(November 1, 2003)
No reasonable person will deny that the Anglican Communion is experiencing a crisis of authority. The immediate irritants are the American approval of a divorced man, sexually active outside the bonds of Holy Matrimony and living with a same-sex companion, to be a bishop of Christ’s Church, along with the decision of the Canadian diocese of New Westminster to proceed with the blessing of same-sex relationships as holy before God. And while the international outrage over these departures from Scriptural faith and order is more than justified, it is worth pointing out that these moral catastrophes are mere symptoms and not the disease itself that is troubling the Anglican Communion. The breakdown of authority among the churches of the Anglican Communion is the real emergency. Furthermore, given the historic content and nature of Anglican ecclesiastical polity, it might be better still to diagnose the current Anglican disease as a breakdown in responsibility.
Please note that we chose the words “among the churches of the Anglican Communion” very carefully. There cannot be, in historic Anglican polity, a crisis or emergency “within the Anglican Communion.” The “communion” shared by the Anglican churches is a spiritual and sacramental fellowship, rather than an institutional connection defined by some body of internal institutional law. The Anglican Communion belongs to the churches. The churches do not belong to the Anglican Communion.
There is, on purpose, among the churches of the Anglican Way, no centralized, coercive, institutional authority. There is no officer or group of officers within the Communion that has any earthly, bureaucratic authority to command the innovating Americans and Canadians to cease and desist, nor from the viewpoint of those who believe in traditional Anglican polity should there be. There is, of course, moral and spiritual authority in plenty to correct such errors, but only among those churches that will take responsibility for their own participation in the Anglican Communion and for their relations with other national churches.
Assuming the very best of intentions behind the Commission announced by the Archbishop of Canterbury to investigate the various churches’ deviations from Scriptural norms, we cannot help but suggest that it is probably not the best possible way to proceed. The establishment of a Commission not only may encourage the various national churches to lay off their own responsibilities before God onto the Commission, but it also may give the impression that national churches ought not to act until given permission to do so by some non-existent central authority, if they wish to remain in good standing as Anglicans.
In much the same way, recent appeals from within the United States and Canada for the bishops of the other Anglican national churches to intervene and to reclaim the two troubled American churches on behalf of the American faithful, however understandable, are really beside the point. The various American Anglicans in distress should and must ask for the aid and succor of their Anglican brethren around the world, but they ought not to ask those brethren to do the reforming work that the Americans themselves must bear the responsibility before God of accomplishing. Each national church must answer to God for its own orthodoxy, its own morality, its own charity, its own correction of error, and, if necessary, its own discipline of separation from the unfaithful or the unruly.
Why are these things so? The beginning proposition of the reformed catholic polity of the Anglican churches is that the Church of Jesus Christ in each nation has an identity, a vocation, and an integrity of its own. While none of these national churches is the whole Church in and of itself, the sum of them, along with the saints in light, is the Church confessed in the ecumenical creeds. Moreover, this proposition is founded on an understanding of the Scripture in which the Great Commission to teach all nations was not and cannot be twisted into an invitation to establish a centralized coercive institution to rule all the churches of the earth.
Additionally, the Anglican reformers believed that the grace of apostolic authority had been bestowed equally upon all of the Apostles and upon all of the churches derived from their ministry. Such an equality did not forbid love, respect, or cooperation, but it did rule out subservience, so that the Reformers of the 16th century judged that it was the duty of the Church of England, as a coherent national church and in the same case as those other Christian churches of the West before the rise of the papacy, to reform herself, with or without the agreement of the Bishop of Rome.
The national churches of the United States and of Canada have the same authority and obligation to reform themselves now as the Church of England had at the time of the Reformation. On this basis, the Anglican churches in the United States reorganized themselves after their War of Independence into an ecclesiastical province and national church in 1789, calling themselves “the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” As a national church and province in being, the PECUSA sought fellowship with the Church of England. When these national churches entered voluntarily into a spiritual communion of faith and sacrament, what we call today “the Anglican Communion” came into being.
A similar reorganization of the Anglican churches in America is, of course, just as possible today. But whatever help the Americans may receive from other churches, it is only as a reorganized province-in-being that it makes any sense to speak of “communion” with the other Anglican churches of the world. The Americans’ foreign brethren cannot enter into communion with a promise, but only with a province, and a province equal in discipline and faith at that.
Lastly, some may argue that it would be better for the Anglican Communion to remake itself and to establish a centralized authority to deal with matters of faith and discipline, rather than to expect the various national churches to shoulder their various responsibilities to maintain faith and order in their own households under the traditional Anglican polity. But if a “central command” polity is to be our self-imposed fate, all we will have accomplished is a repudiation of the Reformation and our final submission to the polity enshrined at the Council of Trent. The issue is no longer the Anglican Communion, but the Anglican Way itself.
The Revd Dr Louis R Tarsitano & the Revd Dr Peter Toon (All Saints’ Day, 2003)