What is the Anglican Communion?
A most workable definition is provided by the premier legal text, Halsbury, which is quoting Lambeth's own definition "a fellowship of Churches historically associated with the British Isles . It embraces all those Churches which are in conformity with the faith and doctrine of the Church of England.'
Note the word fellowship. There is no over arching organisational structure as might be found in the Church of Rome.
The Anglican Communion came into being, as a result of Christian ministry or mission (in an Anglican form), either preceding or following English military or mercantile colonial expansion in the period beginning the early 17th century and ending in the early 20th century.
For some 350 years up to the 1960s, Anglican identity was found in a common liturgy " the Book of Common Prayer; a common statement of belief " the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion; and a common Ordinal. Anglican Cohesion was created by full communion between national churches that is, mutual recognition of orders and the ability of a member of one national church being able to participate in the Lord's Supper in another national church. The once a decade conference of bishops called and chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference (1st in 1867), was a visible expression of that cohesion and fellowship.
There was little need for anything else.
Anglican Identity and Anglican cohesion came under stress, in the first instance, with the issue of women's ordination. [see The Windsor Report paragraphs 12-21 and the commentary in The Faith Once for all Delivered pp13-15]
However, immense strain is now being put on those bonds of fellowship.
The cause of this new strain is summarised in paragraph 27 of The Windsor Report and are the events which triggered the Windsor process. These events were: and I quote,
1. the authorisation of a public Rite of Blessing for same sex unions by the synod of the Diocese of New Westminster (Canada);
2. the election and consecration of "a divorced man openly acknowledged to be living in a sexually active and committed same sex relationship' as Bishop of New Hampshire (USA);
3. the 2003 General Convention which consented to the New Hampshire election also approved experiments of public Rites of Blessing for same sex unions;
4. and the 2004 Canadian General Synod affirming by resolution "the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships'.
I quote again from Windsor paragraph 28 "The over whelming response from other Christians both inside and outside the Anglican family has been to regard these developments as departures from genuine, apostolic Christian faith.'
Historians in the synod will know the phrase "the sick man of Europe', attributed to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia when referring to the Ottoman Empire because it was falling increasingly under the financial control of the European powers and had lost territory in a series of disastrous wars.
It is not too much to say that the sick man of the Anglican Communion is the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, (with the Diocese of New Westminster Canada) as the leadership in those places have fallen captive to liberal theology and membership is in rapid retreat.
The Anglican identity and cohesion question was addressed in the 1997 Virginia Report by the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission. The central thrust of that report defined Anglican identity as being caught up in the four so called instruments of unity namely
"¢ the Archbishop of Canterbury
"¢ the Lambeth Conference (1867)
"¢ the Anglican Consultative Council (1968)
"¢ the Primates' Meeting (1978)
Anglican identity now is defined by membership of these bodies and communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, whatever that may mean! If you have any doubts about this read the Virginia & Windsor Reports but also The faith once for all delivered!!
Anglican cohesion means pursuing controversial questions through the process of meetings of the instruments of unity for their consent or goodwill. Even today's controversial questions given the right process through the Instruments of Unity might be approved. That is a worry. Women's ordination is an example of how this works (see above).
Given the impetus of Virginia, and the overwhelming majority support for the Lambeth resolution 1.10 on Human Sexuality, the Primates have begun to flex their muscles. And it would seem that the Archbishop of Canterbury is working with them. An extraordinary meeting of the primates (October 2003) led to the commissioning of the Windsor Report, being a response to the presenting issues mentioned earlier in this speech.
Windsor calls on the American Church and the Diocese of New Westminster to seek reconciliation and a healing of division. In other words repent. In the words of Windsor, if they chose not to walk together then we would have to begin to learn to walk apart. (paragraph 157)
A subset of the primates, being the Primates of the Global South have met on a number of occasions, the last, a month ago. These primates represent Anglican churches in the non western world. They insist on the historic faith once for all delivered (Jude:1:3) and on fundamental structural reform to the Communion.
The insistent call by the Global South Primates for adherence to the fundamentals of the gospel and for structural change to the Communion is reminiscent of the call made in the wind of change speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa on 3 February 1960 in Cape Town.
Macmillan had spent a month in Africa visiting a number of British colonies (as they were at the time). The speech signalled clearly that the British government intended to grant independence to many of these territories which in fact followed in the next few years.
“The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national conscience is a political fact.”
As you may guess the speech had a stony reception in the Parliament, especially as the Prime Minister included South Africa in his comments and indicated a shift in British policy regarding apartheid. He said to the South African Parliament:
As a fellow member of the Commonwealth, it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement. But I hope you wont mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do his without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.
The parallel is obvious but I will state it none the less. Christians want to support and encourage other Christians in their life and witness but to the American and Canadian Anglican church, the Global South Primates have said, to quote Macmillan again,
“frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to (support you). without being false to our own deep convictions”.
These deep convictions are what the Bible teaches about human sexuality. Lambeth 1998 summarised the teaching in resolution 1.10 .
As recently as (19th August 2006, Archbishop Rowan Williams in reply to a question from a journalist that it "was time for the church to accept gay relationships in an inclusive church' said:
I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself, welcome is. We welcome people into the church, we say you can come in and that decision will change you. We don't say come in and we ask no questions. I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the minds of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters. Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ. That applies to sexual ethics. That is why fidelity is important in marriage. You reflect the loyalty of God in Christ.
The wind of change which freed many from a colonial yoke created independent nations and independent national churches in Africa and Asia. Those churches now call on the churches of the old world to stand firm.
Whatever our own view, about the nature, character and structure of the Anglican Communion, the struggle with liberal theology is a fight against the principalities and powers.
As the Apostle Paul says:
"For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.' Eph 6:12 (RSV)