Let us begin by asking a series of related questions:
Is it the case that the Anglican Family of Churches was simply a Communion of autonomous Churches (yet exercising restraint) until the latter part of the twentieth century when the polity quickly developed and became Conciliar?
Was there simply a Communion of autonomous Churches/Provinces bound by bonds of affection, history, liturgy and doctrine, which due to internal and external forces, moved towards a Conciliar polity from the 1980s or so?
Is it now the case that Anglican Polity (the way in which the Anglican Churches of the world relate to one another organizationally) is basically Conciliar (retaining autonomy locally but looking to international meetings of bishops, representatives or delegates, and Primates as well as the See of Canterbury for direction and guidance) in real terms?
And is it also the case that while all the member National Churches or Provinces are in a legal sense autonomous, the majority is seeking to act as though it is also interdependent?
Further, it is also the case that most National Churches or Provinces in the present Anglican Family are willing to change their constitutions and ways of making decisions to build into their common life the reality of interdependence as a real qualifier of present autonomy (e.g., by modifying constitution and canon law and by restraint on liberty and through mutual subjection on major matters)?
In short, is there a development taking place within the Anglican Family around the world and is this towards a Conciliar polity requiring interdependence and mutual subjection on major matters that affect all, by each and every National Church/Province?
Putting it a different way, Will the importance and the influence of the “Instruments of Unity” [ the See of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, the Anglican Consultative Council (lay & clerical) and the Primates’ Meeting] continue to grow so that each National Church/Province becomes accustomed to following their advice and guidance on major matters?
And will the See of Canterbury, surrounded by a council of advice, become the focus of the unity of the Anglican Churches of the world?
It is well known that after the creation of the United States of America, the Anglican Churches of the former colonies united to become The Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA and in so doing sought the approval of the English Archbishops for the revised Book of Common Prayer (1789), for it wished to be in full Communion with the mother Church. Further, this newly organized Church made sure that its Bishops were fully accepted by the same Church of England.
It is also well known that the original impulse for the creation of what became known as the Lambeth CONFERENCE of Bishops in the nineteenth century was for a SYNOD of Bishops to act on behalf of the churches in the colonies of the British Empire.
The point is that, as the Church of England moved overseas with the British Empire, churches were founded and grew, and the latter felt the need for (a) a continued relation to the mother Church – usually via the See of Canterbury, and (b) their right and ability to make decisions for themselves in their own situations. And just as the British Commonwealth of Nations was formed to keep together the former colonies (now independent nations) together in a friendly and purposeful way in the second half of the twentieth century, so the Anglican Communion of Churches came into being as a way of keeping together the Churches planted from England (directly or indirectly) which had become autonomous Churches/Provinces. And neither the British Commonwealth nor the Anglican Communion had more than a minimal secretariat at the center for the purpose of sharing information and lubricating relations.
While the ideal of the British Commonwealth has become less important to its member states, the ideal of the Anglican Communion of Churches, as both an ideal and a means of providing ecclesial recognition and authenticity, has grown in recent decades.
In fact, part of the general desire for the strengthening of the ties, which bind together the Anglican Family of Churches around the globe, has arisen because of the arrival of modern religious innovations, adopted by some member Provinces, but rejected or partially so by others. These innovations are much related to developments in western culture and initially were divisive and in many ways remain so; but, they have had the effect positively of arousing much effort to create ways and means of dealing with them, and, in so doing, bringing into closer relation and cooperation the majority of the Provinces.
The innovations arise from a new reading of the classic biblical texts, which speak of the creation of man in the image of God as male and female and of the relation of man and woman in matrimony, in household and in church. And they occur because the Liturgies containing these texts interpreted in the traditional way have been set aside by some western Provinces in favor of new liturgies (see e.g., the removal of the doctrine of headship of the male from the marriage service and from the ordination services and catechisms in the new books of alternative services). So primarily in the West/North of the Anglican Family of Churches there has been since the 1970s the increasing ordination of women – initially as deacons and then as priests and bishops (but only today in Canada and USA are there female bishops). This innovation has been followed in North America and elsewhere by the blessing of same-sex couples and the ordination of persons in such partnerships. Both these innovations have brought great stress but the latter has created what seems at time uncontrollable centrifugal pressure!
So in 2006 there is great energy in thought, consultation and prayer being expended by the majority to find ways truly to make the Anglican Family of Churches a real Communion of Churches, even if its membership will decline through the loss of several Provinces (which regard their autonomy and right to innovate greater then their duty to be interdependent and to move at the same pace as others in terms of major changes).
If the Lambeth Conference occurs in 2008, its membership will be a major indicator of the future size, nature and characteristics of the Anglican Family of Churches? And its decisions will indicate whether there is to be a genuine Anglican Communion of Churches after 2008. If there is to be such then we can be reasonably sure that it will of necessity, if only in a partial way, have to be Conciliar in Polity in order to be interdependent in practical reality!
So until this Conference actually meets, there is going to be much activity, confusion, debate, controversy and division along with much effort to create unity and to lubricate the means of communication and relations. And primarily, those of good heart will be much in prayer for God to bring truth with unity and unity with truth to this Family of Churches (visit http://www.anglicansatprayer.org/ )!
Dr Peter Toon September 13, 2006
P.S. Perhaps the present crisis within the Anglican Family will allow the separated “cousins” and “extended family” (the Continuing Anglicans) to work prayerfully and creatively to bring their resources and experience to bear, and to lead to the beginnings of new and positive relations with the larger Anglican Family from which they departed in times past (for good reasons). True Reconciliation in families is a beautiful thing.