The Anglican Communion: Consensus, Conundrum, Consequences, Conversation and Confession

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To understand where we are and what we need to do in the Communion it is helpful to step back and recognise that, on paper at least, there has been a remarkable Communion consensus despite the disputes of recent years. However, that consensus has palpably failed to deliver what it sought. We are now further from our desired goal of finding a way to remain together living out our shared commitments as a Communion. This creates a conundrum – about which there is perhaps also now consensus – that the consensus has not produced good fruit. What are the consequences of this?

There are four broad options: (1) reiterating the consensus status quo, (2) abandoning that by changing the proposed solution and ending the moratoria, (3) extending the consensus solution and implementing some form of discipline, differentiation or division, (4) recognising the consensus has failed to work and living with a new form of messy communion or federation. This latter is reportedly favoured by Archbishop Justin but like all of the options faces major practical and political challenges. Its great strength is that it would provide a way of continuing conversation in the midst of conflict but it faces the serious challenge of what place it gives to confessional faith within global Anglicanism.

Given that we may now have a consensus that how we have approached the issues has failed to produce the desired results and that none of the options on offer seem to enable us to reach our desired goal perhaps we need to acknowledge our inability to find a solution, look to God to rescue us, and begin with confession of our sins which have led us into this situation.

As the Primates gather they face many important challenges but high on the list for many is the continuing division within the Anglican Communion. This is usually understood to be about sex, specifically homosexuality. It is, however, at least as much about ecclesiology – what it means to be a communion of Anglican churches. These questions dominated Archbishop Rowan’s time and most of the six Primates’ Meetings he presided over. It is understandable that Archbishop Justin, having succeeded in gathering the Primates together in the same place, hopes to find a way to prevent this repeating itself during his tenure.


Despite all the disputes there has been a remarkable official formal Communion consensus for at least the last 11 years since The Windsor Report. There have, for example, been no dissenting statements from Primates’ Meetings or other Instruments. Its basic structure, supportable by multiple citations, tells a story with the basic following logic:

  1. Beliefs: As a Communion we have certain commitments concerning what we understand to be God’s will for human flourishing and for the pattern of our life together as the body of Christ. This would include (a) Lambeth I.10 in its entirety as regards human sexuality and (b) the communion ecclesiology developed over recent decades, expressed in various forms and documents, including such elements as upholding both autonomy and mutual accountability and interdependence, non-intervention in each other’s provinces, seeking to maintain and deepen inter-communion and wider ecumenical relationships.
  2. Behaviour: We recognise that certain actions within the Communion have challenged and undermined these commitments
  3. Goal: But we wish to remain together and seek to live out those commitments as a Communion
  4. Response: Therefore, on the basis of our beliefs (1) and to work towards our goal (3) we must seek to reaffirm our self-understanding of who we are and bring an end to those actions (2) which undermine our beliefs (1) and threaten our goal (3). This would include the Anglican Communion Covenant and the three moratoria. Among many examples would be Archbishop Rowan’s letter of invitation to Lambeth 2008 trusting that attending signalled “a willingness to work with” the “set of resources and processes, focused on the Windsor Report and the Covenant proposals”.

There appears now to be a further growing consensus:

  1. Conundrum: This apparent consensus has not succeeded but instead:
    1. the response has not been received and followed through within the Communion as a whole
    2. behaviour continues to challenge beliefs and so
    3. the goal is increasingly undermined.


The conundrum could be filled out along the following lines:

  1. Failed response: The Communion has not found a way – other than repetition of requests – to implement its response.
  2. Leading to same patterns of behaviour continuing:
    • Despite finally agreeing a text, the covenant has at best stalled, perhaps sunk.
    • Although interventions have ceased that is because of the creation of a new province and it is clear that some provinces will again intervene elsewhere if they think necessary.
    • Rites to bless same-sex unions are authorised and provinces are now taking the much more theologically significant step of canonical and liturgical acceptance of same-sex marriage.
  3. Undermining the goal:
    • The long-standing declarations of impaired and broken communion between individual provinces remain
    • This gathering of Primates will be the first since 2009 to convene practically all Primates
    • It appears this meeting has only happened because of the invitation to ACNA’s Archbishop.
    • Despite much wonderful work inter-provincially, many provinces are barely remaining together in the Instruments, it looks like some do not wish to remain together, and the Communion as a whole is clearly not living out its commitments as a Communion.

Consequences: Four Options

Faced with this conundrum there is a need to consider its consequences. In 2006, Rowan Williams in his important “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today” was clear that “There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment”. At least four broad options appear to be under consideration:

Option One: Status Quo

One consequence would be simply to reaffirm the consensus narrative and logic and continue with the same response. But after many years there appears to be a widespread sense that this has failed and we need something different even if there is no consensus as to why this failure has happened. To continue to embrace this would appear to accept that although the Communion would continue to bear witness to what it believes by what it says, its lived reality will remain broken and the goal increasingly difficult, to achieve. This appears to offer a future in which theory and practice diverge further, the Communion looks incoherent and unprincipled, and there is continued high-level and often destructive conflict between those wishing to conform reality to teaching and those wishing to accept the reality and abandon the teaching. Not surprisingly, few seem strong advocates for this position.

Option Two: A Moratorium on moratoria

Another possible consequence would be to abandon the consensus response in whole or part. This finds support from TEC sympathizers who see moratoria and the covenant as part of the problem. The difficulty is that this response has had a consensus at least on paper and still has widespread support. Archbishop Justin’s invitation emphasised that “our way forward must respect the decisions of Lambeth 1998, and of the various Anglican Consultative Council and Primates' meetings since then”. That consensus has been the logical outworking of the wider beliefs and goal of the Communion which led to a negative assessment of certain types of behaviour. This approach is politically unlikely, not least as it would entail radical reassessment of the behaviours which have been criticised. This in turn requires formal revision or abandonment of teaching about human sexuality and/or the nature of life in communion. The fact that those proposing this consequence continue to protest about ACNA makes clear its advocates are not willing to totally abandon the consensus logic. This approach would therefore not be on the basis of the assumed consensus on beliefs and that also means it would probably not result in us all remaining together.

Option Three: Implementing the Consensus Response

A third option would be to extend the consensus response and implement some form of differentiation or division between provinces by means of discipline such as reduced status in the Instruments or removal from Communion bodies. This has occasionally been attempted and is sought by GAFCON and probably others in the Global South. It would continue the consensus logic but take it to the next stage by seeking to implement something like section 4 of the covenant within the life of the Instruments. It could argue that even if we do not agree about how to respond, we are agreed that we are in the final paragraph 157 of the Windsor Report – the “call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion” have not been heeded.

It is unclear whether this would be politically possible. Many would see and portray it as abandoning the goal – “Communion splits!” - and saying we no longer wish to remain together even if it was done in a manner that minimised that risk and made clear that the stated goal is still to remain together but while seeking to live out our commitments. This highlights that the real question is now: Can we fulfil our desire to remain together as a Communion in a way which seeks to live out our commitments both in relation to sexuality and ecclesiology?

We are perhaps now having to face the fact that we must, as that final paragraph of Windsor also said, “begin to learn to walk apart” and so redefine Communion partnership. Our choice is whether to do so (1) by redefining Communion membership in terms of the provinces who are full members of the Communion as it has understood itself in the consensus vision or (2) by abandoning that consensus communion ecclesiology, learning to live in separate wings of the same house, and redefining what is involved in being a full member of the Communion?

Option Four: Messy Communion/Federation

That question points to a fourth option – becoming a different sort of Communion so we “remain together” but in a looser structure of some form (sometimes described as a federation). This too faces practical problems: Would every province want to be part of such a new “communion”? Even if they did would some not seek to also embody the deeper vision of communion expressed in the covenant or by strengthening and extending GAFCON?

That latter question also highlights deeper theological questions. Is this not simply to accept our failure to live out our past commitments? If this amounts to starting from scratch in working all that out, beginning with simply a commitment to remain in communion with Canterbury even if not with each other and to welcome invitations from him to certain gatherings then is it any different from option two?

This option would interestingly be a return to what Archbishop Rowan spoke of back in 2005 at ACC-13 in Nottingham where he asked “If it is difficult for us to stand together at the Lord's Table as we might wish, can we continue to be friends?” Its great advantage is that it holds out the prospect of holding on to at least the bare minimum which appears to be threatened at present: continuing conversation in the midst of conflict

Conversation in the midst of conflict

There has been almost universal amazement and thankfulness that Archbishop Justin has been able to gather the Primates in the way that he has. He is very aware of the significance and also the difficulties of simple conversation in the midst of conflict. Both the Continuing Indaba process (and now Living Reconciliation) and the CofE’s own Shared Conversations are examples of the importance and value of keeping lines of communication open. An outcome which continues that will fall far short of what we have meant about being a communion but is much better than simply “walking apart” with no structures. Even if unable to walk together as we had hoped, we can at least continue to talk together in some way as we recognise we have walked apart and are still walking apart.


The challenge is what place this outcome has for confession in the sense of what we confess together including about what it means to be a communion of churches in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Many are attracted by its desire to hold together in some structure all those in the current Communion who at least recognise each other as seeking (however poorly) to follow Jesus and to share in his mission in the world (however they understand that). In the words on the front page of the site launched for next week’s gathering – “The Anglican Communion is one family living out the love of Jesus Christ”. But is that vital truth all the Anglican Communion is? The beliefs articulated and gaining a consensus over recent decades of struggle about what it means to be a communion have thought it must mean much more. It is though unclear what more this fourth option would have to say about our shared beliefs and commitments concerning what as Anglicans we understand to be God’s will for human flourishing and for the pattern of our life together as the body of Christ. Communion-agreed statements over the last decade have said a lot about our shared beliefs as in the first three sections of the Anglican Communion Covenant. In giving up on living those out, will not the issue of the alternative beliefs of this new structure and what behaviour would be tolerated as acceptable diversity within Anglicanism both again raise their heads?

Conclusion - Confession

Our sad story is of a failed consensus, a seemingly irresolvable conundrum and a confusion as to the consequences as all of them prevent us reaching what we have sought as our goal. It could not be clearer that we ourselves are incapable of getting ourselves out of this mess which we have got ourselves into. We therefore need, as a communion, to turn to confession in the other sense of that term.

I am brought back again to 2 Chronicles 20.12 (see my December 2005 Wycliffe sermon): “We do not know what to do but our eyes are on you”. That is why it is good to see such a strong emphasis on prayer for next week. A central part of such prayer needs to be confession. We are in a situation where it appears there is no way forward that does not mean abandoning the goal of remaining together and living out the commitments we have made concerning what we understand to be God’s will for us.

We could blame others for bringing us to this situation. We could claim we were never committed to this consensus. We could doubtless bring forward multiple other excuses, denials, mitigating circumstances.

But perhaps it would be best to start instead with something we do still – in some sense – share in common: Scripture and The Book of Common Prayer. Begin where Evening Prayer begins with the words of Scripture calling for self-examination and confession:

When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Ezekiel 18.27

I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Psalm 51.3

Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Psalm 51.9

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit : a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Psalm 51.17

Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Joel 2.13

To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him: neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in his laws which he set before us. Daniel 9.9-10

O Lord, correct me, but with judgement; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing. Jeremiah 10.24; Psalm 6.1

Repent ye; for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. St. Matthew 3.2

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. St. Luke 15.18-19

Enter not into judgement with thy servant, O Lord; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified. Psalm 143.2

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us: but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 St. John 1.8-9

What if we began there and sought to apply the following prayer of confession more concretely?:

  • What are the ways in which its descriptions of our sinful state describe our recent and current life as a Communion?
  • What are the ways in which as individuals, as churches, as provinces, as networks, as Instruments, as a Communion we have helped bring ourselves to this situation?:

Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.


5 Responses to The Anglican Communion: Consensus, Conundrum, Consequences, Conversation and Confession

  1. david houlton January 10, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    It seems that the liberal answer isn’t private prayer but public politics – in the form of an open letter in the public eye by “more than 100 senior (liberal) Anglicans”.

  2. Garry Sharp January 9, 2016 at 9:26 pm #

    Perhaps we need to recognise that higher standards are expected of those who lead! The Church appears to be too concentrated on sexual matters and has ignored justice. Tax cheating has been a scourge on all ‘Christian’ countries, but The Church appears to be inactive against it.

  3. Phil Almond January 9, 2016 at 9:11 pm #

    The disagreement among Anglicans in the Church of England and elsewhere is much deeper than the same-sex controversy which is ‘merely’ (though very important) a symptom of that more fundamental disagreement. Anglicans (indeed all those who believe that Christianity is in some sense true and who wish to be called ‘Christians’) disagree about who God and Christ are, what they are like, what they have said and done, are saying and doing, will say and do, what the greatest need of human beings is and how God has acted and is acting in Christ to meet that need. Among the most important disagreement is the brontosaurus in the room – the doctrine of Original Sin. Complete and painful candour is needed to be honest with each other. There is no way that the various versions of Christianity can be reconciled under some overarching agreement. Compared with this enormous disagreement the survival or not of the Anglican Communion and the survival or not of the Church of England in its present form are relatively (stressed) unimportant.

    • Garry Sharp January 10, 2016 at 10:10 pm #

      Yes, regarding ‘original sin’, it appears that Anglicans need to ‘go back to the scrolls’! Genesis is clear on what the original sin was, disobedience, driven by the desire for ‘knowledge’. Perhaps we are letting our desire for knowledge interfere with our worship of God. We are allowing those who follow a false knowledge to blind us to God’s standards.

  4. Bowman Walton
    Bowman Walton January 8, 2016 at 10:49 pm #

    Yes, the best use for the coming week is, not some Game of Mitres, but prayer. Penitential prayer dissolves the hardened pugnacity that, even when it starts from a desire to do good, beguiles the mind and closes the heart. I hope that all the primates at least set the good example of praying together, often and penitently, through the dilemmas described above.

    The basic sin is that of instrumentalising the unity of the Church for noble, but lesser purposes, so that unity apart from those purposes has come to seem unreal to those with a passion for them. Addiction is still vice, even if its object is a good one. Cultural heritage, confessional theology, and social justice advocacy are all very good things, but none of them was given at Pentecost when the Church was created by the Holy Spirit. Rather the Church was created to be a sign of the mosaic of humanity fruitful and multiplying throughout the earth as God’s image. We do not do culture, confession, and advocacy to become the Church. Actually, it is because we are the people who live Adam’s vocation of stewardship and praise in Christ that we are able to create and transmit an Anglican heritage, rightly divide the word of truth, and exemplify a just, peaceful order to a watching world. So our Communion’s contrition, restitution, and amendment of life all require, not giving up cherished projects (although some would be wise to withdraw from addictive attachments), but re-consecrating them to that greater mystery without which they are lifeless anyway. That done, the Communion, and indeed the Church, can again be seen as the bride of Christ.

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