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Global Anglicanism: Beyond the Elizabethan Settlement toward the New Anglican Conciliarism

Address delivered Jan. 16, 2009,
at the Mere Anglicanism Conference in Charleston, S.C.

by the Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker
Bishop of Fort Worth

Have you noticed how nearly everything we speak of in today’s world is global? We live in a global community, with a global economy, with global warming. We engage in global politics, caution against global war, and fear global ruin.  Little wonder we should speak of a global Anglicanism, though in some ways such a concept is misleading.

Modern technology and Internet communication have indeed made our world a much smaller place. What happens in one part of the world is immediately communicated across the globe.  What touches our common life in one place impacts countless others in far away places. This is as true of the church as in other areas of contemporary life.

The consecration of a partnered homosexual bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire impacts the life of the Diocese of Jos in Nigeria. The blessing of same-sex unions in a growing number of North American dioceses send shock waves throughout the Anglican world. To speak of Global Anglicanism is to speak of fragmentation, division and schism, as reflected in the preponderance of media stories about the Anglican Communion in recent months, rather than a unified, missionary church rooted in the historic faith and practice of Anglicanism. Global Anglicanism is coming apart, not coming together, and the crisis that besets us shows no signs of being resolved any time soon. One wonders about a communion of churches bound together by “bonds of affection” rather than by true doctrine and godly discipline. What sort of a global church is it that is held together by sentimentality rather than truth? Is such a communion worth preserving?

For three centuries, the Anglican Church knew relative peace and concord through an arrangement known as the Elizabethan settlement or, as the more cynically minded might prefer to call it, the Elizabethan compromise. Dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, Anglicanism was marked by a common ordained ministry, common creeds, and a Book of Common Prayer that provided for a good amount of freedom in belief and practice, within those boundaries. High church and low church, anglo-catholics and evangelicals saw many things differently and worshipped in very different ways, but nonetheless they were members of the same church, a national church, under the ultimate governance of the monarch and the ultimate authority of the Holy Scriptures. As the British empire grew and expanded around the world, so did the Church of England. As colonies were established in America, and Africa, and Asia, so were colonial churches established, each with a common spiritual and liturgical heritage. As one writer has observed, “The ingredients of colonial Anglicanism were the same everywhere: Crown, Parliament, episcopacy, Prayer Book, English law, English theology.” (Paul Valliere, Called Together: A Conciliarist Solution for the Anglican Communion, p. 30)

In time, as new nation states were established and new governments were created, colonial churches under foreign bishops slowly evolved into national churches in their own right, under their own church structures and eventually with their own indigenous clergy, but still distinctly Anglican. Such was the beginning of what came to be called the Anglican Communion, which today consists of 38 autonomous provinces around the world. All of this took place without a strategic plan or any central organization directing things. As the mission of the church expanded and grew, so did this world-wide family of independent Anglican Churches.

The whole concept of an Anglican Communion is a rather recent, modern-day notion, dating from the mid-19th century. You might say that it is a communion of churches that is still in the process of formation. The development of the Anglican Communion is all recent history, and there remain serious differences among us as to how the Communion should function if it is to be a global church. At present, we Anglicans acknowledge four instruments of unity, sometimes called instruments of communion, that keep us connected and serve as the basis for international relationships. They are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting. The most historic of these is, of course, the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating back to St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the late sixth century. The first Lambeth Conference was held in 1867, but nearly one half of the bishops invited to attend did not participate, including the Archbishop of York and the bishops of his province. The first meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council took place in 1971 (the year I entered seminary). And the newest of these instruments, simply called the Primates’ Meeting, did not exist until 1979. The life of the communion is still evolving.

Discussions are currently under way about the adoption of an Anglican Covenant and the development of a body of “common law” for all provinces that would strengthen the cohesiveness of the Communion. These are works in progress, and it remains to be seen how successful such measures may be. However, some may argue that Anglicanism is an experiment that has failed and that it will never amount to anything more than a loose federation of autonomous churches with a common English heritage. They claim that there is a fatal flaw in Anglicanism in that there is no teaching authority in the church to define true doctrine, to resolve controversies in matters of faith and practice, or to exercise discipline.

What sort of a Communion is it that does not have an ordained ministry that is universal and interchangeable, where orders in some provinces of the church are not recognized in all provinces of the same church? Since the beginning of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the mid 1970s, Anglicanism has allowed an innovation to continue that in fact further divides the church, both internally and ecumenically.  Adopted at the peak of the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, the General Convention’s vote to allow the priestly ordination of women marked the first time that The Episcopal Church had chosen to break with the historic faith and practice of the undivided church, without a consensus even at the Convention that approved it, and without regard for the consequences of its actions in the rest of the Communion. Clearly it violated the basic principle of the Vincentian Canon, which asserts that the catholic church must take great care to adhere to that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. General Convention’s innovation failed to meet the test of universality, antiquity, and consent of the whole church. Local option will not do if what we seek is a truly global Communion with a common faith and order.

In an effort to maintain the highest possible degree of communion in the life of the church despite deep differences on this issue, the Lambeth Conferences of 1988 and 1998 affirmed the concept of “an open process of reception” on the question of women priests and bishops. But it meant, in practical terms, the end of a universally accepted ordained ministry within Anglicanism, locally, nationally and internationally. The 1988 Eames Commission, officially known as The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate, offered guidelines for how the church should live with this anomaly:

The fact that a synod has reached a decision does not foreclose the matter. Both sides need to work hard to ensure that the process of reception continues to be as open as possible, recognizing that synodical decisions may indeed come to be overwhelmingly affirmed, or on the other hand, equally as overwhelmingly rejected… Bishops and dioceses who accept and endorse the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate would need to recognize, that within a genuinely open process of reception, there must still be room for those who disagree….For supporters it would mean respect and courtesy for those who dissent by the toleration of the institutional means for their continuance in the Church…  (Eames Report, paragraphs 44, 55 and 65)

In spite of these assurances, as an anglo-catholic bishop now in the 16th year of my episcopate, I have come to the sad conclusion that those who affirm the historic position of an all male priesthood and episcopate have no future in The Episcopal Church in the U.S., nor in the Anglican Church of Canada. (It is likely to become the same in the Church of England in the near future.) Instead of holding a position of integrity and respect, we have been outlawed in our own church. Conscience clauses have been rescinded, mandatory canons have been adopted, and the open process of reception declared at an end. There will never be another bishop who holds the traditional theological position in either TEC or the Canadian Church. Is there a future for us in Anglicanism? That remains to be seen.

At the 2008 Lambeth Conference, I attempted to have this concern recorded as a part of the official reflections of the conference, but without success. Speaking on behalf of thousands of faithful Anglicans across the globe who share the orthodox, catholic position on this issue, I attempted to have the Reflections Group record a concern that the open process of reception be reaffirmed in Anglicanism. I did so by utilizing all three means by which a bishop’s concerns were to be recorded in the conference reflections book. I spoke about it in my indaba group where the listener recorded it and handed it in. I spoke of it again at a plenary session of the whole conference. I then put it into writing and submitted it to the Reflections Group, which was charged with gathering and publishing the conversations and reflections from the conference, but all to no avail. No place in the official records of Lambeth 2008 will you see that a concern was expressed about the continuation of an open process of reception in the Communion about the ordination of women. When I inquired about this with one of the sixteen designated listeners, Gerry Wolf of Rhode Island, she told me that “they” had decided that my concern should be passed on to the Windsor Continuation Group or perhaps to the Covenant Design Group. Only Canon Gregory Cameron knows for sure what became of it (or where it was buried).

The difficult realities of impaired communion and broken communion that concern us so much these days originated over 34 years ago in the controversy over the ordination of women, and they are still painfully with us. They have been deepened and exacerbated by the more recent controversies and divisions over the Gene Robinson affair and the blessing of same-sex unions. In what meaningful, sacramental sense is global Anglicanism really a Communion at all in the face of such extensive impaired and broken communion on the local, national and international levels of church life?

Can the Communion be preserved? Is there any real Communion to begin with? Is it inevitable that the Communion will continue to fracture and divide? If there is to be a meaningful future for the Anglican Communion as one church that is a global body, then many would maintain that the concept of Anglican conciliarism is the key, and it is to that topic that we must turn.

Conciliarism is expressed on different levels, and it is an integral part of how Christians recognize authority and discern truth in the decision-making processes of the church’s life. This conciliarity may be exercised by the local church on the level of the diocese, in regional or national councils of bishops, or in synods of the church catholic. It means being governed by common consent in a council, usually of bishops. The earliest examples of the church functioning in this way would be the great ecumenical councils of the patristic period. Prior to the Reformation, English bishops were recorded as participating in a number of great councils of the church.

I am grateful to Dr. Ephraim Radner, in a lecture on “The Promise and Scandal of Anglican Conciliarism,” for calling my attention to an important segment from The Gift of Authority, a report from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 1998, and its perspective on conciliarism in the life of the church.

In the Church of England at the time of the English Reformation the tradition of synodality was expressed through the use both of synods (of bishops and clergy) and of Parliament (including bishops and lay people) for the settlement of liturgy, doctrine and church order. The authority of General Councils was also recognized. In the Anglican Communion, new forms of synods came into being during the nineteenth century and the role of the laity in decision making has increased since that time. Although bishops, clergy, and lay persons consult with each other and legislate together, the responsibility of the bishops remains distinct and crucial. In every part of the Anglican Communion, the bishops bear a unique responsibility of oversight. For example, a diocesan synod can be called only by the bishop, and its decisions can stand only with the bishop’s consent. At provincial or national levels, Houses of Bishops exercise a distinctive and unique ministry in relation to matters of doctrine, worship and moral life.. . . Furthermore, each bishop has not only the episcope of the local church but participates in the care of all the churches. This is exercised within each province of the Anglican Communion with the help of organs such as Houses of Bishops and the Provincial and General Synods. In the Anglican Communion as a whole the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury serve as instruments of synodality. (paragraph 39)

At the core of the present fragmentation in the life of the Anglican Communion has been an avoidance of the conciliar process beyond the national level and an elevation of provincial autonomy over catholic consensus through the councils of the wider church. The conciliarist principle holds that local option must submit to the consensus of the wider church, which represents the whole church, not just a segment of it. Lesser synods must submit to the decisions of greater synods. Though the Anglican Communion has the structures in place that could promote conciliarism as a way of addressing current controversies, particularly the Lambeth Conference of Bishops and the Primates’ Meeting, these instruments of unity have been prevented from functioning in an effective way.

The Windsor Report (2004) proposed a conciliar approach to addressing the crisis prompted by the Robinson consecration and the blessings of same sex unions in North America. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to discipline offending bishops by not inviting them to participate in the Lambeth Conference. The Primates’ Meeting was prevented from following through on the moratoria demands they had made of the Bishops of The Episcopal Church in their Dar es Salaam Communiqué (2007), and the 2008 Lambeth Conference was carefully orchestrated to prevent the Bishops from acting as a council of the church to address the sexuality crisis that has so deeply divided us.

Until the Anglican Communion addresses the prevailing system of elevating provincial autonomy over all else, we will be unable to function as a conciliar church and address controversy as a truly catholic body. Any claim to autonomy must be understood within the context of what it means to be a part of the larger body of the church catholic. There are limits to provincial autonomy that fall short of independence from the rest of the church and the principle of common consent. When we speak of autonomy, it is always autonomy in communion and interdependence. This has been made more difficult to address in light of the fact that the Lambeth Conferences have intentionally been designed to act merely as conferences, without legislative or canonical authority. They have not been seen as councils or synods of bishops with anything but a certain kind of moral authority. And when Lambeth resolutions are rejected or ignored, as in the last decade, there are no consequences, no discipline, and no accountability. Instead of discipline for American and Canadian bishops who openly rejected the teaching of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1:10 and refused to comply with the recommendations of the Windsor Report, Archbishop Williams and his planning committee decided that Lambeth 2008 just would not adopt any resolutions or make any recommendations. We would simply have carefully orchestrated indaba groups and times for honest sharing of feelings.

To face the challenges before us, we must find ways for the Lambeth Conference and the Primates’ Meeting to exercise more authority and discipline in the life of the Communion, not less. As Dr. Radner has argued:

“Rather than continually limiting the meaning of every gathering and its work, we should embrace the actual conciliar movement that has welled up with the history of Anglicanism itself: Lambeth, for instance, is a ‘synod’, a council; so is the meeting of the Primates; so is the ACC; so too are our diocesan synods and the gatherings of clergy or laity who come together to pray and study and form a common mind.” (see page 22 of lecture cited above)

If these official Communion structures continue to fail to exercise clear leadership, then we should expect to find more international GAFCON gatherings and an enhanced respect and authority being given to the GAFCON Primates’ Council. If Lambeth and the Primates’ Meeting refuse the conciliar model of the patristic church in addressing controversies of faith, then more and more dioceses and provinces will need to assert that process as the best way forward for the good of the whole church. My friend Bishop John Rodgers, in an article this past July, pointed to the root of our problem:

At present, with our autonomous provincial structure, we Anglicans lack an authority to effectively discipline errant provinces. The Concilior form of oversight is biblical, apostolic, patristic, catholic, and ecumenical in nature.  (, “If we didn’t leave, what did we accomplish at GAFCON?” – July 2008)

In times of controversy and division in the life of the church, it is both necessary and reasonable for bishops to gather in council and exercise their apostolic ministry of guarding and defending the faith, unity and discipline of the church. As part of the catholic church, our bishops have the responsibility to teach the true doctrines of the biblical faith and to exercise godly discipline over our members and especially over the ordained leaders of the church.

In an as yet unpublished manuscript by Paul Valliere entitled Called Together: A Conciliarist Solution for the Anglican Communion, the author provides the following important information:

. . . a significant minority of the First Lambeth Conference held a conciliarist view of what the Anglican Communion might become. . .  The strongest statement is found in Resolution 4, where the bishops resolved that ‘unity in faith and discipline will be best maintained among the several branches of the Anglican Communion by due and canonical subordination of the synods of the several branches to the higher authority of a synod or synods above them.’. . .The conciliarist cause was also served by Resolution 9, in which the conference established a committee ‘to consider the constitution of a voluntary spiritual tribunal, to which questions of doctrine may be carried by appeal from the tribunals for the exercise of discipline in each province of the colonial Church.’ (p. 46)

It is time to revisit what the Lambeth Conference is meant to be and do during these times of challenge and dissension that threaten to bring the Communion to a permanent split or division. It is not too late, but our unity has already been severely damaged.Dr. Valliere advises: “If the Lambeth Conference were to evolve in a conciliar direction, a provision for the representation of lower clergy and laity would have to be made.” (p.55) He then observes: “In the 21st century, the faltering Anglican Communion needs a worldwide conciliar structure more than ever but seems poised to give itself a ‘covenant’ instead.” (p.67) 

In order to preserve the Anglican Communion, we must find some way to strengthen and reinforce all four of the instruments of unity. Without such action, we will see the progressive break-up of the Communion continue in the months ahead. If they have gotten it wrong in the past, then we must get it right in the future. The old patterns of paternalism and colonialism are being challenged by the Global South provinces, and rightly so. Who decides just what are the best ways to address the controversies that divide us in the life of the Communion? The Archbishop of Canterbury? The Primates’ Meeting? The Anglican Communion Office in London?

In a recent newspaper article entitled “Schism: it is the fact of the matter,” church commentator Andrew Carey wrote:

In the absence of any meaningful overtures from the official American and Canadian leadership, and no proposals for effective alternative oversight, and amid a determination to press on with scandalous and acrimonious litigation, there is probably no option now other than a third North American province. . .Yet the formation of a third province is not universally favoured by those who otherwise reject North American innovation. The Gafcon route is an ‘outside’ strategy that has given up on the ability of the Anglican Communion to discipline itself in accordance with Bible and tradition. There is however an insider’s strategy as well, which believes that the Windsor process is roughly the right direction for the Communion to go, that it will actually result in discipline.  (Church of England Newspaper, December 13, 2008)

We would not be where we are today if the conciliar process already in place in the Communion had been respected and followed. Instead of four dioceses having voted to separate from TEC and realign with another Province, they would be participants in the Pastoral Scheme under a Primatial Vicar as proposed by the Dar es Salaam Primates’ Meeting. It is because the system as we know it has failed us that alternative strategies seem the only way forward. 

It is for this reason that I have given my support to the initiative of the Common Cause Partnership in forming a new Province, the Anglican Church in North America. Though we have our continuing differences over the issue of the ordination of women, Bishop Duncan and the CCP lead bishops have given assurances that there will be no women bishops in the new Province and that the historic, traditional theological position on this matter will be protected, respected and welcomed. Anglo-catholic participants, while grateful for this attitude, have called for a thorough theological and biblical study of the issue of the ordination of women as a top priority in the new province. It must give due consideration to the reality that the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which together comprise over 80% of the world’s Christians, have already spoken on this issue and that unilateral actions on our part have already seriously damaged ecumenical relations for the future. Are we willing to submit to the mind of the whole church? Are we really committed to abiding by common consent as determined by general councils?

The Diocese of Fort Worth believes that we have an ecclesial future in the new Province that has been denied us in TEC. This new provincial reality will mean the recognition of overlapping jurisdictions, under one College of Bishops, with affinity based networks, clusters and dioceses. With this comes for us the assurance of the continuation of a line of apostolic succession that upholds the historic, catholic position of an all male priesthood and episcopate. It means a freedom to hand on the apostolic tradition as we have received it, without addition or change.

It will mean participation in the continuing GAFCON movement on an international basis, under the guidance of the Primates’ Council – though anglo-catholics might confess to being somewhat uncomfortable with the evangelical predominance of the movement. Here in the States it must also mean collaboration and ongoing communication with those who remain in TEC under the Communion Partners initiative. While we recognize that some cannot leave or choose not to leave TEC for all kinds of reasons, we are reminded daily of many others among us who have decided that we cannot remain within TEC. Nonetheless, we must pray for one another and endeavor to cooperate together on mutual goals, and we must pursue a shared mission and witness in the world as fellow Anglicans. While the Bishops of TEC continue to depose clergy for realigning with other Provinces of the Communion, we must bridge the gap and refuse to recognize such depositions, affirming that they remain validly ordained clergy members of the Anglican Communion. With mutual respect and brotherly affection, Common Cause Bishops must extend the right hand of fellowship to the Communion Partners Bishops, with an invitation to work ever more closely together, not at odds with one another, in addressing the challenges that are before us.

Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher once said that the Anglican Church “has no faith of its own, but only the Catholic faith of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic creeds.” To that we might add, we have no sacraments of our own, no orders of ministry of our own, no Scriptures of our own. Likewise, our concern for unity and mission goes far beyond the membership of global Anglicanism. Our aim is much higher than simply maintaining the Anglican Communion as it has been. As Jesus prayed for the unity of His disciples, our calling is to work and pray for the mission and unity of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church throughout the world. May God by His grace sustain and lead us to this end.

The Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker
Bishop of Fort Worth