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Walking together at Lambeth 2020?

Summary: Building on yesterday’s analysis of walking together, this article explores the problems faced by the Lambeth Conference in 2008 and how they continue to be present as we approach Lambeth 2020. To enable as close and truthful a walking together as possible, it suggests the conference may combine the two forms of gathering we have known and build on the decisions of the primates in 2016 and 2017 about consequences for unilaterally departing from Communion teaching. This could take the form of a non-resolution gathering (as in 2008) in which all provinces and ecumenical partners walked together despite the significant distance between them, followed by a more deliberative assembly passing resolutions (as before 2008) involving those living in a higher degree of communion and committed to intensifying that communion.

The last Lambeth Conference in 2008 was marked by a number of distinctive features. These included the failure of a large number of provinces and so several hundred bishops to attend due to the actions of the American Church and their presence at the conference, the non-invitation of a serving bishop (Gene Robinson) because he was in a same-sex union and another because of corruption (Bishop Nolbert Kunonga), and the decision to have an Indaba and not to pass any resolutions. It is also important to recognize that in his 2007 letter of invitation the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear that there were certain expectations and commitments expected of those attending:

I have said, and repeat here, that coming to the Conference does not commit you to accepting every position held by other bishops as equally legitimate or true. But I hope it does commit us all to striving together for a more effective and coherent worldwide body, working for God’s glory and Christ’s Kingdom. The Instruments of Communion have offered for this purpose a set of resources and processes, focused on the Windsor Report and the Covenant proposals. My hope is that as we gather we can trust that your acceptance of the invitation carries a willingness to work with these tools to shape our future. I urge you all most strongly to strive during the intervening period to strengthen confidence and understanding between our provinces and not to undermine it.

It is now clear that not only were many so unhappy with such limited assurances being sought that they stayed away but many of those who attended and implicitly gave such assurances subsequently demonstrated little or no willingness to work with those tools. The situation in the Communion that led to these problems has, without doubt, worsened in the last decade and the challenge in gathering bishops from across the Communion is now even more serious. To give just four examples:

  • The 2004 Windsor Report could give American bishops the benefit of the doubt about whether they really understood the implications of their actions in relation to electing and consecrating Gene Robinson, and in 2007 it was being claimed that the response of TEC to the Windsor requests needed further clarification. It is now clear that only 8 of the 101 diocesan bishops in TEC (the Communion Partner bishops) have on principle disapproved the church’s authorizing same-sex marriage and by 2020 TEC may try to impose this on the whole province.
  • There is currently one same-sex partnered bishop in TEC (Mary Glasspool, suffragan in New York) and one in Canada (Kevin Robertson, suffragan in Toronto). Were they (or any others then in office) not to be invited (following the Gene Robinson precedent) this can only be seen as victimization of someone because of their sexuality if all other bishops are invited despite their support for same-sex marriage and bishops in same-sex unions. However, were they (and presumably their partners) to be invited, this would be seen by most of the Communion as a further departure from Communion teaching and discipline.
  • The non-attendance at Lambeth 2008 was the first large-scale separation from the Instruments, but this pattern has continued since then in relation to both Primates’ Meetings and ACC meetings. There is now a pattern that threatens to be repeated or even extended, and it needs to be halted and reversed.
  • Even though the 2008 Lambeth Conference was one that did not pass resolutions, participation was unacceptable for many provinces and bishops. Were 2020 Lambeth to return to the pattern of articulating the mind of the Communion through its bishops gathered together, then it would be even more difficult for many to attend than it was in 2008, given developments since that conference.

The challenges are clearly daunting and the consequences of another large-scale boycott are very serious: what are the chances of ever again gathering all the Communion’s bishops together as happened in 1998 if the attempts of both 2008 and 2020 significantly fail? Who knows where we will be in 2030, but even were some unity possible it would then be 32 years from the last gathering.

At the moment, the approach would seem to be to reiterate walking together on the terms set out at the 2016 Primates’ Meeting and so inviting everyone and accepting the reality that some may not come because of the invitation to others. However, these existing terms raise a number of serious and currently unanswered questions, including that while the consequences for SEC continue until after Lambeth 2020, those for TEC cease in 2019, and it is not clear whether or how they may be renewed. More significantly, what it would mean for a resolution-passing Lambeth Conference to ensure that some bishops (American, Scottish, perhaps by then Canadian?), although “participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion,” would “not take part in decision making on any issues of doctrine or polity”? There is also the real danger that — given the problems noted already and likely developments before 2020 — many bishops and whole provinces will simply feel they cannot in good conscience, because the distance between them and other bishops is simply too great, walk together in a Lambeth Conference if it claims the level of moral authority traditionally accorded to it. There is then the likelihood that they will simply not attend at all; the level of walking together demanded and its undifferentiated nature will mean they have to appear to walk apart.

Is there then any way of constructing a Lambeth Conference that, in continuity with recent developments, can speak the truth about both our walking together and our significant distance and acceptance of the need of forms of walking apart even as we desire to walk together? Could there even be a way of increasing the numbers walking together to include those absent from the recent Primates’ Meeting and the last Lambeth Conference but also enable the development of a deeper walking together for those committed to seeking such a pattern of common interdependent Anglican life in communion?

Here there may be the possibility of drawing together both the historic form of the Lambeth Conference as a body whose level of communion and moral authority is expressed in resolutions and the novelty of 2008 as subsequently developed in the Continuing Indaba Project to structure a new form of conference. This would be one which in its very design acknowledges both the painful reality of our divisions and the genuine desire to seek to walk even closer together in the highest possible degree of communion in apostolic faith, sacramental life, shared ministry, conciliar relations and decision-making, and common witness and service.

What if the first part of the conference were to involve the sort of activities that we now widely accept and participate in with fellow Christians with whom we are not in full or even formal communion? This could be, as in 2008, a sharing of fellowship, wisdom, and the experience of participating in God’s mission and service to the world set in the context of prayer, worship, and Bible study involving all provinces of the Communion and possibly even ACNA (at least as ecumenical partners). It would be a genuine form of walking together in Christ but at a lower level of mutual recognition and further from full communion than traditional Lambeth Conferences. It could be modeled and its pattern of walking together strengthened through the new development of regional meetings of primates and others with the Archbishop of Canterbury announced for 2018 and 2019 at the recent meetings.

What if, then, in the light of this, those Communion bishops truly committed to developing a deeper form of walking together met in a more deliberative assembly to consider resolutions and pre-conference reports (shaped perhaps by discussion of these in the larger group in the earlier gathering)? This body could also consider how to develop other ways of walking together more closely and so deepening their communion and how best to continue to walk as closely together with other Anglicans not part of this gathering. Clearly a crucial question here would be the commitments necessary to participate in this closer form of walking together that would need to be more than the implicit willingness sought in 2008 and recognize the existing levels of significant distance in our walking together. The 2016 decision now reaffirmed last week that provinces which had changed the doctrine of marriage “would not take part in decision making on any issues of doctrine or polity” is already in place as a basis. Other possible reference points could be the Windsor moratoria and the basic vision of communion life set out in at least the first three sections of the Anglican Communion Covenant. It would also be important to decide whether the commitments necessary for participation were required of individual bishops or whether the decision would be made on a provincial level and apply to all bishops in each province with no possible differentiation.

Such a form of Lambeth Conference would build on the form of walking together already established by the primates in 2016. It would not undermine the Instruments and level of communion that currently exist but it would offer something more in addition. It would be similar to the vision set out by Rowan Williams in his 2009 response to TEC’s General Convention when American Episcopalians clearly signaled they were not in fact committed to the vision he had set out in 2007 for those attending Lambeth 2008. His comments were related to the still-unfinished draft Covenant, but the principles are not dependent on a Covenant process. The key paragraphs (22-24) are worth quoting in full to show what is and is not involved in such a two-fold form of Lambeth Conference:

… For those whose vision is not shaped by the desire to intensify relationships in this particular way, or whose vision of the communion is different, there is no threat of being cast into outer darkness — existing relationships will not be destroyed that easily. But it means that there is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance: that is, a “covenanted” Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with “covenanted” provinces.

This has been called a “two-tier” model, or, more disparagingly, a first- and second-class structure. But perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a “two-track” model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, one of which had decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value and so had in good faith declined a covenantal structure. If those who elect this model do not take official roles in the ecumenical interchanges and processes in which the “covenanted” body participates, this is simply because within these processes there has to be clarity about who has the authority to speak for whom.

It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are — two styles of being Anglican, whose mutual relation will certainly need working out but which would not exclude cooperation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the communion. It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated. The ideal is that both “tracks” should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as church, with greater integrity and consistency. It is right to hope for and work for the best kinds of shared networks and institutions of common interest that could be maintained as between different visions of the Anglican heritage. And if the prospect of greater structural distance is unwelcome, we must look seriously at what might yet make it less likely.

Of course, to achieve even this will require significant changes of heart and direction. Those who failed to attend in 2008 and at the recent primates and who may consider repeating this in 2020 would need to make a step towards those from whom they have walked apart within the existing Instruments. They would though perhaps be enabled to do so by a recognition that their participation was in the context of a recognition that such walking together recognized the significant distance (as in ecumenical gatherings) and the fact there was an opportunity to then walk more closely together with those Anglicans with whom they were in a higher degree of communion. Those who have walked apart by acting unilaterally and pursuing a different path on marriage and sexuality would need to accept the development of an Anglican gathering in which they could not participate. They would though perhaps be enabled to do so by recognising this as the outworking of the existing consequences they have already accepted and by finding in the initial gathering a way of continuing involvement with fellow Anglicans that expresses the current reality of walking together but in impaired communion (and perhaps even enables some degree of reconciliation) rather than there being no lived expression of communion at all.

Such a proposal clearly would itself face major challenges and be a risky way forward for the Archbishop of Canterbury but there is no risk-free way forward. The real danger is that proceeding as if it can be business as usual in terms of invitations and structure risks another Lambeth Conference that embodies walking apart at least as much as walking together. Were this to happen there is likely to be the development of parallel structures of more intense walking together as Anglicans without reference to Canterbury by perhaps the majority of the Communion in order to express their deeper degree of communion.

In one sense, of course, such a new form of conference would be a confession of our failure. But, like any confession it would also be perhaps the most truthful way of speaking of our current situation, our desire to walk together and the limits to that walking together given our deep disagreements, recent history and competing visions of being Anglican. In line with the Archbishop’s Task Group’s focus not just on common liturgy but a season of prayer of repentance and reconciliation, such a conference could even be a way of seeking God’s grace and restoration, giving visible expression to our historic Anglican confession:

Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Goddard is senior research fellow at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics in Cambridge, assistant minister at St James the Less, Pimlico, and adjunct assistant professor of Anglican Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.


  1. Really enjoying these, Andrew. I appreciate the work and research that has gone into them, and the “two-track” model is explained winsomely, I think. Great work.

    I’m someone who, from the outset in 2003, has been a fan of more concrete, even disciplinary categories of action; and who has sometimes been frustrated by the actions and inactions of communion bodies and ABC’s. I’d love to see a real synod convened, something conceptually stronger even than Lambeth 1998. But that said, I can live with the two-track model. As described here, it would be too strong to call even the deliberative body a “synod” – but maybe that’s a recognition that we don’t really have the level of worldwide unity needed to make a synod work; but we have to order ourselves somehow. While I would stop short of agreeing that we have any responsibility as Christians to enable parts of our Church to walk apart with “integrity”, I do think this solution makes practical sense; could provide the decades of time needed for our rifts to stop and the [super]natural forces of unity to help churches like TEC come back around; and has a chance to walk the thin line between theological left and right, global north and south, faction and faction, and to be accepted. I like that it builds on the Covenant, and that there’s a place in it for ACNA and GAFCON. I hope this idea can be listened to and considered on all sides with the seriousness it deserves.

    Do you think the boundary crossing issue would be enough to keep a member province out of the deliberative body?

  2. The term “walking apart” has a note of euphemism to it. The conservatives in the Communion don’t believe that the condition is “walking” apart, but is in fact *separation*. They value the point of doctrinal correctness, and whether you agree or not, that is the foundation upon which they build. Use of the term “waking apart” actually misunderstands and threatens to belittle their position.

    • British English is a highly coded form of the language, it’s true. Having our church leaders based in British English means they often take refuge in semantic ranges and subtle distinctions. If they were all American, there would be more straight-talking, which the GAFCON folks would probably appreciate. Walking apart, as you’ve said, Charlie, is a coded phrase which intentionally obscures the difference between, or opens up space between, unity and separation. When it was originally used in Windsor, I think it was simply a very English way to say “separation.” Now it seems to have taken on a broader range of meaning and even, strangely, to have become a strategy itself!

  3. ‘As we wrestle with our particular Anglican struggles, we need to consider them and pray for them in the context of “the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth,” beseeching God “to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant, that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity, and godly love.”’

    Amen to that.

    These are my comments on Andrew Goddard’s two articles ‘Walking Together –Past and present? – Covenant’ and ‘Walking together at Lambeth 2020? – Covenant’. My comments are focused on the Church of England but apply more generally to the Anglican Communion and, indeed, to all those alive today who believe that Christianity is in some sense true and who consider themselves to be Christians.

    I make a number of assumptions.

    I assume that the two key concepts in Andrew’s essay are unity and truth.

    “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

    (Francis Schaeffer called ‘that they all may be one’ the ‘final apologetic’ – ‘that the world may believe that you have sent me’, which is why verse 21 always caused him to cringe.)

    “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work”.

    I assume that it is possible for Christians, those in Christ, known-to-God-Christians, to be astray or go astray about the truths of Christianity they believe or deny, just as they can be astray or go astray morally, in their behaviour contrary to the will and commands of God and Christ. Conversely it is possible to intellectually believe all the truths of Christianity and not be a known-to-God-Christian.
    I assume that every person alive today is either a known-to-God-Christian, or not a known-to-God-Christian; either in Christ or not in Christ. These comments here do not address the important questions such as: how does a person become in Christ, become a Christian; can any of us know, and how can we know, whether we are a Christian; can a person at one time be a Christian and then cease to be a Christian; can a person become a Christian after death or not etc. I assume that whether a person is a Christian or not is an objective fact known to God and I assume that that fact is distinct from whether we personally believe that we are Christians or not.
    I further assume that all those who are known to God to be Christians as an objective fact, whether they know it or not, whether they have assurance that it is so or not, whether they are astray or have gone astray in doctrine or disobedience or not, whatever their agreements or disagreements about the truths of Christianity are – I assume that all such enjoy a unity based on the fact, whichever earthly organisation they belong to (or none) that they are all in Christ.

    My first observation, given these assumptions, is this: (this observation is not passing judgment on anyone; it is not saying that anybody is a known-to-God-Christian; it is not saying that anybody is not a known-to-God-Christian; it is just stating what are the possibilities for the objective situation).
    Considering a class or sub-class of all those alive today who believe that Christianity is in some sense true and who consider themselves to be Christians: the class of all those in the world; the subclass of all those in the Anglican Communion; the subclass of all those in the Church of England. There are three possibilities for the class and for each sub-class. Either all in the class or subclass are known-to-God- Christians; or none in the class or subclass are known-to-God-Christians; or some in the class or sub-class are known-to-God-Christians and some in the class or subclass are known-to-God-not-to-be-Christians.

    My second observation is that in the various debates and discussions and meetings that take place at all ‘levels’ in the visible church, there may generally be an implicit charitable assumption that all involved are known-to-God-Christians. That sublime unity enjoyed by all known-to-God-Christians is assumed, and as a result the deep differences among us about what are the essential and vital truths of Christianity are viewed against the overarching embrace of that sublime unity. This may be resulting in the emphasis on maintaining as far as possible a manifestation on earth of that assumed unity in heaven, and a tendency to de-emphasise the deep differences about truth as far as possible.

    But only God knows whether that charitable assumption is true or not.

    My third observation is that unity and truth are of course not vital questions of importance just for the visible church: they are of vital importance also for the world, for those who don’t believe that Christianity is in some sense true and who don’t regard themselves as Christians. ‘Of vital importance?’ Well, I have made another assumption there. On one vital question there is one of these deep disagreements about what the truths of Christianity are. The question is whether the message that the Church is commanded to proclaim includes not only the wonderful news of the invitation to be saved but also the terrible warning that we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards and that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil, and therefore the paramount need of us all is to submit to Christ in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear. Repeating myself yet again, I think (without being able to prove it) that the warning part of that message is believed ex animo by only a minority of ordained persons in the Church of England and as a result that warning is not generally proclaimed in the preaching and teaching of the Church of England. Of course, it is not a matter of vital importance, to those who don’t believe that the warning is true, that it should be proclaimed.

    If I am right about the majority view this is very serious for two reasons. Firstly, I think it is clear that the Apostle Paul included that warning in his preaching and teaching. This is why he said in his farewell to the Ephesian elders, perhaps having in mind God’s ‘Watchman’ charge to Ezekiel,

    ‘26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God’.

    Secondly, many of us will have people whom we dearly love and long to be converted. As Warfield wrote, ‘‘….it is not the Law but the Gospel, not the revelation of wrath but that of love, which saves the world. Wrath may prepare for love; but wrath never did and never will save a soul’ (Warfield on Elijah’s experience in the cave). But ‘wrath may prepare for love’. And we are desperate to see that wrath as well as that love generally proclaimed. After all in his prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed that it would be through the Apostles’ message that people would believe and be one. That message included the proclamation of wrath.

    I would be humbled and glad to be proved wrong. For all I know, perhaps the two Archbishops and all the Bishops regularly preach on the wrath and condemnation of God and the wonderful invitation to flee to Christ to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation. But for those of us who believe that warning and the need for it to be generally proclaimed in the Church, it is necessary to know whether I am right or wrong. Hence I am arguing that the priority at Lambeth 2020 for the Anglican Communion and in the Church of England specifically, is to openly debate what the essential and vital truths of Christianity are, starting with the doctrine of Original Sin and moving on to the other doctrines of Salvation. By openly debate I mean with Archbishops and Bishops and all others who are interested openly and frankly, courteously and humbly, saying what they believe ex animo, debating, openly disagreeing with each other, openly agreeing with each other, openly challenging each other. The only satisfactory way of doing this is on the internet. Let’s remember that in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we have openly recorded for all to read the occasion when one Apostle who had met the risen and ascended Christ on the Damascus Road openly rebuked another Apostle on whom Jesus said he would build his Church. The time for debate behind closed doors and pussyfooting about is surely past. We can be courteous and humble without pussyfooting about.

    The purpose is not to decide who are the known-to-God-Christians and who are not. It is just to be honest with one another and a necessary pre-requisite to unity. In a word I am suggesting that truth is a necessary foundation to unity.

    It may be replied: ‘All ordained persons have made the Declaration of Assent and so have said

    “I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon”.
    What’s the problem?’
    I need another post for my final observations to answer that.

    Phil Almond

  4. In a previous post I put forward the view that the message of salvation which the Church is commanded to proclaim has two essential components; a terrible warning based on the truth that we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards because of Adam’s sin and because of our own sins and that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil; and a wonderful sincere and genuine invitation, command and exhortation to all to trust in Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection and to submit to him in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear and thus be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and be brought into a new living relationship with God in the Holy Spirit and ultimately be made pure in mind, resurrected body and spirit.
    I questioned whether the majority of ordained in the Church of England believe that the reason for the warning (wrath and condemnation and an evil nature) is true and whether the majority include that warning at appropriate points in the message they proclaim, and suggested that an open debate and disagreement is needed to see what we all really do believe, because that warning is really needed and because what we all really believe has a bearing on how far and whether we can ‘walk together’ in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion.
    It might be replied that all ordained have made the Declaration of Assent and so are in agreement in what they believe to be the truth, so why is a debate needed?
    This post explores that reply, reflecting on what the Declaration (Canon C15) says and means and what Canon A5 (Of the doctrine of the Church of England) says and means.
    As set out in Canon C15 of the Church of England, the Preface to the Declaration and the Declaration itself are as follows:
    The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making him known to those in your care?”
    I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon”.
    Canon A5:
    “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal”.
    What does Canon C15 (Preface and Declaration) mean and what does Canon A5 (Of the doctrine of the Church of England) mean?
    Option 1:
    Taking the Preface and Declaration together, does the Declaration commit the person making it to belief in the ‘Christian truth’ (which must, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, surely be unchanging) in the Articles, Prayer Book and Ordinal (the ‘historic formularies’) and to a determination to be loyal to that truth and to proclaim it?
    Option 2:

    Or is the Declaration so loosely worded that the Person making it can make it in good conscience without believing that everything in the ‘historic formularies’ is true – true yesterday, today and forever?

    On the question of Canon A5:
    Especially, what does the last sentence mean?

    “In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal”.

    The General Synod Report from the House of Bishops, GS 2055, ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’ contains two paragraphs with implications wider and deeper than the main subject of the Report.

    ‘48. Canon A 5 states that “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.” These are singled out as particular sources of doctrine, not exclusive ones.’

    ‘49. Canon A 5 thus preserves a degree of latitude in how clergy interpret the doctrines of the Church of England. But it is a latitude with boundaries. Where the Canons set out the content of particular doctrines, those canonical provisions define the boundaries in respect of the matters they address.’

    The authors of GS2055 have understood ‘particular sources’ in paragraph 48 to mean ‘not exclusive’ sources. This is questionable. The more obvious meaning of ‘particular’ in this context is something like ‘specifically’. In the Bishops’ thinking the ‘degree of latitude’ claimed by paragraph 49 clearly depends on setting the Articles, Prayer Book and Ordinal alongside other sources of doctrine, opening the door to interpretations of doctrine which would be ruled out if the Articles, Prayer Book and Ordinal were the only sources.

    Also Canon A5 should be read alongside Canon C15 – Of the Declaration of Assent. In the Preface to the Declaration it is stated that the Church of England has been led by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Christian truth in the Articles, Prayer Book and Ordinal (No mention of ‘particular’ there!).

    The General Synod declined to ‘take note’ of GS2055. Nevertheless paragraphs 48 and 49 contain a point which is easily overlooked – and I venture to suggest, with all due respect, that the potential significance of those paragraphs has (formally at any rate) been overlooked, to judge by the apparent absence of any minority report dissenting from GS 2055.

    On the ‘Thinking Anglicans’ website there is a post by Peter Owen on Friday, 9 September 2005 at 2:04pm:

    “Where is the Church’s doctrine to be found? As far as the Church of England is concerned, the answer is at first glance simple. Canon A5 states that:
    ‘The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.
    In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal’.
    Furthermore the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 notes that ‘references in the Measure to the doctrine of the Church of England shall be construed in accordance with the statement concerning that doctrine contained in the Canons of the Church of England.’
    But it’s not as simple as that, and there is a good section on “Doctrine in the Church of England in an Historical Perspective” in GS 1554. This document contains the proposals for updating the procedures for clergy discipline in matters of doctrine, ritual and ceremonial that were defeated at General Synod in July 2004. I think that one of the reasons for this defeat was the difficulty of saying just what the CofE’s doctrine is”.

    GS 1554 is indeed significant, as the following quotes illustrate:

    “When we consider what is involved in making an assent of faith obvious
    questions arise. What is entailed in assent to such a declaration? What does it
    mean to declare one’s belief in a body of doctrine which is to be found in such a
    various collection of writings as the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments?
    To say that the doctrine of the Church is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, or that
    it is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles or in the Book of Common Prayer, is
    not to say that everything contained in those documents necessarily constitutes the
    doctrine which is in question. Who then discriminates between those parts which
    count and those which do not? Who is to determine the sense in which assent is to
    be given?”

    “Then there is the issue of the development of doctrine to consider. A good
    definition of the development of doctrine is to be found in the 1981 report of the
    Church of England Doctrine Commission, Believing in the Church. “Doctrinal
    development may be described as the community working out a fuller
    understanding of its inheritance of faith and submitting this to the test of time,
    that is, of the life and thought of the Christian people in future generations.”
    Some doctrines have at one time been generally understood in a literal sense and
    at other times more figuratively. A doctrine which has appeared central or
    fundamental to one generation has appeared less so to another. The issue of
    development takes a particular form in a body like the Church of England which
    accords special authority to documents which were formed in the controversial
    circumstances of a particular era. How, in the light of subsequent developments
    and very different circumstances, such as the major developments in ecumenical
    theology, and the scientific understanding of the universe and human nature, is the
    Church to arrive at and recognise an authoritative reading of those earlier
    authoritative documents? The questioning of both the imagery and the justice of eternal punishment in almost all Christian traditions, a greater willingness to
    accept God’s participation in suffering which an earlier age would have
    condemned as patripassianism, and the impact on doctrine of the demise of
    Platonism and idealism, might all be cited as instances of significant doctrinal
    evolution. Yet doctrinal development can never be a simple endorsement of
    change. As Newman epigramatically put it, doctrine changes “in order to remain
    the same.”

    “We must recognise that it is never enough simply to appeal to documents, whether
    they be primary documents such as the scriptures or secondary ones such as the
    Book of Common Prayer and the Articles. The question will always arise as to
    who has authority to interpret these documents.

    It should indeed be noted that authority is properly a quality of persons, not of
    documents. Documents have authority only in a secondary sense, derived from
    the authority of those persons who have written or approved them. Thus the issue
    of the authority of the Church is inescapable. This is recognised in Article XX
    (“Of the Authority of the Church”):”

    “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in
    Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain
    anything that is contradictory to God’s Word written, neither may it so
    expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.
    Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ,
    yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the
    same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of

    “Canon A2 states that “The Thirty-nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God
    and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church
    of England.” The Clerical Subscription Act of 1865 amended Canon XXXVI of
    1604 so that instead of an obligation to “acknowledge all and every one of the
    Articles to be agreeable to the Word of God” only a general assent was

    “This formulation (the present Canon C15) is significantly looser than Canon XXXVI of 1603.”

    The above extracts from GS 1554 exhibit two things: a trajectory from the Reformation onwards to water down the assent to the Articles; and the remarkable view about ‘documents’: that ‘authority is properly a quality of persons, not of documents. Documents have authority only in a secondary sense, derived from the authority of those persons who have written or approved them. Thus the issue of the authority of the Church is inescapable’. But the immediately following paragraph quoting Article 20 contradicts that, placing ‘God’s Word written’ (a document!) above the pronouncements of the Church.

    Paragraphs 48 and 49 of GS 2055 and the above quotes from GS1554, with their ambivalence concerning where ‘authority’ resides, together with anecdotal evidence from discussion websites, certainly indicate that it cannot be assumed that all who have made the Declaration of Assent mean the same thing in what doctrines they believe. I suggest this is serious, especially when it affects the Articles concerning salvation, including Article 9 (Of Original or Birth-sin).

    Is there a willingness to have the kind of open, honest, painful debate and disagreement that I propose, addressing disagreements which are wider and more vital and fundamental than even the Sexuality disagreement, important though that is? I pray and hope that there is.

    Phil Almond


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