Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Anglican Communion Hasn't Failed

Recently, Church of England priest and Guardian columnist Giles Fraser wrote about the advent of equal marriage in England and Wales and what it means for the Church of England. He touches on the historically revisionist pastoral letter from the House of Bishops, and on the inevitability that (sooner than later) some cleric of the Church of England will enter into a marriage with a spouse of the same sex.

He also points out that there likely isn't much under canon law that the bishops will be able to do about it. The Clergy Disciplne Measure can only be used for cases of misconduct, not alleged doctrinal error, and having argued at great volume that gay marriage is a matter of doctrine, the bishops will be hoist in their own procedural petard. They could notionally proceed against a cleric under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, but as the Bishop of Buckingham points out, "the maximum penalty it lays down for a first offense is a rude letter telling you not to do it again - which hopefully people getting married won't."

So far, so good.  But then Fraser concludes:
All this means that the bishops won't be able to do a damn thing about their clergy having same-sex marriages .... When this happens, the toys will be thrown from many a Nigerian church pram. The fiction that is the Anglican Communion will be over and we can go back to being the Church of England rather than the local arm of the empire at prayer. And thank God for that.

Well, I'd agree we should thank God when the Church of England is allowed to get on with being the Church of England, and the Anglican Church of Canada the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Scottish Episcopal Church the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church in the United States and elsewhere the Episcopal Church in those places and yes, even the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). Where I disagree with Fraser is in his assertion that this is connected to "the fiction that is the Anglican Communion."

The Anglican Communion is a family of autonomous churches throughout the world, bound together by aspects of shared history and by "mutual affection." Just as the "Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England" (39 Articles - Article XXXVII), so also the Bishop of Canterbury had no jurisdiction those member churches outside the Church of England. (I note there are a few dioceses in the Communion who are termed "extraprovincial to Canterbury," but these represent practical and consensual exceptions.) There is no central authority in worldwide Anglicanism. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a primacy of honour, but that is all. The Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meeting have whatever moral authority people chose to accord them. But there is no centralized juridical authority in the Anglican Communion. Period.

The recent disputes in the Anglican Communion over women and gays saw a pernicious attempt to change the Anglican Communion into something it was not. There were attempts to assert the binding authority of Lambeth Conference resolutions (well, one particular resolution, really - and only certain bits of it) even though such authority had been explicitly rejected - ironically by Lambeth Conference resolutions. There were attempts to claim authority for the Primates Meeting to "discipline" provinces of the Communion which had done things other provinces didn't like. And in the wake of the failure of these attempted coups d'eglise, there was an attempt to foist a centralizing Anglican Covenant on the Communion, giving power to an unrepresentative committee to impose ill-defined "relational consequences" through even vaguer disciplinary processes.

I agree with Fraser that we should thank God for the end of this fiction that the Anglican Communion is some sort of imperial instrument. The defeat of the Anglican Covenant in the Church of England was a deadly blow to that mischievous ambition. And as Fraser notes, the advent of married gay clergy in several provinces of the Communion should be enough to sink the scheme permanently.

Where I disagree with Fraser is in suggesting that this is the end of the Anglican Communion - and that the idea of the Anglican Communion is a fiction.

The Anglican Communion has survived a misguided attempt to radically reform it into precisely the sort of imperial project Fraser rightly abhors. But the Anglican Communion as a family of autonomous churches bound by shared history and mutual affection has survived. And that's a good thing.


Lionel Deimel said...

OK, so far as it goes. Nonetheless, the Anglican Communion is still beset by thieves and wolves. Here are two pieces of evidence: Welby appoints ACNA priest as one of Six Preachers; Mark Lawrence’s breakaway diocese accepts oversight from Global South primates.

Chris Arnold said...

Increasingly, I think the Anglican Communion has in fact failed, mostly because nobody seems to want it.