Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

“Are we a global church, or are we a federation of local bodies?” At the close of last week’s meeting of the Anglican primates in Egypt, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams thus set forth the great looming question that Anglicanism has been asking itself for the last several tumultuous years. And the response of the assembled archbishops was, in essence: “A global church, but there’s a lot of work to do before we get there.”

From all reports, the Egypt meeting was a civil and gracious affair, in welcome contrast to the tension and acrimony of their last gathering two years ago in Tanzania. Much of the difference lay in a newly frank recognition of just how bad things have become. “This is a broken communion,” said one primate, and nearly everyone around the table concurred. But defying the expectations of many, they were not satisfied to agree to disagree and go their separate ways.

Just as at last summer’s Lambeth conference (the decennial meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops), there was a strongly expressed desire to grow closer together as a global communion, to become a genuine church marked by common confession and discernment, rather than a mere federation of autonomous local bodies. “God is calling us and our churches,” said the primates in their communiqué, “to deeper communion and gracious restraint.”

Of course, there will be skeptics, and not without reason. There has not been very much of either communion or restraint in the Anglican world of late. Meeting after meeting has come and gone, leaving many to wonder if anything ever actually gets accomplished by Anglican gatherings. Some, understandably if sadly, have by now given up on the very idea of an Anglican communion, writing it all off as a beautiful but impossible dream.

Last summer’s GAFCON meeting, held as a sort of conservative alternative to the official Lambeth Conference, was seen by some as a sign that many Anglican conservatives (such as the Ugandan, Nigerian, and South American churches led by Archbishops Orombi, Akinola, and Venables) had decided to give up on the rest of the communion and strike off on their own. The recent creation of Bishop Robert Duncan’s new Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and its insistence that it is an Anglican province whether or not Canterbury recognizes it, appeared to be evidence of the same.

But perhaps surprisingly, even Akinola, Orombi, and Venables were active participants in this meeting and were pleased by its outcome, not willing to regard either Canterbury or the communion as a lost cause. As Orombi explained, voting on ACNA as a new province at this meeting would have been “premature,” because “we have to see what happens to the communion” first.

To be sure, Orombi did not change his mind about the deep theological differences separating his church from more liberal Anglican churches; communion, for him as for other conservatives, was still very much broken. But that is not the same thing as saying that communion does not matter, and is not worth working towards. For Orombi and his compatriots, it would seem that a genuinely Anglican communion, stretching around the globe, rooted in Canterbury, and united in the truth of the Gospel, is indeed worth fighting for, and even now is far from out of reach.

Of course, years of church turmoil did not make Orombi and the rest of the Anglican primates into starry-eyed optimists. What happens to the communion, said the primates at Egypt, has everything to do with addressing the deep “ecclesial deficit” with which Anglicanism has long been plagued. The question that Anglicans need to put to themselves is troubling and clear: “Do we,” the primates asked, “have the necessary theological, structural, and cultural foundations to sustain the life of the communion?”

Their answer, in short, is No¯or at least, not as things currently stand. Although in the past the primates have repeatedly asked the American and Canadian churches for a moratorium on same-sex blessings, and for the several GAFCON churches to cease cross-boundary interventions in other churches, this time they forthrightly acknowledged that their requests have not been observed. They reaffirmed their threefold request¯no more gay bishops, same-sex blessings, or cross-border interventions¯but were plainly aware that the communion will not be held together simply by primatial say-so.

The report of the Windsor Continuation Group, commissioned for the meeting and released alongside the primates’ communiqué, frankly acknowledged the deep and widening divisions in the Anglican world. While most Anglicans agree that there simply must be “some limit to the extent of the diversity which can be embraced” regarding faith and morals, there has not yet been any agreement reached as to where those limits are found or who decides what they might be. “What,” the report asked, “are the sources that need to be brought to bear on any [disputed] issue? What are the structures through which discernment takes place?”

The answers to those crucial questions, as has become embarrassingly and painfully obvious in recent years, are simply not clear. Anglicans do not agree on the content of the faith, the authority of Scripture, or the loci of ecclesial authority. In fact, Anglicans do not even agree on how far or whether it is necessary to agree on such matters.

It is just this, the primates argued, that Anglicanism needs to change if it is to survive as a genuine communion. Although Anglicans have historically been jealous of their autonomy, the primates contended that their emphasis ought to shift from autonomy to “communion,” “accountability,” and “interdependence.” They signaled that these points must be made concrete in terms of binding doctrine and institutional authority.

As for doctrine, the already proposed Anglican Covenant was affirmed by the primates as a “vital element in strengthening the life of the Communion.” The covenant was not simply a piece of paper affirming partnership no matter what, but instead a means to secure the “robust accountability” and “gracious restraint” that characterize deep relationships rooted in mutual recognition of catholic faith and order, grounded in creedal doctrine, and answerable to the authoritative word of Scripture. The Windsor Continuation Group’s report explained that “a covenant without consequences is, by definition, not a covenant at all, but an empty word. It is because our words matter, however, that we can testify to the power of God’s faithfulness before the world.”

As for authority, the report spent most of its time outlining proposals for a genuine re-thinking of the Anglican “instruments of Communion”¯ the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Lambeth Conference. It argued for an elevation of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference: “It may be time,” they wrote, “for Anglicans to articulate the teaching role of the bishops gathered around the Archbishop of Canterbury,” whose “personal primacy” in the communion could be enhanced. But whatever the precise shape of such changes might turn out to be, the crucial fact is that they were forthrightly acknowledged by the primates at Egypt as necessary in some form.

All in all, the primates agreed: “We must find a deeper understanding of the basis of the bonds, both divine and human, which sustain ecclesial fellowship.” The future of the communion, they knew, was not in their hands alone¯much depends on whether or not their vision is carried forward by the Covenant Design Team and the upcoming meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in May, at which the covenant will be up for initial adoption and then sent to the provinces to be ratified. “Unless the covenant is robust and accepted,” Rowan Williams warned at the primates’ final press conference, “the federal model does loom on the horizon.”

But it is precisely the “federal model”¯Anglicanism as a federation of autonomous, doctrinally diverse local churches¯that did not fare well at Egypt, just as it found disfavor last summer at Lambeth. We have seen, in both cases, something of a consensus emerging. The great majority of Anglicans worldwide seek a “deeper communion” with each other, and are prepared to cede a certain amount of their autonomy to achieve it.

Of course, the federal model does nonetheless have more than a few proponents. There remain both “federal conservatives” and “federal liberals” (as the English Evangelical Graham Kings has put it), both groups of which, for all their doctrinal differences, share the belief that Anglicanism as a communion does not matter all that much. How have they fared?

The “federal conservatives”¯represented by Bishop Duncan’s new Anglican church (ACNA)¯have, it would seem, taken a step back for the time being. Although acknowledged as genuine Anglicans by the primates in Egypt, their new body is far from being recognized as possessing full provincial status. It is, as the Windsor Continuation Group report noted, not clear what status groups within ACNA such as the Reformed Episcopal Church (which broke from the Episcopal Church in 1873) have in the larger communion, nor is it precisely clear what sort of recognition ACNA seeks.

Some, perhaps, hoped that official communion recognition could be bypassed altogether in favor of recognition by the GAFCON council. But the GAFCON primates themselves, in Egypt, have apparently decided that this route is premature. Instead, the primates at Egypt proposed that a professionally mediated discussion be initiated among all the concerned parties, with the goal of finding some sort of “provisional holding arrangement” that could have the blessing of the communion at large.

What of the “federal liberals,” particularly in the Episcopal Church? As has long been clear, it is unlikely that it will sign on for the sort of robust covenant and institutional reform that the emerging consensus is envisioning. The church’s Executive Council recently published its response to the proposed Anglican Covenant, more or less saying that it is not interested in any sort of covenant with consequences. Bonnie Anderson, the president of the church’s House of Deputies, has for her part signaled that at this summer’s General Convention she will push to move away from an earlier resolution that called for restraint on further consecration of gay bishops. Although the American church does not plan on taking up the covenant at its convention this summer, the arrows thus far point towards an effectual rejection of its terms.

Tellingly and worryingly, the Executive Council’s response also asserted that the proposed Covenant may only be adopted or rejected at the provincial level, rather than the diocesan. For many “communion conservatives” who still remain within the Episcopal Church, this will amount to a deep crisis of conscience, since in effect their church seems bent upon forcing them to choose between the Anglican communion and the Episcopal Church.

The “Communion Partners” group within the Episcopal Church has pledged itself to remain both Anglican and Episcopal, but if current trajectories continue this may become impossible. A further key move of Rowan Williams and the primates at Egypt was the creation (as mentioned previously at Lambeth) of a “Pastoral Forum,” by which trusted figures from around the Anglican world would be appointed to help warring parties to arrive at agreed-upon solutions. It does not take a crystal ball to see that, in all likelihood, this will be needed in America.

All of these issues and then some remain to be worked out in due time. “There is,” as the WCG report said, “a fundamental ecclesiological question” at stake: “do the churches of the communion wish to live as a communion?” No doubt some do not, but in Egypt as at Lambeth, it has appeared that most of them do. For their part, the primates in Egypt showed a remarkable willingness to work together for the good of the communion, rejecting both the easy disunity of atomized purity and the false, surface-level harmony of smiles and happy feelings, determining instead to seek the unity in fellowship that comes only in the truth of the gospel and at the foot of the cross.

Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things , is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.


Deeper Communion; Gracious Restraint ,” Primates’ Meeting Communique, Alexandria, Egypt, 5 February 2009. “ Windsor Continuation Group Report ,” 5 February 2009. “ Response of Executive Council to the St. Andrew’s Draft (Covenant) ,” Executive Council, The Episcopal Church, 30 January 2009. “ Conservative Bishops Laud Outcome of Meeting, Archbishop’s Leadership ,” by George Conger, The Living Church, 5 February 2009. “ Communion ‘Deeply Divided’ But No Schism, Archbishop Williams Says ,” by George Conger, The Living Church, 5 February 2009. “ Primates’ Communique, Windsor Report Draw Praise, Criticism ,” by Mary Frances Schjonberg, Episcopal Life Online , 6 February 2009. “ Dioceses Send Resolutions to General Convention ,” by Mary Frances Schjonberg, Episcopal Life Online, 6 February 2009. Forum Thread: Primates’ Meeting in Alexandria 2009 , Fulcrum. “ What Lambeth Wrought ,” by Jordan Hylden, First Things , October 2008.

More on: Religion

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles