Exploring the Open Question of Identity, Authority, and Unity in Anglicanism
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
"[T]he Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose." -C.S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity", book IV, ch. 8
"However we judge the theological concept that the divine became human so that the human could become divine, it is a philosophical, even a metaphysical concept. It is not concrete and will not 'preach'… [It will not] cut the Gordian Knot of human bondage to guilt and stress." -Paul F.M. Zahl, "The Protestant Face of Anglicanism", p. 37
"[W]e do not believe that Jesus leads us to break our relationships… We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God's children… are full and equal participants in the life of Christ's Church… we proclaim a Gospel that welcomes diversity of thought and encourages free and open theological debate…" -Navasota Statement by the Episcopal House of Bishops, March 20, 2007
I. Introduction: Standard Anglican Typologies of Church.
We come finally to the question of "What will become of the Anglican Church?" To answer this we must ask a deeper, more profound, theological question: "What is the Church to Anglicans?" The three quotes above display three essential trajectories in Anglican ecclesiology. Lewis' quote embodies the core genius of the Anglo-catholic position: The Church is an ontological entity, an extension of Christ Himself, reaching out into the world draw humanity into the Reality of Christ's life and thereby "divinize" them as partakers of Christ. This the Church does this via sacramental means, using those rites, rituals, and practices through which Christ has promised to share His life with the world.
Zahl's quote, while not mentioning the Church per se, embodies the core Anglo-protestant resistance to, and answer to, the Anglo-catholic position. No talk of metaphysics or "popery" here. The Church is just a collection of individuals who consent to preachable propositions that are concrete and explicitly Biblical. It has a doctrine to proclaim, which centers on one core transaction: The imputation of Christ's righteousness to our account so that we may be released from our "guilt and stress". It is also helpful to note what Zahl, the consummate low-church Anglo-protestant, does not talk about. His book, A Short Systematic Theology, is a series of numbered theological propositions for the individual believer to assent to, which supposedly represent the whole scope of essential Christian belief. Yet none of these propositions deal with the nature or mission of the Church. This omission speaks volumes about protestant assumptions concerning the Church.
And this leads us to the statement by our own House of Bishops, which says things that are quintessential to the Anglo-liberal position. If the Anglo-catholic is focused on sacramental transformation, while the Anglo-protestant is focused on doctrinal proclamation, the Anglo-liberal focuses on inclusive toleration. The core genius here is a post-Enlightenment egalitarianism that uses words like "free", "equal", "diversity", and "open" to refer to everyone who agrees with their open-mindedness. The key is to find an absolute minimum which all reasonable people can agree to, and exclude the rest.
Catholic, protestant, or liberal? Transformation, proclamation, or toleration? Will the real Anglican ecclesiology please stand up? The answer to what is "authentically Anglican" cannot be settled by historical research, or mining our "standard divines" for proof-texts that our party is more "Anglo-than-thou". As we have learned this semester, all three have a flawless pedigree, and heavy-weight thinkers, with which they can claim to be truly "Anglican". And while there are countless permutations of each, and various attempted compromise positions, these three typologies of the Church recur with great regularity.
II. Top-Down and Bottom-Up Views of Church.
Perhaps the question of which ecclesiology is more definitively Anglican can better be answered by looking to the future, while learning from our past, and asking the question "Which ecclesiology best answers the question of what the Church is, and how it can best
preserve unity and extend mission in the future?"
We can start by answering whether the Church is a real ontological entity, or if it is just a name we assign to a group of people who are joined together for a common cause. When we define "Church", do we begin "top-down", by saying "there is this Reality called the Body of Christ, of which Christ is really the head, and into which people are incorporated as something like members or cells?" Or, do we begin "bottom-up", by saying that we are autonomous individuals, who, by a free act of our will, choose to form this club we call the "Body of Christ"? Does the universal Reality of Christ govern our particular lives (top-down), or do our particular experiences create our reality (bottom-up)?
How we answer this question will put us a large way toward how we conceive of Anglican unity, and how we can maintain that unity. Because, if something like the top-down approach is right, and we are a living organism of which Christ is the head, then we can expect that Christ has grown His Body in such a way that there are already structures and organs ontologically inherent in the Body, designed to maintain unity and structure. If this concept of the Church is essentially right, then the ordered ministry is meant to function as something like a skeletal system. And the "rule of faith" passed down through that ordered ministry as something like DNA, which governs the growth and development of the Body. If the ordered ministry is broken, then it becomes something like a broken bone, and if the DNA is altered, it becomes something like a cancerous growth.
If the Church is an ontological entity, then we identify her first and foremost by her "nature" or "structure", and only secondarily by what she does. However, if something like the bottom-up approach is right, things are much less clear. We can only identify her by what she does: her function(s). While an ontological definition of the Church is the Anglo-catholic position, the protestant and liberal positions start from a "bottom-up" conception
and thus rely on solely functional definitions of the Church.
This functional definition of the Church is enshrined in Article 19 of the 39 Articles: "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men" [notice the bottom-up conception implied here] "in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered, according to Christ’s ordinance." Who are "faithful men"? Those who agree to consent to a set of doctrines, as laid out propositionally in the Articles. How do they make sure they fulfill the functions of preaching and administering sacraments? They do it "according to Christ's ordinance". How do they do this? By following Holy Writ. Who's interpretation of Holy Writ? The Church's, as found in the confession of the 39 Articles. Who gave the Church authority to define what Holy Writ means? Well…
At this point, if you are protestant, you punt back to Scriptural authority as interpreted by the confession of the Church (which is a hopelessly circular argument), or you realize there is no real authority here and go the liberal route of including anyone who seems even moderately interested in religion. That is, unless we take the escape hatch of a top-down, ontological concept of the Church. This is because all purely functional accounts of the Church falter on the fact that, ultimately, we need an ontological unity with Christ, mediated through the structures of His Body, to explain why the Church has any authority at all. A catholic, holistic concept of the Church can comprehend, order, and explain the varied functions of the Church, while a purely functional definition cannot.
III. Problems Found in Merely Functional Unity.
In fact, there are about three types of functional categories used to define the Church: How we feel, how we think, and how we act (i.e. experiential, doctrinal, and practical). An experiential-functional definition sees the Church as a collection of folks who have a common experience of God, whether in gender/ race/ sexuality/ oppression (in Liberation theologies), in conversion testimony (among Evangelicals), or in ecstatic encounter (among Pentecostals). Many Anglican groups unite based on shared experience, such as conservative charismatics, revisionist radicals, "Anglophiles" in love with all things English, or connoisseurs of a certain type of liturgical aesthetic. Yet, without an ontological authority structure within the Church, this experiential unity quickly dissolves when the Church is either unwilling or unable to cater to everyone's styles, tastes, and expectations.
Doctrinal-functional definitions of the Church tend to focus on the Church as a group of people who assent to a certain set of propositions. This list of propositions can be a highly-structured "maximalism", such as the strident Anglo-protestant variety that would demand adherence to all 39 Articles (and hopefully the Westminster confession as well). Or, this list of propositions can be lowest-common-denominator "minimalism", as in the case of the original Latitudinarians, who paved the road to Deism, or contemporary pluralists, who travel the road to Pantheism. Without an ontological authority structure within the Church, the maximalist variety quickly becomes a self-refuting epistemological "circular argument" (witness the never-ending splits in protestant churches over doctrinal issues ranging from baptism to eschatology), and the minimalist variety becomes something that is in no way identifiable as Christian (witness Bishop Spong).
Practical-functional definitions of the Church tend to focus on the Church as a group of people joined together who do a certain task. There are those who say that the core of our Identity as Anglicans rests on the fact that we worship as one, with one common Book. We can believe anything we want, so long as we worship together! And while this is a romantic notion, it simply does not fit the facts. When our own national Church has seven different canons of the Mass in one book, not to mention the parishes who use morning prayer or the 1928 Prayer book, not to mention a worldwide Communion that uses sources as diverse as the 1662 English Prayer Book and the New Zealand Prayer Book, with at least three lectionaries (BCP, Revised Common, and Roman Catholic), it is simply not feasible to say we worship together in form or function. Imagine what would happen if we actually tried to mandate that everyone worship from the same liturgy, in the same Book!
Another practical-functional way to define the Church is that we are committed to a common mission, be it pursuing social justice or missionary activity. But no sooner have we said that, than we ask "whose justice, by what authority?" With that, we are back to the same circular argument that befuddles doctrinal-functional definitions. This also tends to reduce the Church to the religious arm of a political party, either as the "Democratic Party at Prayer", or the "Republican Party at Prayer". And while missionary activity is a noble, essential mission of the Church, it suffers the same defects. No sooner do you send missionaries than you have to teach converts what type of Church they are baptized into, what that Church believes, and how that Church lives, on what authority. And this, in turn, opens up every functional problem listed so far.
A final practical-functional definition of Church unity says that we are a group of people who agree on a method: A distinctive way of looking at, and working through theological problems. And Anglicanism does bring to Christianity a unique sense of balanced synthesis, "passionate patience", and dialogical interplay to theological dialogue, as we try to work through our various "sources" for theology (whether in the form of a stool or a quadrilateral!). On bad days, this method can look like compromise or cowardice. But, on good days, this method looks like a via media that affirms what is good and true in opposing theological camps, while avoiding what is unhealthy. However, method does not unity make. A lawyer can only make so many procedural motions before her case gets tried. You can only think about the wedding proposal so long before you have to say yes or no. Whatever our method is, eventually it must lead us to concrete decisions about the nature of the Church, and how it functions in "faith and practice".
IV. The Need for an Ontological Unity.
This brings us to the need for a "top-down" ontological conception of the Church, which has certain God-given, authoritative structures for identifying and preserving unity. If one looks at those Church bodies which hold a high view of the ontological, divinely-structured unity of the Church- notably the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox- you find a type of long-term unity that is missing in Protestant churches that define themselves functionally. This is not to say that ontologically-based churches do not split. Over 1900 years of Church history, you can trace dozens of splits- major and minor- in these more "catholic" traditions. But this is a far cry from the thousands of schisms and splits that have come from Protestant and "non-denominational" churches in the last 500 years.
Clearly, if one views the effects of theology from a pragmatic standpoint, the ontological concept of Church has something going for it that other conceptions do not have. Across time and space, there is more unity, more consistency in doctrine and practice, more membership, and a broader sweep of territory, included by ontologically-based churches than their functionally-based protestant counterparts. They are, in a word, more "universal"- more "catholic". Do these ontologically-based Churches use functional instruments to help evaluate unity? Yes. Romans have a Magisterium, Orthodox have the Seven Councils, and both have approved canons for discipline and worship. But these functional instruments flow from a divinely-given, authoritative organ of unity within the Church, instead of creating a merely functional unity.
V. Problems and Promises associated with the Ontological View.
And this is not to say that getting together and deciding "we are an ontological entity" will automatically save the Anglican Communion. Even within the ontological conception, there are serious issues to work out. For instance, in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches there are two different ways of conceiving the organ of unity. For Romans, unity and authority flows from a titular head (the Pope) down through the Curia and then to local bishops. For Orthodox (and Anglo-catholics), the principal of collegiality dictates that all bishops are equally part of that organ of unity, and any difference between bishops is one of honor, not ontological status, so that even Archbishops and Primates are "first among equals" with other bishops. These issues of the "flow of authority" must be dealt with, lest the Body of Christ become deformed. Historically, there have been four "deformations" that plague the ontological Church: acromegaly, obesity, cancer, and broken bones.
Acromegaly is when one part of the skeleton grows at the expense of the others, often creating obscenely large extremities. In the Church, perhaps the most conspicuous example of this is Papacy of the medieval Church, which was so power-and-money hungry that it incited the Eastern Church to cleave, and set the stage for the chaos of the Reformation. Yet, at the base of Papal claims is the realization that one bishop should have the primacy of honor to be able to convene Church councils, and act as a spokesperson for the decisions of the college of bishops. In fact, every province of the Church needs someone like an "archbishop" who has a primacy of honor to be able to call regional councils, and speak for the regional church as well. However, a brief perusal of Church history will show that it is easy for this primacy of honor to be distorted into an ontological primacy, in which the Pope (or archbishop!) claims wild powers and privileges over the rest of the Church that result in acromegaly of Christ's Body. The protestant solution to this was to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and go for a strictly functional solution. But five centuries of the misery of protestant schism upon schism indicates this works worse that the alternative.
Obesity is the next major problem that the ontological Church has. Because episcopacy is a time-proven way to preserve Tradition, it has been incredibly easy to add tradition upon tradition until there is a very "fat" Church, which it is hard to see the muscle of Christ through. Perhaps a good example of this is some of the overly complex liturgies of the East which combine so many ancient elements that it is hard to discern a structure, a message, or a method in the liturgy anymore. The same obesity can be seen in Church structure where so many layers of "middle management" is added to Church bureaucracy, with so much money and resources going to it, that it forgets its real purpose to heal and reconcile the world as Christ's hands and feet.
Cancer also plagues both the functional and ontological conceptions of the Church. The DNA of the Church is found in its "rule of faith": the "gospel" which it proclaims. This DNA leads the Church to grow and develop over time, much the same way that an Oak Tree develops from an acorn, or an adult human develops from a sperm and an egg. Neither the Church's organism or doctrine looks the way it did when it was young (in the Apostolic Age), but it has developed according to the DNA of the gospel. Except when the DNA is distorted, deleted, or added to in a way that makes it cancerous. Cancerous DNA- heretical teaching- spiritually distorts individual cells within Christ's Body and spreads like gangrene. All forms of Christianity have a problem with creating, teaching, and preaching cancerous doctrine. But, when we compare distorted Catholic DNA, such as Papal infallibility or Marian dogmas, with the obliterated DNA of protestant denominations that have deleted canonical Scripture, the Trinity, and the Incarnation from their teaching, it is clear which seems to stay healthier over time. Furthermore, councils like the Seven Ecumenical Councils, Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II have actually shown an ability to remove "cancer" and decrease "obesity" in the Body. Protestant bodies have no similar reforming capability, and the best they seem to be able to do is reform by schism, in which they cut off Christ's limbs.
The last deformation of the ontological church comes in the form of broken bones. This happens when episcopal structures, all ordained in legitimate succession, cease to have communion with each other. The key to understanding this is to understand that apostolic succession is not merely a functional act. While the transmission of "apostolic DNA" is a key element, on it's own it will merely become a defective form of doctrinal-functional unity. And, while commitment to "apostolic mission" is another key element, on it's own it degenerates into another form of practical-functional unity. To tie all of this together, there has to be an ontological element to apostolic succession. This ontological element is found in the actual physical act of prayer and laying on of hands which has been the "matter" in the sacrament of ordination since the time of the Apostles. The fullest form of the Church- the ontological fullness- happens when the episcopal structure is in tactile apostolic succession that is traced back to the Apostles and Christ Himself.
But, even within those episcopal church structures which maintain apostolic succession in its fullness- Romans, Old Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican- we have breaks in communion. Christ's Body has broken bones. And that must be remedied in time. But it cannot be remedied from the Anglican side if we choose to splinter into a dozen more denominations because we are pursuing a merely functional form of Church unity. We must pursue a thoroughly ontological concept of the Church that will be strong enough to unify the functional elements of experience, doctrine, and practice. The question thus becomes, what type of ontological structure will keep the Anglican Communion together? What instruments should this structure use to make authoritative decisions?
VI. The Windsor Report and Ontological Unity.
The Windsor Report, in outlining a structure for the unity of the Church, proposes that unity is rooted in a certain conception of communion which is both covenantal and ontological in nature: We are bound by relational promises and as organic members of the Anglican instantiation of the catholic Body of Christ. Individual provinces "express their own communion relationships in a variety of juridical forms, as: bipartite (in communion with Canterbury); multipartite (in communion with all Anglican churches); or simply through the idea of 'belonging to the Anglican Communion'". This communion is "all about mutual relationships" which are identified in various and commonsense ways, such as "community, equality, common life, sharing, interdependence, and mutual affection and respect. It subsists in visible unity, common confession of the apostolic faith, common belief in scripture and the creeds, common baptism and shared eucharist, and a mutually recognised common ministry". Yet, while methods of identifying communion have been developed, there has been no "negative criteria" developed to identify impaired or destroyed communion.
At this point the Report launches into a discussion of the different "bonds" of our communion. It makes clear that while Scripture is the authentic source of information about God in Christ, it has to be interpreted by teachers who have their authority from Christ. This is because, while the Bible holds the most authentic information we can possibly have about God's self-revelation through Israel, Jesus Christ, and His Church, it simply is not self-interpreting. The Bible will not stand up and tell us how it has to be interpreted. The history of protestantism is full of this lesson, over and over and over, as the "clear and apparent" meaning of Scripture leads to arguments, sectarian splits, and even wars, based on different interpretations. Rather, the Windsor Report wisely notes that it is the authority of God that works through Scripture, and is expressed in the teaching authority of the episcopate, which tells us authoritatively how Scripture must be interpreted. Then it goes on to point out how the episcopate is integrally, even ontologically, constituent of Anglican unity, expressed in the principal of synodality (i.e. their authority is most fully expressed in synods).
Thus, the episcopate is "essential" to the unity of the Church, and bishops are "more than simply the local chief pastor… [they] represent the universal Church to the local and vice versa". This is continued by saying "Bishops represent Christ to the people, but also bring the people and their prayers to God" . This strong affirmation that Bishops are essential- of the essence or substance of the Body- grants the episcopacy its rightful status as the ontological organ of unity and authority. Immediately after this, when one might expect the Report to express some definite recommendations about placing our authority for interpretation of Scripture in the hands of episcopal synods, the Report instead launches into a discussion of discernment, diversity, and adiaphora. Finally, in paragraphs 97-104, it launches into a description of the instruments of unity for our communion. This organ of unity finds its focus- but not its source- in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who acts as a moderator for- but not a monarch over- his fellow bishops. The ABC moderates the decisions of the Communion through the "Instruments of Unity", found in the The Lambeth Conference, The Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting (of the chief bishops of each province).
Paragraph 42 of the Report is right when it sums up the whole problem in one key word: authority. Who has it? Pieces of paper who cannot argue, or persons who can? A inanimate Book, or the living organ of Episcopate? Section C of the Report ends with recommendations on the instruments of unity. It poses the question of whether or not the Lambeth conference could function as "the gathering of the chief pastors and teachers… [to] have a ‘magisterium’, a teaching authority of special status" which befits the apostolic teaching authority conferred onto the episcopate. It also proposes that, as a method of evaluating the unity of the Communion and determining the status of constituent members, we devise an "Anglican Covenant" , which would measure the functional degree to which a province or diocese conforms to essential doctrine and practice. This Covenant would spell out this authority structure in detail and provide a mechanism for future decision making over contentious issues in the communion. While the Windsor Report tries to avoid the implication that the proposed bond of unity will be similar to Roman Catholicism , it seems clear that, we seem to be headed toward a well-defined form of "conciliar catholicism" with some similar structures to the Roman Church, though without a supreme pontiff from whom authority flows. I think that this ontological, structural unity actually could save the communion, but only if we do not let the merely functional definitions of unity offered by protestants or liberals derail the process.
VII. Recommendations for the Anglican Covenant.
Yet, Windsor is a bit vague about how exactly all of these organs, instruments, and covenants would work together. Would authority flow ultimately from the covenant (making us another protestant confessional church), or from the episcopate? Is it possible that using "instruments of unity" could just dissolve into another form of methodological, not ontological, unity? Finally, will this form of "conciliar catholicism" actually maintain true communion, or will it degenerate into just another protestant cacophony?
In view of the preceding analysis, I would offer some suggestions for the way forward, all of which are in accord with an Anglo-catholic interpretation of the Windsor Report:
1. The Anglican Covenant should clearly spell out the primary ontological basis of Church unity, in terms which make it clear that the episcopate, in full apostolic succession, is the essential element from which teaching authority flows in the Church, and that this episcopate is not merely an accident of historical development, or conducive to the English temperament. It is a God-given organ of unity in the Body of Christ.
2. We should make clear[er] the role of the ABC as a primacy of honor, and not ontology. Furthermore, we need to grant similar regional primacies of honor, not ontology, to provincial primates, so that they have the responsibility to call councils and synods, act as their moderators, and speak as their spokespersons. This should be done without conceding, in any way, a greater ontological level of authority or voting power to the ABC or provincial primates.
3. We should outline the structure of authority so that local parishes are accountable to their diocesan bishop, diocesan bishops are accountable to provincial synods, and provincial synods are accountable to worldwide councils (such as the Lambeth Conference).
4. We should create a system whereby a majority agreement of provincial primates, acting in emergency situations, have the ability to change or veto the policy of individual provinces or dioceses, until the next general conference of all Communion bishops at Lambeth can meet to decide more comprehensively.
5. Major doctrinal and moral decisions at Lambeth would have to be ratified by the next successive regular meeting (every ten years). This would put major decisions at a 10-20 year interval, which would help insure that such decisions were not merely caused by cultural contingencies, but expressed the genuine growth of the Church's DNA.
These steps would help insure Communion and avoid cacophony. It will offend those with a more "bottom-up" concept of the Church, and possibly lead them to leave. But, as I have shown, it is only a matter of time before that happens anyway with a merely functional church unity. Over time, such a concept would help us avoid acromegaly, cancer, and obesity of the Body, while setting the stage for a future healing of the broken bones of the Church. I truly believe that what the Anglican Communion offers the larger Church is worth the effort. For, at our best, we offer what I call a "creative, conciliar catholicism" to the rest of the Church. We are conciliar because we have a collegial conception of ontological unity that places ultimate authority in the hands of the whole college- the whole organ- of bishops, and not in the hands of one monarchial bishop. We are creative because of the unique method and sensibilities we bring to doing life with God (as I outlined above). And while this method gets us in trouble occasionally, I believe that if we will become willing to be disciplined and corrected by the whole Church, our creativity is worth the occasional trouble it causes us. We have a unique, beautiful, messy, magnificent history that should be woven together with the whole Church. My sincere hope is that something like the steps I have outlined will create an ontological unity that will save our Communion.
[Works cited and consulted are in comments section. This paper originally had footnotes, but these did not work in blogger format. If you want footnotes, please email Nate and he will send you a .pdf of this essay]