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This page last updated 7 November 2007  

an essay for Anglicans Online
4 November 2007

What’s Really At Stake for
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.
Bishop in Charge
Convocation of American Churches in Europe

The extraordinary growth of the Anglican Communion outstripped long ago its structures for decision-making, which were by and large consensual and informal. Since Anglicanism is a way of being Christian that strongly emphasizes identification with national cultures, the present conflict can be seen as a clash of different cultural understandings of certain issues. The most important of these is authority itself: who decides for the whole, and how? Who decides at the global level? Who decides at the national level? Who decides at the local level?

This is focused of course on the issue of homosexuality — specifically, the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the Church. But the question could have been focused on other issues. For example, the Diocese of Sydney, Australia, has the idea that laypeople should be allowed to preside at the Eucharist. Anglican tradition, based on its Catholic roots, does not permit that. The particular situation in Sydney — strong evangelical tradition, large congregations, a paucity of clergy—obviously led them to consider this step.

Or take the matter of open communion. A few congregations, notably in California, have begun to invite people to take Communion with the congregation, specifically whether they are baptized or not. This is felt to be appropriate hospitality, even evangelism, in a very individualistic, post-Christian culture.

Clearly, both of these practices are out of step with Anglican theology and discipline. In the case of open communion, the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church are, frankly speaking, being violated, by people who have sworn to uphold these.

There remains among Anglicans worldwide, however, a large area of agreement, and this is crucial: the basic doctrines (or dogmas) of Christianity are not in question. Anglicans all respect the so-called “Lambeth Quadrilateral” as essential to our identity everywhere: the Scriptures as God’s Word, “containing all things necessary for salvation,” as the formula goes; the Creeds as the foundational interpretation of the message of the Bible; the two sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist as essential to Christian living; and the “historic episcopate” of bishops, “locally adapted.”

While none of these four cardinal points of Anglicanism is in question, their local adaptation is. Is it right to change the unanimous insistence on Baptism as necessary prior entrance into the Eucharist? Or to authorize unordained people to preside at said Eucharist? Or to ordain a partnered gay to the episcopate? Or, to ask a question considered at the 1988 Lambeth Conference, is it acceptable to baptize and confirm polygamists without first requiring that all but the senior wife be dismissed? And who can answer these questions with authority?

The very first disciples of Jesus had arguments about various issues, according to the New Testament. We do not have a great deal of information about how they went about solving them. One thinks, for instance, of St. Paul describing his tiff with St. Peter, that when Peter came to visit the Gentile congregation at Antioch, “I opposed him to his face, for he was clearly in the wrong.” (Gal. 2: 11) These episodes however did not mean that they had schisms, solemn pronouncements of broken communion, rival bishops, etc. That surgical apparatus came later. But that Christians had even from the beginning contentious issues to fight over should be of inestimable comfort to us today, as we wonder how people who are to love one another as Christ loves us (John 15:12) can sometimes do anything but.

But this does not help us to resolve conflict. Luke describes in Acts 15 a significant meeting in Jerusalem that took place among the first disciples, which is probably the same one Paul describes in Galatians 2:1-10. The issue then was more momentous than any we face today, for it meant the life or death of the Jesus movement itself: could Gentiles, traditionally unacceptable to Jews, become Christians without first having to become Jews? Paul and Barnabas, advocates of the innovation in Antioch, went to Jerusalem with some of their opponents to lay the matter “before the apostles and presbyters” (vs. 2). When they arrive, however, the whole church has to hear the argument. Finally a compromise is reached: the Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised, but they do have to follow certain basic rules, so as not to offend Jewish Christians. The decision is couched in a striking way: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” (vs. 24) The church in Antioch was reportedly very pleased with this ruling.

Immediately following, Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement over John Mark, and they part company angrily. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose…

Obviously Luke has stylized the story, as all good first-century writers did, but the outline is instructive. The matter is put before the whole church, not just the leaders. There is much debate. Then Peter recounts how he himself had experienced authentic conversions among Gentiles, and indeed, the Gentile converts believe the same gospel that he does: salvation is by grace through Christ (vs.11). Paul and Barnabas take advantage of the opening Peter gives them and recount the great works done among Gentiles through their ministry. Finally James caps the discussion by quoting a scripture that says that God will include the Gentile in the plan of salvation worked through Israel. The agreement of the whole church seems unanimous, and this decision is seen as the work of the Holy Spirit as well as the deliberations of the church members.

Since this early council, which made the most momentous decision in the history of the Church, synods have been called to resolve difficult questions, such as whether Jesus is truly divine as well as truly human. The authority of synods has been one answer to the question, who decides? Through the ages, two other basic replies have developed: the Pope decides; or the individual believer or congregation decides. Clearly for Anglicans, these two options are not acceptable. For one thing, they are not what the early church did — a key Anglican notion. Secondly, the papacy does not need the faithful in order to decide for the faithful, while the reformed position relies on individual believers and congregations to make decisions for themselves. Thus judging by the only council described in the New Testament, neither one is actually a biblical method of deciding for the church.

Anglicans therefore have looked to synods as having the authority to make decisions in controverted questions — but only at the national and diocesan levels. There is no equivalent structure or process on the global level. Until recently, the Anglo-Saxon roots of Anglicanism predominated. People studied at Oxford or Cambridge, or American seminaries. Everyone spoke English. Bishops were usually white, British or American. Therefore the informal structure of Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head, with whom all Anglican provinces are in communion, and Lambeth Conferences, consultations of all Anglican bishops in the world that explicitly lacks authority to decide difficult questions, could function more or less as if the Conferences did have authority, and this through moral suasion among a community of people who, though scattered globally, shared essentially the same culture.

After my predecessor in Europe, Bishop Stephen Bayne, chaired the Communion’s 1963 Anglican Congress’ mission consultation called Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence, things changed rapidly. For as great as the Anglo-Saxon missionaries were — our vibrant presence today in 163 countries is proof — they also imported their culture along with the Faith. All the Western missionaries did, imposing their ways as superior to the local cultures they encountered. Part of MRI’s agenda was to atone for this destructive domination by helping the local churches develop their own leadership.

The 1968 Lambeth Conference tried to forestall the complications engendered by MRI by creating the Anglican Consultative Council, which first met in 1970. The word “consultative” means, of course, that this Council does not have authority to decide difficult matters. The 1978 Lambeth Conference already began to show signs that the assembled bishops understood each other less and less, as the southern-hemisphere provinces began to grow rapidly. So the Primates of each province began to meet almost annually, to keep abreast of change. So we have now what has come to be termed “The Instruments of Communion” — the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ACC, the Lambeth Conference and the Primates Meeting.The 1988 Lambeth Conference was the first where the Anglo-Saxon bishops were outnumbered. The Africans brought forward the question of polygamy, and a decision was made that, in fact, polygamists could keep their several wives and still be baptized, because sending all but the senior wife home was terribly unjust, as it made them virtual pariahs. Since this applied only to one region in the world, this significant decision went into practice unopposed.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference saw increasing exacerbation on the part of the southern provinces’ bishops. Already unhappy with the way the American church had (in their view) peremptorily announced it would bring a woman bishop to the previous Conference, they found themselves in a parliamentary situation in which English legislative policies were followed and their own ways ignored. Bishop John Spong made his infamous remark about the Africans being one step from animism, and he was not publicly disciplined for what the Africans saw as blatant racism. Working among the bishops were American lobbyists determined to export their conflict within the Episcopal Church so as to find a way to stop what they saw as their church’s unacceptable innovations. Thus the last Lambeth Conference became for many around the Communion a meeting that finally began to decide doctrine authoritatively.

In other words, with the felt need for a synod where a decision could be made, Lambeth became it, although no one actually authorized that change. It just happened, faute de mieux. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, in a clear move to try and undo this perception of the Conference, has invited all of us bishops in the world to a Lambeth Conference next year for the training of bishops for our ministries, without legislative sessions — “resolution-lite,” it has been styled.

Recently, a number of my colleagues in the House of Bishops tried to argue that in fact, the old informal, “gentlemen’s agreement” way of doing business in the past is akin to the way nation-states have related to one another since the nineteenth century, and that this forms the basis for the ACC to become the body which can decide contentious issues, as it is the only constitutional body approved by all provinces. While their argument is definitely worth considering, I believe it is “a bridge too far,” a thesis which owes more to a certain interpretation of international law theory rather than theology. But it proposes another “Instrument of Communion” as candidate for the decision-making synod that some have made the Lambeth Conference to be.

Yet none of the “Instruments” were conceived as having ultimate authority. The Archbishop of Canterbury can declare that he is no longer in communion with a province or diocese, and he can decide not to invite bishops to the Lambeth Conference. Beyond that we are left with consultations.

A Covenant has recently been proposed to the Anglican Communion as a way to preserve unity. Judging from the reactions around the world, most are finding the proposed charter document unsatisfactory. I think this is due to the fact that it is an attempt to solve an immediate problem — dissension caused by the methods of full inclusion of gays and lesbians — with a global solution, rather than address the real question of authority in the Communion. Furthermore, the concept itself of a Covenant, or as others have proposed, a harmonization of the canon laws of the various provinces[1], does not “feel” Anglican enough for many.

While most Anglicans seem to be looking for a synodical solution of one type or another, a few are leaving and embracing the Roman solution, as former Bishop Jeffrey Steenson told us in New Orleans. (Personally, his departure greatly saddened me.) Two other retired bishops have recently been received into the Roman Church. More numerous are the voices for a genuinely Reformed solution. Writing in the Church of Ireland Gazette, the prominent Low Church theologian Alistair McGrath opined that

From the 1990s, Anglicanism has found itself being confronted with the tensions of its own heritage, long shielded from view by a benign and static cultural environment. Happily, this does not mean the end of Anglicanism, nor even the beginning of its decline. It need do no more than usher in a period of local visions of Anglicanism, each faithful to its tradition and adapted to its own specific environment. Paradoxically, the future of Anglicanism is thus actually likely to be characterised by overall growth, rather than contraction.

Understanding Anglicanism’s Protestant heritage thus allows us to understand what is going on at the moment, and what its possible outcomes might be. Might Anglicanism come to be much more like Methodism or Lutheranism in the future?[2]

McGrath is certainly correct that Anglicanism’s ability to inculturate comes from the English Reformation. However, he elides over an essential part of that movement, which birthed the providential accident that is Anglicanism. This is the desire to purify the Catholic Church, using the new technology of printing to make the Scriptures and liturgies available to all, so as to enlist the laity in the task of building a Christian society. The Church of England never intended to be a schismatic Protestant entity, as Bishop John Jewell, Richard Hooker and others argued in the sixteenth century. Finding themselves cut off and left to their own devices, our earliest forebears of what we now call Anglicanism wanted to return their nation’s Catholic church to an earlier, purer state — not to join John Calvin in a thoroughgoing Reformation according to new notions of church governance, theology, and piety, supposedly drawn from the Scriptures.

Those voices both Left and Right, in America and elsewhere, that want to balkanize the Anglican Communion into “purely local visions of Anglicanism” are in effect proposing the Reformed shortcut to conflict resolution: schism. Even among themselves, the Reformed denominations cannot act globally, because they are cut off from one another. Ironically, while the Lutherans and Methodists yearn to have their own version of the Anglican Communion, a global entity that can do mission and ministry on a scale they can only dream of at present, some Anglicans think a federation on their models would be better! One of the key elements of the Reformed vision of things is that catholicity, the belief that there is a “mere Christianity” that all hold despite differences, is in fact impossible. If the Communion devolves into a “variety of local visions,” it will be at the cost of catholicity. That which the earliest English Reformers prized above all else, often at the cost of their lives, will be lost.

If there is one thing the ecumenical movement has taught all Christians (at least, those who have ears to hear), it is that all forms of church governance are inadequate to the task of being the Church. We could paraphrase Winston Churchill and say that the synodical model is the worst form of government, until you look at all the others. This is not to say that the Roman Catholic Church and the various Reformed churches around the world are not worthy witnesses to Christ in their own right, bringing millions to know Christ. I have not mentioned the Eastern churches so far, even though they have invested in the synodical model of conflict resolution, because in fact they have decided to wait until a real Ecumenical Council can be held again, the last having taken place in 787 A.D. Certainly the second largest Christian denomination is not remiss in helping people meet Jesus Christ, either. But none has countered the principal argument against Jesus and his People: namely, that we cannot get along, which gives the lie to the Good News; and we cannot reach agreement on very basic issues, demonstrating the basic incoherence of our religion. Instead, each considers itself to be definitive, considering all others to be somehow “defective,” as the Vatican’s latest pronouncement on the matter claims.

Despite all our flaws and sins as a Church, and we have many, Anglicans have always had the instinct that if Christians cannot find a modus vivendi, a way of living together, we are not truly alive in the Spirit at all. This is the heart of Anglicanism, its central insight. This is why we are at the origin of the ecumenical movement, the Lambeth Quadrilateral being actually our call for Christian reunion aimed at other denominations. Those who want to throw in the towel on Anglican unity must therefore abandon this ecumenical instinct, as well as catholicity. For these are in fact facets of the same jewel, the eternal prayer of Jesus Christ before the throne of the Father that his disciples may be One (John 17:20-26), as the Holy Trinity is One, so that the world may know that Jesus is sent to the whole world from God in the Spirit.

It is for his sake that we must continue to strive to be one, maintaining unity in diversity, in the image of the Holy Trinity and of God’s creating, redeeming work.

Implicitly or explicitly, the various attempts to enforce some unity in the Communion have addressed only one issue so far: to make the Episcopal Church get rid of openly gay people from among its clergy, especially in the order that is global, not local, the episcopate. Whatever one thinks of the rightness of what we did in 2003, it should be clear to all Anglicans that we cannot begin to address any of the disputed questions of our time, only a few of which I listed above, without finding a way to address the question of authority itself.

Which brings us back to Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem. There are aspects to that Council which are signposts for us still today. First, the presenting issue was too important for just “the apostles and presbyters” (read: the Instruments of Communion) to decide, though clearly for many issues their opinion was sufficient. Whether Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews — and whether in fact they could be Christians at all — was a defining issue, which came with the baggage of Paul himself, the only apostle who knew not Jesus in his earthly ministry. To discern the will of the Holy Spirit in this matter required therefore the ability for all to contribute to the debate, because the Spirit often speaks through the one we consider least likely. The question is put forth by those who oppose it, “the Pharisees,” though Paul and James — and Jesus himself — belonged to their movement. This shows that the Jerusalem church had a lot of theological and cultural background in common besides the obviously momentous impact that becoming disciples of Jesus had on each and on all. This was, in other words, an argument among Jews of the same party, just as we have today arguments among Anglicans sharing the Quadrilateral, the Prayer Book tradition, etc.

A lot of debate ensued, Luke tells us (vs. 7), the “whole church” having its say. Then Peter stands to speak, moved to give his own opinion formed by his experience with Cornelius the centurion and his household (see Acts 10). This gives Paul and Barnabas the opening to tell stories of what they witnessed among the Gentile converts that support Peter’s speech. James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, sums up by quoting some Scripture that is in agreement with Peter’s experience. It is critically important to note that he made a choice among Scriptures, for on the place and role of Gentiles in the plan of salvation the Scriptures are hardly unanimous (like the question of women’s leadership, for another example). Luke does not tell us whether there was a vote, only that the apostles and presbyters, “in agreement with the whole church” (vs. 22), appointed people to go to Antioch with a letter describing “the decision of the Holy Spirit and us.”

So what the Anglican Communion needs, if the New Testament can serve as guide, is a way of summoning a synod for questions that cannot be decided by the modern “apostles and presbyters”, the Instruments of Communion. These could certainly agree on criteria for the disputed questions to refer to a global synod, which would be issues arising within a local context that have consequences for the global Communion, or else agreements with other Christian churches that are of consequence to all Anglicans. (For instance, all Anglican provinces are in full communion with the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht.)

The synod would be structured to be truly representative, so that “the whole church” is involved in the deliberations. It would therefore include lay and clergy delegates as well as bishops. Its principal task would be to consider what the Holy Spirit has to say, from the experience of the local church(es) that provoked the disputed question, from those who oppose the development, all studying the Scriptures as primary guide, aided by insights from the Tradition, all in the context of common prayer and daily worship, in particular the Holy Eucharist. The synod’s decision would be transmitted back to the provinces, for them to accept or reject. The rejection by a province or provinces would require the consideration of the Instruments of Communion, with an ultimate referendum to all the provinces.

The Pan-Anglican Congresses of 1908, 1954, and 1963 are in fact the forerunners of this synod — I am not proposing anything radically new. (Another Anglican Congress had been planned for 2008, before the Lambeth Conference, but had to be cancelled because of finances.) We need to try at least once more to honor our conciliar, synodical tradition at the global level, intentionally and with everyone at the table. There do not appear to be alternatives that will allow Anglicans to be faithful to our ancestors in the Faith and to the mission of the Church they have passed to us. The experience will help our ecumenical partners, one way or another, to discern their own way forward toward unity — or not.

The present back-and-forth of statements, meetings, and so on is the necessary prelude to being able to come together to make a common decision at the same table. However, it may be that decision will be merely de facto, by refusing, after all, to engage one another. Each province and diocese might go its own way, some to Rome, or else creating a simulacrum of it with a ruling bishop supposed to have a special charism for authoritative decisions; some to Geneva’s ways and “local visions of Anglicanism” and perhaps some may even go off to Constantinople. In that case we must realize that this decision would mean that Anglicanism no longer “works” and has never really worked as an authentic alternative way of being Christian. And we will have also concluded, despite ourselves, perhaps, that in fact, there is no unity among Christians possible, ever, ad sæcula sæculorum. This implies that the Church is not really One, and is therefore not Holy, not Catholic, nor Apostolic, after all.

Unity with God and each other is the first quality of the Church, sine qua non. Without it we have in the long run no claim on the hearts and minds of our fellow human beings. Logically, this would mean that ultimately Jesus was only a great prophet of God, who nevertheless failed in his mission.

But I for one am by no means ready to leave the Church for the Mosque! Shrinking from the task before us Anglicans is very tempting, for a variety of reasons, but our failure — nay, our betrayal — at this point would have ramifications far beyond the quarrels of the moment. Let us have the courage and perseverance to continue the rounds of meetings and statements until we can meet together, “the whole church, along with the apostles and presbyters,” to seek to hear together what the Spirit is saying today to the Anglican Communion, and eventually, to all the Churches (cf. Rev. 2:29). We can be certain that God the Holy Trinity will be at the rendezvous — but will we?

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.