In praise of “corporate” communion

FinalCareyMassSo far, I think that a new editorial in the Telegraph should win some kind of prize for capturing the atmosphere at the Anglican primates meetings in Dar es Salaam.

Here’s the heart of the piece:

What on earth is going on at the meeting of Anglican primates in Tanzania? One virtually needs a doctorate in ecclesiology to answer that question. Hard-line liberal and conservative factions are threatening to walk out of the Anglican Communion (which really no longer exists, since they decline to take Communion with each other) unless complicated theological demands are met. The word “schism” is flying around Dar Es Salaam — but it seems to mean something different every time it is used.

… Confused? If so, you are in good company. But there is one point on which nobody should be confused. If evangelicals or rainbow-coalition liberals reject the authority of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and place themselves under the jurisdiction of an overseas primate, they will have left the Church of England.

In other words, it is easier for Anglicans to compromise on issues of doctrine and sacraments (take marriage, for example) than it is for them to compromise at the level of structure and property laws. As always, the crucial question remains: When push comes to shove, will the powers that be in Canterbury — the Archbishop of Canterbury and the staff that surrounds him — back the Third World traditionalists or the First World modernists? In the end, whoever is in Communion with Canterbury gets to keep the keys to the nearest First World cathedral, seminary and endowment vault — period.

So, what is at the heart of Anglicanism? Is it doctrine or a cultural tradition (I call it “NPR at prayer”) rooted in property laws, music, architecture, ritual, structure and history? Is this a theological communion or a corporate one?

I have listened to people debate that question ever since the mid-1980s. In the end, there is no answer that provides unity because one side wants unity in doctrine and the other side insists that the only core, uniting Anglican doctrine is that there are no core doctrines that cannot be molded to fit the times. One camp wants dogmatic theology and flexible property laws. The other wants dogmatic property laws and flexible theology.

Can anyone who has written about the Anglican wars for more than a month imagine a scenario in which Canterbury chooses to offend the world of NPR and the BBC? What would people say in the faculty club at Oxford? The editorial board of The New York Times? Clearly, the only solution is for the resolutions and negotiations and amendments and dialogues to go on and on and on until the Third World cracks and is willing to compromise — or flee. When you yearn for a modernized faith, all compromises move closer to the truth — although some move faster than others. When you yearn for the ancient faith, all compromises move away from the faith of the ages.

So when covering Anglicans, reporters should always look for signs of private negotiations toward compromise led by the British. The odds — and centuries of Anglican tradition — are with you.

You can sense that this is the final soluation in a recent interview with retired Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (pictured at his farewell Eucharist). This link is to The Dallas Morning News, but the interview was conducted by Kristen Campbell of the Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.

There are divisions in the Anglican Communion over issues of sexuality and the ordination. How would you describe the state of the Anglican Communion?

I now think that the global south and a lot of conservative churches in this country and in other parts of the world are going to pull away.

What would it take for the two sides to talk to one another?

There’s a lot of sensible people on both sides who are talking and trying to resolve the situation. I do think, though, that the American church has been irresponsible with regard to this because the appointment of [openly gay New Hampshire Bishop] Gene Robinson has created division and wrecked mission in the church. We must care for homosexuals in the life of the church — but there is an issue here of obedience to Scripture.

trinity chalice JPGCarey, of course, is an evangelical. Thus, he refers to this conflict primarily in terms of Scripture. Anglo-Catholics would care about Scripture, of course, but they would be much more likely to speak just as strongly about ancient creeds and church tradition.

This is another point of confusion. One reason — other than a shortage of veteran, trained religion reporters — that the MSM is tempted to think that this battle is only about homosexuality is that leaders in low-church and high-church Anglican circles have long been upset about trends in the global communion, but it took the consecration of a noncelibate gay bishop for these competing camps (plus the charismatics!) on the theological right to agree that a crisis was at hand.

Now everyone is waiting for a new Anglican covenant that is supposed to keep the extremes in check. The best story today on this topic is by New York Times reporters Sharon LaFraniere and the veteran Laurie Goodstein. They are clear that the First World, at this moment, is running the show in Tanzania. The wealthy Americans are doing quite alright.

By Friday, conservative Anglicans said they were starting to despair that the meeting here would produce neither of their goals: a condemnation and marginalizing of the Episcopal Church, or a new church structure for American conservatives who want to leave the Episcopal Church but remain within the Anglican Communion.

“Conservatives are very disappointed,” said Timothy Shah, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in Washington. “They have the feeling that the policy of the archbishop of Canterbury and the leadership of the Episcopal Church is one of indefinite delay in the hopes that aging conservative primates will retire and eventually be replaced by people who are more open to a negotiated settlement.”

Liberal Episcopalians, on the other hand, were encouraged that the number of primates — the term for the leaders of Anglican provinces — who refused to take Communion at this meeting was only seven, about half the number who refused two years ago.

On that same topic — unity in Holy Communion — the quote of the day belonged to the spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church headquarters in New York City, who attacked the conservative archbishops for refusing to join the First World progressives at the altar for Holy Communion. The Los Angeles Times reported:

“There is an understanding that we come to the table of Christ to share in the body of Christ,” said the Rev. Jan Nunley, the church’s deputy for communication. “It’s a symbol of our corporate unity, and for them to absent themselves from that is really sad.”

Cynics might say that the word “corporate” in that statement could have two meanings. How can the body of the church be united if its bishops — the defenders of doctrine — cannot agree on basic doctrines linked to sacraments, the nature of God, salvation and Christology? Yes, sexuality is a big issue, too.

This much is clear. The schism at the altar is rooted in one reality — clashing beliefs about the role of Scripture, creed, sacraments and tradition in the life of the Anglican Communion. Is the unity supposed to be rooted in doctrine, or property laws?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • Bud Williams

    “Unity” is not so much rooted-in laws and doctrine but more a state of being bonded-to, or made-one-with. For example “. . . a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh,” or Jesus’ prayer for all believers, “I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and love them even as you love me.”
    Commonly used in secular parlance, and curiously misused by preachers and prelates, “unity” implies “agreement,” something the bishops in Tanzania will settle for unless they are made-one-with the only known antidote for schism, the unity of the Holy Spirit.

  • Dale


    In the end, whoever is in Communion with Canterbury gets to keep the keys to the nearest First World cathedral, seminary and endowment vault — period.

    Is that really the way that TEC holds title? Does the Anglican Communion have beneficial title to property and endowments, with TEC holding them in trust, or does TEC own the properties and endowments outright?

    If TEC owns them outright, then breaking with the Anglican Communion won’t affect ownership–TEC will continue with title, and those who stay with the Anglican Communion will have to do without. If TEC holds the properties in trust for the Anglican Communion, then there’s the additional legal issue of whether the trust has been terminated, and if TEC must transfer them to another corporation designated by the Anglican Communion.

    I ask because, as an attorney, it seems a bit odd to have a corporation like TEC holding its cathedrals, seminaries and endowments in trust for the Archbishop of Canterbury. When I’ve dealt with Roman Catholic real estate, it is the Diocese that holds full legal title. The Vatican may have power to appoint the bishop, but it does not have any title to diocese real estate, legal or beneficial.

    So getting the legal issue (the nature of TEC’s title) right is crucial to proper reporting. If TEC keeps the property regardless of its status with the Anglican Communion, then obviously the property isn’t the motivating factor for remaining in the Communion, either for TEC or the traditionalist dissidents.

  • Pastor M

    Wonder how concerned God really is about all this? It seems so inwardly focused.

  • bob

    The Episcopalians give communion to *ducks*. Why is it such a big deal if someone withdraws from a service they throw? What exactly is difference between being “in communion” with them or not? They aren’t part of the Church of the Nicene Creed, so why worry?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    While reading the “Get Religion” report and links on the Episcopal-Anglican turmoil, I gained a new appreciation for John Henry Newman, the Episcopal priest as well as great student and champion of the Church Fathers. The sheer rootlessnes, both doctrinally and morally, of his church finally drove him to go over to Rome.
    I wonder if the MSM will ever get to some of the real history–going back to the Oxford Movement in England and further back–of the problems inherent in a Church founded on the will of a king where even today The Telegraph story implies all would be well if everyone would just be loyal to or follow the lead of the leading Anglican bishops appointed by the Queen.
    Much of this may become moot (another story not picked up by the MSM) as there are now more Catholics attending church in England on a given Sunday and Catholic Church membership is skyrocketing because of immigration from Eastern Europe and the British colonies- as well as conversions from Anglicanism -while Anglican membership is dwindling.
    The big question I would like the MSM to investigate is when is the Catholic Church in England going to demand the return of all those glorious English Catholic cathedrals–like Canterbury–to the Catholics whose ancestors built them before the Reformation ( a movement which which in many cases tried to destroy them.)

  • Stephen A.

    John’s comments are interesting, because there is active speculation that the conservative Anglicans at the Tanzania conference may very well be headed back to Rome, according to at least one report:

    I wonder if this angle will be played up in other media?

  • Tom Stanton

    John’s comments are interesting, because there is active speculation that the conservative Anglicans at the Tanzania conference may very well be headed back to Rome

    Interesting – is it a lack of faith (see the tmatt trio), forgiveness (see ++KJSs reading of Titus 3:9), or history that is really the problem?

  • Pen Brynisa

    The text of the final comunique of the Primate’s meeting has been released. The text has been posted on Anglican Centrist ( It appears that schism has been averted yet again.

    Is the unity supposed to be rooted in doctrine, or property laws?

    Neither. It is rooted in Christ our Lord.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    After reading the father jones site I will be curious as to how the MSM covers these documents and the results of the meeting. There are just so many ways to play it. It strikes me on quick read : “Nothing really settled-each church in the communion can do as it pleases, the way opened for more Bishop Robinsons worldwide-Jefferts Schori given bigger role to promote same on the international stage. Defeat (temporarily??) of struggle to preserve orthodox-evangelical Christianity within worldwide Anglican Communion.”

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