Two Reflections on the “Reflection”

On Tuesday, June 27th, ++Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a document entitled “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion.” It is both thoughtful and very well written, and it has provoked a great deal of comment (as it was surely intended to do).

I want to offer two critical reflections on the Reflection. The first has to do with how one suggestion in the document is being characterized in the media. (They’re wrong.) The second concerns the document itself, in particular ++Rowan Williams’ characterization of the nature of the Anglican Communion. (He’s right, but . . . )

  • Since the appearance of the Archbishop’s “Reflection” on recent events in the Episcopal Church and the future of the Anglican Communion, there have been several reports in the media that Williams is proposing some sort of “two-tiered communion,” with an “inner circle” of churches that subscribe to a yet-to-be-written “covenant” (such as that envisioned in the Windsor Report) and an “outer circle” of Anglican churches that do not. This is the view of Andrew Carey, of Anglican Essentials of Canada, and of Daniel Burke of the Religious News Service (and I believe there are others).

    I confess to being a bit baffled, because I have read the Archbishop’s statement carefully, and as far as I can tell, he is proposing (if indeed “proposing” is the right word) no such thing.

    Here is the relevant section of the ++Rowan’s “Reflection” (all emphases mine):

    The idea of a ‘covenant’ between local Churches (developing alongside the existing work being done on harmonising the church law of different local Churches) is one method that has been suggested, and it seems to me the best way forward. It is necessarily an ‘opt-in’ matter. Those Churches that were prepared to take this on as an expression of their responsibility to each other would limit their local freedoms for the sake of a wider witness; and some might not be willing to do this. We could arrive at a situation where there were ‘constituent’ Churches in covenant in the Anglican Communion and other ‘churches in association’, which were still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures. The relation would not be unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example. The ‘associated’ Churches would have no direct part in the decision making of the ‘constituent’ Churches, though they might well be observers whose views were sought or whose expertise was shared from time to time, and with whom significant areas of co-operation might be possible.

    This leaves many unanswered questions, I know, given that lines of division run within local Churches as well as between them – and not only on one issue (we might note the continuing debates on the legitimacy of lay presidency at the Eucharist). It could mean the need for local Churches to work at ordered and mutually respectful separation between ‘constituent’ and ‘associated’ elements; but it could also mean a positive challenge for Churches to work out what they believed to be involved in belonging in a global sacramental fellowship, a chance to rediscover a positive common obedience to the mystery of God’s gift that was not a matter of coercion from above but of that ‘waiting for each other’ that St Paul commends to the Corinthians.

    I can find no call for any second “tier” in this. Rather, it seems clear (at least to me) that Williams is suggesting that any church that does not sign such a “covenant” is out, period. Such a church (e.g. TEC?) will maintain perhaps a friendly relationship with the Anglican Communion, but that relationship will be like that of the Methodist Church to the Church of England (at least at present), a tie of history and common origins, but no more. Not communion, not interchangeable orders, etc. Another example might be the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. Joint ecumenical ventures, perhaps, but not the same church, and certainly not a church on any “second tier.”

    Insofar as Methodists are “associated” with Anglicans, it is through shared history and ecumenical discussions. A Methodist representative spoke to the recent General Synod as it debated the creation of women bishops (and so did a Roman Catholic). But would any Methodist, either in Britain or the US, consider themselves in a “second tier” to the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, or the Anglican Communion? Are Methodists in any sense “second class Anglicans”? Certainly not—at least, I’m quite sure the Methodists don’t think so.

  • My second point comes from this portion in the section “The Anglican Identity” in ++Rowan Williams’ “Reflection” :

    The reason Anglicanism is worth bothering with is because it has tried to find a way of being a Church that is neither tightly centralised nor just a loose federation of essentially independent bodies – a Church that is seeking to be a coherent family of communities meeting to hear the Bible read, to break bread and share wine as guests of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate a unity in worldwide mission and ministry. That is what the word ‘Communion’ means for Anglicans, and it is a vision that has taken clearer shape in many of our ecumenical dialogues.

    Of course it is possible to produce a self-deceiving, self-important account of our worldwide identity, to pretend that we were a completely international and universal institution like the Roman Catholic Church. We’re not.

    The Archbishop is absolutely correct. We’re not. The problem is, in its effort to distinguish the current unpleasantness from the “ordination” of women and the “process of reception,” the Windsor Report that so many, including the Archbishop, think so highly of makes the implicit claim that we are.

    Over a year and a half ago, I wrote a post that tried to point out this fundamental dilemma, one that lies close to the heart of the Anglican problem of authority. Please forgive me, but I am going to quote myself at length (between rows of asterisks):


    This confusion and incoherence points up a fundamental problem with Anglican concepts of authority (or lack thereof) and with the very idea of a “process of reception.”

    As early as Jewel in the 16th century, Anglicanism has always claimed (whether justly or not) to model itself on the church of the early centuries and ecumenical councils, something the Windsor Report itself sets out in paragraph 47 (emphases mine).

    When “the Anglican Communion” describes itself as such, it is self-consciously describing that part of the Body of Christ which shares an inheritance through the Anglican tradition, that is, from the Church of England, whose history encompasses the ancient Celtic and Saxon churches of the British Isles, and which was given fresh theological expression during the period of the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformers of that time looked back explicitly to the Bible and the early Fathers, and had every intention that their theology would be ‘catholic’ in the sense of sharing the faith of the universal Church. The very fact that the family of churches which traces its roots back to the ancient churches of the British Isles should call itself an Anglican Communion is itself indicative of the twin fundamental concepts on which the community is built: our shared inheritance (’Anglican’) and our worldwide fellowship as God’s children (’communion’). That shared inheritance has itself included a developing understanding of communion, which has been expressed, for instance, in some of our ecumenical dialogues. It also makes us aware of a responsibility, not only to our contemporaries within the Communion, but to those with whom we share in the Communion of Saints.

    Anglicanism thus claims not to represent the whole Church Catholic on the one hand. As Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher famously claimed, there are no uniquely Anglican orders or creeds, but only those of the ancient, undivided Church. Yet on the other hand, Anglicans are free (according to the Windsor Report) to make innovations in sacramental ministry, especially at the provincial level, even in the absence of ecumenical consent, so long as they are submitted to a “process of reception” that apparently is entirely limited to the Anglican Communion.

    The Windsor Report stumbles over this very problem in paragraph 68, where it sets out its understanding of the “process of reception” (emphasis mine).

    Within our common life, one way in which unity has been maintained is by subjecting fresh developments within the Anglican Communion to a test of reception. In classical theological terms, ‘reception’ was the process by which the pronouncements of a Council of the Church were tested by how the faithful ‘received’ it. The consensus fidelium (’common mind of the believers’) constituted the ultimate check that a new declaration was in harmony with the faith as it had been received. More recently, the doctrine has been used in Anglicanism as a way of testing whether a controversial development, not yet approved by a universal Council of the Church but nevertheless arising within a province by legitimate processes, might gradually, over time, come to be accepted as an authentic development of the faith. This offers a clear threefold sequence:
    1. theological debate and discussion
    2. formal action, and
    3. increased consultation to see whether the formal action settles down and makes itself at home.
    This process of consultation, designed to strengthen Communion, is the very opposite of confrontation, and leads to a shared discernment of God’s truth. It is a key way of maintaining the unity of the Church through a time of experiment and uncertainty.

    In the middle of paragraph 68 we find one sentence (in bold italics above) that tries by verbal sleight-of-hand to glide past this difficulty by sliding from “Anglicanism” to “a universal Council of the Church” and then back to “a province.” “Province” here must mean a province of the Anglican Communion (e.g., ECUSA). But how can you “test” anything within Anglicanism when Anglicanism itself declares that it does not represent the universal Church? And as long as some believe that a matter (be it women “priests” or gay bishops) is of concern not just to the Anglican Communion but to the Church Catholic, how can any province take it upon itself to do such testing?

    The Windsor Report declares (paragraph 68) that

    In classical theological terms, ‘reception’ was the process by which the pronouncements of a Council of the Church were tested by how the faithful ‘received’ it. The consensus fidelium (’common mind of the believers’) constituted the ultimate check that a new declaration was in harmony with the faith as it had been received.

    Have I missed something? Do Anglicans now hold ecumenical councils? Was there such an ecumenical council that declared definitively on the “ordination” of women? Are there plans for one in the near future to deal with same-sex “unions”? When, in fact, this problem — that the ordination of women was something that could only be settled by an ecumenical council and that the Anglican Communion, let alone ECUSA, was in no position to hold one — was raised back in the seventies, supporters declared that this meant waiting, and that the demands of “justice” could not be delayed. Now we are hearing similar cries from the supporters of Gene Robinson and same-sex “unions.”


    To put it more simply: if we’re not a church like the Roman Catholic Church, one that claims ecumencial authority (a polite way of saying that it is the only true “church”), how is it that, in the matter of the “ordination” of women we can act as if we are? Sooner or later, ++Rowan Williams and company are going to have to face it: the “process of reception” was a dodge, a classic Anglican fudge, a means of deciding by not deciding but going with the cultural drift in the very manner that the Archbishop so eloquently warns against in the beginning of his “Reflection” :

    Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes – which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society – there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms.

    There does indeed. Just what those terms are is the most vital question facing Anglicanism. As Williams puts it,

    Some actions – and sacramental actions in particular – just do have the effect of putting a Church outside or even across the central stream of the life they have shared with other Churches. It isn’t a question of throwing people into outer darkness, but of recognising that actions have consequences – and that actions believed in good faith to be ‘prophetic’ in their radicalism are likely to have costly consequences.

    Cardinal Kasper couldn’t have put it better.

    It is no accident that both the “ordination” of women and same-sex “unions” have claimed to be the result of “prophetic” actions, and it is no accident that both have had costly consequences. If the Episcopal Church cannot have its cake and eat it too—to declare the right to meddle with the church’s historic understanding and yet pay no price with its place in the larger church—how can the Anglican Communion?


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