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This page last updated 23 June 2008  

an essay for Anglicans Online
22 June 2008

Peering Past Lambeth
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

While the Anglican Communion watches and wonders what its bishops will be doing this summer, most at the Lambeth Conference, some at the GAFCON conference, and one in New Hampshire, it is interesting to try to peer past these events and see what the future might look like.

This writer claims no prophetic charism—none of these events will decide anything. The outline of the questions facing Anglicans around the world will probably look the same. What will have changed—and this is a prediction—is that the bishops at Lambeth will begin seriously to examine together what it will take to move the Communion forward, so that these questions can be faced.

While the presenting issues seem to be sexuality and territorial invasions creating new non-geographical jurisdictions like the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, the real issue is ecclesiology. The broader challenge facing Anglicans around the world is to re-commit to and live out in new ways the distinctive Anglican ecclesiology—what makes us Church.

Ecclesiology is a church’s thinking and speaking about itself. It involves reflection upon several sources: the New Testament images of the Church, the history of the Church in general and that of the particular church within it,[i] specific ecclesial images in the individual church, various credal and confessional formulations, the structure of authority, the witness of saints, and the thought of various theologians. As part of systematic theology—reflections upon the faith organized around particular images—ecclesiology cannot be kept apart from a theology’s explanations of grace, salvation, the Spirit’s action, sacraments, church governance, and moral reflection. How we conceive of the Church invariably influences to a large extent how we speak about God, Christ, the Spirit, and ourselves in God’s economy.

An ecclesiology is often an unspoken organizing principle, whose existence can only be inferred from recurring manners of speech. This elusive quality of an ecclesiology is due to a number of factors. The first is that it is difficult to be objective about oneself or one’s community, especially the church. We who are participants in our church know it only through the lens of our personal participation and relationships within it, what some call intersubjectivity. It is therefore easier to understand another church’s ecclesiology than one’s own.

A second reason for the elusiveness of ecclesiology is that the doctrine of the Church is inextricably intertwined with the other great themes of systematic theology. A theology of grace, for example, has direct consequences for a notion of what constitutes the Church. Yet this is often not immediately apparent to theologians as they build their systems.

A third reason is ideology. Simply put, a doctrine of the Church may not be a genuine teaching that helps grasp the mystery of redemption within a community formed by grace, but rather an ideology that cannot be questioned. In other words, an ecclesiology may be a cover for group bias. One example is those churches that exclude all but their own members from salvation in Christ. A similar example (odd as it may sound) would be a church that proclaims itself to be absolutely inclusive of all people.

Finally, the indirectness by which a church’s ecclesiology must be grasped is that the Church is, like all of God’s works, a mystery (cf. Eph.5: 32). This word, used in its New Testament sense, refers to the inability of the human mind ever to grasp more than dimly the action of God in Christ, uniting the divine and the human.

A number of scholars recently have been focusing on the question, is there, in fact, an ecclesiology proper to Anglicans? We have never defined one, per se. But in fact, I would argue that we do in fact have a distinct ecclesiology of our own.[ii] The conundrum that Anglicans have had to face since the first intimations of the break with Rome is how to be the One Church when unity is no longer available. Of the four “notes” of the Church, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” unity is first. “Is Christ divided?” Paul sarcastically asked the Corinthians (I Cor. 1:13). That would be obviously absurd. Yet unity has been broken. The Reformed way of solving this conundrum—that the true Church had disappeared for centuries and has now only re-appeared—did not convince the first Anglicans.[iii] The Roman Catholic solution, submitting everything to the papacy—was of course not acceptable to them. They were the Catholic Church in England. They knew in their bones that their church was no sect.

How to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic when unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are not immediately evident is the problem that all Christian communions must solve with their ecclesiology. The Church of England’s solution was unique.

The Church of England is a part of the Catholic Church, the first Anglicans reasoned, correctly. As such it is the visible society, membership in which effects salvation in Christ through participation in the supernatural society of the communion of saints. Its pedigree from antiquity is secure. Its pastors are legitimate heirs of the apostles, preaching from the Scriptures, praying the Creeds, faithfully administering the sacraments. But to remedy the deficiencies of the Roman model that the first reformers decried—its lack of a scriptural base, its tendency to demand conformity, and its overweening clericalism—Anglicans adopted a number of structural changes inspired by notions from the continental Reformation. The most important point about this process is that it arose to face the question of how to be Catholic Christians in a peculiar national and ecclesiastical situation. This process has some permanent features that all Anglican churches around the world replicate in one form or another.

The most basic feature is that Anglicans feel very deeply the absurdity of being a fragment of the whole Church, one shard of the mirror, as it were, shattered by Christian disunity. Anglicans as Catholics blame the papacy for the shattering of Christian unity.[iv] Thus we have always felt (with the significant exception of the Tractarians and their descendants) a certain sympathy with other non–Roman Christians. For all churches who have had “no choice” but to go their own way, Anglicans feel some sense of kinship. Not for nothing is it that the oldest formal ecumenical relationship is between the Church of England and the Orthodox Churches.

From this has come the yearning for unity expressed in the ecumenical movement, in which Anglicans have historically played a leading role. Anglicans have attempted many conversations over the centuries with Roman Catholics to overcome the two communions’ mutual estrangement. The results of the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Consultation has borne remarkable fruit over the past forty years, fruit which will become irrelevant if the Anglican Communion truly splits. In particular, the Consultations have developed a theology of koinonia (Greek for communion, common life). The central point of this koinonia ecclesiology is that the relationships among Christians in a given church as well as the Church reflect the relations of the Three Persons of the Trinity. The Eucharist is the sign of koinonia and the oversight of the clergy is in its service. This koinonia ecclesiology should become an integral part in the years to come of any statement of a distinctive Anglican ecclesiology.

A second enduring feature of the Anglican ecclesiological process is comprehensiveness, a willingness to accept some variation of doctrine. While this may have been at times merely tolerance for the sake of a false peace, at heart it is a true recognition of the appropriate epistemology for a fragment of the Catholic Church, indeed, for any church that sees itself as a pilgrim band on the move. The 1948 Lambeth Report on Authority, with its famous assertion that authority in Anglicanism is dispersed among several sources, is but a recent attempt to explain and defend this perennial aspect of Anglicanism.[v]

This comprehensiveness has many facets. First, there needs to be room for individual Christians to realize their vocation as adopted children of God, baptized in the Holy Spirit. To “equip the saints for ministry,” they need unfettered access to the Scriptures, the primary tradition, so as to be formed by the mind of the Trinity. The people need to be able to pray in a way that will mold them more and more into the image of Christ—to become holy people. The laity need to have their share in the governance of the Church. Only together do we possess the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16) and therefore only together will the Holy Spirit lead us into all truth. Paradoxically, that requires a great deal of individual freedom. This is the heart of the English Reformation, of the reformed character of Anglicanism.

The notion that there are some doctrines upon which Christians may reasonably disagree entered the Church of England through the work of John Frith, who was burned at the stake for it in 1533. While this notion of adiaphora, that there are secondary doctrines upon which people may disagree, derives from the thought of Lutherans like Philip Melancthon and Œcolampadius, its only ecclesial application in the 16th century was in the English Church. The question then arises, which doctrines must be held as essential and which are adiaphora?

Answering this question requires patience, some allowance for people to express their minds. Thus the Sixth Article of Religion draws a hermeneutical circle around the Scriptures, saying that they “contain all things necessary to salvation” without spelling out what, in fact, those “things” are. Furthermore, the Article draws another circle around each individual Christian, that no ecclesiastical power can force anyone to believe what Scripture does not contain or what can be clearly and convincingly proven therein. As this Article forms the basis for the Oath of Conformity that all Anglican clergy must make at ordination, its relevance to contemporary Anglicans, as opposed to other Articles, is clear. One example of how this works is in Richard Hooker’s discussion how the eucharistic bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. He clearly accepts that people have different theories about it. But their arguments about it preempt the faithful reception of the Eucharist, and have no priority over fulfilling Jesus’ command to “take and eat.”[vi]

Another critically important aspect of this comprehensiveness is that faith seeking understanding relies not on certainty, but on probability. Faith, after all, is confidence in God, not certainty about God. This has become a permanent undercurrent in Anglican thought. Jesus Christ as the Truth is the asymptote toward which our formulations of truth must tend, but can never reach. Therefore the Church is not infallible. But because the truth of its doctrine points however dimly to Christ, God will not let the Church fall into fatal error. This so–called “indefectibility” gives theological grounds for confidence in the ideal of comprehensiveness.

A third perennial feature is to locate the doctrine to which all must subscribe (the boundaries of comprehensiveness) in the way the church worships, rather than in strictly confessional documents like the Westminster Confession. This principle, lex orandi lex credendi, preserves both the church’s formal need for foundational doctrine and the freedom of individuals to interpret it. It has the backing of antiquity, and it leads away from arguments about doctrine to disputes about right worship. Moreover, since the Scottish Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1637 alongside the 1558 Book, there has been growing latitude in the forms of worship, a trend that has accelerated immensely in the past several decades as the Anglican Communion has grown exponentially.

A fourth permanent feature is to appeal at the same time to the example of the early church and to current scholarship. John Jewel, for instance, points out that since modern scholarship (of his day, that is) has made the Scriptures available to all, along with other ancient Christian writings, Rome’s charges of heresy and schism against the Church of England may be easily disproven. (In fact, he argued that these prove that Rome is itself the source of heresy and schism.[vii])

A fifth perennial feature of Anglicanism is its view of itself as the church of the nation. While the Church of England is still the established church, that sentiment has carried over into younger Anglican Provinces. What other American church would make a gift to its nation of a “house of prayer for all people” like the Washington National Cathedral? The answer is an Anglican church that sees itself in some sense as a national church, despite its disestablishment after the American Revolution. Similarly, Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, shortly before his martyrdom at the hands of Idi Amin in 1977, expressed his conviction that were he to be martyred, it would be for Uganda as well as for Jesus. Anglicans consider not only the Scriptures, the tradition of the early church, and current scholarship, but also the pastoral needs of their particular nations and cultures. The Lambeth 1988 Resolution 26 to allow African polygamists to keep, as a matter of justice, their several wives after conversion to Christianity is a good example of this.

These perennial features of Anglican ecclesiology arguably result from the attempts of Anglicans to wrestle with the absurdity of being a fragment of the Church that should be a whole and yet is not. It could be said that the overarching biblical metaphor for the way Anglicans live this is found in the parable of the wheat and the tares.

These various elements of the Anglican ecclesiology are being sorely tried today. People from all sides, driven by their own agendas, want to prematurely separate the wheat from the weeds. The future work of the Communion, hopefully enabled by a consensus of bishops at Lambeth, will be to re-commit to, re-assert, re-work, re-define this Anglican ecclesiology in their own contexts. The Covenant process begun by the Lambeth Commission is one early attempt to resolve neatly—far too neatly in my opinion—this work. While some common written agreement, or some harmonization of the canon laws of the provinces of the Communion might help along the way, what we will need to do is to re-discover in our multiplicity of cultural contexts how the Anglican ecclesiology is at work, and re-affirm it globally.

Some American readers may object that the bishops of The Episcopal Church are not decision-makers for the whole church. That is correct, and it is important to recognize that shared governance with the laity is a basic principle of Anglican ecclesiology throughout the Communion, and not just in our own polity. There is however a difference between leadership and government. The office of bishop is primarily that of leader—specifically, to serve the local church and the whole Church in continuing to point the way forward in the accomplishment of the Church’s mission, and pastorally enable it to be carried out. It is essential that informal links and relationships continue to form among these leaders if the whole Communion is to emerge from our present deadlock. God willing, this will be the principal result of Lambeth 2008. We bishops need to be supported by prayer and good will, not suspicion.

Lately there has been a lot of rhetoric in certain quarters about a baptismal ecclesiology, that Baptism is really the critical sacrament. “The Baptized,” therefore, are the only real ministers in this view. People holding to this view seem especially suspicious of the office of bishop: “we can’t let the bishops have too much power.” However, the Eucharist is the central act of the worshipping church. “Baptism is Eucharist begun; Eucharist is Baptism completed,” in George Worgul's succinct formula.[viii] The president of the Eucharist—normally the Bishop, or else the Priest serving as the Bishop's delegate—can tend to become the sole focus, as certainly happened in the West by the 15th century. “Hierarchy is natural,” as Ed Friedman said, and in the world, there are the great and the small, the first and everyone else. However, where God reigns, hierarchy is not abolished but set right--the greatest is least and the first last. Therefore the laos, the People of God, is the critical element, not the president of the liturgy, for the three offices of the ordained serve to embody and empower the royal priesthood which is the laos. No People, no clergy.

However, "the Baptized" without bishops, priests and deacons are what, exactly? Baptism, normally done by a priest, does signify and enact the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, of a life. I will not be admitted into heaven because I am a bishop, but by virtue of both the grace given to me at my baptism and how God's "upward call" has worked itself out in my life.

The ordained are here precisely for this metaxu, this in-between, already/not yet of every human life, to serve the People of God as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” and as our salvation works itself out in us. On a desert island, alone, one does not need a priest, never mind a bishop: one needs a ship! But in human society, the Church is the locus wherein the outworking of the Spirit's call and gifts is begun, continued and ended. And the central act of the Church gathered is the Eucharist, to which Baptism is the admission. Austin Farrer, the great twentieth-century English theologian, even claimed that to miss Divine Service voluntarily was to “maim” the Body of Christ.

It is worth noting that all Christians believe in Christ thanks to the faith and witness of the first disciples of Jesus, who met Jesus risen from the dead and upon whom the Holy Spirit first came. It is their witness, crystallized in the New Testament which interprets the Old Testament, upon which all Christians place our trust. The witness and work of the original disciples, therefore, form the instrument for the mediation of salvation by grace through faith to all succeeding generations. There is no question among Anglicans of the fundamental role that the Scriptures play in this. As the original disciples began to die off, the succeeding generation began the process that ultimately created the New Testament, starting from the oral tradition of the original witnesses to the canon recognized in its present form in the fourth century. The apostles also appointed people of this next generation to represent them in local churches. The Pauline school called them “bishops,” the Petrine school called them “presbyters.” Within two more generations, this had become the threefold ministry, with bishops in charge of the local church, appointing presbyters to represent them in particular congregations, aided by deacons. Thus Ignatius of Antioch, writing ca.110 C.E., could write that the Church is the bishop celebrating the Eucharist in the midst of the people.[ix] The development of the Scriptures, the sacramental life of the church, and the episcopate are therefore parallel. A distinctively Anglican ecclesiology should present a theology of this parallel development, under the rubric of the action of the Holy Spirit.

This requires revisiting the role of the succession of bishops. There have been all kinds of theories of the episcopate.[x] Anglicans remain committed to the historic episcopate as part of the plene esse, the fullness of the Church. We need to marshal our arguments why this should be so, beyond Richard Hooker’s assertions of its practicality and antiquity.[xi]

The distinctive Anglican ecclesiology that must become clearer in the years to come will therefore affirm and subsume features of various baptismal and eucharistic theologies of the Church. It will affirm a polity of episcopal leadership in synodical government of the evangelistic and sacramental life of the Church, without nullifying the essential validity of non–episcopal churches. It must also explicate and defend the comprehensiveness that a pilgrim Church needs in order to continue the journey. It will support the other perennial features of Anglican ecclesiology outlined above, adding rich new insights from the experience of the young churches of the developing world.[xii] It will engage creatively and generously our ecumenical partners. Doing the hard work necessary to achieve this in all our provinces around the world, covering 163 nations, is what lies past Lambeth 2008. And Lambeth 2018. And 2028…

And one day, God willing, the distinctiveness of Anglicanism which this doctrine of the Church expresses will be subsumed into a larger, even richer whole, to the glory of God the Holy Trinity, in whom all people “live and move and have their being.”

[i] Avery Dulles distinguishes between “the Church,” an idealized concept of the community founded by Christ and the apostles, and “the churches,” concrete historical Christian communities which hold various ideals of the Church. The present writer finds this distinction useful, because it allows for precision in distinguishing between concept of an ideal community and the real people who hold a version of that concept.

[ii] I make this argument in an unpublished MS, “Toward a distinctive Anglican doctrine of the Church,” available upon request by writing to This column contains some condensed materials from this article.

[iii] Of course, they were not called Anglicans. I date the emergence of Anglicanism as we know it from the reign of Elizabeth I.

[iv] This is, e.g., John Jewel’s rhetorical device in his Apology for the Church of England. He turns all the Roman accusations around, convicting the papacy of the very offenses they charge the Church of England with.

[v] “… distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the witness of saints, and the consensus fidelium, which is the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit through His faithful people in the Church.” An important critical appraisal of the Report is Joseph Britton’s “Dispersed Authority,” Sewanee Theological Review 42.3 Pentecost 1999, pp. 311–331.

[vi] Hooker, Laws, V.67.12.

[vii] John Jewel, An Apology of the Church of England (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1963), p. 18ff.

[viii] George Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor: A Validation of Christian Sacraments (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985 ), p. 188

[ix] “To the Magnesians” 6:1; “To the Philadelphians” 4:1.

[x] See Women Bishops in the Church of England?(The Rochester Report) accessed at; pp.33-41.

[xi] Though in Laws 7.24.3, Hooker intimates that he himself is persuaded that God requires him to obey his bishop, whom God has placed in authority over him.

[xii] As Emmanuel Orobator, a Roman Catholic African theologian, points out, there has been little work in African ecclesiology. The basic themes of African communal life—the primacy of community over individual, the honoring of the extended family, and the need to venerate ancestors—seem to be emerging in African church life as well. Jesus becomes the prototypical ancestor, the One who gives life. See “Perspectives and Trends in Contemporary African Ecclesiology,” Studia Missionalia 45: 1996, pp. 267–287.

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.