on Recent Tensions in the Anglican Communion

For me, it began when I got the job of sending Christmas cards to previous parish clergy. I knew one of our curates had last been heard of in America, but I was unsure of his current whereabouts, so I put his name into Google. This soon brought up details of a church in Alabama, where he was currently serving. However, it was not an ECUSA (the official Anglican body in the US) congregation but an Anglican Mission in America one.

The AMiA dates from the irregular consecration in June 2001 of four bishops of the Churches of Rwanda and South-East Asia to oversee congregations in North America. It is just one of many breakaway and “continuing” churches to be found in American Anglicanism while at home in the Church of England we have so far avoided similar splits only by the provision of ‘flying bishops’.

These phenomena oppose some of the basic characteristics of traditional Anglican identity which deserve reiterating: comprehensiveness, episcopal autonomy, and the distinction between Christ and his ministers in the ownership of the sacraments.


The Church of England, as a national church, needs to be broad-based and tolerant in its approach to interpreting the faith. It cannot fulfill its national rôle by excluding those who, in conscience, find themselves of a particular doctrinal or practical persuasion. History, whether of the English Reformation, Civil War, Restoration, Test Acts, Glorious Revolution or Methodist Revival, abounds with examples of the consequence of trying to impose on a whole nation a narrow view of what the Faith is or what the Church should be. This has led to the Anglican virtue of comprehensiveness, a Church in which many shades of opinion and diversities of practice can co-exist with mutual respect and co-operate for the greater good of the Gospel, however that Gospel is interpreted. Comprehensiveness should not be confused with compromise; the latter involves the adoption of a specific position on which it is hoped all can agree, which then narrows the range of what is permitted. Comprehensiveness is permissive rather than prescriptive and adopts no position at all, but allows all legitimate positions to be held.

The question of what can be called legitimate remains, and the history of comprehensiveness has not been without controversy when someone has been held to have gone too far. There is usually some controversy within the Church and a sceptic might be forgiven for thinking they are not so much resolved as displaced by the next one to arise (or resurface, as the case may be). So past disputes have raged around issues such as ritualism (19th century) or the Virgin Birth (20th century), the ordination of women, communion before confirmation, the marriage of divorcees, and the Church’s attitude to homosexuality.

Whilst I have presented this as a historical development, its doctrinal justification can be inferred from the Articles of Religion, particularly XIX Of the Church and XXI Of the Authority of General Councils, which together make it clear that the Church, even in a Council, can err. It follows that a church which can err should avoid defining anything tightly if a looser interpretation can be held consistently with Scripture.

Episcopal Autonomy

The independence of bishops within their jurisdiction can be found in embryonic form in Article XXXVII Of the Civil Magistrates which includes the statement “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.” Anglican diocesan bishops have traditionally been held to be autonomous and, whilst co-operating for the good of the Church, not subject to each other’s discipline or interference. This gives each diocese a single bishop who is clearly responsible for its spiritual life. The introduction of Provincial Episcopal Visitors (PEVs or “flying bishops”) towards the end of the 20th century has weakened this witness by enabling congregations to choose an alternative bishop for the pastoral purposes, giving them the opportunity to think they have opted out of their diocesan’s oversight. Although the “flying bishop” is really exercising delegated authority, this is not obvious to those receiving his ministry and indeed might make it less acceptable to them were they to realise it. The source of the PEVs’ authority is blurred by the fact they are suffragans of the Archbishop rather than the diocesan.

Unworthiness and the Sacraments

The final Article of relevance to Anglican comprehensiveness is XXVI Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament.

The idea that a bishop can somehow taint his ministry by performing some act or holding some view which a bishop should not is unAnglican. Whatever he does he remains the bishop. His authority is not principally concerned with teaching, but with the good order of the Church, and error does not invalidate his functionality at that level. Anglicans are free to disagree in conscience with their bishop and there is little sanction he can apply against them for doing so. Therefore, if they believe he has done wrong they are quite capable of letting it be known. The spectacle would arguably be unedifying, but it would also be an example of comprehensiveness in action, and it should be a simple task for a competent press officer to point that out.


The Act of Synod which allowed parishes objecting to women priests to seek alternative oversight may have prevented some of the parishes which went on to adopt Option C from declaring themselves out of communion with the Church of England (whatever that would have meant in law), but the pastoral crisis has been averted by introducing an ecclesiological one. It has confused the Anglican understanding of the relationship between orders and sacrament to the detriment of the integrity of the Church. If one group of people can find their bishop unacceptable through association with a position of which they disapprove, why not others? If others, why not all? The precedent is unmistakable and devastating. Episcopal authority is destroyed and becomes arbitary. How will the bishops representing each faction be able to recognise each other? Who will have the authority to consecrate, and who will recognise that authority? The whole communion could easily unravel on a myriad of issues; in fact on any issue anybody decides is an essential point of principle.

If we do not want to see the fragmentation of the Anglican communion what are the remedies?

We could increase the authority of the centre, after the Roman model, and insist that submission to Canterbury is a prerequisite of membership. This has problems, however. Firstly, the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a universal primate. He is Primate of All England. Secondly, to elevate him to such a position would be contrary to the history and heritage of the Communion, and many would doubtless feel uneasy about about submitting to such a regime. Thirdly, there is no ecclesiological precedent for Canterbury occupying such an exalted position. If such a universal primate is perceived to be necessary, what, after all, is wrong with Rome, which has made such claims for much longer? This would not be a viable option, for it would constitute too great a change in the ethos of the Anglican Communion, and many would find it indistinguishable from Rome, which has the advantage of being first in a universe which only has room for one legitimate claimant.

Alternatively, we could return to the principles which have held Anglicanism together for so long and recognise them as the foundation of that union. Those who refuse to accept and abide by those principles would, by their actions, be distancing themselves from the Communion, though how the rest should respond to that distancing would need careful consideration. It follows that the Church of England would have to lose its precious Act of Synod for the greater good, for the Act amounts, itself, to a denial of the proof of ministry against the defects of the minister. The position in North America and any other places where fragmentation has occurred would need to be regularised, with mutual recognition and incorporation in appropriate relationships of the regularly and irregularly consecrated bishops. Most of all there needs to be a recognition that by God’s mercy the Church, in erring from time to time, does not cease to be the Church, that its ministry is greater than its ministers, that Christ’s Gospel is greater than anyone’s interpretation of it and that the truth must be sought and spoken in love to those with whom we disagree, even when we find them distasteful, and that we cannot interfere with the established order, even when we think it is failing to maintain what we hold most dear.

This is a hard call to heed, but what is the alternative?

Ken Petrie

Last updated 7th January 2004. Comment welcome.

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