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The Unopened Gift [Anglican]
Anglican Theological Review ^ | 12/31/2005 | Jeffrey Steenson

Posted on 01/01/2006 8:34:12 AM PST by sionnsar

Recent decisions of its American and Canadian provinces on homosexuality have provoked a tumultuous crisis within the Anglican Communion but also a remarkable opportunity. The proponents hope that significant doctrinal developments are well underway in the area of moral theology, but it is a new Anglican Communion ecclesiology that may be the enduring legacy of these times. The Windsor Report raises important questions about the limits of provincial autonomy and the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and in these discussions the defects in the ecclesiological self-understanding of the Episcopal Church have become apparent. For some time now various inter-Anglican bodies have called for an enhanced role for the Archbishop of Canterbury within the Communion, and the Windsor Report moves this forward. There are striking parallels to the statements on authority by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission worthy of further reflection.

If General Convention 2006 were to apologize to the rest of the Anglican Communion for its unilateral actions, as called for in the Windsor Report and the 2005 Primates' Communiqué-admittedly an unlikely possibility-it could justifiably argue that its culpa was felix. The complex social and moral questions surrounding human sexuality in our culture would still remain unresolved in our churches. Properly so, we should say, lest the pastoral character of Anglican church life be irretrievably lost, since at every level people will otherwise be forced to choose and divide. The felix in the considerable disruptions occurring after General Convention 2003 is that Anglican ecclesiology will have entered a truly fruitful period of development. This is the debate we should engage, for it has implications that go well beyond the internal dynamics of Anglicanism.

Within the Episcopal Church there is much catching up to be done. Our constitutional structure retains an unmistakably secular shape, influenced as it was by the philosophical outlook of the later eighteenth century, and is proving to be a serious impediment to Christian unity. It worked well enough so long as nothing of real significance happened in matters regarding faith and order. But the accelerating pace of social change has overwhelmed it and effectively made it the servant of the culture. It has become provincial in the pejorative sense. The General Convention, for all practical purposes, has declared that its autonomy is its first principle. This is an intolerable situation for those who would seek to live under the great canon of catholic authenticity, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus.

There appears to be an expectation that General Convention 2006 will assert that its actions are a legitimate expression of provincial autonomy and that the Anglican Communion's instrumentalities have no right to interfere in its internal affairs. But it is by no means clear that the Episcopal Church should draw such a conclusion based on its own title deeds. According to the preamble to its constitution, the Episcopal Church acknowledges that it subsists within the Anglican Communion and in communion with the see of Canterbury. One might reasonably infer that should the Episcopal Church ever find itself out of communion with the see of Canterbury, its own constitutional foundation could be in jeopardy. Arguments have been offered informally that this would not be so, since the preamble was an afterthought added by General Convention in 1967 that functions as a "mission statement" about intentions rather than binding commitments. But the enabling resolution from 1967 declared that the preamble was to be "an integral part of the Constitution."1 The definition it adopted about the Anglican identity of the Episcopal Church appears to have been drawn directly from Resolution 49 of the Lambeth Conference of 1930. This Lambeth resolution held that to be Anglican it is necessary to be "in communion with the see of Canterbury."2 The preamble thus indicates a renewed consciousness within the Episcopal Church about the fundamental importance of its place within the wider Christian family.3

The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury within this communion of churches has been in an embryonic state, but a consensus seems to be emerging that the archbishop must be more than merely a figurehead. The 1997 Virginia Report (from the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, a creation of the Lambeth Conference of 1988) recognized the need for the Archbishop of Canterbury s primatial ministry to the Communion to be more clearly defined (6.1). "Today Anglican identity and authenticity of belonging is generally determined by the outward and visible test of communion with the see of Canterbury" (3.32). The Lambeth Conference of 1988 had asked whether the Archbishop of Canterbury and the primates should not "exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters."4 The Virginia Report responded affirmatively when it concluded that, for the sake of holding the Anglican Communion together, effective instruments of oversight might be needed. "Is not universal authority a necessary corollary of universal communion?" (5.20). This led to the call from the Lambeth Conference of 1998 for the primates to initiate and monitor a decade of study in each province on the Virginia Report and in particular on the question of oversight.5 The Windsor Report sees the desirability of the Archbishop of Canterbury's being able to speak directly to any provincial situation when the unity and mission of the wider Communion is imperiled: "such action should not be viewed as outside interference in the exercise of autonomy by any province" (para. 109). The continued participation of particular provinces in the life of the Communion, especially at Lambeth Conferences, is held to be at the discretion of the Archbishop of Canterbury (para. 110).

Thus a substantial ecclesiological development has been proceeding within Anglicanism, and this is being greeted with no small measure of ambivalence within the Episcopal Church. Because this element of primatial ministry must be voluntarily accepted, the future of communion depends on the goodwill, patience, and mutual reserve of the respective provinces, qualities that unfortunately seem to be in short supply. Nor is it clear that a consensus exists within the Episcopal Church that the Archbishop's ministry to the wider Communion is a necessary condition of its own legitimacy. Parishes with colonial foundations sometimes argue for a degree of independence from their dioceses on the grounds that they were there first. Perhaps because many of the Anglican Communion structures are themselves younger than the Episcopal Church, a similar attitude is at play.

Why should the Archbishop of Canterbury be the center of the Communion's unity and thereby be expected to act in order to preserve it? Many of the reasons are, of course, the result of historical circumstance, and this will inevitably raise the question, why might not someone else be chosen?6 Is there a compelling reason why it must be Canterbury?

Symbols are especially important when we consider realities whose true character must be perceived by faith, such as the catholic nature of Anglicanism. The Lambeth Quadrilateral identifies the four conditions believed to be essential for the restoration of catholic unity. These may be the irreducibles-so typical in Anglican theology to reduce propositions to their bare minimums-but they have not proven adequate to satisfy that ineluctable need for belonging, the desire to be connected to deeper realities, that lies at the heart of Anglican spirituality. The Anglican identity depends not so much on rational formulations as on ancient memories. This is especially true of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican world today is seeking to invest the office with dignities and responsibilities that go well beyond its actual place in civil and canon law. Why? Because of memories of what this office once was. How precious are those texts in the Venerable Bede, which connect the missionary foundations of Anglicanism with the principal apostolic see.7 The Anglican imagination works something like this: "Consider the Archbishop of Canterbury! There is the one whom Pope Gregory the Great sent on a great apostolic mission. There is the one on whom Gregory bestowed the pallium, the symbol of Catholic unity and oversight. There is the one charged with the task of organizing the Christian mission in Britain and drawing it together as one Church. There is our link, tenuous as it may seem, with the rest of the Catholic world. But the texts prove that Anglicanism is not the product of national aspirations but comes from the heart of the Church founded by St. Peter and St. Paul."

Admittedly this is Anglican romanticism in full flight, but one suspects that this desire to be connected is what invests the office with its true power to affect the lives of Anglicans. We need a glossary to understand the technical theological vocabulary that now fills the official papers and studies of the Anglican Communion, but it is safe to say that "subsidiarity" is not a concept that adequately conveys what many Anglicans believe about the significance of the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop is the focus of our unity, not because he serves as the president of our Communion when it is necessary for the member churches to come together, but because, if even only by distant memory, the roots of his office grow deep within the soil of the undivided church right down to the apostolic sources. The "walking apart" that the Windsor Report darkly prophesies may come about within the Episcopal Church not so much because of a desire to realign Anglicanism around clearer, more definite doctrinal standards but because the practice of provincial autonomy is so profoundly counterintuitive to our affective ecclesiology, our need for a sense of belonging to the whole.

The Windsor Report would enhance the Archbishops role in providing limited pastoral oversight to the provinces through the creation of a Council of Advice. It is a welcome but very modest proposal; the Council's task "to assist him in discerning when and how it might be appropriate for him to exercise a ministry of unity on behalf of the whole Communion" (para. 112) betrays deep-seated fears about the personal exercise of authority. Critics of the Windsor Report's proposal to expand the Archbishop's powers are concerned lest he be seen as an alternative Pope for Anglicans. It is a straw-man argument, to be sure, but it is a useful illustration of the underlying difficulty. The Lambeth Conference of 1998 took a first very tentative step in linking the problem of maintaining effective communion within Anglicanism with the "issue of a universal ministry in the service of Christian unity."8 The Windsor Report has served admirably to lay on the table specific recommendations for strengthening the instruments of Communion, as called for by Lambeth 1998; but what has not yet happened is a serious consideration of the "ecumenical implications" involved in this development.9 This can mean but one thing: the question of the one to whom the See of Canterbury owes its historic existence and its authentic primatial charism.

And so we come to the neglected but effectual first principle of Anglican ecclesiology, the problem of our relationship with the Patriarch of the West, the rock from which we were hewn (Isa. 51:1). Pope John Paul II had invited a patient dialogue in his Ut unum sint (chap. 3, para. 96), and unfortunately it must be said that we were so preoccupied with our own affairs we missed this opportunity. Pope Benedict XVI represents a real second chance, and his own words about the possibility of a new beginning, although addressed to the Orthodox, should encourage Anglicans as well: "Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium."10 Indeed, our Reformers had asked for no more; perhaps they would be more disappointed with us their heirs at this point. I myself bear witness to a keen impatience to get on with this task, the absence of which makes the Windsor Report seem like a rather pointless exercise of providing minimal maintenance to a structure whose foundations have been eroded and neglected.

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has produced three impressive statements on authority in the church. Unfortunately, little effort is now expended on their reception within Anglicanism, no doubt because many now judge the statements' goals to be unattainable. ARCIC s most recent offering on the subject, The Gift of Authority, has been widely dismissed for its numerous idiosyncrasies and especially its quixotic outlook that the gift of papal primacy "could be offered and received even before our churches are in full communion" (IV.60).11 We should not acquiesce in such counsels of despair. The Gift of Authority does make an important contribution to the vocation of catholic unity in its call for our churches to encounter tradition anew, a process it terms "re-reception." Through the ministry of memory (II.30), the bishops exercise a particular charism and function within the symphony of God's people, and so the church is renewed in hope as forgotten elements of the tradition are reappropriated. "The Church has the responsibility to hand on the whole apostolic Tradition, even though there may be parts which it finds hard to integrate in its life and worship. It may be that what was of great significance for an earlier generation will again be important in the future, though its importance is not clear in the present" (II.24).

The burden of The Gift of Authority is the re-reception within Anglican life of the historic ministry of Peter. It is a gift that remains unopened, and one senses that the opportunity for Anglicans to open this gift as a family, qua Communion, may be slipping away. The Windsor Report may be the last reasonable hope to gather together a contentious and strong-willed family that is in imminent danger of drifting apart. The irony is that the discipline of communion the Report commends is the very gift that has already been offered. Consider this remarkable appraisal from the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément, which so closely parallels the Windsor Report's finding that the Anglican Communion needs a ministry of primacy: "The role of Rome, its petrine charism, is therefore to keep watch over the communion of local churches, to prevent them from breaking away, to intervene at the request of any one of them (as at Corinth in 96 or again around 170), to serve as a point of reference to anyone seeking insertion in one of the most prestigious of the apostolic traditions."12 The question then seems to be, if primacy is a necessary condition of communion, why would we not want the real thing?

1 Journal of the General Convention (New York, 1967), 379.

2 Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 49. The Lambeth documents are published online at

3 I am indebted to James M. Stanton, Bishop of Dallas, for making this connection.

4 Lambeth Conference 1988, Resolution 18.2a.

5 Lambeth Conference 1998, Resolution III.8h.

6 The Virginia Report 6.6.

7 Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation I.23-33.

8 Lambeth Conference 1998, Resolution III.8h.

9 Lambeth Conference 1998, Resolution III.8i.

10 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 199. This so-called "Ratzinger formula" dates back to a 1976 address and has attracted much attention from the Orthodox; see Olivier Clément, You are Peter (New York: New City Press, 2003), 84.

11 The Gift of Authority (New York: Church Publishing, 1998). see J. Robert Wright's appraisal, "The Possible Contribution of Papal Authority to Church Unity: An Anglican/Episcopalian Perspective," in Carl F. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., The Ecumenical Future (Grand Rapids, Midi.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 138-144.

12 Clément, You Are Peter, 29.


* Jeffrey Steenson is Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande.

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant
Hat tip to titusonenine.
1 posted on 01/01/2006 8:34:13 AM PST by sionnsar
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2 posted on 01/01/2006 8:34:50 AM PST by sionnsar (†† || Libs: Celebrate MY diversity, eh! || Iran Azadi 2006)
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To: sionnsar

Quite a piece, S.

3 posted on 01/01/2006 9:43:32 AM PST by Kolokotronis (Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!)
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To: Kolokotronis
It is. And yet...

The burden of The Gift of Authority is the re-reception within Anglican life of the historic ministry of Peter. It is a gift that remains unopened, and one senses that the opportunity for Anglicans to open this gift as a family, qua Communion, may be slipping away. The Windsor Report may be the last reasonable hope to gather together a contentious and strong-willed family that is in imminent danger of drifting apart.

"As a family" it is already split and divided. Yet may not a part of it gather together?

4 posted on 01/01/2006 6:48:15 PM PST by sionnsar (†† || Libs: Celebrate MY diversity, eh! || Iran Azadi 2006)
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To: sionnsar

I suppose I was looking at this from a somewhat chauvinistic Orthodox pov. As you know, I'm prone to think that everything is about "Orthodoxy". :)

What I find interesting about this piece are three quite distinct things. First, the glimpses I perceive here and there among Episcopaian/Anglican writers of a desire for a spiritual authority figure who transcends ethnicity and cultural values. Second, that a different understanding of the appropriate exercise of the Petrine Office than has been the case for the past 11-1200 years in Rome may well be developing in Rome itself and thus, thirdly, that the discussions presently underway among the representatives of the Pope and the Patriarchs to come to an understanding of that proper exercise of the Petrine Office is a good thing not only for Rome and Orthodoxy but also for those Anglicans who desire to be united to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

" "As a family" it is already split and divided. Yet may not a part of it gather together?"

The quick answer is, "Of course". But that's not a fair response. It will really come down to what these parts really believe. Do they believe what The Church has always and everywhere believed? The first step is to reject heresy and cut ones church off from the apostates. The second is to see where the theology of any given Anglican group is the same as and different from either that of the Roman or the Orthodox Churches. If the differences turn out to be in the way one speaks of a doctrine rather than what in fact one believes about it, then there is no problem in that area. If there are fundamental differences, unless the Anglican groups are willing to change their theology, set them aside for now. Third one needs to determine if the Anglican group or groups can accept either the Roman, or Eastern Rite Catholic or Orthodox ideas of communion with and among hierarchs. If the answer is no, there's nothing more to talk about, at least outside of purely Anglican groups. If the answer is yes, then there is the possibility that Anglican groups, probably maintaining their own hierarchies (with some modifications like celibate hierarchs) and suitably modified rites could come into communion with either Rome or Orthodoxy with a council working out the theological differences. The best way for this to happen, it would seem to me, and I think this opinion is shared by many Roman and Orthodox Christians, would be, after an agreement in principle on the appropriate exercise of the Petrine Office, for Orthodoxy, Rome and Anglicans who want in along with, I should think, various Lutheran groups, to call a Great Ecumenical Council and keep at it until the Holy Spirit directs the hierarchs in the right path.

5 posted on 01/01/2006 7:17:56 PM PST by Kolokotronis (Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!)
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