On the Anglican Communion as an Ecumenical Fellowship


The Rev. Mark Harris, D. Min.




In recent days three possible options have been spelled out for the future of the Episcopal Church in what is apparently billed as a time of crisis.[1] These are to, “Do nothing and see schism; allow for parallel jurisdictions along the English model of "flying bishops"; or, see the creation of a second Anglican Province in the United States.”


These options are “ways” to move beyond the purported crisis. They are all pretty dismal sounding. They are that way because they begin with dismal premises - that the Episcopal Church is grievously ill, that grim decisions must be made and that people who have the power to do so must take drastic actions. I have previously suggested in an essay “Courage and the Plow” [2] that the diagnoses concerning the supposed grave illness within the Episcopal Church miss the point, supposing that that this or that ailment of structure, polity, theology or practice is the cause of the problem. They are not. The problem, I suggested then and now concerns a failure of nerve.


I believe there is a fourth way to respond to the supposed crises, one that has to do with recovery of courage in the Episcopal Church, with the regaining of nerve.




The Episcopal Church as a covenant of dioceses:

This “fourth way” begins with the proposition that for most Episcopalians, most of the time, the church larger than the local parish or diocese is adequately represented by a national entity, the Episcopal Church and its corporate mirror The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the product of a formal covenant of dioceses who abide by the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. It begins with the reality that, for a large majority of Episcopal Church people there is no illness of a remarkable sort (all the usual family squabbles aside) for which drastic steps are necessary for cure.[3]


The Anglican Communion as an ecumenical fellowship:

It begins also by observing that the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of churches – not an international ecclesiastical corporation. The Preface to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church speaks of the Anglican Communion as “a fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of those duly constituted dioceses, Provinces, and regional churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.” The Anglican Communion is a fellowship.


A fellowship is not at all the same as a church; it is a koinonia, not an ekklesia. Certainly in our day no one would confuse the Anglican Communion for a world wide single organic whole. The Anglican Communion is in no wise to be understood as a parallel to the Roman Catholic Church, or even the Orthodox Church.  Nor should it be.  It is inherently ecumenical, building as it does on the premise of self-ruling autonomous churches. As the Anglican Communion we are churches in koinonia, connected by distinct acts of companionship and fellowship – sharing communion (eating a sacred meal) and stories of mission origins (family history). We are peoples who sit at common table with relatives.


The Anglican Communion as an attempt to model Ecumenical Hospitality:

Being at table fellowship with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other representatives of Anglican provinces is to be desired because all such koinonia echoes some aspect of the heavenly banquet. Koinonia is always a gift of hospitality to be received as a gift and not to be grasped as a matter of right or property. There is great authority in hospitality, for those who offer hospitality speak for the household from which they come. But the only power in that hospitality is that of invitation. All other powers ascribed to the host derive from the desire of those who wish to be invited to table. And ascribed power is idolatry, not fellowship. There is no place for coercive power in fellowship and no fear should accompany a break in fellowship. 


If invitation to that fellowship is threatened or if it is withdrawn there will be sadness, but certainly not the end of the world and much less the end of the Episcopal Church. For the Episcopal Church is not a branch of something called the Anglican Communion such that if we were not in organic union with that entity we would wither and die. [4]  Communities of faith in which people are gathered and ordered with a bishop as chief pastor and missionary are much more central to Anglican sensibilities than the nature of the structures of the several national or regional churches, and certainly more central than any structural approval from persons or bodies outside the national or regional churches themselves. 


Contrary to the implications of the three scenarios presented, I would (in good company) contend that (i) for most Episcopalians there is nothing about the Episcopal Church that requires fixing (outside our normal processes of perfecting our life together) and that (ii) there is no power in the Anglican Communion to fix it anyway, for the Anglican Community is a glorious example of Ecumenical Hospitality, not an example of patriarchal ecclesiology.


The Fourth Way recognizes our strengths as a reasonably democratic Episcopal Church bound by friendship and hospitality to other Churches throughout the world who share with us a family history and common table fellowship and the hope for the great ecumenical vision that we all might be one. There is in those bonds no power to destroy what the Episcopal Church is as a church, unless we allow it to do so. The full joy in our bonds with other Anglican churches derives from our sense that our common life as Anglicans is a product of hospitality and friendship, not power or coercion.


In this Fourth Way, the internal and external critics bent on “saving” the Episcopal Church are to be listened to with an open mind and heart. They are, after all, carriers of the Good News as God has given them light. Perhaps great good might come of those efforts. Those critics within our Church who finally cannot work within the framework of our Church are of course free to leave and those outside our Church who wish to raise up other visions of faithful community within the geographical boundaries of our Church are free to do so. But such goings and comings are not to be construed as acquiescence to diagnoses that we are ill or to remedies involving corporate takeover.


We need not apologize for being the Church we are or for the path that God has set before us. Nor should we take on the illness or guilt ascribed to us and leave our own members with the impression that this Church is ill to the point of death.[5] We are not bound to surrender our strength or vision as dioceses bound together in this Episcopal Church simply because critics have told us they are in disagreement with the decisions this Church has made or the way this Church understands its vocation within the Body of Christ.


And we should be clear that the ecumenical fellowship we have had with other churches in the Anglican Communion does not blind us to the possibility that good ecumenical relations (even the very best, as represented in the Anglican Communion) can at times go sour.  As concerns unity, the Church universal has a terrible track record, and we would be naive to think that we can more easily hold everyone than were able our forbearers in the faith. What we can do is work at the matter realistically understanding that the Anglican Communion is a rather unique modeling of ecumenical relationships, one that requires special “instruments of unity.”  Most recently four such instruments have been identified as central: The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Primates, The Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council. When these “instruments” work to establish a greater sense of hospitality and mutual respect they best serve the unity sought. Those who wish to use these instruments in a punitive way mistake the authority of hospitality for the power of rule.  


This Fourth Way is in actuality the way we do work as an Episcopal Church. Dioceses of this Church continue to wrestle with issues, concerns and one another within the context of our polity. They do so using the tools of unity found in covenant relationship among dioceses growing from the Constitution and Canons of this Church, our being ordered as a missionary society, and in The Book of Common Prayer, and ministry focused by dioceses, being Bishop and people together as they seek to discern God’s will for them in mission.


Those who claim the Episcopal Church is dieing and are beginning to circle the supposed corpse will discover that they are rather near sighted to think that we have no life in us. We do have life, life that does not need to give way to scenarios of illness ascribed or assignment of cure proscribed.[6]  We will have life, and I believe abundantly, if we take courage and fill our vocation as the Episcopal Church.


[1] The Rev. George Conger in an article he wrote has attributed these to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican Communion News Service, quoting the Archbishop, has denied that attribution, or the context of that attribution, as reported by David Virtue. It is unclear precisely what of David Virtue’s contextual setting for the quote was deniable. Pierre Whalon believes the denial to concern the statement that the Archbishop directly told this to the Presiding Bishop.


[2] http://newark.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/assay33.html


[3] See Dr. Louie Crew’s message dated 11/06/00 on the bishops and deputies mailing list bd-members@justus.anglican.org in which he voices that sense admirably. My essay was begun before this message was put on the Internet, but its final form owes a great deal to the ideas contained in his text. The text of that note is as follows:

“I realize that I am not a disinterested observer of all of this, even when I try.  Nevertheless I offer my thoughts in hopes they might be helpful.

“The language of the FiF, AMiA, and AAC appears not to be getting through to ECUSA; and liberals are not the only ones turning a deaf ear.  I perceive a rhetoric of threat and judgment, not a rhetoric of reconciliation.  Whether  moderate, conservative, or liberal, many are weary of being told to change the entire structure of ECUSA by people outside who are not our own shepherds and by people  inside who have not been able to win support for their views through ECUSA's constitutional governance.  Ultimatums under those conditions begin to sound like a

stickup with threats of extortion.

“I doubt that  5 percent of all people in the pews of ECUSA on a given Sunday could say who the Archbishop of Canterbury is, that  10 percent could say what the Anglican Communion is, that  30 percent could name the Presiding Bishop, that 70 percent could even name their own bishop.

“Right now I suspect that many Episcopalians would not notice very much if ECUSA were kicked out of the Communion.  I think that would be a disaster!, less for the Communion than for us in the Episcopal Church. We in ECUSA need the larger perspective of the Communion.   We also need the perspectives of those criticizing us.   All  'sides' need one another.  Each side sees through a very dirty glass.

“Primates making demands beyond their jurisdiction and ordering around people over whom they exercise no constitutional authority will not likely effect the repentance that they seek, nor effect the respect for the moral authority which they have thus devalued.   Humility, love, and

patience  is needed to temper our words when we feel called to criticize others.   Violating boundaries, flying around the globe all upset about the sins of others whom we have never lovingly served runs counter to any idea of "communion" worthy of the name.

“Most of the accusations against ECUSA are framed as accusations that we are faithless.  I know that some conservatives assume that those with whom they disagree still are acting  faithfully within our different understanding of scripture, tradition and reason.   But the loudest of those who accuse ECUSA manifest little evidence  of such respect.

            “An accuser's disrespect does not invite the accused to take the accusers seriously.    Many outside the USA reading pronouncements from FiF, AMiA, and AAC  have no idea of the faith commitments of thousands of Episcopalians.  It is wrong to bear false witness.

“May God grant  us all discernment, and as we wait for it, fill us with love and compassion and mercy, especially for those with whom we disagree. L.


[4] Dr. Louie Crew has suggested that the loss would be very real indeed, more for us than perhaps for other churches in communion.  See his note above.


[5] On this, see Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold’s statement following the ordinations in Singapore at  http://www.ecusa.anglican.org/presiding-bishop/013100lt.html.

[6] Having offered this Fourth Way first, for those readers interested, perhaps some thoughts might be in order on how the scenarios of illness came to be ascribed and cures proscribed. 


How the scenarios of illness came to be ascribed and cures proscribed: These three ways begin with the proposition that there is something dreadfully wrong that needs to be fixed. The “three ways” assume an Episcopal Church too weak to hold its own, weak both at its national level and in its dioceses. These scenarios fly in the face of the experience of the spiritual health, mission mindedness and pastoral life of most dioceses and parishes of the Episcopal Church. In particular, dioceses as the basic structural unit of the Episcopal Church are making remarkable efforts to be good and faithful agents for the support of mission and pastoral concern. This does not mean there is no room for correction, growth and maturity. It does mean that it is irresponsible to claim that dioceses of the Episcopal Church are ill and need a cure that calls for surgery, out patient care, or a half way house.


The illnesses were ascribed in a variety of documents prior to Lambeth 98 and General Convention 2000 by those already critical of the Episcopal Church, its leadership and deliberations.  Having a critical stance vis-à-vis the Episcopal Church, and in order those criticisms to be valid, illness were proposed and diseases invented.


What was invented was the archenemy Bishop Spong, who unsuppressed by the American House of Bishops, became the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual illness of the American Church.


What was invented was the quasi doctrine of the primacy of pain over democratic process, a proposition that led to the conclusion that the Episcopal Church was unfeeling of the deeply held feelings of some of its members, and therefore in need of renewal of pastoral oversight by pastors better able to understand that pain. Thus, flying bishops internal and external.


What was invented was the idea that the “true” Anglican body in the United States could be determined by reference to some objective criteria of doctrine and discipline. The illness of the Episcopal Church, it is then argued, is that it is less and less orthodox in its faith. That being purported as the case, the Episcopal Church could be first challenged as the only such representative body and then supplanted as that body.


These inventions have been so well presented as to seem to even persuade the saints. But they need not persuade. It is not an illness to continually look for new ways to carry the Gospel into the world, and no sign of infirmity to refuse to silence those whose attempts to do so are viewed as deficient. It is not unfeeling to argue and pray and work before making a decision and then to expect that those of the community will live with the decision made. It is clear that the litmus test of orthodoxy is not finally for Anglicans to make, since we are of questionable orthodox lineage. The ruling as to who the “true” Anglican body in the United States is resides not in the discernment of orthodox belief or practice, but within the gifts of hospitality exercised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and to a lesser extent by the persons and bodies in table fellowship with him. 


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