Dr. Cheryl White: The Anglican Communion – Bonds of Affection and Unity Through History

All of us who have followed the events of the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States have been affected by its outcome regardless of where we stand individually on the divisive issues that dominated this most recent gathering of our church. It is apparent to all that our future together or apart depends directly upon the voices and decisions of the other worldwide churches bound to us in the Anglican Communion. There has perhaps never been a better time in history for us to review and affirm our understanding of this Communion-why it’s important- and the lofty nature of what is now truly at stake.
The Anglican Communion is, in the great history of the Church Catholic, a relatively modern idea. Its origins are with the sixteenth-century break with Rome carried out by King Henry VIII. While the Reformation swept across the continent of Europe, England was not simply caught up in the common tide of new ideas that characterized the age; indeed England was uniquely different in the manner in which it approached the very nature of the Church Catholic and Apostolic. Rather than destroying or eliminating the historic bonds of Christian unity (what can be referred to as catholicity), the Church of England sought diligently to affirm those visible and comprehensive elements that had held Christians together for fifteen centuries. Elements that include the Sacraments, the historic liturgy, and the office of the episcopacy (the bishop). The last of these is especially important because it is the very basis of our claim to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as we profess in the Nicene Creed.
Through the lineage of bishops down through the centuries, the Church of England was and is able to claim a unique and very special legitimacy that can only be conferred by history. This was of paramount importance to English reformers, who sought to preserve the best of the ancient faith and purge that which was corrupt The Church of England emerged at the end of the sixteenth century as both catholic and reformed, and has always seen itself not as a new church of the Reformation, but rather as a renewed continuation of ancient Christianity. One of the anchor points of the emerging Church of England was the authority of Holy Scripture. As a reform spirited movement, the Anglican identity has always held this at its very foundation and cornerstone.
Due to the rapid expansion of the Church of England throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, either from missionary zeal of Anglicans or the imperialism of the British government, affiliated churches were planted, quite literally, all over the world. Africa, Asia, the Americas, India everywhere Britain went, the Church of England followed and brought this unique catholic and reformed tradition. At first, all of these colonial churches were under the direct authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. That organizational hierarchy began to change, however, with the advance of history. After the American Revolutionary War, for instance, the American church found it quite necessary to break formally with a church whose Supreme Governor was (and remains to be) the English monarch. Therefore, in this country, new dioceses were formed under a separate province, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. The same scenario is basically true for most of the thirty-nine Anglican provinces around the world today. In time, all over the world, national groups began to pass church regulations independent of England and enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. So why then do we claim to be in communion with each other? Several elements have been crucial to this unity we’ve always enjoyed. First and foremost, we have always been bound by a shared understanding that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. In addition, we are united through the episcopal structure as well as the historic tradition we all share. Also, there is of course the Book of Common Prayer that binds us together in uniform worship. More important is the understanding that in addition to our traditions, Anglicans share in the historic and ancient faith of the apostles, first delivered to the saints. All of this uniquely sets apart churches of the Anglican Communion from other Protestants around the world, but these are the very instruments that bind us together in our common tradition.
With the expansion of Anglicanism around the world, it became necessary to seek new instruments of unity that would be more binding in the authoritative sense. The first major expression of this idea was the establishment of the Lambeth Conference, first convened in 1867. One of the resolutions of this conference was the “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888.” While the original intent of this document was to discuss reunion with the other apostolic churches Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, it had the unexpected effect of really providing a stronger Anglican identity, something that Church of England remnants around the world could cling to as a foundation. The four principles of that historic resolution include that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation; the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are proper summations of the Christian faith; the two Sacraments ordained by Christ are Baptism and the Holy Eucharist; and an affirmation of the historic Episcopate, locally adapted to serve the needs of the local churches. So although there is no international organization with supreme authority, like the Pope in Rome for Roman Catholics, there are nevertheless important tethers that historically have always linked us together.
In 2003, the Episcopal Church USA strained the bonds of affection with the rest of the Communion by agreeing to the consecration of an openly practicing homosexual bishop in the diocese of New Hampshire. The majority of the Anglican Communion objected to this practice, based on the belief that Holy Scripture forbids such behavior. The consecration by the American church was seen as a unilateral move made without regard for the remainder of the communion.
Many primates of the church deemed it completely unacceptable. In 2004 following the Robinson consecration, the Anglican Communion produced a document known as the Windsor Report, which called upon the American church to repent of its action at the 2003 General Convention and to stop the practice of ordaining and consecrating openly homosexual persons. In addition, the Episcopal Church was asked to stop the blessings of same-sex unions. This is why so much attention at the 2006 General Convention was, focused on the critical and much awaited response of the American church to the demands of the Windsor Report. The Archbishop of Canterbury as well as several other primates of the Anglican Communion have said that the Episcopal Church did not address the Windsor Report in its fullness, and indeed, has fallen short of meeting the repentance and cessation of actions that was expressed within it. This development brings us to where we are now and sadly, it seems unlikely that the Episcopal Church will survive intact as one body, remaining in communion with the rest of the Anglican world. Exactly how such a break or realignment will occur remains very much in question as the Communion develops a formal response now to the American church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury functions as the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion. While it can be said of him that he has no supreme authority over the Communion, this is only true in the positive sense. When thought of another way, he has much more authority than is generally implied. He is truly the primary point of unity, for no church can legitimately claim to be part of the Anglican Communion unless it is in communion with his See of Canterbury. The aforementioned Lambeth Conference is held roughly every ten years and the primates of the various Anglican churches around the world attend, but only at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1971, the Anglican Consultative Council was created and meets every two years, with clergy and laity representing the thirty-nine provinces of the Anglican Communion. These various international bodies are the vehicle for discussion and persuasion where consensus is sought on various matters of doctrine and discipline within the greater Communion. While it is historically unprecedented for any church to ever be “expelled” or “excommunicated,” such action could conceivably occur if the See of Canterbury refused to be in full communion with a particular affiliated jurisdiction. This would not likely be a unilateral action on the part of the Archbishop, however. Rather, the very nature of the Communion dictates whatever action occurs will be the result of a thoughtful and deliberative consensus.
The most important question facing us today is the relevance and importance of our continued state of communion with worldwide Anglicanism. Upon it hinges our history and tradition, our legitimacy as claimants to the unbroken apostolic faith first delivered to saints and martyrs. Choosing to walk apart from historic Anglicanism means walking away from a distinguished and remarkable tradition of reformed catholicity that is unparalleled in the history of Christianity. So why does the Anglican Communion matter? It is a special identity that makes us heirs to an impressive heritage.
None of this is meant to suggest that other Protestant churches are somehow less “Christian” because they chose to abolish the office of bishop, the Sacraments, or the historic liturgy. It is meant to suggest communion with the ancient See of Canterbury in England plants us firmly and unquestionably amidst the rich and wonderful tradition that was laid at the time of the Apostles. Our close brothers in this are the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, both of which continue in that same apostolic tradition through the preservation of a consecrated episcopacy. Our bishops are all bishops within the catholic and apostolic Church, not just within the Episcopal Church or even the Anglican Communion. Our branches extend even much further than Canterbury. In this way what we do and say impacts not only our brothers in the Anglican Communion, but the ecumenical relationships we enjoy with both Rome and the East.
The future is most uncertain for us now as a united church in America. The lines have truly been drawn, and it is virtually impossible to imagine that we will continue as we are. While Anglicanism has historically sought diverse extremes with regard to practice and worship, there is no “middle ground” on this most fundamental issue. This cannot be likened, as many people suggest, to just another historic “tension” that Anglican diversity will absorb. For upon the current question rests the very basis of the Christian faith and the authority of Holy Scripture. For those sitting in the pews and wondering to what extent the Anglican Communion matters to us in the Episcopal Church, hopefully we will all appreciate and embrace our very special place in the history of Christendom, and contemplate fully the implications of walking a path that leads away.

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