The Anglican Communion as Communion of Churches: on the historic significance of the Anglican Covenant - Michael Poon

The paper aims to draw out the historic significance of the Anglican Covenant for the Anglican Communion. It begins by examining the nature and reasons of the “ecclesial deficit” of the Anglican Communion. It points out that the ecclesial status of the Anglican Communion has never been clarified. The Anglican Communion arises historically as an accident. It has never been constituted as an ecclesial body. The paper traces the transformations in the Anglican ecclesiastical map amid powerful global undercurrents in the second half of the twentieth century. It reflects on the emergence of the status of the See of Canterbury as “focus of unity” of the Anglican Communion. It proceeds to point out how uncritical adoption of the term “instruments of unity” from Protestant ecumenical dialogues led to confusion and mistrust among Anglican Churches. The paper then explores the potentials of communion-ecclesiology for the Anglican Covenant. It goes on to argue that the Anglican Covenant, grounded in the New Covenant, provides the canonical structure of the Anglican Communion. It constitutes the particular Churches to be a confident Communion of Churches. The inter-Anglican structures of the Anglican Communion should in fact be the ecclesiastical embodiment of the Anglican Covenant.

1. In its December 2009 Meeting, the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion approved the final text of the Anglican Covenant for distribution to the Provinces of the Anglican Communion.[1] The Provinces are asked to formally consider the Anglican Covenant for adoption through appropriate processes. The Anglican Covenant came at the end of a decade of endless disputes and intense soul-searching among particular Churches and across the Communion. In the words of the Covenant:

The Covenant operates to express the common commitments and mutual accountability which hold each Church in the relationship of communion one with another. Recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion. Participation in the Covenant implies a recognition by each Church of those elements which must be maintained in its own life and for which it is accountable to the Churches with which it is in Communion in order to sustain the relationship expressed in this Covenant (4.2.1).

This paper aims to draw out the historic significance of the Anglican Covenant for the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Covenant provides the Communion with a confident and vibrant ecclesial identity to be a “Communion of Churches”. It gives a canonical structure for the building up and renewing of the Churches, so that their common life and witness would lead to the transformation of believers to be a people of God’s very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2: 11-14).

2. First, a historical review. Two ecclesial actions precipitated the present disputes. In 2002, the Diocese of New Westminster decided to authorize services for same-sex unions. In 2003, the Episcopal Church (USA) appointed a priest in a committed same-sex relationship as one of its bishops. In October 2003, the Primates of the Anglican Communion requested the Archbishop of Canterbury to set up a commission to examine the legal and theological implications of these decisions. The ensuing Lambeth Commission on Communion submitted The Windsor Report in 2004. 

3. The Windsor Report[2] included a key recommendation to adopt “a common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion” (WR, 118). In May 2006, the Covenant Design Group was appointed to further this project. The Anglican Covenant is the Final Text that has undergone three earlier drafts (the Nassau Draft, 2007; the Saint Andrew’s Draft, 2008; and Ridley-Cambridge Draft 2009). Final revisions to Section Four were made after the Fourteenth Meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in May 2009. 

4. Parallel to this effort, in February 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed the Windsor Continuation Group (WCG) to address outstanding questions arising from the Windsor Report and the various formal responses from provinces and instruments of the Anglican Communion. The WCG Report to the Archbishop of Canterbury singled out the Anglican Communion as suffering from an “ecclesial deficit”.[3] The Communion does not have “structures which can make decisions which carry force in the life of the Churches of the Communion, or even give any definitive guidance to them” (WCG, 51). It then made an important contrast between communion and federation/association (WCG, 52). “Maintaining and nurturing communion between Churches, at whatever level, requires more than instruments of consultation” (WCG, 54). WCG went on to clarify: 

The challenge remains for Anglicans to come to a common stance and acceptance of the authority which we will give to the instruments, structures and processes of the Communion which can lead to decisions that carry force in the life of the Churches of the Communion. (58)

5. John Hind, Bishop of Chichester and Chair of the Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England, explained::

My own view is that the present turmoil was a disaster waiting to happen – issues of sexuality and “cross border interventions” just got there before lay presidency!  There is an ecclesial dimension to these issues as they reveal differences in understanding concerning the church and the implications of being a church. In other words they touch both on the content of the faith and on the mutual accountability Christians owe one another for their guardianship of the faith. 

Perhaps the fundamental ecclesiological question facing the Anglican Communion is whether there are ecclesiological questions facing the Anglicans Communion and, if so, whether they constitute an ecclesial deficit – indeed whether the Communion is even such an ecclesial body as to be able to have a deficit![4]

6. To be sure, all Anglican Churches are willing to belong to the Anglican Communion. That is not the issue if “communion” is merely a matter of social fellowship between autonomous churches. National councils of churches and even Protestant Christian World Communions are such instances of communion. “Instruments of consultation” would do for these forms of fellowship. They are sufficient for fostering spiritual and social bonds of affection. What WCG has in mind is whether the Anglican Communion is at the verge of a historic decision. Are the Anglican Churches that are “in communion” with one another able to affirm they are indeed a Communion of Churches with one ecclesial identity? This is not to lay claim for the Anglican Communion to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Clearly, the structures within which Anglicans seek to live out our Christian discipleship within an Anglican perception of faith and order are not the only valid ecclesial reality and expression. However, as a Communion of ordered churches that upholds the historic episcopate to be integral to its basic ecclesial structure, ecclesial “structures which can make decisions which carry force in the life of the Churches of the Communion” need to be in place. Confessional statements alone cannot do. The Anglican Communion needs ecclesial structures to express Christian discipleship as one body. Local Churches are not self-contained ethnic and national communities, however committed they are to Christian beliefs, vibrant their communal life, responsive to local contexts, and extensive their social networks are worldwide. They also need to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”. “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you are called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4: 1-6). In other words, to give corporate expression to the calling as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is central to Christian obedience and discipleship.

7. To follow up the WCG Report, ACC-14 asked the newly established Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO):

to undertake a study of the role and responsibility in the Communion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting; the ecclesiological rationale of each, and the relationships between them, in line with the Windsor Continuation Group Report (Resolution 14.09g).

8. Clearly the task is not merely to find theological justification for the present arrangements, as if all that is needed is to garnish the four existing instruments with theological jargon. The instruments cannot be merely improvised or superimposed constructs that just happened to appear and develop along the way. They must be authorised structures that arise from the inner being of ecclesial life, and so would enable the Church to make concrete ecclesial decisions that lead to concrete and efficacious ecclesial actions. The four existing instruments need to find their proper place within such canonical structure. This is what finding the “ecclesiological rationale” of each instrument and the relationships between them should mean. Only then can the Communion begin to overcome its ecclesial deficit.

9.  ACC Resolution 14.10 that immediately followed underscores this point. The Resolution also asked IASCUFO to study as well “current best practices in governance for multi-layered complex organizations”, and “on ways in which the effectiveness of the Instruments of Communion may be enhanced”. “Best practices” and “enhancement” are corporate-world speak. This Resolution took a managerial view of the instruments. But ecclesial deficit and corporate failing are two different matters altogether.

Understanding the ecclesial deficit: from Churches in communion to a Communion of Churches

10. The ecclesial deficit is not an oversight. The instruments of unity (as the Communion instruments were originally called) emerged in Anglican history in response to particular situations. There were not designed to hold a worldwide Anglican Communion together as one Church. Expositors often take the four existing instruments and trace their histories backward.[5] Such accounts underline continuities and inevitabilities in their development. But in fact the rise and development of the four instruments in their present form are situated in a wider history of false starts, unfulfilled visions, and improvised measures. Saint Augustine’s College Canterbury is a case in point. Lambeth 1958 had hoped for Saint Augustine’s to become the central theological college of the Communion (Resolutions 95-99). This project however did not materialise. The “loss” of two huge Asian presences in the post-War years is a huge blow to the Communion, the ramifications of which have not yet been fully explored. The Indian and Chinese Churches with ancient civilization could trace their Christian beginnings to the historic undivided Church. They could have brought to the Anglican Communion new vista of unity, faith and order. Indian Anglicans became part of the united churches in the Indian subcontinent at the close of the 1940s, and so have not played a full role in the life of the Communion. Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui (Holy Catholic Church in China) effectively stopped to exist by 1957 due to political and ecclesiastical changes in China.

11. The ecclesial deficit is therefore not an accident. It arose because the Anglican Communion has been undecided to what it really is, especially in the face of the post-colonial and post-missionary challenges in the second half of the twentieth century.

12. We often take the prevalent Communion vocabulary for granted. But how did they arise? The collective term “Anglican Communion” emerged in the nineteenth century as a descriptive term for the ecclesiastical expansion of the Church of England. Colin Podmore traced its first appearance to 1847. A missionary bishop in the Dominions and dependencies of the Sultan of Turkey used the term to describe “the Anglican Branch of the Church of Christ”: “the three branches of the Anglican Communion separately, namely the English, the Scotch, and the American.” Podmore underlined at the same time that other collective names were used to describe this triad. Among which were “Protestant Episcopal Churches in the British dominions”, “the reformed Catholic Church” and “the Reformed Episcopal Church”. There was unease with the word “Anglican”, which simply meant “English”.[6]

13. Lambeth 1867 used the collective name “Anglican Communion” to describe “the Anglican branch of the Church Catholic” (Resolution 3). Such “Anglican branch” consisted of “Churches of [the British] colonial empire and the missionary Churches beyond them in the closest union with the Mother-Church” (Resolution 8). The 1867 Conference used the term “branches of the Anglican Communion” interchangeably with “Churches of the Anglican Communion”.[7] Who were these “Churches”? Alfred Barry’s analysis of the Anglican Communion in his Hulsean Lectures of 1894-95 shed light to the Church of England outlook then. Barry placed the growth of the Anglican Communion at the end of the nineteenth century alongside the British worldwide expansion and European ascendancy. He divided “the Ecclesiastical Expansion of England in the Growth of the Anglican Communion” along three lines: “the Growth of the Colonial Churches”; “the Expansion in India and the East”, and “Our Mission to the Barbarian Races”.[8] He distinguished this threefold expansion in these words:

[Our mission to Western Asia, India, China, and Japan is] wholly different in character from the sphere of that first expansion . . . over our vast colonial Empire in America and the West Indies, in Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa. There our main duty is to our own fellow-countrymen – to keep these “children of the dispersion” true and living members of the spiritual Israel. Only out of this has there grown up . . . a mission to the negro race, this  mission had considerable importance form the beginning, yet it has at all times held a secondary place. . . . Here [in India and the East] we are face to face with great and highly-organized religions . . . still strong in vitality and authority over countless millions of the people. Here it follows that the expansion, with which we are charged, is an extension of spiritual influence, rather than of spiritual territory – handing on the torch of light and grace to a native Christianity of the future, to which we can give . . . but which must develop itself in its own way, as God shall direct it, in harmony, as we trust, but in identity, with our own Church of England. .  . . [The third great sphere of missionary expansion was] to minister to the uncivilized peoples of the world. . . . [who] can be educated, humanized and Christianized at once, and brought out of what has been thought a hopeless darkness and bondage into liberty and light.[9]

Barry’s assessments clearly reflected a patronizing Western civilizing mission outlook of the nineteenth century. But they showed that, strictly speaking, the “Churches of the Anglican Communion” were those that attended to the spiritual needs of the “fellow-countrymen”. Everything else took “secondary place”. “Native” Churches were expected to “develop in their own ways as God directed”.

14. Interestingly Henry Venn of the Church Missionary Society was the main proponent of this missionary ideal and policy. The “native” Christians should create their own self-governing “native” Churches that were independent of parent missionary societies (and hence also from the Church of England). This ideal was abandoned only at the turn of the century. This missiological insistence on self-governing churches waned in the face of renewed ecclesiological concern for unity. In the period up to 1840, there were only six ordained “native” ministers in the CMS Registry; by the turn of the century, 598 “natives” had been ordained.[10]

15. So, in the mid nineteenth century “the Churches of the colonial empire and the missionary Churches” referred mainly to “Church of England” churches outside Britain and the United States of America. Of the seventy-six bishops at Lambeth 1867, eighteen were from England, five from Ireland, six from Scotland, nineteen from the United States of America, and twenty-eight from colonial and missionary Churches, among which were bishops from Australia, Canada, Caribbean, China, Gibraltar, India, Labuan, and New Zealand.[11] So the Church of England was in effect – if not in principle – canonically the “Mother-Church” (at least for the “Church of England” Churches in the British Empire). And in principle and for good sense a hierarchical and centralised order should be imposed throughout the Churches. Resolution 4 made this clear: “Unity in faith and discipline will be best maintained among the several branches of the Anglican Communion by due and canonical subordination of the synods of the several branches to the higher authority of a synod or synods above them (italics mine).” 

16. The modern ecumenical and missionary movements emerged in the early twentieth century against the wider backdrop of rising nationalism and state-building around the world. The South India Church Union Scheme emerged. Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui (the Holy Catholic Church in China) and Nippon Sei Kokwai (The Holy Catholic Church in Japan) as well became “constituent Churches of the Anglican Communion” by Lambeth 1930 (Resolution 59). In this radically changed ecclesiastical and ecumenical scene in 1930, the Anglican Communion for the first time needed to reflect on its own ecclesial status.

17. Lambeth 1930 saw the Anglican Communion to be “a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury” (Resolution 49). This statement is often regarded to be the clearest definition of the Communion. At first glance the 1930 definition is consistent with that of 1867, with the replacement of “colonial Churches” by “provinces and regional Churches”. This however was not so.  The Mother-Church (in 1867) could canonically uphold doctrine and discipline among the branches of the Communion. After all, missionary and colonial bishops at that time were consecrated by the Mother-Church. Major ecclesiastical decisions were referred back to the parent committees of missionary societies or to the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the Anglican Communion in 1930 was in a substantially altered ecclesiastical situation. The See of Canterbury became a focal point of fellowship for the provinces and regional Churches worldwide. But what was the point of this “communion with the See of Canterbury”? The same Resolution anticipated the time “when the Churches of the Anglican Communion will enter into communion with other parts of the Catholic Church not definable as Anglican in the above sense, as a step towards the ultimate reunion of all Christendom in one visibly united fellowship”.

18. Lambeth 1948 underscored this vision in Resolution 74 (on “A Larger Episcopal Unity”). The Encyclical Letter explained:

As Anglicans we believe that God has entrusted to us in our Communion not only the Catholic faith, but a special service to render to the whole Church. Reunion of any part of our Communion with other denominations in its own area must make the resulting Church no longer simply Anglican, but something more comprehensive. There would be, in every country where there now exist the Anglican Church and others separated from it, a united Church, Catholic and Evangelical, but no longer in the limiting sense of the word Anglican. The Anglican Communion would be merged in a much larger Communion of National or Regional Churches, in full communion with one another, united in all the terms of what is known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral.[12]

Reflecting on this Resolution, Stephen Neill wrote:

The Anglican Churches have been the first in the world to consider soberly and seriously the possibility of their own demise. . . . Christian Churches, like Christian individuals, if they desire to follow their Master, must be prepared to die for His sake; but it may be incumbent on them, as on their Master, at certain moments to say, ‘my time is not yet come.’ Churches, like nations, are precious things; and though a Church should not ‘strive officiously to keep alive’ things that in the providence of God were better dead, it has no right gratuitously to sell its life away, without any assurance that the sacrifice has been worth while.[13]

19. This “radically provisional character” of the Anglican Communion (to use Archbishop Robert Runcie’s words in his Opening Address to Lambeth 1988[14]) is central to Anglican self-understanding. It makes at the same time the question of ecclesial deficit even more acute. What is the ground of this bold assertion statement on the Communion’s provisional character? To be sure, the Church of England also sees its own identity to be provisional. It has no denominational identity.  It sees itself to be “part of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Canon C15). The reason for this is historical as much as theological. English parishes are historically and culturally connected with Rome and the wider Western Church and civilization, and therefore view the reunion with Rome to be vital to its self-understanding. But this rationale and ethos cannot be simply extended to the Anglican Communion.

20. So if communion with the See of Canterbury is an indispensable and essential condition of being Anglican, the lack of theological clarity over the status of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion becomes central to the ecclesial deficit. The Section Report “The Anglican Communion in the world-wide Church” in Lambeth 1978 suggested that the doctrinal basis of the Communion is “personally grounded in the loyal relationship of each of the Churches to the Archbishop of Canterbury who is freely recognized as the focus of unity”. Lambeth 1988 expressed this Canterbury-focus in even stronger terms: “The Archbishop of Canterbury has been regarded as the focal point of the Anglican Communion and, as has been pointed out, exercises a ‘gathering’ function in the Communion. Communion with the See of Canterbury has been regarded as an essential part of being Anglican.” The path was cleared to regard the Archbishop of Canterbury as “focus of unity” in the 1998 Virginia Report (3.30), in 2004 Windsor Report (99), and in 2005 ACC-13 (Resolution 2). The 2009 Anglican Covenant adopts the terms “a focus and means of unity” (3.1.4). What “means” signifies however is left undefined. Therefore the role of Canterbury could be understood in unintended ways, even quite different from what the Covenant tends it to mean.

21. The phrase “the See of Canterbury is focus of unity for the Anglican Communion” can be interpreted in two ways. The first is to view Canterbury in connection to his role as senior bishop of the Church of England. To be in communion with the See of Canterbury then becomes a matter of being in communion with the Canterbury Diocese and so also with the Church of England. (It is impossible for the See of Canterbury to be in an estranged relationship with the Church of England, or to have Canterbury decide to be in Communion with a particular Church without first going through due processes within the Church of England!) So then, to say the See of Canterbury is focus of unity for the Communion amounts to suggesting that the Church of England is focus of unity for the Anglican Communion! (This would come as some shock for autonomous Churches worldwide.) More seriously Colin Podmore argued convincingly that “the terms ‘Anglican’ and ‘Anglican Communion’ have yet to figure in the Church of England’s formal expressions of its identity and self-understanding”.[15] In other words, the Anglican Communion is accidental to Church of England’s ecclesiology. The See of Canterbury and the Church of England are canonically unable to constitute the Anglican Communion. They cannot bring the Anglican Communion as an ecclesial body into being. The Church of England’s own self-understanding would need to undergo radical transformation as well if it decides to be a constituent member of the Anglican Communion. To be sure, the Church of England allows for radical changes in principle. Such transformation however has been directed to Rome and the reunification of the Western Church. The ecclesial deficit that WCG pointed out then raises central questions for Church of England’s own ecclesial identity, by the insistence that Canterbury is focus and means of unity for the Communion. 

22. The second line of interpretation is to place the See of Canterbury within the wider canvas of the history of reception of the Gospel worldwide. Gregory the Great’s commission to Augustine in 597 to refound the Church of England then becomes the interpretative matrix to understand the See of Canterbury’s role in the Communion.[16] The meaning of “focus and means of unity” is then linked to the historic significance of the See in Christendom and in Western Christianity in particular. Again, we can understand this in two senses. The first is to highlight the historical development of the worldwide Church. Canterbury historically precedes the particular Anglican Churches and therefore becomes the essential link for them to the See of Rome and to the historic Church. There is however a more expansive view. This is to underscore the Church as a transcendent Church-mystery.[17] Augustine of Canterbury’s mission to England was then part of the drama of the calling of peoples and nations and of the whole creation to fullness in Christ. So, the gathering of particular Churches around Canterbury is a sacramental act. It is an event. The gathering is part of a searching and embracing, affirming and anticipating, deepening and interpenetrating, unifying and participating movement in the recapitulation of the whole creation in Christ (Colossians 1; Ephesians 1-3).

23. Clearly this last line of interpretation gives a more vibrant theological account of rise and development of the Anglican Communion. The particular Churches worldwide are formed out of differing circumstances and means. It was not the result of planned top-down and Western-led initiatives. The birth of Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui (The Holy Catholic Church in China) in 1922 is a case in point.[18] Early pioneers included European Protestants, British non-Conformists and Chinese bond servants from gold mines in Australia. “Anglican” Churches in China could trace their origins to China Inland Mission, Anglican missionary societies, colonial chaplains and bishops, as well as to the Canadian, American and Australian Churches. Shanghai’s episcopal jurisdiction was not resolved between the Church of England and the American Church until 1905. Amid institutional incoherence and cross purposes, it was through the use of the Chinese Prayer Book that Chinese “Anglicans” discovered their identity and took ownership of their Church. The creedal phrase “(I believe in) the holy Catholick Church” was key to finding their identity in the Holy Catholic Church of Jesus Christ. So they were able to anchor their historical existence on the Mystery of the Holy Catholic Church. This powerful consciousness is ingrained in the designation of the Chinese, Korean and Japanese “Anglican” Churches and in their Prayer Books: Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, Daehan Seong Gong Hoe, Nippon Sei Ko Kai. So “Holy Catholic Church” gives a richer and more nuanced meaning than “Anglican”. This identity has helped to sustain the Faithful in the “Holy Catholic Church” amid huge social and political dislocations, and intense suffering, in the twentieth century. To this day ethnic Chinese, Japanese, and Korean “Anglicans” locate their identity in the “Holy Catholic Church”. This “Holy Catholic Church” consciousness plays a powerful role in shaping the self-understanding of Chinese, Japanese and Korean Anglicans. Similar stories of course appear in the history of other Churches in the Anglican Communion.

24. Sadly, the Anglican Communion however did not pursue the ecclesial significance of the See of Canterbury along any of these suggestive lines. Practical matters took precedence in the post Second World War years. Among which, the Anglican Communion and the varieties of Protestant confessional families needed to find new grounds for their continuing international presence. More importantly, with the loss of China and India, Anglican Churches worldwide were reduced to those that were still under the metropolitan authority of Anglo-American Churches. Sub-Sahara African provinces emerged from the 1950s. East Asian provinces came into being only from the 1990s. So the need to give theological rationale of Canterbury in the Communion became less urgent.

25. Indeed in the post-War years the Anglican Communion was for a long-time undecided whether to see itself as a confessional family.[19] Indeed Lambeth Conference 1958 signalled a heightened role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the ecumenical scene. For the first time, the Communion asked the Archbishop to communicate Lambeth decisions to the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (Resolution 15). The Anglican Communion was on its way to become a “Christian World Communion” in post-War Christianity. Owen Chadwick noted the strengthened role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the post-War years. His discussion on the identity of the Anglican Communion included this delightful quip:

[George Bell] testified that the sense of an Anglican Communion was far deeper and stronger in 1958 than earlier. . . . He did not ask himself whether there was any relation between this closer sense of brotherhood and the new invention of the modern airline, or link it with the ability of Archbishops of Canterbury to travel around the world without neglecting their job at home.[20]

26. Remarkably, Chadwick claimed that “the Anglican Communion was always a federation. By 1960 it was a federation with many different bodies participating”. So “the worldwide instruments of structures and processes” (to use a phrase in The Virginia Report) that emerged were indeed “instruments”, that is “channels” of communication and coordination among Churches in the Communion.

27. The Anglican Consultative Council came into being in 1968 as a body to deal with extra-Provincial Churches worldwide and with the ecumenical agenda in the post-missionary and post-missionary period. ACC took the place of the Lambeth Consultative Body and the Anglican Council on Missionary Strategy. Some present-day commentators underscored the lay presence in ACC to be unique among the instruments. That was not the original intent: “Members shall be chosen as provincial, national, or regional machinery provides. Alternates shall be named by each Church and shall be invited to attend if a Church would otherwise be unrepresented for a whole session of the Council” (Lambeth 1969 Resolution 69).  The stipulation on lay representation came only after ACC-9 in 1993 (Resolution 59).

28. ACC’s rise was set alongside two significant shifts that needed Communion-wide consultation and coordination. The first is the rapid emergence of autonomous Provinces. And second, historic missionary societies are no longer the main interpreters of world Christianity, and forerunners in the mission enterprise. Mission agencies and partners-in-mission processes, once a dominant feature in the life of the Communion up to the 1980s, have been waning in influence. In contrast, Provinces have begun to take proactive roles in world mission and relief work. The 1986 Brisbane Mission Agencies’ Conference was the watershed. The “Partner Churches” (i.e. Churches that up to then were at the receiving end of their “Mission Agencies” benefactors) issued their own Statement to the Conference, in which they underlined that “English is not [their] first language and [their] participation was at times limited by this fact”. They went on to propose that they needed “channels to enable [them] to build up mutual understanding and knowledge” and “to share experiences in order to get to know each other and to grow together.” They recommended the convening of “a ‘third world’ Anglican Province PIM consultation” and “the establishment of a ‘companion diocese programme’ among the ‘third world’ Provinces”.[21] The South-to-South Encounters since then have become a catalyst of southern-led initiatives that are playing an increasingly influential role in the Communion. Regional consultative bodies are also playing an increasingly important role. In 1979 the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa was formed. It signalled an increasingly influential African presence in the Anglican Communion. CAPA organised the first South-to-South Encounter in 1994. In 2004 the All African Bishops’ Conference first met in Lagos.

29. The Primates’ Meeting emerged in 1978 as the newest of the four instruments. In the history of the Communion, it however is the first body that was developed after the ecclesiastical realignments. While ACC historically emerged to deal with the post-colonial and post-missionary challenges; the Primates’ Meeting – as a Meeting of Primates of autonomous Churches – is the only instrument so far that reflects the ecclesial reality of a fellowship of autonomous Churches worldwide. Lambeth 1988 Resolution 18 is significant:

[It] urges that encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates Meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that the Primates Meeting is able to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters (18.2a);

[and] recommends that in the appointment of any future Archbishop of Canterbury, the Crown Appointments Commission be asked to bring the Primates of the Communion into the process of consultation (18.2b).

30. WCG noted the anxiety that the Primates’ Meeting would overreach its authority (WCG, 70). Colin Podmore, for example, put the authority of the Primates’ Meeting within the wider episcopal collegiality of the Lambeth Conference. In his 2009 paper to the General Synod of the Church of England The governance of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion,[22] he argued:

The Primates’ Meeting . . . is an episcopal body and its members are by definition those who pre-eminently speak on behalf of their own churches. . . . However, for the Church of England teaching authority belongs first and foremost to the bishops collectively rather than to the archbishops individually. According to this understanding, the primary teaching authority in the Communion must rest with the Lambeth Conference as a whole, the role of the Primates’ Meeting being one of interpretation and application, and of acting between meetings of the Conference on behalf of all the bishops of the Communion. . . . . A statement made by the Primates’ Meeting is a statement by a meeting whose members have an inherent authority by virtue of their episcopal ordination and of the offices that they hold in their individual churches. It thus carries significant weight, but not the same weight as a resolution of the episcopate of the Communion as a whole. (4.25)

31. Podmore’s argument would have been strengthened if Lambeth Conference consists only of diocesan bishops. The teaching authority of such a college of bishops is grounded, clearly not on the bishops’ personal abilities, but on their positions as diocesan bishops. They are the focus of unity of their respective communities, and therefore of unity with all others with the same basic ecclesial structures in the Anglican Communion. This ecclesial significance is lessened by the inclusion of suffragan and assistant bishops at Lambeth. The concept of the college of bishops as instrument of unity is then weakened. The rapidly growing number of diocesan bishops from the 1990s, not to mention the huge number of assistant and suffragan, made it impractical for Lambeth to exercise collegial episcopal authority. As a result Lambeth Conferences become occasions for social fellowship and renewal for bishops. So this risks the view that bishops attend the Conference because of their elite status in the Anglican Communion. The indaba processes initiated in Lambeth 2008 further weakened the collegial teaching role of the Lambeth Conference. For the first time in the Conferences’ history, Lambeth 2008 tellingly did not pass any resolution. Ironically, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s teaching office became strengthened through his Presidential Addresses. So it is all the more striking that Podmore did not explore Canterbury’s role in the Primates’ Meeting.

32. Interestingly, Paul McPartlan (a prominent Roman Catholic scholar on Orthodox theology) was the first one to alert the Anglican Communion of the ecclesiological significance of the Primates’ Meeting and of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role in it. He gave this feedback on the Anglican Covenant:

Neither JSC [Joint Standing Committee] nor IATDC [Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission] particularly highlights the specific value of the Primates’ meeting as an instrument of unity, but, ecclesiologically speaking, the recent development of this instrument would seen to be an extremely positive move, very much in accord with the principle of Apostolic Canon 34,. It might be worthwhile to bear that principle in mind as the relationship of the primates to the Archbishop of Canterbury is further articulated .[23]

33. Apostolic Canon 34 has played an important role in present-day Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogues, particularly in the discussions on primacy and conciliarity.[24] It reads:

The bishops of every nation (episcopes singularum gentium) ought to know who is the first one among them, (quis inter eos primus sit), and to esteem him as their head (caput), and not to do any great thing without his consent; but every one to manage only the affairs that belong to his own diocese and the territory subject to it. But let him not do anything without the consent of all the other (sed nec praeter omnium conscientiam); for it is by this means that there will be unanimity (concordia), and God will be glorified through Christ in the Holy Sprit (ac glorificabitur Deus per Christum in sancto spiritu).[25]

34. Indeed Apostolic Canon 34 opens the horizons to constitute the Anglican Communion within a canonical structure. John Zizioulas explained Canon 34 as follows:

The canonical institution of the synod is often misunderstood in Orthodox theology. Sometimes the synod is called “the highest authority in the Church,” as if orthodoxy were the “democratic” opposite of the “monarchical’ Rome. . . . The true significance of the synod . . . seems to me to be given in the canon 34 of the so-called Apostolic Canons. . .  The first principle is that every province there must be one head – an institution of unity. . . . On the other hand the same canon provides a second fundamental principle, namely that the “one” cannot do anything without the “many”. There is no ministry or institution of unity which is not expressed in the form of communion. . . . The Orthodox view of the Church . . . requires an institution which expresses the oneness of the Church and not simply its multiplicity. But the multiplicity is not to be subjected to the oneness; it is constitutive of the oneness.[26]

Zizioulas explained this further in a 2006 essay on “Primacy in Orthodox Theology” in an Orthodox-Roman catholic dialogue:

The canon can be the golden rule of the theology of primacy. It requires that the prôtos is a sine qua non condition for the synodical institution, hence an ecclesiological necessity, and that the synod is equally a prerequisite for the exercise of primacy. And all this, as the canon culminates, because God himself is Trinity. . .  It means that primacy is not a legalistic notion implying the investment of a certain individual with power, but a form of diakonia, that is, of ministry in the strict sense of the term. It implies also that this ministry reaches the entire community through the communion of the local churches manifested through the bishops that constitute the council or synod. It is for this reason that the primate himself should be the head of a local church, that is, a bishop. This will allow each local church to be part of a conciliar reality as a full and catholic church. Primacy will not in this case undermine the ecclesiological integrity of any local church.[27]

35. Remarkably, Zizioulas earlier proposed this “golden rule” to the Anglican Communion. He insisted in his response to Archbishop Robert Runcie’s Opening Address “The Nature of the Unity we Seek” in Lambeth 1988:

An ecclesiology of communion, an ecclesiology which gives to the ‘many’ the right to be themselves, to risk being pneumatomonistic, needs to be conditioned by the ministry of the ‘one’, just as. the ecclesiology of a pyramidal, hierarchical structure, which involves a christomonistic tendency, can undermine the decisive role of the Holy Spirit in the life and structure of the Church and needs the aspect of the ‘many’. We need to find the golden rule, the right balance between the ‘one’ and the ‘many’, and this I am afraid cannot be done without deepening our insights into Trinitarianism theology. The God in whom we believe is ‘one’ by being ‘many (three)’ and is ‘many (three)’ ‘by being one’.

He went on to warn:

A Church which is not able to speak with one mouth is not a true image of the body of Christ. The Orthodox system of autocephaly needs and in fact has a form of primacy in order to function, and I dare think that the same would be true of Anglicanism. The theology that justifies or even (as an Orthodox, and perhaps an Anglican, too, would add) necessitates the ministry of episcopacy, on the level of the local Church, the same theology underlies also the need for a primacy on the regional or even the universal level. It would be a pity if Anglicanism were to move in the opposite direction; it would then have to look for a non-institutional kind of identity, and the result would be ecumenically unfortunate, perhaps tragic.[28]

36. The reason why the Anglican Communion has not picked up this insight is not an oversight. The key problem is that the Churches in the Communion did not ask whether the Anglican Communion is indeed an ecclesial body. So the Communion takes a utilitarian and managerial approach to the claims and counter-claims of the “one” and the “many” in the life of the Communion. It further leaves our ecumenical partners frustrated, because they are unclear whether the Anglican Communion can speak with one mouth and act as one coherent ecclesial body.

37. Indeed the Anglican ecclesial deficit is aggravated by uncritical use of concepts from the ecumenical movement. From the 1970s onwards, the ecumenical movement underwent an intense soul-searching period regarding its own ecclesiological significance.[29] The ecclesial status of Christian World Communions and Christian Councils also underwent similar review. Sharp questions were raised whether the Christian World Communions were in fact a hindrance to the ecumenical task.[30] The term “instrument of unity” was used in discussions on the ecclesiological significance of the varieties of “Christian councils” that have emerged in the post-War years. Lukas Vischer insisted that Christian Councils should be “instruments of unity”. By this he meant the ecclesial reality should not be sought in Christian Councils but in the communion among the Churches. “As structures, Christian Councils have only an instrumental ecclesiological significance in the promotion of this communion.”[31] This instrumental and provisional role was underscored in the 1982 “Consultation on the Significance and Contribution of Councils of Churches in the Ecumenical Movement” in Venice and the 1986 Second Consultation on Councils of Churches as “Instruments of Unity within the One Ecumenical Movement” in Geneva.[32] The concept “ecclesial density” came along in discussions on the ecclesiological self-understanding of Christian World Communions. Harding Meyer first mooted the term in 1979 in connection with the ecclesiological status of the Lutheran World Federation. At question was the ecclesial attributes, or the degree of ekklesiale Dichte (“ecclesial density”) of LWF. The focus was then directed to establish the necessary ecclesial character of the organizational structures of the World Communions at international levels. As Michael Root explained: “The sort of ecclesial density present should then determine the ecclesial nature of the body and the nature and obligations of membership within it.”[33] This line of reasoning was however problematic. Nordstokke is critical of Meyer’s proposal: 

Not only is this expression imprecise; it can also be interpreted to mean that this ‘ecclesial density’ exists independently of, or without, the intimate dialectic with the church in is local context. And the communio ecclesiology is much better suited to bring out the idea . . . that the LWF is more than the sum of the member churches.[34]  

38. The temptation for the Anglican Communion to adopt these concepts for Anglican use was overwhelming. The “instruments of unity” concept appeared in the Seventh Meeting of ACC in 1987. It was used in the Report “Unity and Diversity within the Anglican Communion: A way forward” as a collective name for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting. Before this, Lambeth 1978 used the term “structures in the Anglican Communion; in 1984 the Secretary General used the term “inter-Anglican organization” in his ACC-6 Opening Speech. The Anglican Communion was set on a disaster course. The last decade saw the creation of concepts and structures to uphold the Communion at international level, without thinking through their ecclesial implications and their connection to the ecclesial realities of the particular Churches. So the Communion structures unwittingly set Anglican Churches worldwide on a collision course with one another. These terminologies came from specific Protestant denominational settings; but there was little discussion and explanation of what they mean in Anglican terms ecclesiology. Confusion leads to mistrust. The present Anglican disputes need not to have anything to do with personality, cultural, and geopolitical power struggles. They are aggravated by the incoherent Communion structures themselves, and by a perceived Western arrogance in defending Communion structures which are in fact ecclesially suspect and novel. Architects of the Communion structures, who were mainly from Churches in the West, could have been more cautious in adopting these new concepts, and more ready in explaining their rationale to the Churches. The repeated calls for authoritative ecclesial leadership and effective actions by Churches in the southern continents from the late 1990s onwards were generally-speaking regarded to be embarrassing instances of religious fundamentalism by mainstream interpreters in the West, who then would be civilised by sounder ways in reading the Bible.

39. Indeed the disputes are part of a wider ecclesial deficit in the ecumenical movement. In his 1988 response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Opening Speech touched on a threefold division of Christendom: the East, the West and now the “Third World”.[35] But do the “Third World” Churches on their own carry any ecclesial significance? Referring to Vatican II documents Lumen Gentium 23 and Christus Dominus 11, Walter Kasper put it this way:

The one Church concretizes itself, inculcates itself, indeed incarnates itself, so to speak, in space and time. Only in this way is it a unity in fullness. The universal Church exists therefore only in and out of individual churches; it is represented by them and realizes itself in them; it operates in them and is present in them (italics mine).[36]

In other words, it would not do for Western Churches merely to bring “Third World” Churches with them to ecumenical discussions with established partners in the Mediterranean world. The vision for visible unity is only realised when the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” are able to find their places alongside the ancient People of God before the heavenly throne (Revelation 7: 9, 13-14). Their testimony (Revelation 7: 13-14) too are an integral element of the journey towards the final unity of creation in Christ.

40. The discussion on “ecclesial deficit” so far only focuses on the Communion-levels. But even more significantly it affects also affects the identity of the “Churches” as well, making them unsure about their own ecclesial status. The Anglican Communion has so far been unclear on what constitutes membership to the Communion. The Schedule of Membership of the Anglican Consultative Council defines membership to the Anglican Communion. But are “national and regional Churches”, “member Churches”, and “autonomous Provinces” of the Anglican Communion theological equivalent concepts? On what grounds are the “member Churches of the Anglican Communion” constituted as Churches? Do they share the same basic ecclesial structures? This is not clear.

41. The earliest Lambeth Conferences used the generic term “members of the Church of Christ” to refer to the “Provinces” in the “Anglican Branch of Church Catholic” or the “Churches of our colonial empire and the Missionary Churches” (for example in Lambeth 1867, Resolutions 3 and 8). The term “province” as a basic ecclesiastical entity has its origins from can be Christian antiquity. The Provinces of Canterbury and York are such instances. The province-concept was the basic category of organization in these first decades. The term “national or particular Church” was first used in Lambeth 1878 Resolution 1 as well to refer to the “Churches of the Anglican Communion”. Lambeth 1920 amended this classification to read “the national and regional Churches” in Resolution 43 (on “Development of Provinces”). Clearly, these terms are not necessarily connected to the concept of “autonomous Churches”. 

42. The Protestant-driven ecumenical movement in the post-War years however brought about a new ecclesiastical landscape. Near the time when the World Council of Churches was discussing the composition of its membership, Lambeth 1948 adopted the term “member Churches” to refer to the family of Churches in the Communion (Resolution 56). This membership-concept became prominent from Lambeth 1968. Anglican Consultative Council’s formation became the occasion for adopting the term “member Churches of the Anglican Communion” to be the basic organizational unit of the Communion (Resolution 69).

43. But what makes up membership to the Anglican Communion? Member Churches consist of those Churches set out in the Schedule of Membership of the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council. At present, the Anglican Communion consists of forty-four member Churches (thirty-four Provinces; four untied churches; and six extra-provincial dioceses and other churches). But there is no sound rationale to membership. This perhaps did not pose any difficulty so long as ACC (and the wider Anglican Communion) are merely consultative and coordinating bodies. But this lack of theological clarity in what “Church” and membership mean makes it more difficult for the Anglican Communion to decide and act as one ecclesial unit. 

44. The earliest composition of ACC membership (and by extension Anglican Communion membership) reflected this uncertainty over membership qualification. Up to 1985, ACC kept Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui in the list of Anglican Provinces,[37] though the Holy Catholic Church in China had stopped to function from the late 1950s. The bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao sat as the China-member in the Primates’ Meeting when it was first formed in the late 1970s.[38] By Lambeth 1988, China was dropped from the Primates’ Meeting. The reasons were unclear. But the consecration of two new bishops in Shanghai in June 1988 might have contributed to this. In China Christian Council’s understanding, the bishop’s office is mainly spiritual; it does do not carry administrative and territorial authority. In his letter of 11 April 1988 to Bishop T. K. Ting (the only surviving “Holy Catholic Church” bishop in China), Archbishop Robert Runcie expressed that such interpretation of the bishop’s role would pose especial challenge to the Anglican Communion. Nanjing Theological Review printed the Chinese translation of Canterbury’s letter, with an accompanying statement that reiterated China’s position.[39]

45. Near the same time that the China membership was dropped, the four united churches in South Asia became “normal” members of the ACC from 1987 (ACC-7 Resolution 17). The same Resolution also asked “the Lambeth Conference of 1988 and the Primates' Meeting of 1989 similarly to consider full membership of those bodies for united Churches in full communion”.

46. Clearly, the four united Churches in South Asia and the post-denominational ecclesiastical presences in China adopt differing approaches to church order, historic episcopacy and metropolitan authority. What decides their inclusion or exclusion in Anglican structures? The inclusion of the Chair of the Council of the Church in East Asia in the Primates’ Meeting from 1998 underscored this problem. This Council was set up in 1957 to address post-War needs of the sprawling extra-provincial diocese in East Asia. Despite the Council has never understood itself to be “Church”, it was invited to sit in the Primates’ Meeting. Successive ACC meetings have indeed laid down guidelines for metropolitan authority, provincial structure, and provincial constitutions,[40] but they have not dealt with the theological ration