THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same…
-Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion: Article XIX. Of the Church.
In the light of the recent fuss, I think it would be necessary to briefly explain what exactly is this thing called the “Anglican Communion”.
It should be noted that the Anglican Communion only came into existence in 1867. Now we would have thought that the “Anglican Communion” existed since the 16th century with the English Reformation but we would need to be a little bit more precise with what we refer to as the “Anglican Church”.
The English Church
The Anglican Church first and foremost simply refers to the Church of England, meaning to the churches or Christian assemblies which exist in England. According to this definition, the “Anglican Church” has existed since 597 A.D. when the See of Canterbury was first established on English soil. It could even be before that when there was already a Christian congregation where the Gospel was preached on England soil to the English.
A Protestant Church
However, the key institutional components of the English Church would be formally redefined in the light of the Protestant Reformation, when it broke off from Rome, and come under the exclusive governance of the Crown. It adopted the 39 Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer as its doctrinal and liturgical standard. These two documents remain to this day the defining documents of the Anglican Church. From then on the Anglican Church would have its own church history, practices, and beliefs distinct from the other parts of Western Christendom.
Thus the Anglican Church is also a Protestant Church, meaning, that the church isn’t defined according to some political institution or canonical polity. The Church is first and foremost a congregation gathered around the Word purely preached. The Kerygmatic presence remains the foundation of the Church. However because this congregation or preaching is located in England, therefore it inherited the institutional and corporate forms of the English Church from its formal or official inception in 597 A.D. (briefly disrupted during the Investiture Controversy in the 11th century), among which consists of the royal oversight and governance of the church. Thus fundamentally it is a Protestant Church, in fellowship with the other Reformed Protestants on the continent, with English forms and institutions.
The Church of the British Empire
At this stage the “Anglican Communion” still does not exist. What we simply have is the Church of England or the congregation of English Christians under the governorship of the British crown. However soon the Church of England spread all over the world as the British Empire expanded. Thus in some paradoxical way, what we have now are English churches outside of England itself. As the empire changed and evolved, these overseas churches would inherit the Protestant distinctive but no longer be governed, at least not directly, by the British crown. The Anglican Church in America for example became the Protestant Episcopal Church once the American colonies were independent of Britain and would no longer be subject to the British crown.
However, as more and more Anglican churches of the British Empire became legally and institutionally independent of the Church of England itself and the British Crown, it was thought that there was a need for a way for the Anglican churches around the world to maintain fellowship with each other. From there we have the first “Lambeth Conference” or gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, in 1867, and there the Anglican Communion was born.
So what is the Anglican Communion?
The Lambeth Conference of 1930 describes the Anglican Communion thus:
The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:
a. they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;
b. they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and
c. they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.
Thus we need to understand firstly that the Anglican Communion is, paradoxically, not a Church, it is a fellowship of churches. Thus it isn’t a unified or centralised canonical polity or institutional body. What are “duly constituted”, institutionally and canonically, are particular “dioceses, provinces or regional churches”, the Anglican Communion is not so constituted as an institutional or canonical body. It is simply a fellowship of churches, not a church itself.
However over time this “fellowship” has taken on certain institutional forms, of which there are four such “instruments of unity”, namely:
1. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads and presides over the other “instruments of unity”.
2. The Lambeth Conference, already mentioned as a once in every ten years gathering of bishops from all over the world. which discusses issues of concern and issues statements or resolutions. These statements however are expressions of the mind of the Anglican Communion and not canonical legislations or obligatory claims.
3. The Anglican Consultative Council, which sort of handles the administration of the Anglican Communion and co-ordinate or facilitate common actions or ecumenical matters. They also handle admitting churches into the Anglican Communion.
4. The Primate’s Meeting is a meeting between the primates or archbishops of the Anglican communion.
It is important to remember that these institutions or bodies have no jurisdiction or power within the particular national or provincial churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Pope of the Anglican Communion, he can’t tell other churches what to do. Neither is the Lambeth Conference the Synod of the Anglican Communion nor the Anglican Consultative Council the Curia of the Anglican Communion. Thus they have no power or authority within each particular national or provincial Anglican churches.
The institutions of the Anglican Communion’s object of concern is the fellowship between the particular churches and not what goes on in the particular churches itself. It is meant to facilitate fellowship between the particular churches, express the mind or state of that fellowship, and to regulate the fellowship or relation of one particular church with another. But they do not determine or control what goes on within each particular church.
The Recent “Suspension” of the American Episcopal Church
Given the fact that the Anglican Communion is not an overarching canonical institution over the particular regional churches, the recent “suspension”, as it were, is something which needs explaining.
First, they have not been legally excommunicated or “disciplined” or “punished” simply because the Anglican Communion is not a universal tribunal which is empowered to pass judgement upon its member churches. What has happened is that the Episcopal Church of America, because they have expressedly passed a canonical legislation contradicting the express understanding of human sexuality affirmed by the Anglican Communion, has now been suspended, for three years, from participating in the inner bodies of the instruments of unity. Therefore they cannot represent the Anglican Communion in ecumenical matters nor participate in matters to do with the internal relations of the Anglican Communion.
This is something which follows almost by definition. A church which quite expressly and obviously does not walk in unity with the Anglican Communion cannot participate in bodies or activities to do with the unity of the same. One cannot participate in instruments of unity when one is acting in disunity from it.
Conclusion: Life Goes on
Personally I was quite surprised by the uncharacteristically decisive action by the Anglican Communion as far as the suspension was concerned. However when I read about how the Primates were initially simply ignorant of what was going on in the American church and acted when they did know, things start to fall into their proper perspective. Other churches have more important things to worry about then monitoring what’s going on in the West.
In the end, it is important to remember that the Anglican Communion is a recent development, it isn’t even a church. It is in the end a mere instrument to facilitate fellowship between Anglican churches, nothing more. The life of the Church in the end is not determined by what some Anglican Communion bureaucrat says but by the Word preached in our local parish regulated canonically by our diocese and provinces.
Even if nothing happens in three years time, life will still go on in our local parishes and Anglican churches. Although I cannot help but be personally encouraged by this much needed testimony when the church with the most impressive disciplinary or canonical facilities have been sending out all kinds of mixed and confusing signals (*cough*Frank*cough*). One hopes that we can expect more of the same or a steady progress of the Anglican Communion towards acting truly in the interest of facilitating a fellowship firmly grounded upon the Word, in Spirit and in Truth.