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Whom Do We Belong?
One of the most basic constitutive elements of a person’s identity is belonging. We belong to families, to communities of place, of language, of faith, of profession, and on and on. We Christians believe in particular that we belong to Christ. Participating in regular worship has the function of perpetually reminding us who we are, and whose we are. Our identity—the ultimate meaning of the life of each—grows from belonging.
Oddly enough, the instantiation of each person’s identity requires not only accepting that one belongs, but also that one does not belong. I am the son of Raymond and Marthe, and cannot escape being part of the family they founded from the families to which they belong. Yet I cannot say that I belong to that family without being also able to say that I am not identical with them—I do not belong. For in order to fully realize who we are, we need to remember to whom we belong, and choose therefore to continue in that.
Of course, within the Christian Church there are myriad communities. We Episcopalians are part of the Episcopal Church, an international church stretching from Taiwan to Europe. It in turn is a member of the Anglican Communion. But do we belong to it, in the way that this writer belongs to the Episcopal Church? Does the Anglican Communion shape our identity? Can we live without it?
Its history is interesting, for the birth of the Episcopal Church, as Philadelphians reminded the deputies and bishops at General Convention 1997, was the beginning of the Communion. William White, writing even before the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution, considered the problem of belonging to the Church of England, and yet being cut off from it by its Establishment of religion. In The Case of the Episcopal Church Considered, he noted that this belonging had always been more theoretical than actual. The Anglican churches (as we would now say) in the colonies were part of the Diocese of London, which did little more than ordain priests for them. And yet he was loathe to abandon the essentials of the catholic form of government, in particular the episcopacy, calling it “one of the leading characteristics of the communion.”
White used the word “communion” throughout to denote belonging to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The “Episcopalians” (he uses that word) wanted to remain in that Church, and saw having Bishops as essential in the ordinary existence of the Church, unless, as White noted, the succession of bishops could not be obtained. (He went on to propose that presbyters ordain one only until the irregularity could be fixed.) In other words, the Episcopalians who went on to found our Episcopal Church wanted to create a church they could belong to that had the essentials of what the Church of England in her own history had carried forward. What they did not want was the extension of the “tyranny” of the Crown incarnate in the English bishops. They sought to maintain the communion of the church catholic, yet not remain structurally part of the Church of England. Belonging yet not belonging…
Thus the Church of England had birthed a daughter church quite by accident. While she was essentially the same, the Episcopalians took the underlying principle of the royal supremacy—the ancient tradition of temporal government of the Church by a layperson— and radically re-interpreted it according their new-fangled democratic ideas. William White’s interim step of presbyteral ordination turned out not to be necessary to keep the communion. There was no break in the succession of the Episcopal Church. And yet, this was no colonial replica of the mother church. The polities of the two churches form the “bookends,” so to speak, of the various polities of the other churches of what decided to call itself the Anglican Communion.
The English and American churches went on to found Anglican churches all over the world. The forty-two other Churches of the Anglican Communion owe their existence to one or the other, the English church working through its missionary organizations, and the American church through constituting the church itself as a missionary organization—the “Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” Each church is autonomous and interdependent, “belonging and yet not belonging.” Depending on its founder, each one has a church polity inspired by the English or American model. In the twentieth century, the Communion began to grow exponentially.
All of this happened seemingly by chance, though this writer would prefer to say that the Anglican Communion happened by divine Providence. Outside of Heaven, however, there was no master plan for its creation. People looked to the Archbishop of Canterbury as symbol of unity, as being the source of our episcopal succession. As time went on, various forms of regular meetings were instituted by the member churches at the request of Archbishops to work on issues of common concern that arose. So the Lambeth Conferences of bishops, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting came to be. None of these so-called “Instruments of Unity” has juridical power over the Communion, though it is commonly assumed that the Archbishop of Canterbury can declare himself “out of communion” with a member church.
That word again—“communion.” Its Latin etymology suggests diversity coming together to form a unity, Not belonging and yet belonging. The particular relations among the churches of the Anglican Communion reflect the original relationship between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church of the United States. The tension left after the American Revolution between the United Kingdom and the United States has perdured. They routinely misunderstand their very different forms of government, and so often misinterpret the other. But also the relation between the two churches has also been marked by a mutual desire to share the treasures of the reformed catholicism that is Anglicanism, which the Episcopal Church received from the Church of England, just as Americans received the English language.
The present crisis in the Anglican Communion is indeed, as the Presiding Bishop has noted, a costly invitation into deeper communion with one another. The haphazard and accidental character of the Communion’s birth helps us understand that sooner or later, issues would come to the fore that would challenge the “belonging-not belonging” nature of the churches’ relations with one another. The Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion (that word again) suggests remedies for the situation. It is interesting to note that in the present crisis, the fault line is between the daughters of the Church of England and the daughters of the American church.
All the churches of the Anglican Communion are faced with the question: should we continue to belong and not belong? Should we abandon what the Windsor Report calls autonomy-in-interdependence? One way to resolve our present situation is to choose independence over interdependence. Another is to emphasize interdependence so as to eliminate autonomy.
This writer will dare to opine that the key to resolving the crisis is not to be found in adopting the solution of the Roman Church and centralize decision-making and juridical power. If Anglicans want to go that route, however, the papacy will be glad to help. While many of us have deep and justifiable admiration for the Orthodox Churches, and have learned much that is precious from them, their solution of enshrining ancient formulas does not appeal to us, who have since the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 preferred to adapt to the needs of present circumstances the treasures we have inherited. White’s Case is another example of this enduring mark of Anglican identity. So are the consecrations of Barbara Harris and Gene Robinson, and the practice of allowing polygamists to be baptized without giving up all but the senior wife. While the reader may consider any of these developments to be in error (the right of any Anglican), they are arguably typical of this pragmatic adaptation of catholic principles to situations the early church did not face.
The proper resolution of the present crisis will be the development of an understanding that the tension of “belonging-not belonging” is a dialectic that may not resolved by going too far in either direction. Then there will have to be theological understandings and administrative procedures and structures that will seek to maintain that dialectic. But there must be something deeper to make us do the hard work this requires.
The line of reasoning that William White followed was that communion was to be maintained by any means necessary, even extraordinary ones. For our communion is not just based on common history, lines of episcopal succession, or the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The identity of Anglicans is based on the one mark not heretofore discussed in this essay: Common Prayer. What makes us Anglicans more than anything else is the sincere regular use of the Book of Common Prayer as the basis of our worship. The American church produced its first Book even before its constitution. The 1662 and 1789 Books were the backbone of the development of global Anglicanism, and the models for the many modern Prayer Books in use around the world.
The Prayer Book liturgy is always and unfailingly about communion with God and each other. We are not divine and God is not human, yet we belong to God and God to us. In his humanity Jesus is not God but one of us; in his divinity Christ is God but not of us. And yet, Jesus Christ is one person, one identity. In the liturgy we are reminded perpetually who we are and whose we are. Just as Jesus Christ is one with God the Holy Trinity, so too we are one through Christ with God in the Spirit. This is the origin and destination of our communion. We belong, yet are not identical. It is this tension itself that makes us who we are. If we choose to resolve it, it will be at the risk of the communion we have with God. Schism is the worst sin, the Church Fathers taught.
The Windsor Report ends by warning the churches of the Anglican Communion that if we do not learn to “walk together,” we shall have to learn to walk apart. But as we have “walked together,” there has always been a distance, a “personal space,” that has been maintained and honored as well. We need to learn how to preserve that manner of “walking,” belonging yet not belonging. What we must never forget is that the road we are walking on is the road to Emmaus.
 Quoted in Documents of Witness, ed. Armentrout & Slocum (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994) p. 8. Emphasis mine.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at email@example.com.