Or Recent Developments in the Anglican Communion
A version was published in Modern Believing (July 2011)
I. Full Communion and the Consensus Fidelium:
Ecumenical movements fostered by nineteenth century aspirations have born
fruits that good dialogues ought to hope for: increased understanding and friendly
cooperation. Yet, typically, ecumenists are not satisfied, because they aimed for
nothing less than the “full visible unity” of the one Church of Jesus Christ.
Prebendary Paul Avis, the Church of England’s General Secretary of the Council for
Christian Unity, is unintentionally ironic when he cautions against interpreting
“ in a heavily institutional or structural sense. The common confession of
the apostolic faith, a common baptism and an interchangeable ordained ministry and
therefore interchangeable eucharistic presidency, with forms of shared over-sight
at every level of the Church’s life are enough for full visible unity.”<1>
My thesis is that prioritizing these ambitious goals is a mistake, not least
because it tends to subvert prophetic Gospel initiatives. I turn to recent
sex-and-gender controversies in the Anglican Communion for my illustrations.
Both within national churches and at the pan-Anglican level, the following
argument is frequently mounted:
 Christ prayed that we might all be one. (Jn 17:21-23)
 Therefore, Christians have an obligation to strive for maximum
 Our ecumenical conversation partners cannot accept XYZ changes in
doctrine or practice.
 Therefore, if we made XYZ changes in our national church or within
the Anglican communion, we would be obstructing God’s will.
There are corollaries to  the practical maxim that we must do whatever is
necessary to promote visible unity. One is what I call “the Urgent Resolution
Assumption”: that all differences among us must be settled quickly. Another is the
“No Divisive Action Assumption”: that innovations in core doctrine and practice
must be denied institutional expression until world-wide consensus is reached.
Women Bishops, a Stumbling Block? Such reasoning was in play when the
powers-that-were made sure that the views of favored ecumenical partners were on
the table as the General Synod of the Church of England moved (in 2007-2009)
toward its votes on women bishops. A visit from Metropolitan John Zizioulas, along
with the 113-page 2006 Cyprus Agreed Statement shaped by his thought, made the
Orthodox position unmistakeably clear: the ordination of women is contrary to
Scripture and tradition. To proceed would “sever” Anglicans “from continuity in
the apostolic faith and spiritual life” and so “perpetuate division”–much too
high a price to pay “for any pastoral benefits.”<2>
A 65-page slick covered booklet contained Cardinal Walter Kasper’s 2006
address to the House of Bishops along with Anglican commentary upon it. The
argument from tradition convinces Rome that she has “no authority” to ordain
women, and John Paul II decreed, “this judgment is to be definitely held by all
the Church’s faithful.” Within the Roman Catholic Church, women’s ordination is no
longer discussible: its impossibility has been “defined” and Rome will not change
her mind.<3> The ordination of women to the priesthood sent a chill wind. But the
unity of the Church depends on the collegiality of bishops in communion with one
another. Ordination of women to the episcopate would freeze out any prospects for
full communion between the Church of England and Rome.<4>
Cardinal Kasper further charges that the Church of England has “no right” to
make this decision without the “concensus of the ancient churches of the East and
West”.<5> Concluding Anglican reflections take his words to heart, when they ask:
“does the Church of England have the right to proceed unilaterally in the absence
of universal consensus?” “Would it be right” to proceed “given the grave damage
that this would cause to the search for unity withthe Roman Catholic, Orthodox,
and Oriental Orthodox Churches?” and/or “if doing so threatened to lead to a
schism within” the Church of England itself?<6>
Mitred and Partnered LGBT, a Scandal? In 2003, the General Convention of the
TEC confirmed the election of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as bishop of New
Hampshire, and the Canadian diocese of New Westminster authorized public rites for
the blessing of same-sex partnerships. Both actions contradicted Lambeth
Conference Resolution 1.10, which declares homosexual activity contrary to
Scripture. So many other provinces were scandalized that the Archbishop of
Canterbury called a special meeting of the primates, which set up the Eames
Commission that issued the 2004 Windsor Report. The Windsor Report contends that
TEC and New Westminster didn’t have the right to act unilaterally without prior
consultation of Anglican communion partners.<7> No member church should proceed to
give institutional expression to innovations that touch on Anglican essentials
(which The Windsor Report defines as core doctrines and practices and/or whatever
would scandalize a large number of Christians or our ecumenical partners).<8>
unless and until there is a world-wide consensus fidelium in its favor. The
Windsor Report proposes an Anglican covenant to make explicit strengthened
authority structures that would enforce this in the future, on pain of “relational
consequences” (such as the demotion to observer status of TEC representatives to
ecumenical dialogues, in the wake of TEC’s May 2010 consecration of +Mary
Glasspool, a partnered lesbian).<9> Such machinery would be intended to suppress
precipitous divisive action, which threatens to destroy the Anglican communion<10>
and disrupt relations with its ecumenical partners.<11>
II. Caveats and Cautions:
My own view is that such ecumenically inspired ecclesiological priorities are
exactly wrong. The Body of Christ, Reconsidered: Sometimes the
Church-as-Body-of-Christ image is deployed in support of the Maximum Visible Unity
premiss and the No Divisive Action corollary. In an organic body, what we do
affects one another. More than one ecclesial document notes that this is true more
than ever, because the world wide web makes it possible for the right hand to know
what the left hand is doing. People in far flung parts of the globe can know in
detail what is going on in another church. It used to be that “what people didn’t
know, didn’t hurt them.” But now, it is easy for what one church does to
scandalize another church. Cyber-space has become the new nervous system, websites
the new-fangled sense organs of the Body of Christ! Appeal is then made to the
“ancient canon”: what touches all must be decided by all.<12>
Yet, this use of the Church-as-the-Body-of-Christ image fails to notice how
the analogical base–the human body–is developmental. It begins as a single cell,
which then divides into a ball of look-alike cells, which undergo radical
differentiation in service of a richer, more complex integration. Moreover, its
organic differentiation is such that–while one organ may be affected by
another–the gall bladder functions differently from and has no comprehension of
what the ear and eye are doing. It is good to encourage various ecclesial bodies
to try to explain themselves to one another, to keep up the conversation. But what
makes sense to Christ Our Head might exceed our present comprehension. We collapse
the God’s eye view into merely human perspectives when we demand that ecclesial
bodies should not proceed with innovations unless they are able to demonstrate to
the others that they are right.<13> Sex-and-gender debates expose what is in any
event a philosophical fact: any premisses we use are inherently controversial.
There is no consensus about them now in medias res.
The integrity of Christ’s Body is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit and
so is not in jeopardy. My first corollary conclusion is that desperation about
Christian unity borders on idolatry, because it makes the idolatrous assumption
that it all depends on us. My second corollary conclusion is that it is hybris to
suppose that we know which is the Church’s present developmental stage. This fact
should make us wary of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox deployments of “the
strong argument from tradition”: that the Church must not only be informed and
formed by tradition, but that “Holy Tradition” is “the entire life of the Church
in the Holy Spirit”<14> and that the Church has no competence to depart from it.
Such insistence on conformity with the past risks arrested development at the
blastula stage! Yet, for all we know, we are still in a stage that calls for
vigorous differentiation, and this insistence on a common mind (the so-called
consensus fidelium) counter-productive, if not pernicious.
Consensus Fidelium, an Untimely Emphasis: The Kuala Lumpur Report joins other
Anglican documents in urging, where essentials are concerned, ecclesial bodies
should suspend innovation to seek a common mind.<15> But there are many reasons
for thinking that this is a dangerous game. First, the demand for a common mind
tempts us to falsification of the past and prevarication in the present. Any
seminary student can tell you, our celebrated ecumenical councils were marked by
nasty political power-plays–votes taken before dissenting parties could arrive,
back room cabals, etc.–which functioned, among other things, to tell secular
rulers which groups to persecute. Scholars urge realism: these confabs agreed very
little besides words and documents, forms of words by which warring parties
continued to mean very different things. Some scholars conclude: it was the words
that were essential; the hermeneutics was adiaphora.<16> It was the politics of
the possible, don’t you know!
The Vincentian “everywhere and always”<17> canon is a pious fiction. Serious
historical examination would show that very little if anything has been believed
everywhere and always, consented to by all the faithful. The Vincentian canon is
the methodological posit of an ecclesiological theory, not a description of
historical fact. Note how the Windsor Report tried to end the recent divisive
conflict by demanding that both sides betray their conscientious convictions. TEC
was supposed, not only to regret that others in the Communion were upset, but to
repent of ordaining Gene Robinson and to institute moratoria, promising thereby
never to do it again.<18> The Anglican Church of Canada was supposed, not only to
regret the pain of others, but to admit it was wrong and to rescind its
authorization of public rites for the blessing of same-gendered unions.<19> CAPA
(Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa) bishops were also supposed, not only to
“cease and desist,” but admit that they were wrong to interfere in the internal
affairs of other Anglican provinces.<20> But in performing the offending actions,
all parties acted in accord with their conscientious convictions. The apt response
to Windsor drafters is: Christ is Truth Itself. We are called to discern for all
we’re worth and to live up to the light that is in us. The Windsor Report
recommends perjury to keep peace in the family. Where is faithfulness to Christ,
where is the Gospel in such advice?
Second, since universal agreement is not and never has been a fact, the
demand for a common mind tempts ecclesial powers-that-be to coercion<21> and to
idolatrous claims to have a monopoly on “the mind of Christ.” Recall the violence
done to souls and bodies in the English Reformation, as monarchs flip-flopped,
each demanding conformity–for leaders, on pain of execution (Cranmer, Latimer,
and Ridley); for clergy, on pain of lost livelihoods; for laymen, forfeiture of
property and loss of civil rights. More recently, note John Paul II’s declaration
that women’s ordination is “off limits”: it cannot even be discussed.<22> So much
for Rome’s sense of obligation to dialogue with its ecumenical partners!<23>
Likewise, the Windsor Report’s proposed polity, interpreted and enacted by the
primates in Tanzania<24>: that member provinces submit all changes in core
doctrine and practice to the veto-power of pan-Anglican authorities. Although the
Ridley-Cambridge covenant draft softens the strident and legalistic tone of voice,
the demand is still there that member provinces comply with pan-Anglican
“requests” to “cease and desist” on pain of “relational consequences.”<25>
Third, the demand for a common mind “quenches the Spirit” by undermining the
prophetic thrust of the Gospel, the common call of the people of God to be alert
to identify and energetic to uproot the systemic evils that twist human societies
and hinder the coming Kingdom of God. To appreciate this point requires a pause to
consider the dynamics of inculturation.
III. Culture En-Christed, En-Cultured Christ:
Anglican communion documents reflect mid-twentieth century wisdom that
mission involves inculturation.<26> This seems right. The Gospel is supposed to be
leaven in the lump, not only of individual human psyches, but human societies and
cultures, which works secretly until it leavens the whole. But, of course, leaven
is a subversive image. Christ infiltrates a culture to transform it. Even if
european Christians have done some Christ-transforming-culture homework, it is
counter-productive to encourage people from other cultures to take it over. At
best, it has served as an introduction and as a case study of what is supposed to
happen, something to learn from (we must admit) as much in its failures as its
successes. If Christ came for the whole world, if the Reign of God is a global
project, we must assume that Christ means to infiltrate every culture. And–as
mid-twentieth century missionaries sensed–the responsibility of kneading the
leaven of the Gospel into a local culture has to fall mainly to Christians reared
within that culture and not to outsiders.
Moreover, if Christ is out to transform culture, culture is bound to
transform the Gospel–not (as some missiologists would have it<27>) just the husk,
but also the kernal. Each culture is an interpretive lens that will bring out
different features and nuances, which may startle and scandalize as well as
ultimately edify outsiders.
The biblical picture of God’s relation to human culture is more radical than
that, however. Human beings are politically “challenged”: every human social
system spawns systemic evils that privilege some and degrade others. Many of these
are unintended and for a time and a season unrecognized side-effects of our more
explicit social goals. The coming Reign of God will be free from such evils,
because utopian: God will know how to integrate the flourishing of each with the
common good. This means that it is idolatrous to identify any human social
institutions with the Reign of God.
The bible also tells how when Israel became complacent about entrenched
social injustices, when it refused to make mid-course corrections the way
Deuteronomy required and the prophets enjoined, God was willing to destroy that
social system, enforce a “time out” on Israel’s state-making, before bringing her
back to start again. The alternative to disaster, is a developmental process of
corrective change. Because systemic evils root in the deep-structure, they cannot
all be yanked out at once without shredding the society. God’s call is that we be
ever on the alert to spot those systemic evils that are ripe for uprooting and
work energetically to uproot them. Because Christianity has gone global, because
cultures world-wide are in flux in different speeds and directions, it is
unreasonable to demand world-wide consensus on human mores.
If inculturation means kneading the leaven of the Gospel into the lump of
human culture, it can appear at many and various stages of bread-of-life making as
if human culture has over-powered and killed the yeast. Certainly, this has
happened at various times and places in european Christianity. The New Testament
records how–from Jesus’ point of view–it happened several ways to the practice
of Judaism in his day. What it is theologically inflammatory and/or politically
incorrect to observe, is that the text of the bible also is inculturated, so that
its message is shaped by a succession of social models and expectations spanning
1700 years. Likewise, inculturation among so-called developing nations, where–as
Windsor polemics likes to boast–Christianity is growing the fastest, also runs
the risk of distorting as well as highlighting, at times of swamping the Gospel.
All humanly invented cultures give rise to structures of cruelty that privilege
some while degrading others. It is a universal truth that human identity is
socially shaped, and it is a universal truth that human beings are politically
challenged. We take these features with us wherever we go and whatever we do.
Put otherwise, religious documents and institutions are just as inculturated
as secular ones, and just as apt to spawn systemic evils. This is nowhere truer
than the area of sex-and-gender taboos. What we see played out in sex-and-gender
disputes in the Church of England and within the pan-Anglican Communion, is not
really Christ against culture, but rather a particularly insideous version of the
culture wars: “the spirit of this present age” versus “the spirits of many past
ages.” Christ has infiltrated and Gospel leaven is spreading on both sides. But
conflict resolution among warring parties is not to be had any time soon. And so,
ironically, there is the temptation to force unity by division, by excommunicating
those who disagree.
IV. Consensus Fidelium, Demythologized:
The Windsor Report and draft Anglican covenants are emphatic that the
essentials of doctrine and practice must be agreed world-wide; only adiaphora can
be left to vary. Missiologists imagine that there can be incluturation that leaves
a core of faith untouched. In their ecclesiology, the common mind (consensus
fidelium) has been romaticized and mythologized. The sober alternative is to
demythologize this notion.
Attention to the ecumenical councils shows us not only how the distorting
effects of sinful human minds and institutions were at work in their proceedings
as much as in the writing of the bible, but also how not only adiaphora was
controverted, but also and especially the essentials!
Moreover, the Urgent Resolution Assumption is belied by the roughly 300 years
it took to bring the outlines of the doctrine of the Trinity into focus, and the
roughly 400 years required to get some purchase on Christology. Human beings are
theologically “challenged,” slow learners. Getting a grip takes time.
Compare the present crisis. The syllabus of essentials has been expanded to
include not only creeds and councils but ethical norms. Inculturation has been
proceeding apace in former English colonies for some decades. Cultures worldwide
are in flux, pulling in different directions, moving at different speeds,
confronting different problems and priorities. Two things seem clear: there is now
no consensus fidelium about sex and gender, and none is likely to emerge in the
near future. The recognition of taboos as taboos is the work of decades, if not
centuries. How long did it take europeans to arrive at the by-now obvious
conclusion that slavery is an abomination to the Lord? So also with sexual mores:
the unravelling and reconfiguration of sex-and-gender roles and customs is a long
and messy process. Truth to tell, none of us knows “the mind of the Lord”
regarding human sexuality or what freedom it will bring, because we are all too
deeply socialized in cultures that feel they have a life-or-death stake in
sex-and-gender roles continuing to be practiced a certain way.
V. Divisive Action, or Differentiation?
Anglican documents worry that if action precedes consensus fidelium about
essentials, existing divisions may be perpetuated and new fractures appear. This
is what has just happened within the Anglican Communion, where the consecration of
LGBT bishops and the approval of public rites for blessing same-sex unions has led
several provinces to excommunicate TEC and New Westminster and provoked schism
within TEC and to a lesser extent the Anglican Church of Canada as bishops and/or
parishes seek alternative primatial oversight in Africa, the Southern Cone, or the
ACNA. Schism is what many fear will happen if the Church of England goes all the
way to approve and then to consecrate women bishops. “No divisive action!” Windsor
warns. “Wait until there is a consensus fidelium world-wide!”
In my view, this is the exact opposite of what we should do. The fact that
there is no common mind about sex-and-gender and scant hope of one any time soon,
is itself evidence–not proof, but evidence–that the Body of Christ is and ought
to be in a stage of vigorous differentiation. The way forward is not to try to
quick-fix conflicts by fake agreements, coerced acquiescence, or excommunication,
but to take our cue from the medieval academy and question and dispute the issues
for as long as it takes. In medieval schools, the canonical texts–the primary
authority of the bible, then church councils, the church fathers–were set up
against one another and against philosophical and scientific authorities, to pose
problems in the form of apparent contradictions. Then they questioned and disputed
these authorities with a view to discovering what was right and what wrong in each
of them, and how and whether both sides could be true. For these academics,
disagreement was a tool of discovery, a way of digging into the truth more deeply.
Even when they know in advance that a position could not be accepted, they ran the
thought experiment–“what would follow if it were true?”–because they were
convinced that analysis of the options was a way for faith to seek understanding.
Of course, sex-and-gender involves not only theory but lived experience. Here, I
suggest, that the Protestant Reformation can be an instructive example.
Ecumenists sometimes sound as if their goal is to undo the effects of the
Protestant Reformation. Certainly, it is true: if Luther initially intended to
correct rather than to split off from Rome, the thrust of his and other movements
have left us with many divisions at the level of human institutions. But whether
or not preserving all of these sixteenth-nineteenth century institutional
divisions is still skillful for Gospel proclamation, these divisions have served a
useful purpose. They have housed experiments in which people who could not agree
to differ about what they perceived to be essential, could embody and live out
their alternative ways of being faithful to Christ in this world. Roughly 500
years of this experimentation have nuanced both theory and practice. For example,
they have allowed us to see what happens when you put the bible in the hands of
believers, when spiritual adulthood is not reserved for religious professionals,
when lay as well as clergy are expected to become leaders in the church. I submit
that overall, the primary results of the many and various reform movements were
not “scandalous divisions” but organic differentiation that contributes to a
richer integration in the Body of Christ.
Mutatis mutandis for sex-and-gender crises. Institutional division is not the
first choice. But where liberals and conservatives both conscientiously see their
positions to be an essential Gospel imperative, division may–for both sides–be
the least unfaithful course. Institutional division creates space for each to live
out its conception of Gospel mission. Sex-and-gender liberals will be able to
create taboo-free zones, where LGBT people can discover and commend nuanced models
of holy living, and share with others the light their relationships shed on who
God is and how God loves. We may look forward to a medium run in which relations
across the divide become less hostile. But discerning for all we’re worth and
living up to the light that is in us is the best that we can offer. Ecumenical
reasoning too easily forgets: consensus fidelium and full communion are
eschatological goals, and the unity of Christ’s Body is in the hands of God.
<1>:Paul Avis, “Ecumenical Theology 1910-2010: Does it have a Future?” Modern
Believing: Church and Society, guest ed. The Rev. Dr. Alan Race, Vol 51:3 (July
2010), 30-38; esp.35.
<2>:The Church of the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed Statement of the
International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue 2006. The
Anglican Consultative Council. (London: Apollo Print Generation, 2006), 10-12, 24.
<3>:Women in the Episcopate? An Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue. The
Archbishop’s Council. (London, 2008), 12, 16-17.
<4>:Women in the Episcopate? 21, 42.
<5>:Women in the Episcopate? 19.
<6>:Women in the Episcopate? 48-50.
<7>:The Windsor Report (London: Anglican Communion Office, 2004), A39.22;
<8>:The Windsor Report B93-95.40, C130.52.
<9>:The Windsor Report C97.41; C118.48; C119.49. See “Episcopalians removed from
Anglican Communion’s Ecumenical Dialogues.” [online] Available at: episcopallife
online http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_122717_ENG_HTM.htm [Accessed June 10,
<10>:The Windsor Report C119.49.
<11>:The Windsor Report C130.52.
<12>:The Windsor Report B51.27.
<13>:The Windsor Report D141-142.56.
<14>:The Church of the Triune God, 9.
<15>:Communion, Conflict and Hope: The Kuala Lumpur Report of the third
Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission (London: The Anglican
Communion Office, 2007), Forward 5; Parts I.17.16; III.104.45, III.110.46.
<16>:See Richard A. Norris, The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia, PA:
Fortress Press, 1980).
<17>:Vincent of Lérins (5th c.) advanced “what has been believed everywhere,
always and by all” as criterial for ecclesiastical and Catholic opinion. See
J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958),
<18>:The Windsor Report D141-142.56.
<19>:The Windsor Report D144.57.
<20>:The Windsor Report D144.57.
<21>:The Kuala Lumpur Report acknowledges this temptation (Part II.50.29).
<22>:See “On reserving priestly ordination to men alone” (1994); referred to by
Cardinal Kasper in Women in the Episcopate? 16.
<23>:The bishops of Durham and Salisbury note this in their Response IV in Women
in the Episcopate? 37.
<24>:See the Tanzania Primates’ Meeting Communiqué, secs. 9-37. Anglican
Communion News Services. [online] Available at:
[Accessed September 26 2010]
<25>:The Anglican Communion Covenant Final Text, sec. 4.2. [online] Available at:
[Accessed August 24 2010]
<26>:The Kuala Lumpur Report expands upon this theme, Part II.23.19-II.43.26.
See also Alan Race, “Edinburgh 1910-2010: A Century of Being Changed,” Modern
Believing: Church and Society, Vol. 51.3 (7/2010), 4-6.
<27>:See Paul H. Cho, “Between Edinburgh 1910 and 2010: Changing Theological
Views of Mission,” Modern Believing: Church and Society, Vol. 51.3 (7/2010), 21.