The "Communion" of Anglicans after Lambeth '98: A Comment on the Nature of Communion and the State of the Church

By Turner, Philip | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The "Communion" of Anglicans after Lambeth '98: A Comment on the Nature of Communion and the State of the Church


Turner, Philip, Anglican Theological Review


The Anglican Communion in Crisis

From the time of the Reformation, the question of "identity" has persistently presented itself to the Church of England and, latterly, to the Anglican Communion as a whole. In past decades, Anglicans have presented themselves as a "bridge church" that combines the best insights of the reformers and the best of the traditions of Catholicism. Anglo-Catholics, in order to distance themselves from the taint of "Protestantism," have shied away from the notion of depicting themselves as a "bridge" between Rome and Geneva and have espoused the "branch theory" whereby Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans (but not Protestants) comprise three equal but distinct "branches" of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. In America, Episcopalians in recent years, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from other denominations, have insisted that theirs is an "incarnational church" that affirms the goodness of creation and so seeks to be "inclusive" of the rich variety of people and styles of life to be found in God's world.

Anglican attempts at self-definition are indeed numerous, but in recent years, in the context of ecumenical conversations, Anglicans have simply assumed the faithfulness of their doctrine, discipline and worship to the apostolic tradition, and have gone on to describe themselves as a body of self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating churches that conjointly enjoy "communion" (koinonia) with the Archbishop of Canterbury. For confirmation of this more recent selfdescription, one need look no further than the final report of ARCIC, the report of the Eames Commission, the Virginia Report of the InterAnglican Doctrinal Commission and the Lambeth Reports of 1988 and 1998.1 In each of these documents, the notion of koinonia dominates the account given of the church.

The irony is that just as koinonia has become central to "Anglican identity," the identity of Anglicans as a communion has, at points, become more than a little problematic. There are many examples of what is often called "impaired communion" but two are of particular importance-the ordination of women and the blessing of unions between people of the same sex. The first of these has already produced parishes that are not directly related to the bishop of the diocese in which they are located. There are strong indications that the second, the blessing of homosexual unions, may well lead to divisions of an even more grave nature. Thus, for example, African and Asian bishops have indicated that they might declare themselves out of communion with churches that take such a step.

These church-dividing threats and irregular Episcopal arrangements are in fact but surface manifestations of more severe problems. Behind these moral and ecclesiastical threats to the communion of Anglican churches lie cultural differences of enormous proportions. More important still are the theological disputes and divisions these cultural differences often do as much to cloak as to reveal. No better example can be found of the way in which cultural difference can cloak theological dispute than the exchange at Lambeth '98 over homosexuality. As reported in the press, the remarks of African and Asian bishops seemed on occasion to imply that their American and British colleagues were simply the advocates of a decaying society and a corrupt form of life. In their reported remarks, American and British bishops who support a change in the teaching and practice of the church in respect to sexual ethics seemed, on occasion, to imply that their Asian and African counterparts were simply trapped in a cultural time warp and so either uninformed about homosexuality or fundamentalist in their approach to scripture.

The exchange, to say the least, was not edifying, but, more serious still, the "debate" failed to disclose the fact that behind these conflicting views about homosexuality lie very different ways of construing Christian belief and practice. …

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