Arthur Middleton looks at the Anglican Communion as Church

‘…they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the Bishops in conference.’ Lambeth 1930


Ecclesiology describes how Anglicans see the Church and the Ministry, authority and how it works, and what makes a Church authentic, a true Church. The true notion of a Church is found in the New Testament where ecclesia means the one people of God represented by the Christian community in Jerusalem, Corinth or Colossae. ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite for the same’ (Article XIX). The Church is, then, a visible community sharing in the life of Christ by faith and practice and through grace. Preaching and ministering the sacraments implies an authoritative episcopal ministry comprising bishop, priest and deacon. Formularies, Ordinal, and the entire life of the Church underline this ministry as essential to Anglicanism. Anglican divines defined the practical tests of a true Church in what they called the entire profession of the Christian faith, the use of the sacraments, and an apostolic ministry, that are constitutive of the Church, which is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. This divine society, called and given by God, is not a human creation and these characteristics indicate what constitutes it as an authentic Church. Successive Lambeth Conferences have decreed four things essential for Christian unity: Scriptures, Creeds, Sacraments and Ministry.


Certain marks identify this ‘visible community’. It is a fellowship of those incorporated into Christ by baptism, professing the apostolic faith of the New Testament summarized in the Creeds and lived out within this fellowship. Union with Christ nourishes ecclesial life in Word and Sacrament, as the law of Christ becomes life for the individual. Various images – body, vine, temple – express the membership’s intimate unity with the Risen Christ who is both the law and the life of the Christian making the imitation of Christ and incorporation into Christ two aspects of discipleship. Certain marks define its identity. Baptism proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ that is the foundation of the Church, one baptism into one body. The Eucharist proclaims the Lord’s death until he returns, and is the sign of the one body everywhere, a eucharistic community, ‘for we being many are one bread and one body’ (1 Corinthians 10.17). It is the community of apostolic faith, the gospel, ‘God’s household, that is, the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3.15). The Church is a community of faith, ‘the faith which God entrusted to his people once and for all’ (Jude 3). It is ‘the whole family in heaven and on earth’, the new Israel, the people of God. Christ is the cornerstone, the Head of the Body, the head of the household, and the Church is ‘his Body and as such holds within it the fullness of him who himself receives the entire fullness of God’ (Ephesians 1.23).

In New Testament terms the Church is a reconciling community and its ministry is a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18–20, Ephesians 2.16, Colossians 1.20). ‘The Church is apostolic not only because its faith and life must reflect the witness to Jesus Christ given in the early Church by the apostles, but also because it is charged to continue in the apostles’ commission to communicate to the world what it has received. Within the whole history of mankind the Church is to be the community of reconciliation’ (ARCIC). Those receiving the Word were baptized and ‘continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers’ (Acts 2.41–42). Apostolic faith, fellowship, ministry and the sacraments of the Gospel are the elements constitutive of an authentic Church with the faith and the Church indissolubly merged. Profession of faith is an ultimate determinant of membership and baptism is the only way into membership.

By what authority

The quotation from Lambeth 1930 defined the Anglican Communion. The effective unit of government is the diocese, the model being the early Church, where the bishop with presbyters, administered his ‘home affairs’ and as the bishop he liaised with other bishops. No Anglican diocese acts unilaterally (until recent years), since every diocese is part of a province, every province part of a national church, and every national church part of the Anglican Communion whose bishops meet every ten years at the Lambeth Conference. Each national or regional church of the Anglican Communion has its primate, metropolitan or presiding bishop, but each is in communion or full fellowship with the Church of England and in particular with the Archbishop of Canterbury. These Primates meet as and when necessary. The bishop has to represent the Catholic Church in his diocese and, conversely, to represent his diocese within the councils of the wider Church. The principle underlying collegiality is that the apostolic calling, responsibility, and authority are an inheritance given to the whole body or college of bishops. The president is the Archbishop of Canterbury who has a primacy of honour, not of jurisdiction.

Since Lambeth only meets ten yearly, the Anglican Consultative Council meets every other year. Anglicanism sees the bishop within the Church, acting co-responsibly with clergy and laity in the life, worship, mission and government of the Church, for the people are the Church. The proclamation and guardianship of the faith is traditionally regarded as belonging fundamentally to the Episcopal office. The collegiality of the episcopate must always be seen in the context of the conciliar character of the Church, involving the consensus fidelium, in which the episcopate has its place. Synodical government introduced the laity into the government of the Church and operates at every level of the Church’s life, beginning with the parish, in deanery and diocesan synods, and finally in the General Synod. The General Synod is the legislating authority of the Church of England consisting of three Houses of Bishops, of Clergy and of Laity. Other provinces have their synodical structures of government. From the early Church onwards the proclamation and guardianship of the faith, the ordering and control of worship and the general oversight of the Church is the task of bishops. Lambeth Conferences have emphasized this episcopal role, which reflects the Prayer Book rite for the consecration of bishops.

Authority: its nature and purpose

Of the Authority of the Church (Article XX) makes two points. It distinguishes between legislative and judicial power using different words to distinguish these two areas of authority’s exercise, ‘power’ and ‘authority’. Secondly, it establishes a firm criterion by which the Church’s authority works in matters of faith, namely Scripture. Both these points bear directly on the Church’s life, witness to and proclamation of the faith. Faith, insofar as it helps to create the specifically Anglican approach to the Church’s self-understanding, was discussed in the first article. Here it is the way in which it impinges on the nature and exercise of authority in the Church, which is considered.

In one sense authority in the Church exists to enable the membership to toe the line, not in an authoritarian sense, but in an agreed sense that adds credibility to the authority of the Church. The Church, through its synods, establishes norms and agreed positions with a view to ‘endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. Legislative authority concerns rites and ceremonies, and the proposing or changing of the regulations that order the Church’s day-to-day affairs. Judicial authority in controversies of faith is of deeper significance and is an extension of the Church’s function of witnessing to the faith once for all delivered. It is not so much concerned with making the membership toe the line as establishing what the line is. The chief function of authority in the Church is the maintaining of the Church in the truth of the Gospel, a judicial authority that the Church has in controversies of faith. The ultimate authority is Jesus Christ and the Church’s authority is derived from him and therefore it must be geared to this ongoing process by means of which, through the Spirit, the Church is led to and maintained in the truth of Christ.

Authority in the Church is in fact a complex process, involving the ability of the Church by means of its human authorities ‘to distinguish the true spirits from the false’ (1 Corinthans 12.10). Thus the Church discerns a particular opinion as consonant with or contrary to the given faith and works by a norm or criterion. It differs from any other kind of authority in that what concerns it is the life of the Christian community and its permanence in the truth. It is derived from the Head of the Church and is inseparable from the action of the Spirit who leads into all the truth. This complex process is to keep the people of God in ‘the truth of the Gospel’. Unlike some forms of secular authority, response and the consensus fidelium are an integral part of the process. It operates through ecumenical councils, bishops, councils and synods of clergy and laity. The Jerusalem Council was the first.

The Lambeth Conferences of 1948 and 1968 describe the Anglican concept of authority as ‘a dispersed rather than a centralized authority’ and claimed that ‘the inheritance of faith which characterizes the Anglican communion is an authority of a multiple kind.’ It appeals to Scripture, to the Primitive Church, and to reason as the characteristic approach by Anglicanism to establishing the truth of the faith. The way authority in the Church is bound up with and linked to the truth of faith was elaborated by the 1948 Conference. The positive nature of the authority, which binds the Anglican Communion together, is seen therefore to be moral and spiritual, resting on the truth of the Gospel, and on a charity, which is patient and willing to defer to the common mind.

Authority, inherited by the Anglican Communion from the undivided Church is derived from a single divine source, reflecting within itself the richness and historicity of the divine revelation, the authority of the eternal Father, the Incarnate Son, and the life-giving Spirit. It is dispersed in 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. It is thus a dispersed rather than a centralized authority having many elements, which combine, interact with, and check each other.

The action of authority in the Church is a continuous process in which these various elements are organically connected thereby checking the balance and redressing exaggerations to maintain the Church in the truth. But the ‘truth of the Gospel’ is lived as well as proclaimed and stated, so that while Scripture continues as the ultimate standard of faith, always it must be continually interpreted in the context of the Church’s life. The Bible without the Church is dead, a collection of mere historical documents. Also, the ‘truth of the Gospel’ is defined in Creeds and in continuous theological study and is mediated in the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, verified in the witness of saints and in the consensus fidelium and through the authority of doctrinal formulations by General Councils. Authority is to keep the Church in the truth of saving faith without which the Church is no longer the Church but becomes merely a religious society. Recently, where unilateral decisions in certain provinces about order and morality have ignored the Anglican Communion’s dispersed authority, the lack of a centralized authority is exposed as a weakness demanding a solution.