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Why Should Anglicans Want to Be a Communion?

By George Sumner

Why should Anglicans want to be a communion, and what’s more, why should they be willing to sacrifice to achieve it? (I am indebted to my friend Ephraim Radner for this framing of the question.)

When one thinks about this question, it leads naturally to a second: What does it mean to be Anglicans such that we should want it? For example, the term “pentecostal” is a useful descriptor of various Christian groups, but does not necessarily require the Christians it describes to be one, in any sense beyond charitable attitudes. To be sure, we as Anglicans are commanded to be one by Jesus himself (John 17), but this commanded unity extends equally to Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, and is not likely to happen this side of the eschaton. Why then is this to be required among Anglicans in particular?

My answer comes down to this: Every Sunday Anglicans stand and confess that they believe in “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Living out what they confess is the general reason to be a communion, but it must be filled out with unique historical particularities of ours. The particularities present to us the definite content, the discernible form, of those creedal adjectives. It is to these particularities that we must now turn, for they represent a kind of providential gift, and as a result, an imperative.

That there is an Anglican Communion is a surprise, a work of the Spirit from certain often unlikely circumstances. With the British empire, and sometimes against them, went missionaries from the Societies of the 19th century. The mass movements among the Indian castes, for example, could not have been predicted, and in many ways ran against the initial plans and expectations of the missionaries. Each national Church has its story, none as the mother Church could have written. The missionaries withdrew as the age of empire gave way to an era of independence, and many predicted the collapse of Christian witness, but quite the opposite took place. A worldwide network of Churches in the tradition of the Prayer Book happened. Its existence gives content to our creedal confession, and as such lays on us an obligation.

But, of course, Anglicanism is a millennium or more older than these events. The see of Canterbury was not new in the modern era, but it evolved into the focus of unity for the emerging Communion. Its history had already included the mandate from Rome, the missionary vision of Augustine, the martyr’s cost of Becket, and the Reformation legacy of Cranmer. A patriarchate cannot be manufactured, and no other see could fill this role for the Communion. Not surprisingly only the Archbishop of Canterbury plays a role in all four Instruments of Communion. Furthermore, the cultural significance of our ancestors in the faith ought not to be underestimated. A (new) Communion with an ancient see has been providentially laid at our historic doorstep.

In recent years, there has been an extended effort to reflect on what our mutual relation in communion means. The Lambeth Quadrilateral noted a shared framework of authority, the last Anglican Congress in Toronto offered a practice of “mutual responsibility and interdependence,” the Virginia Report contained the beginnings of a common ecclesiology, and the Anglican Covenant offered an example of embodying shared accountability. These neither command assent, nor are well enough known. Still there is a fledgling tradition of creative thinking about what being a communion would mean.

But these efforts are all controverted. Indeed, as the late Bishop Stephen Sykes liked to point out, conflict is baked into the pie from the beginning. Anglican authority is diffuse at best. Testing, dissenting, feeling our bonds to be provisional, these seem as constitutive of Anglicanism as the Prayer Book itself. This too must be acknowledged as we seek to claim for our own the Anglican Communion we have been given.

My teacher, the late George Lindbeck, once said that full-bore evangelicals and progressives both understand the “Body of Christ” to be found elsewhere than the Church. In this their arguments are clear and, to many in each case, compelling. For evangelicals, it is the aggregate of all the individuals who accept Jesus’ Lordship. For progressives, it is all the places and peoples where we come to find social justice. But in neither case does ecclesiology make a case for, well, the Church. The same dynamic may be found in Anglicanism. It is in the center that the real flesh-and-blood Church becomes an urgent issue.

With respect to us Anglicans, the case requires a providential understanding of the fact of a communion of churches, an inherited apostolic “sacrament” in the see of Canterbury, a rough-and-ready beginning for living out Communion in recent reflection, and finally, the conflict, imperfection, and diversity implied by the first three, which itself comprises a feature of our tradition  There is an important ecclesial vocation in struggling to live into the Communion as it has been given to us, thereby enacting our creedal confession. We do well to see how an actual form of global catholicity has been granted to us, and how we must tend and transmit something so fragile and valuable to a new generation. Likewise, we are stewards to carry something new and old to the next generation, even against the forbidding and hostile winds of our time.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is the 7th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.


  1. “A patriarchate cannot be manufactured, and no other see could fill this role for the Communion.”

    I wonder if the second part of this statement is really as self-evident as it is made to sound? Why could no other see fill this role? Why could the Primates not decide to rotate the role?

    At the reformation the See laid claim to a catholicity tied to the monarchy. There was no Communion.

    Today the obviousness of the divine role of the monarch is less clear, and will be even less so in the future. The Church of England alone in the provinces is a church by law established. This can hardly be viewed as a self-evidently good thing, and it is certainly not a representative thing.

    So I wonder what the rationale really is. Antiquity? The sees of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch were once older and more influential than Rome, and are no longer. I wonder if there is an irony in New World episcopalians wanting to see in England some linchpin to antiquity and then to call it catholicity?

  2. I see now the letter going out from a group of Bishops articulating their hopes for the Lambeth Conference. They speak of the See of Canterbury as “a symbol of our apostolic roots and common life,” and specifically set this view in opposition to that of Gafcon (which they otherwise commend in many ways).

    For my own part I do not think the issue is best seen through the lens “Gafcon v Others (be they liberal or conservative).”

    Let’s accept for the sake of argument that it is indeed possible for those in the Communion to view the See of Canterbury as “a symbol of our apostolic roots and common life.” I do not think, however, that this is the real issue. At issue is whether the See of Canterbury is in fact this. That is, as presently functioning within the context of the Province of Canterbury, does the incumbent have the scope and the stated remit to be the “symbol of apostolic roots and common life” vis-a-vis the Anglican Communion as a whole? Is this more of a wish from those outside the CofE? Is it congruent with realities on the ground in the CofE — wherein he holds the post and occupies it based upon procedures operative only in that province.

    It is probably easier to worry about Gafcon’s occasional statements on this matter than to clearly articulate why the See is genuinely “the symbol of our apostolic roots and common life” and whether this is how the CofE itself views the role.

  3. I’m not that convinced that the Church is “found” elsewhere than in the visible Church, though certainly Christians are found elsewhere. And certainly the Kingdom of God is far bigger than the Church (with the Church only as its agent). The primary motivation behind Joseph Smith’s founding of the Latter-Day Saints Movement was that, upon inspection of the various denominations in his neighborhood, he couldn’t find one that reasonably could claim to be the Church. It’s hard to look for something that is not visible. That’s why the visible Church matters.

    Bishop Sumner observes, “To be sure, we as Anglicans are commanded to be one by Jesus himself (John 17), but this commanded unity extends equally to Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, and is not likely to happen this side of the eschaton.”

    I actually think it is here that the answer to the question of why the Anglican Communion derives its answer. The command in John 17 is NOT realized at present, but that makes it no less an obligation on us Christians to work towards. The Anglican Communion, I believe, ought to be preserved because it remains the closest any Communion has come to embodying the ideals of the Church. We’re far from perfect, but it is precisely because we lack the monarchism of the Roman tradition or possess a greater treasure of liturgy and sacraments than the Presbyterians that must work to preserve this Communion. We ought to be one with Rome and other communions, but the answer to these divisions cannot intelligibly be to dissolve the Communion as it exists thus far. All we can do is continue to work ecumenical relations and pray for the day when Rome reforms the papacy and the Presbyterians recognize the wealth of the catholic tradition. Of course, we have our own obstacles to fuller Communion, areas that need reformation. I hope these other traditions are praying for those obstacles to be overcome, and I hope the Holy Spirit will bring the to our attention so that we can continue to reform into the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ.

    • The depiction of Rome here strikes me as exaggerated and inaccurate, esp since Vatican II. In almost every sense, the Pope is far more hedged about and restricted to the defined role given to him, than the ABC. “Dissolving the Communion” is not on the table for the 65% of provinces in Communion with ACNA. What they see is a dysfunctional Communion and want to see it functional. The RCs I meet in France are kind but bemused by Anglicanism and see it as a kind of “canary in the coal mine” of the liberal West. “Let Mikey eat is” — as the old ad goes.

  4. I cannot agree that Anglicanism dates back to the time of St Augustine. Neither the word, Anglican, nor the concept existed until the time of the Reformation.

    • Further, the See of Canterbury at the time was obviously related to no “Anglican Communion.” The narrative above would make it sound like the missionary success was a function of the presence of this See and its goals. Obviously New World Americans brought prayerbooks with them and had parishes, but it is hard to see that as a deliberate extension of anglicanism in some directed sense. What of places like the Philippines, Korea, Japan, francophone Africa, Malaysia? It seems to be back-dating a lot of things to decide latterly that the See of Canterbury has some special role globally. One can say this congenially and not be a member of Gafcon to do so. It would be good to see a more extended justification for the catholicity being held up here, and why a form of conciliarism isn’t more true to the reality of global provinces of various lineage. I have already pointed to the disconnect between the perceptions inside the CofE as to the role of the ABC and what some internationally have bestowed.

  5. It does seem to me that the process of dividing and splitting is inherent to the nature of Anglicanism. It has happened ever since the Reformation. First there were the Baptists, the Puritans and the Presbyterians. Then in the 18th century the Methodists and in the 19th century the Oxford Movement. The 20th century brought numerous varieties of Continuing Anglicans. On a world perspective, the number of factions has got so great that nobody can keep track of them.


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