Anglican Identity, Heritage and Schism

The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently invited the 37 Archbishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion to gather in January.

The purpose of this gathering is
"to reflect and pray together concerning the future of the Anglican Communion."
Justin Welby's statement about this invitation is here. 

The big questions are

  • Who will actually come? (A similarly meeting in 2011 had significant absentees)
  • Will it be of any value and if so what and how?

Some media reactions to Archbishop Justin's initiative have called it a "summons". It is not a summons. It is an invitation. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not have the authority of a pope. In relation to the other Archbishops he is 'primus inter pares' (first among equals) - in other words a symbolic leader. The Anglican Church is not a global institution with corporate governance. Each province operates independently and is loosely linked as a Communion.

The Anglican Communion was described by the 1930 Lambeth Conference as a
"fellowship, within the one holy catholic and apostolic church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional churches in communion with the see of Canterbury.'" (Colin Buchanan, Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism)
The reasons for Anglican/Episcopal churches' relationship to Canterbury are based in history and the work of missionary societies particularly of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries to spread the Christian gospel around the expanding British empire as well as other areas where missionary societies from Britain operated. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes provides a useful summary in her post 'A Brief History of the Anglican communion'.

As Britain no longer has an empire, what is it that has held together the diverse churches across the world that identify as Anglican?

The bases of Anglican identity are in Resolution 11 of the Lambeth Conference 1888 and are fourfold:

  1. "The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith."
  2. "The Apostles’ Creed, as the baptismal symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith."
  3. "The two sacraments ordained by Christ himself — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution, and of the elements ordained by him."
  4. "The historic episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of his Church."

This is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral adopted by the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference in 1888 and intended as the basis for any discussion of union with other Christian groups. 

The Anglican Communion could be described as 'Catholic but not Roman Catholic', 'Reformed but not Protestant'. It is a 'middle way'. If you want to know more, the official website of the Anglican Communion is here.

There are divisions within the Anglican Communion, including over issues of human sexuality, the role of women, the nature of authority in the church and other matters including Biblical interpretation, just to name four. Some sections of the Communion have concluded it is not possible to disagree and remain in Communion. Indeed some have actually split off or threaten to do so. It is in that context that ABP Canterbury is calling for this meeting in January.

Here is some of what Archbishop Justin Welby said, 
"A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism, so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ, together.We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted. In that light I long for us to meet together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to seek to find a way of enabling ourselves to set a course which permits us to focus on serving and loving each other, and above all on the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
You can read more about this, with initial press reactions on Thinking Anglicans. 

Stephen Castle has a post on Patheos entitled 'Sleeping in Separate Bedrooms? The Anglican Compromise?'

For a personal reaction the Lay Anglicana Blog has a post 'Separate Beds and Separate Tables for the Anglican Communion?' She ends with a note of thankfulness that Justin Welby spends much of each day in prayer.

Ian Paul has written an article 'A Bluffer's guide to the Anglican Communion Controversy' so if you have no idea what all the recent fuss has been about that might be a good place to start. 

It seems to me that given that Anglicanism grew from the Church of England which was established in England in the sixteenth century on the basis of a political and religious compromise between extremes, it cannot be impossible for Anglicans worldwide to continue belonging to the same family of churches while tolerating a wide range of differences between its members. Hasn't this always been the case within the Church of England? If the differences are not '1st order' issues can we not agree to disagree? The really thorny problem is the lack of consensus over whether certain controversial issues are 1st order or not. And the unwillingness of some to sit down at table to pray and discuss with family members with whom they disagree. 

Is the effort actually worth it? Is the attempt to stay even loosely together a diversion from the core mission of the church? Is it time to stop pretending that the Anglican Communion is anything more than a group of churches with some shared heritage, all witnessing to the good news of Jesus but in many varied ways? Is it time to let go of what might be a last gasp of colonialism?

That said, I actually hope that all or at least most of the primates (Archbishops) of the Anglican communion will say yes to Justin Welby's invitation and that the Holy Spirit will work in them to produce something creative and good from that gathering.