The Anglican Communion has thirty-eight provinces. Each one is both autonomous and independent in terms of its synodical authority. By a majority vote it can virtually change or introduce anything. It is within the Anglican Communion by custom/ invitation and local choice.
When secularism, worldliness and heresy have little sway upon the leaders of each province and when there is a general commitment to basic Christianity, then there is a high degree of co-operation with other provinces and there is a general readiness to face problems together. Thus when the Anglican Communion seems to be faring well, there is a significant movement of help, advice and personnel between provinces. It seems a wonderful kind of thing to be a part of.
The arrival of the movement for the ordination of women was not faced initially as something to be agreed by all in principle, positively or negatively, but each province came to believe and assumed that it had the right and authority to decide for itself concerning this innovation. The result of the use of independency and autonomy in this matter led to serious disruption in the relations of dioceses within provinces and between provinces themselves. What has become known as the Eames Commission (chaired by Archbishop Eames) faced the result of this disruption and virtual chaos and proposed the Anglican doctrine of “The Process of Reception” (I have studied this doctrine in the large booklet published by the Latimer Trust of London – www.latimertrust.org -- and entitled, Reforming Forwards? The Process of Reception…, 2004, Latimer Studies 56/57.)
The exercise of autonomy and independence over the ordination of women (as well as in the introduction of new liturgy) seems to have given a kind of kind of thrill and an exaggerated sense of importance to certain provinces and dioceses, with the result that they proceeded to go ahead and approve yet another major innovation – against the mind and will of the last Lambeth Conference. This was the approval of “gay partnerships” and of clergy in the same relationships. Once again, the shock waves of this innovation caused the Archbishop of Canterbury to set up a commission (chaired yet again by Archbishop Eames) in 2003 in order to seek to find ways of holding the Communion together, and this Commission will report in October 2004. (I hope to edit a series of responses to this Report.)
It seems obvious to seasoned observers that there is no way that the 38 Provinces of the Anglican Family can stay together as a Communion in the long term, unless there is a commitment by each and all not only to the full use and respect of the “instruments of unity” (Arch of Cant, Lambeth Conf., Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting) but also to (a) the limitation of autonomy by a full commitment to inter-dependency and (b) norms and controls accepted by all establishing and maintaining this inter-dependency. The latter will probably need to include both an identical common set of canons which are in all the constitutions and which clearly establish inter-dependency and also a doctrinal norm (here the only candidate would seem to be the classic edition of The Book of Common Prayer & Ordinal of 1662 which is in 152 languages) declaring what is the Anglican Way.
It seems most clear that the model of the British Commonwealth of nations will not suffice for the Anglican Communion. Another model which ensures not only autonomy but also inter-dependency has to be adopted and agreed by all in order for this Family to stay together and to claim as a Unity to be a genuine jurisdiction of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church!
If the present Communion breaks apart then there is the great danger of individual provinces reveling in their autonomy and independence to major on minors and to bring in innovations from Lay Celebration by Evangelicals to the Roman Mass by Anglo-Catholics and to the marriage of beasts and man by the ultra-liberals.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)