John Heidt writing from America, is sanguine about the prospects of the Anglican Communion falling apart. He argues that there was nothing of any ecclesiological substance to be kept together in the first place
I recently heard it said that the Anglican Communion, like Humpty Dumpty, has had a great fall, and that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put it back together again. What we once called the Anglican Communion is no more. It has sat on the wall too long; it has straddled both sides of the fence too often. And now it is falling apart at the seams.
So, by all means, let us pause for a moment and shed a tear over our loss, just as some Anglophiles still grieve the loss of the British Empire. Both are mere human creations forged out of the strife and anguish of battles long past.
Whence came the idea?
Where, after all, did this idea of an Anglican Communion, or any other kind of Communion, come from? How does it fit into any sort of Catholic ecclesiology? What are the historical evidences of its authenticity? What precedents are there within Catholic tradition for autonomous churches united only by similar prayer books and a vague allegiance to one particular foreign archbishop?
Until the American Revolution there was no such thing, only the national churches of Great Britain – historic, reformed extensions of mediaeval Catholicism. To this day the English do not think of themselves as Anglicans but as CofE, and most Americans who now call themselves Anglicans do so only because they are embarrassed at being thought Episcopalian.
Roman Catholics do not think of themselves as members of a Communion but simply as the Church, and there is no Communion of Eastern Orthodox churches. Protestants talk of Denominations rather than Communions. Nowhere, apart from us, is any kind of ecclesial entity considered a ‘Communion.’ One cannot even find the term in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
Residue of empire
The Anglican Communion is the final residue of what was once the world’s greatest empire, and from this historic background we have inherited a great patrimony. We must be thankful for that inheritance and do our best to preserve it. But though the memory of our common origin may instill bonds of affection among us, it can hardly form any particular ecclesial reality. The very concept of the Anglican Communion is a chimera, a myth, a fantasy, a dream – a dream that can sometimes turn into a nightmare of religious wars and party strife, but a dream nonetheless.
So what will become of us if we are not part of this imaginary Communion? What kind of church will we belong to? What Christian identity shall we claim? We shall be where we have always been. As our best theologians have claimed, we shall be members of the visible Catholic Church nourished within the ancient Anglican tradition.
We shall remain Anglicans all right, even without the Anglican Communion. It is in our blood and in the air we breathe. We cannot escape it, even if we change our ecclesiastical allegiance. For Anglicanism has nothing to do with belonging to some mythical Communion. It is a way of thinking and a way of praying, a way of reading Scripture and a way of doing theology. I remember many years ago, overhearing a Presbyterian scholar assert before Michael Ramsey that there was no such thing as a distinctive Anglican way of doing theology, to which the then archbishop replied, ‘Oh, I think there is; I think there is. It is just that no one seems to be doing it anymore.’
What might happen?
We shall be scriptural Catholics, or what Charles Gore once called ‘Liberal Catholics’ – by which he did not mean that we should become doctrinal libertines, but that we should be set at liberty to live our lives in the wholeness of the Gospel.
Scripture speaks only of one Church living the apostolic tradition and of its expression in a variety of local churches throughout the world. As scriptural or liberal Catholics, we live out our Christian lives in our local churches: the Church of England, the Church of Rome, the Church of New York, of Fort Worth, of St Felix in the Field. These local churches, through their authentic apostolic succession of faith and sacraments, are the true and faithful expressions of the whole undivided Church of the first millennium. Our task, as it has been since the earliest days, is to see that our local church is faithful to that faith once delivered to the saints.
A Communion which is nothing more than a loose federation of autonomous churches does not constitute a Church. Yet the Church itself is a Communion – a common-union of local churches united by a common faith through sacraments received in common. And the apostolic bishop is the sacrament or effective sign of that unity, uniting in his person his local church with all other local churches in time and space. It is through the local bishop that we are visibly united with the whole Catholic Church. The question we must ask is not what church we belong to, what Denomination or Communion we claim for our own. The question is about communion. With whom are we in communion; with whom can we be assured of receiving divinely ordained sacraments and be taught a divinely revealed faith?
Is Akinola right?
Archbishop Akinola and the Province of Nigeria may be the first to put their finger on the true nature of our Catholic identity. He certainly has done nothing to endanger the so-called Anglican Communion as Archbishop Eames has suggested – that happened when we agreed to ordain a sacramental ministry that not everyone could accept. Far from threatening to break up the Communion of Anglican churches Akinola and his province simply clarified our true Catholic identity as local churches within the Anglican tradition.
Nigeria did not go too far in redefining the communion that exists among Anglican churches. By limiting their definition of communion to local churches within the Anglican tradition, it did not go far enough. The next step surely is to openly declare with whom we are in communion through a common faith and common sacraments whether they be Anglican or not; then to declare that we are in intentional communion with all faithful and apostolic bishops throughout the world, East and West, for in that world-wide communion alone is found the wholeness of the Catholic Church.
It is a good thing, after all, to be an Anglican, but it is necessary to be a Catholic.