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It is hard to remember now, but it is true: for the better part of the last hundred years, Anglicans were at the forefront of the ecumenical movement for Christian unity, with the Episcopalians in the lead. In 1886, the Episcopal bishops proposed the Chicago Quadrilateral as a means for “the restoration of the organic unity of the Church” in the face of its “sad divisions.” In 1888, the rest of the world’s Anglican bishops lent their voices to the proposal at Lambeth, and in 1920 extended it into a heartfelt “Appeal to All Christian People” for church reunion.

The Lambeth appeal in large part set the agenda for the Faith and Order movement of the twentieth century, which itself was spearheaded by the Episcopal missionary bishop Charles Henry Brent. Anglicans and Episcopalians were not the whole story, of course, but it is without question that they played an outsized and crucial role.

It is a proud history, but it all seems part of the past now. Today, it is probably closer to the truth to say that Anglicans are at the forefront of our “sad divisions,” with the Episcopalians once again at the helm. Two weeks ago, the Anglican primates met in Ireland, but key archbishops representing a majority of the Anglican faithful did not attend. The same was true for the last Lambeth conference, from which hundreds of bishops absented themselves, and which opted for open-ended discussion groups in place of its historic practice of issuing common resolutions.

The Anglican Consultative Council, which the 1968 Lambeth conference envisioned as a means to foster greater unity and communication among Anglicans worldwide, is in wide disrepute and deep disarray, with key members having resigned and its present form in constitutional question. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, the historic see that has long held it all together, is regarded by many on both the right and the left as either irrelevant or feckless. As Ephraim Radner not long ago concluded, each of the instruments of Anglican communion is broken, and it is not clear how, when or if they will ever be mended.

It is into this context that three Church of England bishops were received into the Roman Catholic Church last month as priests, as the first fruits of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus issued by Pope Benedict XVI not much more than a year ago. Although they are a small group for now, their numbers promise to grow: “We don’t want to frighten the horses” by receiving everyone at once, as one of the former bishops told the Catholic Herald , but there are certainly more to come, and soon.

What does this mean for the Anglican future? In concrete terms, it means that in many Anglican provinces there will be, perhaps just down the street from the local Episcopal or Church of England parish, a church in full communion with the bishop of Rome that worships with an Anglican liturgy developed from the Book of Common Prayer but holds the faith of the Catechism of the Catholic Church .

Each of these churches will answer to an ordinary in the Ordinariate itself rather than to the local Catholic bishop, roughly on the model of episcopal oversight for military personnel. The ordinary will be empowered to plant new churches, just like any other Catholic bishop, and will meet together in conference with his brother Catholic bishops and with the pope. Married clergy from the Anglican communion will be eligible for the priesthood.

It is easy to see how the logic of division, which after the Reformation played itself out through shelves upon shelves of rival self-justifying theological tomes, might quickly find a foothold in the popular imagination. Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion that things will play out like that, and surely it was not what the Vatican intended. There have at least been hints of more constructive discussion, even though the current climate of division and confusion has made it sadly rare.

Rowan Williams, speaking at the Vatican after the document’s release in November 2009, argued that it did not break any “fresh ecclesiological ground” and remained “at the level of spiritual and liturgical culture.” In an important sense, the point is a sound one: in 1993, the Joint International Orthodox-Roman Catholic Commission disavowed “uniatism” on the model of the Eastern Rite churches as the way forward for ecumenism, but it appears that the proposed Anglican ordinariate has much in common with precisely those churches. Is Williams right to argue that no important ground has been broken by Anglicanorum coetibus ?

Catholics have long insisted that the Roman primacy is an integral and necessary part of the ecumenical movement toward Christian unity. And they have further insisted, as Pope John Paul II paradigmatically did in Ut Unum Sint , on the “power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory.” But this is precisely what Rowan Williams challenged in his Vatican address: whether instead it might be that shared theological understandings of primacy could coexist “alongside a diversity of canonical or juridical arrangements,” leading to a sort of communion of communions not united “juridically or institutionally” but instead by “lasting loyalty, shared theological method and devotional ethos.”

Primacy, in such a scenario, would not need to be constituted by a “centralized juridical office” and a “single juridically united body.” It would instead serve as the focus of unity within a communion of communions, each committed to sustaining a “mutually nourishing and mutually critical life” and each following mutually agreed-upon “protocols of decision-making.”

Williams’ proposal, as he himself indicated, sounded very much like that of the Anglican Covenant, of which he has been the principal proponent in recent years. The long-discussed Covenant, which by now has been approved by three provinces, in essence consists of the shared “protocols of decision-making” by which Anglicans worldwide would commit to walk together in faith and morals rather than apart.

The elephant in the room, of course, was and is that Anglicans have thus far failed spectacularly in bringing anything like the vision of ecclesial life Williams described to fruition. It is not at all clear that there exists among Anglicans anything remotely close to “lasting loyalty, shared theological method, and devotional ethos,” as the events that have transpired during his time at Canterbury have shown.

As such, the question raised by John Paul II remains open: Is it not the case that such a vision will continue to remain illusory without the power and authority held by the Bishop of Rome? As the former Episcopal bishop Jeffrey Steenson asked in a 2005 Anglican Theological Review essay, is not the authority of the Roman primacy just the “unopened gift” that Anglicans need? Then-Bishop Steenson thought so; he is now a Catholic priest.

The 1998 Anglican-Roman Catholic document The Gift of Authority said as much too, in its discussion of the specific role of the Bishop of Rome in exercising universal primacy and discerning the truth. For Steenson, and others who are now following his footsteps through Anglicanorum coetibus , the “fresh ecclesiological ground” Williams spoke of is actually the old ecclesiological ground, trod down years ago by Cardinal Newman and the many who have followed him since.

To say all of this is not to say that such judgments ultimately are correct. Nor is it to say that Williams has not raised a set of important questions. But it is to say that those questions cannot be asked by Anglicans with any force and integrity unless they are able to show that they have a serious alternative to offer in their own embodied life. And to date, Anglicans simply do not.

The Episcopal Church’s leadership has offered its own vision of Christian unity, to be sure. Stacy Sauls, the bishop of Lexington, has argued that Anglican unity is expressed “sacramentally not doctrinally,” and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori, among many others, has proposed that the Church’s unity is best expressed in shared missions of service. Such proposals are echoes of the old slogan of the Life and Work movement in the early twentieth century: “Doctrine divides, service unites.” Whatever unity might thus be expressed, of course, assumes that the person and work of Christ actually is detrimental to unity, since any attempt at a shared confession of what God in Christ has done for our salvation can only be divisive.

To oppose sacrament to doctrine is to evacuate the sacraments of all substantive content; to propose that the deepest ground of our unity is good works is Pelagian. Such attempts, finally, assume that there is some ground for Christian unity that is somehow wider than Christ. The high-water mark of the ecumenical movement is widely regarded to be the 1961 World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi, which affirmed that genuine church unity will require not only shared worship and service, but also shared confession and the ability to “act and speak together” on crucial issues.

As they knew, the realization of this vision would necessarily require the painful “death and rebirth of many forms of church life.” But in sharp contrast to New Delhi, the modern-day Episcopal Church’s vision of Christian unity appears to proceed on the assumption that “unity” will not require anyone to change their minds about anything.

Such a vision was on sorry display at the Primates’ Meeting in Ireland. As Sherlock Holmes said of the dog in the nighttime, the curious thing about the meeting was what was not said: nothing of the strong resolutions of the 2007 meeting at Dar es Salaam, nothing of the Windsor Report ’s moratoria, nothing of the Episcopal Church’s consecration of a second bishop in a same-sex relationship (Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles) or of the marriage of two leading female clergy in the Boston cathedral by the bishop of Massachusetts, and nothing that challenged the absorption of the Meeting as one of the four instruments of communion into the Anglican Consultative Council, the office of Canterbury, and the Anglican Communion Office’s London bureaucracy.

The common understanding is that those primates who stayed away from the meeting, such as Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone (the Anglican churches in southern South America) or Egypt’s Mouneer Anis, did so as a protest against the actions of the Episcopal Church and the invited presence of its presiding bishop. While that is true, it is only a half-truth. As Venables and Anis have both explained, the heart of their problem is that they feel as if such meetings have become “managed,” that the Primates themselves have no ownership of the agenda or the outcome. As such, they have refused to participate in a meeting at which it has been decided in advance that nothing decisive will be accomplished, and where everything accomplished at previous meetings has disappeared down the memory hole.

What Venables and Anis are asking for, in short, is that the Primates’ Meeting be constituted as a part of what Rowan Williams called the “mutually nourishing and mutually critical life” that depends upon shared “protocols of decision-making.” As it stands, the meeting is nothing of the sort. To say, as Williams has, that he is largely satisfied with the outcome of the meeting, and that it is to be hoped that the absent primates will return next time, is deeply puzzling.

Only last May, Williams wrote in the context of the Episcopal Church’s consecration of Bishop Glasspool that he would be “inviting the views of all members of the Primates’ Meeting on the handling of these matters with a view to the agenda of the next scheduled meeting in January 2011.” As Andrew Goddard and others have noted, whatever the nature of the resulting discussion, its outcome was never made public and its effects are exceedingly difficult to discern in the meeting’s agenda.

As Ephraim Radner said, the instruments of Anglican communion are indeed broken. And it is a very lamentable thing: the historic Anglican witness to Christian unity seems now to be a thing of the past. It is also lamentable because we Anglicans greatly need the mutual discipline that biblical conciliarism, envisioned in the Anglican Covenant, could provide”the practice of reading Scripture in common, committed to waiting upon each other to hear the one Spirit leading the church in its common mission.

The West and North need to be pressed by their southern brethren to return to the Scriptures, to proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s atoning work, and to live with faith and courage in the face of persecution. The South needs likewise to be reminded, as the agitations in Uganda over prescribing capital punishment for homosexuals have painfully demonstrated, that the Church must always preach the law as good news, and that Christ’s love reaches out to all of us sinners, especially to the outcast.

It is in this context that Benedict XVI has offered Anglicans the Roman primacy, and it is into this and every other context that John Paul II offered the same in Ut unum sint to Christians everywhere. Is it an unopened gift? Or is there a via media down which Anglicans still remain called to walk? If there is such a path, it has become dark and narrow, and few are walking it. Whether any will arrive at its end remains to be seen; if they do, they will arrive by the grace of their Lord.

Jordan Hylden, a candidate for holy orders in the Episcopal diocese of North Dakota, is a doctoral student in theology at Duke University Divinity School. His previous articles for “On the Square” were Rowan Williams and the Anglican Future , Brave New Church , and The Anglicans in Egypt .


Ephraim Radner’s Can the Instruments of Unity be Repaired?
Anglicanum Coetibus
Rowan Williams’
address to the Willebrands Symposium
Jeffrey Steenson’s The Unopened Gift
Stacy F. Sauls’ The Wisdom of the Constitution
A report on the Anglican primates’ meeting
The communiqué from the Anglican primates’ 2007 meeting in Dar es Salaam
The Anglican Communion’s Windsor Report .
Andrew Goddard’s report on the primates’ meeting and the Anglican Communion Institute’s report
The Ugandan proposal to punish homosexuals
The Anglican Communion Institute’s Dublin Post-Mortem

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