THERE is a long history in common-law jurisprudence attached to the idea of “genericisation”: that tipping-point moment when a name one has applied to a specific type of something (usually a brand name) becomes the generic stand-in for all examples of that type. Think of Hoovering up something, or using a Kleenex
In the coming months, as the next Lambeth Conference approaches, “Anglican” is a word in peril of being genericised — and drained of whatever meaningful content it hopes to retain. The basic problem is simple and sharp: “Anglican” is a word without any police to guard it or boundaries to contain it. The result is that it is opportunistically used, loosely applied, and fiercely (and often falsely) claimed.
By now, it is at least clear what “Anglican” is not. It is not a word that describes unity of theological thought or interpretation. It does, perhaps, describe certain theological emphases, or paths of interpretation. It does not (at all) describe a common pattern of ecclesiastical governance or arrangements for polity. And, even in this moment of dreamy, Brexit-induced visions of British cultural superiority, it is not an accurate shorthand for describing one Church more accurately known as the Church of England.
To speak grammatically, “Anglican” is not a noun that signifies any consensus as to content or meaning.
It has equally turned out that “Anglican” is not even capable, as an adjective, of modifying the noun “covenant”, such that the various Churches that constitute independent and self-governing Provinces of the Anglican Communion (a noun that, at least for the moment, “Anglican” is still somehow able to modify) can accept serious and binding commitments to one another.
I WORK in a context in which many churches describe themselves as “Anglican” or “Anglican/_____”. I accept that the generous spirit behind constructing such an identity is to say to the world of potentially interested people that those within the doors of that building worship in a way shaped by the history of Anglicanism. (It is, of course, never used with the intent of poaching people of other Anglican traditions to come along that way instead.)
Yet, in view of the widespread use (and misuse) of “Anglican” as a claim of right, or as an implication of imagined unity where none exists, there is, perhaps, a quietly increasing urgency (an Anglican thing if ever there was one) to at least agree a set of guidelines governing its use
I offer here just one small, modest proposal, namely: “Anglican” is a word that should be used only when it applies to an activity, event, or undertaking that two or more Provinces within the Anglican Communion undertake together.
This small rule would, observed even with rudimentary adherence, quickly clear the landscape of a great deal of confusing underbrush in the commentary and news coverage surely awaiting us in the year to come, leaving only the tallest trees of meaning behind.
“Anglican Communion” would, of course, still be left standing. So also would “Anglican Consultative Council” or “Anglican Primates’ Meetin..” The “Anglican Centre in Rome”, supported as it is by Churches across the Communion (and by people associated with a variety of those Churches), would stand the test.
But the gentle force of this rule would mean that the word could no longer be used as a substitute to describe only one Church within the Communion. By definition, in a Church organised around the concept of a Communion, no one Church can claim to be the Anglican Church — just as no one state in the United States can claim to be “America.”
HENCE, some things would need to reassess their identity. For example, the “Conference of Anglican and Episcopal Churches in Germany” (known by the unlovely acronym CAECG) quite literally means “The gathering of churches of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in Germany”; hence, in this case, “Anglican” is conflated, misleadingly, with only one Church of the tradition (the Church of England).
Yes, this would impose some difficulties here and there; but with those challenges would come a salutary degree of conversation and self-examination. Some of us (the Anglican Church of Canada) might need to apply for assistance in coming up with a new identity. (“Episcopal” has been a helpful and sturdy modifier for those of us who long ago set aside the pretension of claiming to be the Church of the nation.)
But the benefits of this small rule would potentially be great indeed, inclining us towards finding ways to work together by holding before us the ambition of doing things that would justify the proper use of “Anglican” in our doings.
And the radical, counter-cultural idea of a Church striving to find new ways of working together (counter-cultural, at least, within Anglican culture) might be better aligned with where God is calling us in the future than the paths which we have lately been wandering.
The Rt Revd Mark Edington is the Bishop-in-Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.