Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Authority in the Anglican Communion” first appeared in the Spring 1988 issue of Touchstone.
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Authority in the Anglican Communion
Authority in the Anglican Communion: Essays Presented to Bishop John Howe
“Is Anglicanism based on a sufficiently coherent form of authority to form the nucleus of a world-wide fellowship of Churches, or does its comprehensiveness conceal internal divisions which may cause its disruption?” This was the question addressed in an episcopal statement from the 1948 Lambeth Conference. Now, forty years later, this issue is more alive than ever. It may, in fact, be the issue upon which historic Anglicanism founders in 1988. So, when a volume treating this subject is released prior to this summer’s Lambeth Conference—a volume of essays authored by prominent Anglicans from around the world—naturally there is a certain expectation of timely insights. Unfortunately, Authority in the Anglican Communion does not so much set itself to speak to the needs of the present situation as it addresses issues raised over twenty years ago by the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. Still, it does offer the thoughtful reader certain insights and understanding of the current state of affairs.
Ironically, any inquiry into the Anglican position on authority quickly discovers that near-autonomy (“spiritual freedom” as it is more euphemistically called) is far dearer to the Anglican soul than the functions of authority. And this is a point not lost in the Sykes volume. Indeed, the witness to this pervasive attitude, though indirect, is one of the more enlightening and worthwhile features of the book. In the words of Lambeth 1948 (the book is very much concerned with the ongoing relevance of Lambeth 1948’s views on authority in the post-Vatican II world), Anglicanism has secured itself against ecclesiastical tyranny by dispersing authority “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.” Of course the question then is, what does this wonderfully worded statement mean in actual practice; and here the book helps to fill out the meaning. For instance, the idea of the dispersion of authority coincides with Stephen Sykes’ treatment of “ordered liberty” in his introduction to the volume. It is also developed at some length by Archbishop H. R. McAdoo of Dublin in his key article, “Authority in the Church: Spiritual Freedom and the Corporate Nature of Faith.” As the title implies, in McAdoo’s treatment of “spiritual freedom” is maintained by balancing the freedom of the individual believer and the obligations which membership in the church impose.
As might be expected, these valued ideals—the dispersion of authority, ordered liberty, and spiritual freedom—go hand in hand with a certain latitude of belief and practice (greater than that allowed, for instance, in pre-Vatican II Catholicism). Breadth of perspective is itself an ideal encouraged in most Anglican churches and upon which Anglicans have historically prided themselves. The concerned orthodox-minded reader of this book will ask just how far does this breadth of perspective, this “comprehensiveness”, extend? How much latitude is to be allowed? St. Augustine’s famous dictum may well come to mind: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, latitude; and in all things, charity.” So, we may ask, what is essential for Anglicans and what is not? Even on certain central issues such as sexual ethics, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the nature of ordination and episcopacy, no consensus is presently apparent, and this is where the question of authority comes in. How then and on what authority are the matters of dispute to be decided? Or can they be?
There are two basic questions here. First, from either the standpoint of historic orthodoxy or practical cohesiveness, is the policy of latitude as presently practiced too open-ended? Is it viable? Second, is there any authority or structure in the Anglican Communion able to make a decision between fundamentally conflicting positions? (Of course, such a structure would not guarantee orthodoxy.) Both questions are inter-related and together constitute perhaps the most critical issues faced by the Anglican Communion since its growth in the nineteenth century. Both questions ultimately relate to authority.
Now, with regard to the issue of excessive latitude, the archbishop of Canterbury would like to reassure his flock that Anglicanism’s latitude is not headed for fundamental self-contradiction, as indicated in his comments cited by H. R. McAdoo:
What is more, the archbishop defines comprehensiveness as “the achievement of unity in diversity by means of the Holy Scriptures interpreted by Tradition, in the light of Reason, all expressed in and through the corporate worship of the Church.” How very Anglican! How seemingly sensible! But it is quite apparent that there is no agreement on how to interpret these things anymore. This is what fuels the present crisis in Anglicanism, and to this need these essays offer no convincing approach.
With regard to the second question, that ability of a church to exercise the authority necessary to keep its house in order, this book gives a certain overview of operations, but not at all as insightful as that offered by the now infamous “Preface” to the 1988 Crockford’s Clerical Directory. The Sykes volume describes how, at present, authority is mostly exercised on the diocesan level (the region under the oversight of a particular bishop) by a diocesan synod. The bishop(s), clergy, and laity together are supposed to reach a functional consensus on issues. (This volume contains an excellent discussion of this in K.S. Chittleborough’s chapter on the “Bishop-in-Synod”). Differences between dioceses are to be resolved by a national synod, which is also made up of bishops, clergy, and laity. For differences between the national churches of the Communion, however, there is no authoritative equivalent.
It is on the international level that the dilemma is most strikingly apparent. What happens when the bishops, clergy, and laity in one country say that God is leading them in one direction, but their counterparts in another country come to an opposite conviction? The bishops of the member churches can meet, as they do once every ten years at Lambeth, but there is no authority to establish policies which are binding on the independent national churches. The same is true of other forums for cooperation between Anglican churches: the Anglican Consultative Council (in which Bishop John Howe, to whom this volume is dedicated, had been singularly instrumental); the biennial meetings of the primates of the various national churches; and even the office of the archbishop of Canterbury—the very idea of an imposed settlement seems to be anathema to Anglican polity. (It was this inability to enforce any restraint on the American church which allowed it to act independently in 1976 in ordaining women to the priesthood.)
The fact is, however, that from the time of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, Anglicanism has been deeply divided. Any one who has even glanced at a history of the Church of England or the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. or any other Anglican national church knows that different perspectives, whether high, low, or broad, liberal or conservative, have existed side by side. Member churches of the Anglican Communion can be described as a family only in a very loose sense—on the basis of a common liturgical and doctrinal heritage from the Church of England. To many this now appears to be an exceedingly thin historical thread.
So, does Anglican comprehensiveness really rest upon a well-founded respect or merely on an uneasy truce, perhaps even a widespread indifference? Growing tensions in the Anglican Communion now suggest that this latitude has not produced a stable balance where “dispersed authority” enables factions to moderate each other, but an inherent instability of incompatibles loosely joined. At any rate, whatever balance may once have existed has been upset as things have been steadily skewed in a distinctly liberal direction since the sixties; and moderation has been replaced by a type of radicalism under the sympathetic and watchful eye of liberal church bureaucracies. Now it seems comprehensiveness itself must presuppose a liberal definition to the hurt of more orthodox interests. Here again, the Crockford “Preface” is far more insightful in its analysis of the actual operations of authority. (Sykes himself comes in for some trenchant comment for his approach to Anglican comprehensiveness.) This virtual breakdown of comprehensiveness in the name of comprehensiveness, such a salient feature of current Anglicanism, receives insufficient attention in a book that is supposed to be wrestling with relevant issues.
The approach of the present Anglican leadership is illustrated in remarks made this past January at the Trinity Institute in New York, by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said,
The archbishop here notes the problem in the authority structure and then goes on to exonerate it. He suggests a lack of direction because of divided Christian opinion, though he fails to note that this alleged confusion of opinion is itself due to the rejection of clear direction from historic Church canons. In view of this, he will allow things to take their course, that is, allow some to follow new courses of faith and practice regardless of the dire consequences. What can the dedicated bureaucrat do until Christendom unites and makes a decisive answer for him and his church?
Now, something must be said here about the issue of the ordination of women and their consecration to the episcopate. It is the greatest test of Anglican comprehensiveness faced to date. For this issue threatens the mutual recognition of ministerial orders within the Anglican Communion, a fact which many low church evangelicals fail to appreciate since they are not concerned with it as a matter of sacramental validity. But can church bodies legitimately be considered a “family” or communion, if they are no longer able to partake of the Eucharist together? In this connection it is interesting to note, as Gavin White points out in his essay (“Collegiality and Conciliarity in the Anglican Communion”), that breaches of this sort already exist. (p. 211) Because of differences in marriage discipline, communicants in one church in the Anglican Communion might technically be barred from communion in another. Nevertheless, the issue of women priests and bishops is a far greater issue, because from the traditional high church view it undermines one of the basic guarantors of the Church. As Sykes comments in his own contribution to this volume (“Catholicity and Authority in Anglican-Lutheran Relations”),
From the positions already taken by various parties on this issues and the intentions expressed, it would seem that,despite the archbishop’s statements to the contrary, Anglicanism presently does comprehend apparently self-contradictory positions on matters considered by some to be of the first importance. On this issue it is five minutes to midnight; sides are being taken, the battle lines drawn. For a certain segment of this church the alternatives seem to be either to tolerate the intolerable or face schism. Facing such a dilemma, are the authority structures within the Communion even capable of averting a catastrophe? Certainly this volume of essays does not offer much hope. It does offer informative and even some insightful material. The articles by White and Sykes are particularly notable. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that the treatment of so vital an issue as authority should content itself with interacting with the implications of Vatican II and not go any further toward addressing the more critical and immediate issues now threatening the Anglican Communion.
John Thompson is a librarian and professor at Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania
“Authority in the Anglican Communion” first appeared in the Spring 1988 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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