Who or what defines the Anglican Communion?
In an interview with the editor of the Church Of Ireland Gazette (Canon Ian Ellis), the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, has given his opinion on what defines a church as part of the Anglican Communion, and therefore, by implication, what is critical for Anglican identity.
In the interview he remarked that on his tour around the provinces of the Anglican Communion he has discovered that virtually everywhere the definition of being part of the Anglican Communion has been ‘being in communion with Canterbury’. He was, apparently, surprised to hear this, but it is equally clear he was glad to hear it. This is obvious when, a little further into the interview he insists that the Anglican Church of North of America (ACNA), is not a part of the Anglican Communion but a separate church. ACNA could be, and perhaps already is, an ecumenical partner with the Anglican Communion but it cannot be considered a member of the Anglican Communion because (and this last bit is the implication of what he said rather than his own words) it is not in communion with Canterbury, it has not been recognised by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.
This is a gigantic slap in the face to the Primates who represent the vast bulk of practicing Anglicans around the world and who, meeting in London in April 2009, recognised the Anglican Church in North America ‘as genuinely Anglican’ and called on all Anglican Provinces to ‘affirm full communion with the ACNA’. The churches which make up this new province are very largely refugees from the Episcopal Church (TEC) and its liberal and extraordinarily litigious Presiding Bishop (Ms Katherine Jefferts Schori). Many have suffered the loss of their property and the vilification and deposition of their leaders but were prepared to endure this rather than surrender to the revisionist theology and practice of TEC.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s insistence on communion with his office as a—if not the—defining characteristic of Anglicanism ought to come as no surprise. It is an institutional and process-driven answer to the question of Anglican identity from one who has shown himself to be more comfortable thinking in those categories than in theological ones. It makes the matter a simple one, one which can avoid divisive questions about whether a particular group has remained faithful to the confessional formularies (the 39 Articles and the books of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal) or obedient to the Scriptures in matters of theology and Christian discipleship. Of course, it is not hard to see why avoiding those questions is desirable, especially to someone committed to maintaining some semblance of unity in a global institution which has been tearing itself apart for the past thirty years or more. Archbishop Welby has an impressive record in dispute resolution and he knows that institutional inclusiveness is a more achievable goal than theological agreement and a common commitment to biblical patterns of discipleship.
We must deny categorically and in the strongest possible terms that communion with the see of Canterbury is the determining factor when it comes to Anglican identity. It is not and never can be. A church, diocese or national body does not have to be in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury in order to be a legitimate member of the Anglican Communion, especially if a majority of other Anglicans around the world recognise it as part of our fellowship. Anglican identity is fundamentally a matter of certain theological commitments, anchored ultimately in the authority of Scripture as God’s word written (Article 20), together with an agreement to operate with a common pattern of church government (the threefold order of bishops, priests and deacons). The Anglican Church has always been confessional in nature, as witnessed by the history of subscription to the Articles, which began in the time of Cranmer and continues around the world today. Ordination for Sydney Anglicans, for instance, still includes wholehearted assent to the 39 Articles of Religion.
This does not mean that every genuinely Anglican province must express itself in both form and content in an identical way to every other province. There is room for cultural diversity and appropriate modification of the way we do things in order to communicate the gospel more effectively in our own particular context. The 39 Articles themselves envisage this: ‘It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly alike; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s word’ (Article 34). But it does mean that any genuine unity we have is a unity of confession and the practice of discipleship first and foremost, not an institutional unity. It cannot and must not be confused with appropriate respect given to an ancient office in the Church of England.
In 2009 the Primates who represent by far the majority of Anglicans worldwide accepted ACNA as genuinely Anglican. They did not all necessarily agree with everything ACNA was doing and there has been increasing occasion for comment in the years since. However, along with that other long-excluded but genuinely Anglican province, the Church of England in South Africa (or REACH South Africa, as it is now known), its acceptance is based most of all on a common confession and a common determination to live faithfully according to the Scriptures as disciples of Christ taking his message of life and hope to a lost world.