Geoffrey Kirk looks at Archbishop Rowan Williams’ views on whether the Anglican Communion is ‘a Church’ and asks what he means by ‘Church’

At a Press Conference at Lambeth 2008, Rowan Williams was asked a very pertinent question. Could the Anglican Communion be called a Church? Williams answered in acharacteristicallyroundaboutway It was, he admitted, less of a Church than the Roman Catholic Church, with its monolithic structures and authoritative magisterium. But, on the other hand, it was more of a Church than, for example, a loose grouping like the Lutheran World Federation. The implication (as so often) was that Anglicans had wisely, if problematically, eschewed the two extremes in favour of a via media.

I suspect that Rowan would not give the same answer now.

Two tracks

His recent published reflections (Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future] envisage a possible further erosion of relationships, and the emergence of two ‘tracks’ (parallel, convergent or divergent? – he does not say) along which future Anglicans will travel. He is unhappy with calling this a ‘two-tier model’ with first and second class structures, but that surely is precisely what it is: not the Lutheran World Federation, but the European Union, with its Euro-zone, its Schengen states and its wider penumbra of members.

The Archbishop, it is true, sees the difficulties in all this: the intellectual problem of relating such a melange to what he calls the ‘church catholic,’ and the difficulties of ecumenical dialogue when internal disagreements may be as substantial as external. But, whilst hope springs eternal, realism obliges him to admit that such an undesirable situation is possible, even probable.

Rather donnishly (and characteristically) Rowan passionately believes that, whatever the ethical, theological and ecclesiological divisions, the dialogue must go on. Pas-torally, he wants no antagonism or rivalry that would put an end to the co-operation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the Communion.’ All this is admirable as far as it goes. But the question remains: how in the world does a man of manifest Catholic sympathies wrap his mind round all this?

‘A church’ or ‘The Church’?

One sentence in these reflections gives a clue. ‘The ideal^ says Williams, ‘is that both “tracks” should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as Church.’

Coming close to the end of the paper, this is clearly intended, in some sense, to be conclusive and climactic. But I have to confess that I have not the slightest idea what it means. The problem is the absence of an article, definite or indefinite. I have a notion of what is meant by ‘The Church’ I know, more or less, what is meant by a church.’ But what does it mean to ‘be Church^ or to strive to be it?

‘The Church’ extends vertically through time and horizontally across the world, celebrating the same sacraments always and everywhere, bound together by a universally recognized and Apostolic ministry, placing upon its baptized members in every time and place the same obligations in faith and morals. It is (more or less), the ‘church catholic’ to which Rowan appeals. It is what the Church of England, in its formularies, claims to be no more than part of’

‘A church’ is something quite different. It is a very much more self-conscious body. It is what Americans mean when they talk about ‘this church and what they mean when they say that it has a distinctive polity! A church’ not only presupposes ‘this church but of course requires the notion of ‘that church’ (over against it). It implies an almost unconscious emphasis, not on what is held in common (with ‘The Church’), but on what is local, characteristic and distinctive. It is the tragedy of a church’ (as we are currently seeing with the Americans) that it inevitably comes to see itself as ‘The Church.’


The sole advantage, so far as I can see, of the expression ‘being Church’ (as in the phrase ‘new ways of being Church’) is that it is virtually content free. It means whatever the context requires. ‘What they believe God is calling them to be as Church’ is gloriously, splendidly open-ended – where the word ‘Church’ exists merely to claim some tenuous and disarming affinity with one, other or both of the meanings above.

By his use of such a phrase, with its content located in an as yet unforeseeable future, Williams is tacitly abandoning both the possibilities he outlined in his answer to the Lambeth question. Can the Anglican Communion be described as a Church? No; rather it is an association of historically related but doctrinally disparate groups who are exploring together what God is calling them to be as Church’ It is, quite literally, like nothing on earth, for the simple reason that it is not yet clear what it is going to be. It is that thing most beloved of the liberal mind: an open-ended journey.

This maybe ecclesiology; but not as we know it, Rowan.