I generally don’t spend a lot of time commenting here on current events in the Church. The purpose of this project is to talk about the essentials of classical Anglicanism and how they can be applied today, not to dwell on the ever shifting world of ecclesiastical politics. However, the deteriorating state of the Anglican Communion is undeniable. This has been going on for more than a decade. Provinces are out of communion with one another. The last Lambeth Conference was short a third of the bishops from some of the biggest churches in the Communion. The last Primates meeting was even more sparsely attended. Bishops are running rampant over other bishops, ignoring diocesan and provincial boundaries. The Archbishop of Canterbury has lost credibility in almost all corners. Moreover, the issues which divide us are only multiplying. Questions of sexuality are now augmented by questions about the role of ordination in the celebration of the sacraments, the authority of scripture, and even such doctrinal essentials as the atonement and the resurrection. The Anglican Covenant has been proposed as a way to prevent further erosion and bring us all back to our common starting point, and I am generally supportive of it, but it appears to me that it was dead on arrival. The Anglican Communion as we know it is dying, if it’s not already dead, and nothing short of a miracle is going to change that. Of course, I still hold out hope for a miracle–our God is a God of miracles, after all–but I think that we need to begin to face the reality of the situation. The Communion is a sinking ship. Elvis has left the building.
For the longest time I have fought against acknowledging this bitter truth because I could not fathom how there could be anything called Anglicanism without the Communion. Anglicanism is not a systematic theology. It is not an abstract theory. It is an embodied faith. It is rooted in the tangible, day to day experience of being the Church. Moreover, it is historical. The Communion is tied to Canterbury, which ties it to the great saints of the English Church both before and after the Reformation, which ties it to Augustine’s mission in 597, which ties it to a faith and practice that go all the way back to the apostles. Anglicanism needs that history, not just to be legitimate but to be whole. Unlike other forms of Protestantism that can be easily and neatly applied to new churches that develop almost over night, Anglicanism requires historicity and catholicity. A newly formed Anglican church requires bishops ordained in succession, which means that those bishops need to be in communion with other bishops, which implies a wider structure and a greater source. Anglicanism is not just theological software that can be run on any old ecclesiastical hardware. It is both software and hardware. It is the whole package.
But what has occurred to me recently, as I’ve pondered the Anglican Communion’s impending demise, is that while Anglicanism requires historicity and catholicity, it does not require the current model of Communion life. Anglicanism and the Anglican Communion are not synonymous. In fact, I would argue that in some ways the Anglican Communion as we know it has never been Anglican. Anglicanism is a way of being historic, catholic Christians that develops out of the English Reformation but has its roots in the faith and practice of the early Church. It is a way of being that ties us–through the reading of Scripture in light of the Fathers and through liturgical, sacramental worship–to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Anglicanism is not a series of compromises between warring theological factions, and yet that is exactly what the Anglican Communion has served up for most of its history.
Some would say that the real beginning of the Anglican Communion came with American independence, when the American church decided to remain Anglican even though no longer under the crown. While there is some truth to this, the development of the modern Anglican Communion came through British expansion and imperialism during the nineteenth century. It is also in the nineteenth century that the modern Anglican parties developed and took shape. High Church, Low Church, and Latitudinarian gave way to Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical, and Liberal. These various theological schools eventually became more important than any shared experience of the Christian faith. Ex-patriot churches and later mission churches were set up by societies that represented one of the parties, creating churches that were Anglo-Catholic or Evangelical rather than Anglican. In some ways, the Anglican Communion was over before it began. In our own time, we have seen these divisions calcify, even as new models are introduced into the mix. It is not uncommon these days to hear talk of a “Pentecostal” tradition as being one of the authentic streams of Anglicanism, even though such a thing did not exist prior to the 1960s.
This is not to say that the basic staples of Anglicanism have been absent from the Communion. All the churches of the Communion have had the Anglican formularies to draw upon, in addition to shared ministries, particularly a common ordained ministry. Yet even these basic touchstones have become diluted as time has gone on. The Thirty-Nine Articles are relegated to very fine print in the current American Book of Common Prayer. Some provinces laud the articles but fail to understand them within their own historical framework, while other provinces hide them or ignore them. The Book of Common Prayer is no longer a common starting point either, given that provinces have been free to re-arrange their own books in such a way so that their theology is considerably altered from that of 1662. It is only natural that the last line of defense, the ordained ministry, would be the next thing to implode. And implode it has. The fight over women in ministry, gay bishops, and lay presidency at the Eucharist all stem from a similar problem–an almost complete breakdown in the understanding of what a bishop is and why that matters. It is true, as many today argue, that the answer to these questions is ultimately a matter of understanding Scripture’s authority, but not just on questions of morality. We no longer know what a bishop is for. We have fallen a great distance since the days of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when brave saints gave their lives in defense of the Book of Common Prayer and the historic episcopate.
I am not trying to paint an entirely dismal picture here. There are many gifts that the Anglican Communion has to give. There are also many gifts that the various theological parties that have sprung up since the nineteenth century have to offer. Still, it hardly makes sense to say that Anglicanism needs the Anglican Communion given that in many parts of the Communion there has never really been a robust and historical Anglicanism. If we can borrow G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote about the Christian ideal, the problem is not that the Communion has tried Anglicanism and found it wanting; the problem is that Anglicanism has been found difficult and therefore left untried.
Anglicanism does not need the Anglican Communion, and yet Anglicanism does require communion, in as much as to be an Anglican requires common prayer, common sacraments, and a common link via episcopacy with the ancient Church. I do not suggest fomenting some sort of rebellion against the Communion. Rather, I believe that the way forward is for individuals, parishes, dioceses, and eventually even whole churches to discover Anglicanism anew, to come to realize that Anglicanism does not have to be shackled to some other system to give it content, that in fact Anglicanism itself is ancient, historic Christianity. For those who love the Church and want to see it flourish, the best thing to do is not to indulge in ecclesiastical politics, not to be caught up in the fray, but to turn to the riches of our history and discover there the jewel that truly is worth fighting for.
We need parishes where classical Anglicanism is preached and taught, where people are catechized and formed in it, and where Bible and Prayer Book once again go hand in hand. We need Anglicans in far and distant parts of the world to connect with each other and share resources for teaching the faith. We need strong, dedicated bishops who will call the Church back to her heritage, bishops who will stand in the breech and stand up for Anglicanism even when it is not popular to do so, even if it wins them the ire of their own people. And we need to support each other, without relying on the powers that be to offer us a grand solution. We need to become like reeds in the wind, unable to be broken by the ever changing gusts of Communion politics. If we can do these things, even if we are a minority, Anglicanism will prevail in the end, with or without the current Anglican Communion.
At the heart of Anglicanism is Jesus Christ and His gift to the world. Let us be focused upon that priceless pearl and all else shall become clear in due course.