Why should Anglicans want to be a communion, and what’s more, why should they be willing to sacrifice to achieve it? (I am indebted to my friend Ephraim Radner for this framing of the question.)
When one thinks about this question, it leads naturally to a second: What does it mean to be Anglicans such that we should want it? For example, the term “pentecostal” is a useful descriptor of various Christian groups, but does not necessarily require the Christians it describes to be one, in any sense beyond charitable attitudes. To be sure, we as Anglicans are commanded to be one by Jesus himself (John 17), but this commanded unity extends equally to Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, and is not likely to happen this side of the eschaton. Why then is this to be required among Anglicans in particular?
My answer comes down to this: Every Sunday Anglicans stand and confess that they believe in “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Living out what they confess is the general reason to be a communion, but it must be filled out with unique historical particularities of ours. The particularities present to us the definite content, the discernible form, of those creedal adjectives. It is to these particularities that we must now turn, for they represent a kind of providential gift, and as a result, an imperative.
That there is an Anglican Communion is a surprise, a work of the Spirit from certain often unlikely circumstances. With the British empire, and sometimes against them, went missionaries from the Societies of the 19th century. The mass movements among the Indian castes, for example, could not have been predicted, and in many ways ran against the initial plans and expectations of the missionaries. Each national Church has its story, none as the mother Church could have written. The missionaries withdrew as the age of empire gave way to an era of independence, and many predicted the collapse of Christian witness, but quite the opposite took place. A worldwide network of Churches in the tradition of the Prayer Book happened. Its existence gives content to our creedal confession, and as such lays on us an obligation.
But, of course, Anglicanism is a millennium or more older than these events. The see of Canterbury was not new in the modern era, but it evolved into the focus of unity for the emerging Communion. Its history had already included the mandate from Rome, the missionary vision of Augustine, the martyr’s cost of Becket, and the Reformation legacy of Cranmer. A patriarchate cannot be manufactured, and no other see could fill this role for the Communion. Not surprisingly only the Archbishop of Canterbury plays a role in all four Instruments of Communion. Furthermore, the cultural significance of our ancestors in the faith ought not to be underestimated. A (new) Communion with an ancient see has been providentially laid at our historic doorstep.
In recent years, there has been an extended effort to reflect on what our mutual relation in communion means. The Lambeth Quadrilateral noted a shared framework of authority, the last Anglican Congress in Toronto offered a practice of “mutual responsibility and interdependence,” the Virginia Report contained the beginnings of a common ecclesiology, and the Anglican Covenant offered an example of embodying shared accountability. These neither command assent, nor are well enough known. Still there is a fledgling tradition of creative thinking about what being a communion would mean.
But these efforts are all controverted. Indeed, as the late Bishop Stephen Sykes liked to point out, conflict is baked into the pie from the beginning. Anglican authority is diffuse at best. Testing, dissenting, feeling our bonds to be provisional, these seem as constitutive of Anglicanism as the Prayer Book itself. This too must be acknowledged as we seek to claim for our own the Anglican Communion we have been given.
My teacher, the late George Lindbeck, once said that full-bore evangelicals and progressives both understand the “Body of Christ” to be found elsewhere than the Church. In this their arguments are clear and, to many in each case, compelling. For evangelicals, it is the aggregate of all the individuals who accept Jesus’ Lordship. For progressives, it is all the places and peoples where we come to find social justice. But in neither case does ecclesiology make a case for, well, the Church. The same dynamic may be found in Anglicanism. It is in the center that the real flesh-and-blood Church becomes an urgent issue.
With respect to us Anglicans, the case requires a providential understanding of the fact of a communion of churches, an inherited apostolic “sacrament” in the see of Canterbury, a rough-and-ready beginning for living out Communion in recent reflection, and finally, the conflict, imperfection, and diversity implied by the first three, which itself comprises a feature of our tradition There is an important ecclesial vocation in struggling to live into the Communion as it has been given to us, thereby enacting our creedal confession. We do well to see how an actual form of global catholicity has been granted to us, and how we must tend and transmit something so fragile and valuable to a new generation. Likewise, we are stewards to carry something new and old to the next generation, even against the forbidding and hostile winds of our time.
This article first appeared on Covenant and we are grateful for permission to reproduce it here on Fulcrum.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale.