The good ship Anglican, as Archbishop Robin Eames acknowledges in his preface to the Windsor Report, appears to many observers “to be set on a voyage of self-destruction.” Indeed, Eames admits that “if realistic and visionary ways cannot be agreed to meet the levels of disagreement at present or to reach consensus on structures for encouraging greater understanding and communion in the future it is doubtful if the Anglican Communion can continue in its present form.”
The aim of the Lambeth Commission on Communion chaired by Eames was to make proposals that might keep the ship afloat. It released its report at St. Paul’s Cathedral on October 18, 2004, in a tumult of media speculation, Internet acrimony, and lawsuits over church property in American courts. The ninety-three-page report comes in four main parts. The purpose of the first two is to consider the nature of the Communion and of the threats it faces; the third and fourth sections address the future function of the Communion’s four “instruments of unity” and offer specific proposals for negotiating the dangerous straits in which Anglicans now find themselves.
The Windsor Report succeeds at making no one entirely happy yet leaving everyone with something worth pondering. While it has been rejected as wrongheaded by, for example, retired American bishop John Spong on the one hand and Nigerian primate Peter Akinola on the other, it has been welcomed—albeit cautiously—by many on both sides of the dispute about homosexuality that has engulfed the Communion. Much now depends on the way it is received and deployed by those with decision-making power, and especially by the primates who meet in February to respond to it.
A careful reading of the report makes plain that the Spongs have better reason to be displeased than the Akinolas. The Commission did not address the issue of homosexuality but instead examined the Anglican understanding of communion and its attendant view of authority and responsibility. In attempting to articulate that understanding, the report applies Anglicanism’s understanding of itself as an ecclesial community at once catholic and protestant. And both strands of this analysis—the appeals to tradition and to Scripture—are deftly woven together into a rational repudiation of the actions of the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) and of the Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia that have occasioned the crisis. It is made entirely clear that these actions—the unilateral consecration of an openly gay bishop and the official blessing of same-sex relations in the face of a clear No from the rest of the Communion—are unjustified and have stretched to the breaking point “the bonds of affection” without which the Anglican polity must disintegrate.
We need not hold it against the Commission that rational arguments, with or without the support of Scripture and tradition, may gain little traction in the places mentioned. We may, however, question the adequacy of the Windsor Report in at least two ways. Before we do that, we must take note of its proposals and recommendations.
Briefly put, the proposals are these: (1) that there be a moratorium on the appointment of gay bishops and on the approval of same-sex blessings; (2) that the bishop of New Westminster, and those American bishops who participated in the consecration of Gene Robinson, be invited to withdraw from representative roles in the Communion until they have issued an apology for acting contrary to the principles of communion (it is not made clear what is to be done about Robinson, or whether the moratorium should extend to the ordination of homosexuals to lower orders—matters that lie, apparently, within the purview of autonomous provinces); (3) that meaningful alternative episcopal oversight be offered to dissenters within provinces or dioceses that have deviated from tradition, and that their property not be taken from them; (4) that bishops who have intervened without approval in other provinces or dioceses desist from doing so and express regret for the negative consequences of their actions.
The long-term recommendations are to strengthen the four existing instruments of Anglican unity and to add to them a fifth. The first instrument of unity is the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Report recommends that this office be “enabled to play a critical role at the heart of the Communion” and be given a new responsibility to “articulate the mind of the Communion especially in areas of controversy,” to discipline fellow bishops by withholding invitations to councils, and to address disputes in or between other provinces, being aided in such tasks by a new Council of Advice. The second instrument of unity, the decadal Lambeth Conference, would be recognized as establishing through its key resolutions a hierarchy of authoritative teachings. Third is the Primates’ Meeting, which would occur more frequently and take on greater executive responsibility as a standing committee of Lambeth. Fourth is the Anglican Consultative Council, with the Archbishop of Canterbury at its head. The report recommends as a fifth instrument of unity the recognition of common principles of canon law (“an unwritten ius commune”)—and it recommends that this instrument be formalized in two ways: by adding to the canon law of each province a short section, drafted locally, dealing with external relations; and by adoption “of a common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion.”
We need not ask here whether these proposals and recommendations are practical, or even whether the package as a whole will serve the Communion well as it seeks the delicate balance between the provincial autonomy on which Anglicanism has always been premised and the heteronomy without which nothing “catholic” is possible. Such a balance is obviously elusive and difficult to sustain. The immediately pressing question is whether the Commission’s ad hoc proposals address the present emergency. Even among the Commission’s members there is little optimism that suitable expressions of regret will be forthcoming, or that the necessary turning (may we not say “repentance”?) will take place.
This leads to further questions. The report was a unanimous one, but are its proposals rooted in a common understanding of the situation? Is that even possible, given its deliberate avoidance of the sexuality issue? Commission member N. T. Wright—the noted New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham whose hand in the report is evident—afterwards likened the Commission’s situation to that of Paul in Second (not First) Corinthians. On Wright’s reading, it had no mandate to address the sexuality issue because that issue had already been addressed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference and by a recent Primates’ Meeting, and thus the report did not need to spell out yet again that what the North Americans have done is not compatible with Christian doctrine and practice, nor would there have been much point in doing so. It needed rather to address “the second-order issue of what happens when a church has resisted such authority structures as it has.” Is this really what Robin Eames meant when he wrote in the preface to the report that no judgment was demanded of the Commission on sexuality issues, but only a “consideration of ways in which communion and understanding could be enhanced where serious differences threatened the life of a diverse worldwide Church”? If there is a difference here, it makes a difference. Are we agreeing to come to agreement, or agreeing to disagree agreeably?
Many Anglicans suspect that the sharp divisions over homosexuality are tied to quite different gospels—or indeed different gods. But if any attempt to discuss the nature of communion without reference to the gospel must fail utterly, so also any attempt to discuss the recovery or “enhancement” of communion without reference to differences about the gospel cannot succeed. It may be asked, then, whether the Commission’s mandate was a sound one, or whether it should have been interpreted more broadly, so as to include some examination of the issues that lie at the intersection of the gospel, communion, and sexual intimacy. Does the sacramental nature of marriage in the Christian tradition not invite and even demand some coordination of these loci?
It is safe to say that there is little or no hope of preserving Anglicanism in its present form if the underlying issues are not convincingly addressed. Communion is not fundamentally a creature of ecclesial process but a gift of the Spirit, mediated through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the sacraments of the gospel. What has to be decided, then, is whether the question of homosexuality in the Church is really a gospel question or not. The process of deciding that may be the one process that really matters, and about it the report says nothing at all except that the churches must continue to read Scripture together. Whatever has already been said at Lambeth or elsewhere, it does not appear to have succeeded in persuading fully even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who continues privately (or so it appears) to hold views on human sexuality at odds with the Christian tradition. But there is also a second way in which we must question the adequacy of the Windsor Report, and it concerns the office, not the person, of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
For all its talk of Anglicanism’s preference for authority structures that, at the episcopal level, are more collegial than hierarchical, it is hard not to see in the Windsor Report a call for something that closely shadows the Roman church: a chief pastor and teacher, a Council of Advice if not a curia, synods with universal doctrinal authority, the integration of canon law, and so forth. Does it not begin to look as if Anglicanism is following, however hesitantly, the old trajectory of Western Christianity? The many Anglicans who are more protestant than catholic will find this worrying, particularly as they may have no better proposal to make. But a much more penetrating objection must come from the other side. It must surely be asked by what authority all this is to be done, and what ecumenical implications it will have.
This is not the place to examine the history of Anglicanism’s transition from a reform movement in sixteenth-century England to this would-be catholicism. The point can be made from within the Windsor Report itself. One of its more controversial recommendations is the cease-and-desist order to bishops who have offered pastoral oversight to churches beyond their own diocesan or even provincial boundaries. An order forbidding “territorial invasion” as something profoundly un-Anglican may be necessary to shore up a collapsing polity and to defend the “bonds of affection” principle that provides the basis on which the report repudiates the actions of North American synods. Yet it is not possible to restrict the bonds of affection denominationally without denying the gospel of Christ. If episcopal disunity and competition is wrong between Anglicans, it is wrong full stop. Hard questions must therefore be asked about the very basis of diocesan logic and territorial claims within Anglicanism, or at all events within Anglicanism outside Britain. What is Anglicanism here in Montreal, for example, if not a product, however ineffective, of territorial invasion? The same question can be asked in many other places, even where such invasions did not follow on the heels of a conquering army or navy.
To fortify and extend this logic for an Anglicanism that now finds itself in need of more effective instruments of “catholic” unity, without even pausing to ask such questions, is theologically and ecumenically irresponsible. Perhaps the crew of the good ship Anglican needs to put in at the nearest Roman harbor, pick up a copy of the papal encyclical on ecumenism (Ut Unum Sint), and prepare to talk honestly about the situation.
Douglas Farrow is associate professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and an Anglican theologian who is author or editor of several books, including Ascension and Ecclesia, Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society, and Divorcing Marriage.