But what do we mean by “Communion?”
Do we mean the original ideal of 19th century; the much reduced ideal common today; or the half way point of the present Global South?
When the expression “Anglican Communion of Churches” was coined in the nineteenth century, this meant the Communion of the United Church of England and Ireland at home and abroad (via British Empire and missions) with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. and its missions overseas
But what did Communion mean? In The King James Version of the Bible which was universally read then the word “communion” only occurs four times—twice in 1 Corinthians 10:16; and once in 2 Corinthians 6:14 and 13:14. In the first two it relates to what occurs in the Sacrament, communion with Christ; and in the last it is what exists within the household of God and Body of Christ, the communion of all believers in the Holy Ghost. In the other reference, it has a moral sense where the Christian cannot have communion with “darkness” or evil.
Within The Book of Common Prayer the primary use of “Communion” is in the title of the Service, “The Order of Holy Communion,” and here the reference is that of 1 Corinthians 10:16, “communion of the blood of Christ and of the body of Christ.”
If the meanings from Bible and Common Prayer are taken as primary, then the Anglican Communion began as a practical coming together of two Churches (each with outposts and missions) because they believed they had already “communion,” that is communion in the Holy Spirit who indwells the church as the temple of God and communion in the sacrament of the body and blood of Jesus.
In the Preface to The BCP adopted in the U.S.A. in 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church had declared that it had no intention “to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline or worship.” So the two Churches were from the 1780s in communion one with another, and thus the term Anglican Communion was a suitable term to describe their relation one to another and to the communion with the extensions of their Churches in other lands.
But we are only at the beginning of what “Communion” means in pointing to communion at the Table of the Lord and in the Holy Spirit.
Most bishops in the nineteenth century were well acquainted with both Latin and Greek and so they knew that the word “communion” in the KJV translated koinonia, which also may be translated “fellowship” as it is on some occasions in KJV. If we go through the various uses of the noun, koinonia, in the New Testament we come up with these further ideas as to the full content of “communion” and “fellowship.”
a sharing of friendship based on common Christian knowledge (Acts 2:42; 2 Cor.6:14)
practical sharing with the needy, as with the collection St Paul made on his travels for the church in Jerusalem (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 2 Cor. 9:13)
partnership in the work of Christ (Phil.1:5)
fellowship in the faith, membership of a believing society (Eph 3:9)
fellowship with Christ Jesus (1 Cor.1:9)
fellowship with God the Father when walking in the light (1 John 1:3,6).
Thus incorporating these to speak of the Communion of Churches is to speak of a very high level of fellowship, cooperation in mission, partnership in the Gospel, sharing of spiritual and material goods, interdependency, caring one for another, godliness, and so on.
Thus in a sense “Communion” in the title, Anglican Communion, describes an ideal to strive for as much as a state actually enjoyed howbeit imperfectly most of the time.
However, practically, it meant for a long time that any member of one church is welcome at the Lord’s Table of another, that a priest of one Church is a priest in the other and in order to officiate only needs a license, that no one Church will take any action which is a major innovation without consulting the others and being open to the advice of the others, and that while the liturgies of each Church may not be identical they must have a common doctrine for fellowship in the Faith to exist, and that a Bishop of one diocese is wholly accepted as a Bishop by all other dioceses.
Looking back on the history of the Anglican Communion of Churches, one can say that the Lambeth Conference of Bishops worked hard when they met from 1867 to 1998 to seek to preserve the Communion; but that in recent years with the arrival of a continuing series of innovations adopted in various of the member Churches—family planning techniques, no-fault divorce, remarriage of divorcees in church, women being ordained in some dioceses, various inclusivist- language liturgies being used in some dioceses, the blessing of same-sex couples and so on—the Bishops have had to bring down the bar and to abandon the old ideal of what is Communion.
What we hear now is talk of a minimal communionas the ideal, one that takes as its basis baptism rather than Eucharistic communion and thus includes all who are baptized on the assumption that “baptism is full initiation into the Church.” So the Anglican Communion of Churches is, from this perspective able to keep the premise of being a communion but change what this means—i.e., abandoning the rich but demanding biblical presentation and adopting instead a modern open interpretation of a more open communion in terms of doctrine, worship and discipline. To help keep this reduced and unstable communion in place, emphasis is also placed on “the Instruments of Unity” which are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting.
However, even this minimal form of Communion seems not to be working as an ideal or base-line in 2007 for the Global South Provinces want the Communion to be more than the minimum but yet not the full reality—for the simple reason that not a few of them are committed to the ordination of women, which was one of the innovations that led to the reduction of the bar for communion in the 1980s. They are against most of the innovations that brought down the bar but some of them are enthusiastically for some of them, such as women clergy and artificial birth control in the fight against aids.
So while the Episcopal Church of the USA wants the much reduced form of communion, and the Global South a less reduced but still reduced form, that which was—say to the 1960s-- the real and full Communion, the ideal to be grasped, seems to have got lost and maybe forever!
The question is therefore raised: Can the Global South raise the bar for everyone above where it seems to be now—open communion based upon baptism only—so that it is somewhere on the way to the old ideal?
But, and it is a big but, it is possible that the Global South intends to work for its new ideal in its own Anglican Communion of Churches, which it is rumored it is seeking to form in 2008, having decided not send its bishops to the Lambeth Conference 2008.
Advent I 2007
The Revd Dr Peter Toon