EVERYONE acknowledges that the Anglican Communion is an odd creature, a loose group of autonomous national and regional Provinces that pay fealty to the Archbishop of Canterbury (until they don’t), but allow him little more power than to define the group’s membership. Attempts in recent decades to strengthen the structural ties between the Provinces, by, for example, elevating the status and authority of the Primates’ Meeting, have run against the counter impulse towards the devolution of power and decision-making.
It is often forgotten that this latter impulse has prevailed in the Communion since it earliest days. One of the “key partners” listed in the consultation document, released last week, on the formulation of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) for choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury is the standing committee of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). Created after the 1968 Lambeth Conference, its roots can be traced back to the primacy of Randall Davidson (Archbishop from 1903 to 1928), and the formation of an elected consultative body to advise on questions of faith and order submitted by bishops. It was described in 1920 as “a voluntary nexus for the whole of the Anglican Communion though possessing no power to enforce its decisions”. The ACC is a body that might wish to take longer than the 11 weeks allowed for this consultation, given the implications of the proposal to give five Communion representatives a say in the next Canterbury CNC. The consultation document says humbly: “the big picture is, perhaps, too big for us to address, and we have to start somewhere, even if we are unsure where.” If the ACC is not there to consider the big picture, we wonder what its purpose is.
For the feeling that we have on reading the consultation document is of stepping into the middle of a conversation. The bit that we seem to have missed was when people decided that the Archbishop of Canterbury was to remain the pivotal figure in the Communion. (This image, incidentally, is Davidson’s, who wrote in 1912: “One feels at once the necessity for something of the nature of a central pivot — a pivot which takes tangible shape as a man, an Archbishop. . . I am not speaking even indirectly of any question about jurisdiction, however shadowy. I am speaking about a pivot, not a pope.”) The consultation document recognises, in fact, that this bit of the conversation is still to be had: “The Church of England and the Communion cannot escape asking why a British cleric should always be primus inter pares.” But it suggests that welcoming Communion representatives into the next CNC constitutes “a small step, and a first step”. It is, however, a step in a particular direction, and will be seen by many as a move to secure the pivotal role for Canterbury — otherwise, why involve the Communion in the Archbishop’s selection?
The reference in the consultation document to God’s “call to be one” is a reminder, especially in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, that the status quo while it contains disunity cannot be allowed to prevail. The instinctive bias against change which exists in most, if not all, organisations must be resisted as long as they are imperfect, which any sort of denominational Church is. The problem with structural change, however, is knowing which thread to pick at first. Given the focus of this week, every argument used in the document in favour of greater international Anglican involvement in the CNC might be marshalled just as convincingly in favour of adding ecumenical representatives. After all, as long as establishment persists, the Archbishop of Canterbury is expected to speak for all Christian Churches, if not for all faiths.
The advantages of widening the representation on the CNC are many. The experience, say, of other Primates would be invaluable. An increase in lay representation would be good. A better balance of gender, race, sexual identity, church tradition, age, and political persuasion ought to be sought. Contributors from the rest of the British Isles would be welcome (no explanation is given in the document why these are to be excluded). In the end, though, members of the CNC do not function as representatives, but as individuals — charged to uncover the will of God. True, the Holy Spirit can work through their selection as well as through their deliberations; but the Spirit can also work through the existing process, which includes extensive vacancy-in-see consultations. This should not be overlooked by those contemplating reform.
The crucial thing is to see this new proposal in context. It is hard to deny the attraction of strengthening the unity of the Communion in such an immediate and practical fashion. Those who respond to the consultation, however, should ask how this “small step” advances the greater objective: of a united Communion that draws on its global experience and that of Christian partners to enable the gospel to flourish in every location.