Three ways of being Church

Another extract from the 2008 Morpeth Lecture...

I suggest there are now three paradigms of Church distinctly at work in the Anglican Communion, locally and globally. By ‘paradigms’ I mean ways of thinking and acting which, whether or not systematically articulated, have real significance in informing the practice and belief of Anglicans about what ‘Church’ is. And in this instance my interest lies in identifying how these paradigms understand the actual structures of Anglicanism, and are now helping generate behaviour within them.

First there is a ‘Confessional’ paradigm, more or less familiar from protestant ecclesiology, which views the Church as an invisible fellowship of believers. In contemporary Anglicanism, the advocates of a Confessional view tend to see the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as doctrinally constitutive, an Anglican equivalent to the Westminster or Augsburg Confessions. While grounded in the protestant Reformation and always a thread within Anglicanism, this view has emerged with a new and problematic force through some who now sense the possibility of an Anglicanism defined by, rather than just accepting of, what it presumes to call “biblical Christianity”. Although still a small minority in global Anglicanism, this ecclesiological Confessionalism will find a new vehicle in the so-called Global Anglican Future Conference and related networks.

The second Anglican ecclesiological paradigm I will call ‘Institutional’. The proponents or inhabitants of the Institutional paradigm see the visible unity of the Anglican Communion in the same terms otherwise applicable to the universal Church. The ideas of unity, mission, ministry, and whatever else must be characteristic of the Church as a whole, are thus applied directly to the structures of the Anglican Communion itself. This Institutional paradigm is reflected in recent international developments such as the Windsor Report and the resultant proposal for an Anglican Covenant.

The thematic index of the Windsor Report, the 2004 document summarizing the work of the Commission established by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the previous year, includes listings for Authority, Bishops, Canon Law, Homosexuality, Scripture and Theological Development among others, but none for “Church”.[1] This omission is revealing; and what it reveals is a sort of elision or confusion of an understanding of the Anglican Communion itself, and a doctrine of the Church. The reader will find that the term “Communion in Christ” is used to articulate a doctrine of the Church in the Windsor Report, and that this is done in significant and interesting enough terms. Yet the choice of the term “Communion”, however theologically powerful, becomes a device for the Report to slide from a discussion of what Communion in Christ is—what being Church or being Christian is, one would have assumed—to what the Anglican Communion is. There is no account of how that provisional and partial ecclesial reality which Anglicanism would have to be, from either classical protestant or Catholic points of view, relates to the universal Church. The assumption of the Windsor Report seems to be merely that if ‘Communion in Christ’ means certain things, then ‘Anglican Communion’ does too. A similar argument could be made for the way in which the biblical language of 'Covenant' has been applied in that process emerging from the Windsor Report to the institutional challenges of contemporary Anglicanism, without an altogether convincing transition.

I do not mean to suggest that this ecclesiological weakness invalidates efforts in global Anglicanism intended to foster understanding or unity. But I do mean to suggest that the basis for these may not be as theologically strong as their proponents assume, and that more and different thinking is necessary.

The third paradigm I wish to propose is more elusive, so I will start not with a label but a description. I believe that there are many professedly evangelical as well as catholic Anglicans for whom ‘Anglicanism’ describes a large network of Christians who, within the universal Church constituted by baptism into a common faith, share above all a particular history. This history has various versions, with narrative threads which all lead back to the Church of England, directly or otherwise. That history has various markers: liturgical, architectural, theological, and more. Few Anglican groups in the global diaspora have identical approaches to all these things, but there are few or no Anglicans who share none of them. Their sense of the Church as a whole is defined not by this history alone, but above all by baptism into a common faith.

The first or Confessional paradigm views the set of structures and communities that constitutes Anglicanism is only partly an adequate manifestation of Church, even in the provisional and visible sense. The second or Institutional tends to identify Anglicanism and Church, at least functionally. This third or ‘Historical’ paradigm resembles the second in viewing the structures of the Church as inherently significant, and is hence essentially catholic in mode rather than protestant, but shares with the Confessional paradigm a sense of Anglicanism as a partial and provisional manifestation of something larger, to which it must always be related.


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