeking the visible unity throughout the world of the one Catholic Church. When that goal is attained it will indeed be true to describe the plurality of united churches in communion with one another in every place as just that: the one Catholic Church. At that point, the need to separate inter-ecclesial from interpersonal communion will fall away, as the differences between particular churches will no longer inhibit the making visible of the unity between all who share together in the one Lord Jesus Christ.

Even as we seek visible Christian unity, Anglican churches remain bound to one another with strong and distinctive bonds that merit the description “Communion.” In fact, the pattern of our life together in communion resembles the shape of our ecumenical labor — from local unions with other churches, like the united churches of South Asia, beginning with the formation of the Church of South India (in 1947), to inter-ecclesial communion, like that with the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht (from 1931), or the agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (in 2000). It’s hard to overstate the significance of the fact that the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (of 1886 and 1888) began life as a goad to local ecumenism but quickly came to function as an enduring outline of Anglican identity. The close connection has perhaps grown weaker in the last fifty years, but the Anglican Covenant of 2009 still spoke of a distinctly “ecumenical vocation” of Anglicanism.

In the end, Anglican self-reflection about our own communion cannot help but shape how we relate to other Christian churches, and vice versa. As we seek to sustain communion as Anglicans – interpersonal and inter-ecclesial – and to deepen communion with others, the same call to visible Christian unity may be heard. This call, from Jesus himself, invites us to look away from our own interests and identities to that which we share in him, namely, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:5-6).

The Rev. Canon Dr Jeremy Worthen serves as team rector of Ashford Town Parish, in the Diocese of Canterbury. He previously served as Secretary for Ecumenical Relations and Theology at the Council for Christian Unity in the Church of England.


  1. The Anglican Covenant did not take hold, and the ‘classic texts’ of 1920 are from a different time and place. The present situation is vastly different. But even if they bespeak something on this topic, that is really all they do. The reality on the ground is that any use of the term catholic or Catholic is aspirational at best, and in the ecumenical context, it is critical to acknowledge this difference. 1979 BCP (TEC) texts toggle between ‘catholic’ and ‘Catholic’ and this says a lot if even by indirection. There is a Catholic Church. No one says, “The Catholic Church” and means by that the complicated, aspirational description and history above. That is true of both the Catholic Church itself and the common man/woman on the street. 1920 presented a different context and challenge on this front.


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