What is “To Be in Communion”?

By Daniel J. Webster
Thursday, January 22, 2004

What is “to be in Communion”? It’s a fair question. Being in communion is, for now, a global question. It can also come up in our own lives.

Last November the Rev. Gwyneth MacKenzie Murphy, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, member of the Episcopal Church USA and the worldwide Anglican Communion, was received as an associate member of the Order of the Holy Cross. Lay and clergy may become associates of the monastic order of Anglican brothers.

During the retreat she attended she met the Rev. Ronald Ryan, a newly ordained priest in the Anglican Episcopal Church. He is also an associate of the Holy Cross order. His church, however, is not in communion with Canterbury. His church also does not ordain women clergy. Yet these two priests presented themselves at the table at the Holy Cross monastery’s chapel in Santa Barbara, California, to receive Holy Communion.

When asked about who makes up membership in the Anglican Episcopal Church, Ryan frequently uses a term that I see a lot these days, “like-minded.” His expression of the Anglican ethos is liturgically very “low church.” Vestments are simple. No ornate stoles for priests over their black and white cassock and surplice. Morning Prayer is more frequent than Holy Communion.

Their biblical theology would be described as conservative. Their ecclesiology honors bishops as the teaching authority. Ryan says he wouldn’t be surprised if his church becomes affiliated with one of the more conservative provinces of the Anglican Communion in the global south.

To help answer this global question of communion, a committee of theologians and scholars is convening to help the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) further define the Anglican Communion. Part of the work of the committee is to determine the role of the Archbishop. In large part they will consider what it means “to be in communion” with Canterbury and to be a member of the Anglican Communion.

There are more than 75-million people around the world who call themselves Anglican or Episcopalian. Most of them belong to churches that are members of provinces headed by a presiding bishop (or primate) who is its representative to the ABC.

When asked about who makes up membership in the Anglican Episcopal Church, Ryan frequently uses a term that I see a lot these days, “like-minded.” His expression of the Anglican ethos is liturgically very “low church.”

There are 38 such provinces in 164 countries. Those provinces are autonomous. They are free to construct and govern themselves as they see fit. The ABC has no official standing in those provinces or dioceses other than to be considered “the first among equals” as a bishop in the church.

Membership in the Anglican Communion has been at the discretion of the Archbishop. If a bishop is invited to a Lambeth Conference (the once-every-ten year meeting of Anglican bishops) by the ABC, that bishop’s diocese has been considered a member.

There are bishops who have been consecrated by Anglican bishops in recent years who claim to be Anglican but who have not been recognized by the ABC. At least two bishops from the Anglican Mission in America are but one example.

Historically, being “Anglican” meant that a church traced its roots to the Church of England. That was usually a result of colonization by the British Empire or direct missionary work of members of the Church of England or later, other expressions of the Anglican faith.

All provinces express their faith and order in a Book of Common Prayer. In our prayer book, under Historical Documents, one can find a statement from the “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” which was first approved by the Lambeth Conference of 1888. This document affirms as the essential elements of faith and order in the quest for Christian unity:

The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the revealed Word of God;

The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith;

Two Sacraments – Baptism and the Eucharist – ministered with the unfailing words and elements used by Christ;

The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.
That is about as much doctrine as Anglicans have agreed upon. Because it holds up the creed from the Council of Nicea, the Anglican faith has been called a “creedal” church as opposed to a “confessional” church, much like our Lutheran sisters and brothers.

The Augsburg Confession is a statement of faith adhered to by many Lutherans who see much of their identity in that document. Until now, the Anglican churches around the world have not been confessional churches.

Anglicans have never adopted a confessional statement of faith by which membership was judged. To do so now would remove Anglicanism from it unique place in Christian history. There would be no major historical faith left on the Christian landscape that embraces ambiguity, lives in tension, or honors great diversity.

There is a movement underway being led by the American Anglican Council (AAC) to make Anglicanism a confessional faith. That was made evident in a November letter to seminarians from the Rev. Canon David Anderson, AAC CEO.

“A confessing church movement is a way of standing against the prevailing culture,” wrote Anderson, “and a church that wishes to bless the prevailing culture. It is a way of standing together; a confessing church movement is a determination to stand and proclaim, against an unbelieving church and generation, the historic truth.”

It is that “historic truth” that is at the heart of this current debate. For nearly 500 years the historic truth of Anglican practice was a middle ground, a via media, between confessional Protestantism and the magesterium of Roman Catholicism. There have been periods in that half a millennium where Anglicans have swung closer to one side or the other of that historical expression.

Anglicans have never adopted a confessional statement of faith by which membership was judged. To do so now would remove Anglicanism from it unique place in Christian history. There would be no major historical faith left on the Christian landscape that embraces ambiguity, lives in tension, or honors great diversity.

By early December nine of the 38 Anglican provinces declared “impaired” or “broken” communion with all or part of the Episcopal Church USA because of the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson. He is an openly gay man living in a committed relationship with a partner.

In January a memo from the AAC outlined a strategy that called for open defiance of church canons if the conservative group does not get its way in ECUSA. Some observers saw that as a potential for throwing the church into litigation or chaos for years. And a new network of “like-minded” bishops, parishes and individuals in January was ready to move forward to achieve its goal to be the “official” Anglican church in North America.

Communion gets defined every Sunday in parishes around the world. Some parishes and cathedrals in ECUSA have an open table. They welcome anyone, baptized or not, to come forward and receive Holy Communion. Who is in and who is out is the question being asked — being demanded — in many places these days. If “like-mindedness” becomes the base position to determine membership in a church or the Communion, the Christian expression known as Anglicanism will either forever change or there will be a true schism.

The task of the ABC’s commission to define communion will not be an easy one.