THE idea of a Primates’ Meeting was Archbishop Donald Coggan’s, and was introduced at the Lambeth Conference of 1978. Despite many challenges, in 1978 the Anglican Communion was still united by a sense of common mission: new provinces were being established, as Churches “came of age”. The Primates’ Meeting — a gathering of the senior bishops of the different independent Churches — was intended as a forum for “leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation”.
In hindsight, 1978 can be seen as the beginning of the end of a unified sense of Anglican mission which had persisted from the celebrated Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, with its proto-ecumenical vision of a Catholic Church for all people founded on creeds, Bible, sacraments, and bishops; through the famous Lambeth Appeal to all Christian People of 1920, which led to the united Churches of the Indian subcontinent; to the growth of the new independent Anglican Churches, especially in Africa, which accompanied the end of colonialism in the 1960s.
For the most part, the 19th century conflicts over ritual or biblical interpretation did not threaten the underlying unity of the Anglican Communion: what one historian called the “problem of success” meant that conflicts could be easily contained.
IT IS no accident that this ecumenical and inclusive vision of Anglicanism was pioneered in the United States: the American founding myth rested on casting off the yoke of the British Crown, which meant that American Anglicanism would have to be something different from the established religion of England.
Bishops were not political agents, but claimed the authority of a “primitive” model inherited from the Early Church. After the American Civil War, there was a pressing need to reunify American Churches, which gave the Episcopal Church its sense of mission as a “Church of the reconciliation”, as William Reed Huntington, architect of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, put it.
Somewhat accidentally, then, Anglicanism developed into an ecumenical movement, with little confessional or English Reformation identity. The theology of the English Prayer Book could hardly be attractive to those whose ancestors had been cast out of England in 1662. This variety of Anglicanism proved successful through the colonial era (and survived in the version of Anglicanism maintained in ecumenical dialogues).
IT IS obvious, however, that things have changed almost beyond recognition from the 1970s. The vision of Anglicanism based on the dogmatic minimum of the Lambeth Quadrilateral proved insufficient when there were serious disagreements over biblical interpretation.
Furthermore, the consultative bodies of worldwide Anglicanism had virtually no power to enforce discipline, nor even to establish a mechanism for conflict-resolution. The stalled discussions over the Anglican Covenant have shown the impossibility of creating pan-Anglican structures with any bite.
Instead, what is happening, it seems to me, is a reversion to an earlier form of Anglicanism, where unity is established not on the basis of a vision of a higher Christian unity, but on opposition to a perceived foe.
In its early days, the Church of England defined itself against the Church of Rome: Bishop Jewel’s Apology of 1562, with its strong anti-Roman Catholic rhetoric, became compulsory reading. Later, in Elizabethan England, different Protestant factions created their visions of the enemy within: conformists (such as Richard Hooker) and Puritans (such as his opponent Walter Travers) battled it out over a protracted period. A solution of sorts was reached in 1662, but only through the expulsion of significant numbers of Nonconformists.
In the 18th century, the Church of England was established on a broader Protestant identity. Later, the new church parties of Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism tried to emphasise the independence of the Church over and against the State, while at the same time almost demonising one another.
Put simply, from the Reformation onwards, Anglican identity was less about some ideal of comprehensiveness, and more about competition with either an external or internal enemy.
SOMETHING similar seems to be happening today: words such as “orthodox” have taken on a whole host of new connotations; those with “progressive” views on same-sex relations have been charged with captivity to culture. Accusations of homophobia have been levelled against those with traditional views on Christian marriage.
Of course, there will be loud voices that conform to the caricatures, but there will be many more who are likely to want to discern the nuances in their opponents’ views, and to continue to bear witness to the fundamental unity of the apostolic faith.
It is unlikely that many Primates will have much leisure for thought as they face issues that threaten to tear the Communion apart, and there may be too many suspicions for anything approaching “deep consultation”, or even common prayer.
Decisive action may be what they think they need, but history suggests that they are wrong. Instead, slow “deep consultation” is precisely what is needed (and has been used in some of the most successful ecumenical agreements).
It is about owning up to differences, working out what consensus is possible, and moving on in common mission. In 1662, there was a tragic failure of deep consultation. Decisions lead to schisms. Now is the time to slow down.
The Revd Dr Mark Chapman is Professor of the History of Modern Theology in the University of Oxford, and Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.