As the Anglican bishop Stephen Neill put it fifty years ago, “The first and burning question is naturally whether the Anglican communion in anything like its present form can survive at all.” At this summer's Lambeth Conference, the much anticipated gathering of the world's Anglican bishops, the questions were no different. Oliver O'Donovan, Anglicanism's foremost moral theologian, authored a book for the occasion titled Church in Crisis, and Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, described the church as in “grave peril.” They were not alone in their judgments, as one could gather simply by reading the newspaper headlines about the conference. Anglicanism, it would seem, is not well.
Events leading up to Lambeth appear to bear out this thesis. The 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, an actively gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire, along with the widespread American practice of same-sex blessings, set Anglicans in fierce conflict. Several parishes in the United States have broken away from the national church, finding haven with various African and South American Anglican churches that appeared (to some) all too eager to encroach on foreign territory. The Americans struck back with lawsuits, funding battalions of lawyers with the deep pockets of the Episcopal Church and deposing several bishops who collaborated with the departing parishes. The clunky, seldom-used ecclesial machinery of Anglicanism kicked in, admonishing the Americans to stop the same-sex blessings, hold off on the gay bishops, and knock off the lawsuits, but to small effect. An entire American diocese left the church this past spring, and three more have promised to do the same.
Meanwhile, the troubles spread rapidly across the global communion. The situation in Canada mirrored that in the United States, with multiple parishes leaving for foreign jurisdictions and a prominent bishop conducting same-sex blessings with impunity. As the situation dragged on, fingers began to point not just at America but also at England, with the archbishop of Canterbury's leadership seeming suspect to conservative Anglicans in the developing world.
For many in such places as Nigeria and Uganda, the Episcopal Church's tactics (and the perceived English approval thereof) appeared revealing not only of unfaithfulness but also of typical Anglo-American colonialism and implied superiority. Which is why many disaffected Anglicans, primarily but not entirely from African churches, decided to take matters into their own hands. Their movement, centered around the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON, for short) this summer in Jerusalem, appeared ready to create a new Anglican communion in place of the old.
Conservatives and liberals, Northerners and Southerners, Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics—things began to fall apart. Bishop Neill's fifty-year-old question had never seemed more pertinent. It was in this troubled context that Anglican bishops from around the world gathered in England this past July for the decennial Lambeth Conference. Their job was to put things back together, if possible. As if the task were not difficult enough, matters were complicated by the absence of bishops from five conservative Anglican provinces aligned with GAFCON, together representing a solid numerical majority of world Anglicanism.
All of this, in short, did not look good—which made the positive response by many conservatives to Lambeth surprising. Mark Lawrence, bishop of South Carolina, spoke of Rowan Williams' vision and leadership as encouraging, heartening, even brilliant, “anything but timid or insignificant.” Kendall Harmon, an influential blogger who serves as South Carolina's canon theologian, thought that Williams indeed had pointed the right way forward, even though he wondered how far the Lambeth participants shared Williams's outlook. But theologian Ephraim Radner thought that Williams and the broad majority of the Lambeth bishops spoke as one, and Bishop Lawrence, among many others, spoke warmly of sharing the archbishop's vision. Crucially, several Anglican leaders in the Global South appeared to feel the same, many of whom signed a statement in support of initiatives endorsed by Williams at the conference. Bishop Michael Smith of North Dakota agreed: “It's my sense that a renewed Anglicanism in communion with the See of Canterbury will now emerge for mission in the twenty-first century.”
What happened? Are there real grounds for hope? As Ephraim Radner noted, the conference produced nothing much new in terms of strategy. Instead, Radner argued, Lambeth represented a “closing of the circle”—a demonstration that the mind of the Anglican communion had not changed on matters of sexual ethics and church order and that Anglicans as a whole remain determined to seek a deeper unity in Christ, walking together under the authority of Scripture.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is this rediscovery of union in Christ that will emerge as the chief legacy of Lambeth 2008. Anglicans in the past have spoken much of autonomy and plurality, but at this Lambeth the words much more often heard had to do with communion and unity. This in fact was the theme of Rowan Williams' concluding Lambeth address: “Beyond peaceful diversity lies Christian unity,” he asserted—”the unity which is inseparable from truth,” and which is found only in Jesus Christ, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” To truly seek this unity, Williams argued, would make Anglicanism “more of a ‘catholic' church in the proper sense”—a “global Church” that understands its ministry, service, and sacraments as “united and interdependent throughout the world.” And this is what Williams saw as the fruit of Lambeth: “Our Communion longs to stay together,” he summed up, “but not only as an association of polite friends. It is seeking a deeper entry into the place where Christ stands, to find its unity there.”
In short, the movement of the Spirit at Lambeth may well have been a movement toward an Anglican Church united in one faith and one witness to Christ. There were no guarantees that such a thing would happen; the calls for separation and autonomy in recent years have been strong. But through time spent in worship, Bible study, fellowship, discussion, and prayer, Rowan Williams and the bishops at Lambeth appear to have renewed their vision and strengthened their resolve not only to hold Anglicanism together in some minimal fashion but even to draw together more deeply than ever before in following Christ.
Of course, many obstacles lie ahead, and the dire newspaper headlines of recent years will not soon go away. The vision of Lambeth 2008 needs now to be followed up with action, much of which will likely prove difficult. The Lambeth bishops renewed the call for moratoria on the consecration of actively gay bishops, on same-sex blessings, and on border crossings such as those of the GAFCON churches. Such calls have gone unheeded before. What is new, however, is the declared resolve of Williams and the Lambeth bishops to see it through, and the recognition that such calls will be effective only if pursued with vigor by the Anglican communion as a whole.
To this end, the bishops proposed the creation of two international Anglican bodies (decried by the British press as an “Anglican Inquisition”)—a Faith and Order Commission charged with the work of discerning disputed issues, and a Pastoral Forum to engage with controversies as they arise and to oversee the pastoral application of communion-wide decisions. Details remain to be worked out, and the issues of representation and funding remain unaddressed. No doubt, there will be no shortage of disagreement as this process moves forward, and existing Anglican bodies will have to work in tandem as well. But if there is truly to be such a thing as an Anglican Church, then effective means for common discernment and movement must be created. Precisely this, it appears, is the hope and resolve of Williams and the Lambeth bishops.
More deeply, of course, the success of such arrangements depends on the depth of Anglican resolve to truly become one church, united in Christ. The issue has been expressed in terms of covenantal promise. The proposal of a communion-wide Anglican covenant was much discussed at Lambeth, and it found the support of Williams and the broad majority of bishops. Most Anglicans now agree that a covenant in some form is necessary, but questions remain about its form and content: What will it say, and what sort of common life will it envision?
The only answer consistent with the stated desire of Williams and the Lambeth bishops—to become, in truth, an Anglican Church—is that the covenant will embody a promise, made before God, to walk together under the authority of Scripture, holding in common the historic creedal faith, and waiting on each other for the beckoning of their Lord. It is not likely, of course, that all will agree to make such a promise. But after Lambeth, it seems not just possible but even probable that most Anglicans will.
It is often argued today that Anglicanism is more or less finished as a coherent expression of catholic Christianity. The problem, as many see it, is that of apparently unlimited doctrinal and moral plurality. How can it be, the question is raised, that John Shelby Spong, Gene Robinson, and Peter Akinola are all Anglican bishops? As Rowan Williams has put it, the crisis is such that Anglicans are no longer sure that they can recognize one other's ministries or even that they are speaking the same language of faith. The question is not new, of course—it is no different than that asked by Bishop Neill fifty years ago, except that now the matter has come to a point. What is Anglicanism, and who is to say?
The question stretches back not simply a half century, but in fact closer to a half millennium, all throughout Anglicanism's varied history and straight down to its roots. Anglicans have never had a central reforming figure such as Luther or Calvin; instead, as Aidan Nichols has pointed out, the English Reformation was an uneasy blend of more-or-less compatible elements. Anglican authority has often rested in crown and Parliament rather than Scripture and church. And throughout Anglican history, various parties have vied for influence, all of whom cherished their own vision of Anglicanism. Many left along the way for purer blends—Wesley's evangelicals to Methodism, Newman's followers to Rome, Puritans to presbyterian Calvinism, and so on. All who stayed had to make their peace with a church that, in many ways, never quite agreed on what it was.
Seen in this light, it must be allowed that Anglicanism's critics have never quite been wrong. At its worst, Anglicanism has succumbed to doctrinal incoherence and idolatry. But the critics have never quite been right, either. As Stephen Sykes in his book The Integrity of Anglicanism has shown, Anglicanism has historically committed itself to a good deal of doctrinal content, even if it has no Westminster Confession or Book of Concord. And not least, Anglicans have long committed themselves to common prayer, to common worship, and to listening together to the authoritative word of Scripture.
It is these things that have always kept Anglicanism from being more than, as Newman called it, a “mere national institution.” But the weaknesses and muddles that Newman and others saw were real; the issues that now have come to the boiling point are in a real sense the problems of the past five hundred years. That is why Anglicans need today to renew their promise to be bound to those things that have, in truth, and at their best, always bound them together in Christ. And that is the vision of Rowan Williams and the Lambeth bishops—a truly catholic Anglican Church, covenanted together in mutual obedience to the word of Christ, and proclaiming together one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. It is not that Anglicans do or ought to agree on everything; most manifestly they do not, and never have. Rather, the vision of Lambeth is to seek together a deeper unity in Christ, in the hope that finally there, at the foot of the cross, the old quarrels and divisions will be laid down.
That is the promise of Lambeth, and the hope now carried forward by its bishops. Of course it may not be fulfilled. But it is what the bishops at Lambeth have promised to seek. If Anglicanism is to be anything at all, the bishops have said, it must be a church, and if it is to be that then there is no other way than to follow Jesus.
Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things, is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.