Skip to main content

The Charles Gore Lecture 2003: The Basis of Anglican Fellowship - Some Challenges for Today

Lecturer: The Right Reverend Stephen Sykes

Monday, 24th February 2003 at 6:15 PM

‘The Basis of Anglican Fellowship in Faith in Organisation’ is the rather stodgy title which Bishop Charles Gore gave to an Open Letter he wrote to his clergy in the Diocese of Oxford in 1914. I have adopted it as the title of this lecture partly because Gore is a major contributor to the formulation of the principles of Anglicanism; but more particularly, because we need constantly to remind ourselves that we are not the first to face serious challenges to the coherence and integrity of our communion.

Indeed Gore begins his letter with a very clear indication of the international character of the crisis which required his response.

My Brethren [he wrote], The Bishop of Zanzibar has certainly succeeded in raising in an acute form the question of the coherence of the Church of England and of the Anglican communion generally.

The Bishop of Zanzibar? Bishop Frank Weston, a former slum priest, devout, highly intelligent Principal of St Andrew’s Training College Kiungani from 1901, the author of a fine work of kenotic christology, The One Christ 1907, and a passionate Africanist remembered for his self-identification with African life, was also a passionate Anglo-Catholic controversialist. He and his diocesan staff trained in the traditions of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa had been deeply troubled by the participation of two bishops of neighbouring, Anglican dioceses, Bishop Peel of Mombasa and Bishop Willis of Uganda, in an attempt to create a federation of denominations in East Africa - or as he put it, characteristically, ‘in federating the Protestant Sects with their Churches’. (Bell, Davidson, p.692)

Not a man to take half measures, he accused Peel and Willis of heresy in word and action, and indicted them to the Archbishop of Canterbury. If they were not prepared publicly and completely to recant their views, Weston requested the Archbishop:
to appoint us a day and a place in which, conformably with Catholic precedent, we may appear before You and not less than twelve of your Grace’s coprovincial Bishops sitting with your grace as Judges of this cause, and to permit us there and then to meet the aforesaid Lord Bishop of Mombasa and Lord Bishop of Uganda, and in open Assembly to allow us to make and sustain our charges and accusations against them.

The reason for appeal to the Archbishop was that since there was no Province of East Africa at the time, the Archbishop was the one to whom these bishops all owed canonical obedience.

The letter of indictment was written at the end of September 1913, and the Archbishop’s initial reply, asking for time to consider all the relevant evidence, followed a month later. Willis returned to England in November, and by then it had become clearer that the issues at stake had diminished to two matters: first, the precise ecclesial character of the proposed federation, and secondly, the fact that an Anglican Service of Holy Communion had been celebrated to which Non-conformists had been invited and in which they had participated.

The solution of Archbishop Randall Davidson, which he reached in February 1914, was a sort of compromise. He refused a heresy trial which Bishop Weston had demanded, but appointed the Consultative Body of the Lambeth Conference, an elected group of fourteen Bishops from difference provinces, to advise him as to the two main issues. It met, amazingly, in late July 1914, a few days before the outbreak of War. It was not until Easter of the following year that the Archbishop had the leisure to complete his judgment. Its nuanced terms in the event satisfied neither party. The Archbishop did not support the idea that the non-episcopal churches could simply be thought of as outside the church (this was, in effect, a repudiation of the Tractarian ‘branch theory’). On the other hand it was not satisfactory to sanction the receiving of Holy Communion by Anglicans at the hands of non-episcopally ordained ministers. Of the liturgical event which had concluded the Kikuyu Conference, the Consultative Body’s reply elicited the following witty summary: ‘The Commission comes to the conclusion that the Service at Kikuyu was eminently pleasing to God, and must on no account be repeated.’ One notable feature of the Archbishop’s judgment was its sensitivity to the impact of speed of communication upon the communion ‘in a world of quick tidings and ample talk’.

The row in the English Press was immense. Bishop Gore wrote to the Times on 29 December 1913, ‘I doubt if the cohesion of the Church of England was ever more seriously threatened than it is now’. Bishop Weston regarded Gore as an ally, despite the fact that he disapproved of what Gore had earlier written on the subject of kenosis. Gore’s Open Letter to his clergy did not purport directly to deal with the issue which was, at the time, so to speak, sub judice. But he took the opportunity of warning the Church of England that it could not hope to muddle its way through such disputes without a grasp on its foundational principles. In his view what the Church has objectively stood for in its history was threatened by three tendencies; extreme protagonists of biblical criticism are undermining the basis of faith; extreme evangelicals are threatening to dispense with the requirement of episcopacy; and extreme Catholics are engaged in romanizing developments which leave them defenceless against the claims of a full-blown papalism.

It is not my intention to pursue the details of this fascinating controversy further. But is relevance to our own day is obvious. Events in a part of the Anglican communion provoke acute controversy in that place, because leading bishops and theologians hold contradictory views of the matter. The disagreement is considered sufficiently important by one of the parties to appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury to decide it. The archbishop grasps the fact that modern communication imposes on him the necessity of attempting to resolve something which is of general relevance to the communion. He requests an existing international body of bishops to advise him, considers their advice and writes his own judgment. All of these features bear upon the argument we are currently having about Christian teaching on same-sex relationships, and so does the outcome of the Kikuyu controversy – none of the protagonists considered that the Archbishop’s judgment closed the matter and in part it has gone on being controversial ever since.

At this point I hope you will forgive me for referring to the task which I have of Chairing the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, which body has been asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates Committee of the Anglican Communion to study and report on the theological question of communion in the church, and what sustains or inhibits it, and especially the nature of communion in the Anglican Communion. Subsequently we have had remitted to us for analysis and comment the volume, To Mend the Net, an appeal by a group of Bishops and theologians from various parts of the Communion, to strengthen the role of Primates in the Communion and to give them a disciplinary function and responsibility. You will understand why Gore’s title, ‘The Basis of Anglican Fellowship’, appeals to me. You will also, I think, appreciate that my current role and task both informs and inhibits what I have to say this evening. If I may, I would like to return towards the end of this lecture to the way in which the Commission is going about its task.

I would, however, like to share with you one of my hopes for the Commission. That is, to escape from a rather predictable and stultifying impasse which all too quickly descends upon the terms of the discussion. The opposing camps line up in the following way: those who have most to gain from the imposition of conservative discipline argue for the necessity of the Anglican communion developing international organs with decision-making powers and a capacity for imposing sanctions, whereas those who have most to gain from permission to revise conventional teachings argue that Anglicans have no tradition of, or need for such bodies. It is certainly understandable why a polarisation of this kind should take place. The plaintiff, after all, in the Kikuyu Conference controversy was the conservative Frank Weston. It was he who asked the Archbishop to curtail the actions of his neighbouring bishops and their dioceses. Only a central body or person could do that. The association of discipline and strong central instruments of authority is nothing if not intelligible. But it is, nonetheless, a mistake, as the outcome in 1914-15 makes clear. In the event the Archbishop did not uphold the argument that Bishops Peel and Willis had fallen into heresy, nor could he support the idea that non-episcopal churches could simply be regarded as sects. A central authority, be it individual or corporate, can disappoint the hopes of the disciplinarians. And then there is the far from negligible issue of reception. Although the Archbishop gave his judgment and it carried weight, Gore himself publicly stated that he could not accept all of it. The opinion of the Archbishop did not, for Gore, represent the final judgment of the Church.

Gore’s attitude, at this point is not infrequently to be met with amongst Anglicans in my experience. The highest views of episcopacy are professed. But if the judgment of a local bishop or college of bishops departs in any particular from what the individual holding such views approves, it will be set aside as mere opinion. As a leading Nonconformist justly observed at the time, ‘Catholicity’ under such circumstances is simply private judgment under another name. At all events the arguments in favour of attributing a disciplinary role to a central person or body are in principle separate from the arguments which such a person or group might consider persuasive in any given instance. It should be possible to consider the question whether living in communion as Christians understand that term involves or may involve accepting the decisions of a central body about the terms of that communion, without the suspicion that one is covertly or indirectly arguing for or against disciplinary sanctions in any particular matter.

The fundamental question is, what is it like to be the Church? How are we to understand being a member of Christ. If we fail to begin at that point inevitably we will assimilate our understanding of the Church to the nearest secular equivalents. We will think in terms of clubs and society we belong to, and their rules and regulations, and fees and officers, and committees and decision-making arrangements, and management and accountability. It is not, of course, that the Church is exempt from the requirement of being intelligible and effective as an organisation. It needs to express in every aspect its life what it is there to be and to do; it has, in other words, to have its own unique mission at its heart and not the necessarily different task of a different sort of body [Note: I want permission to use the word ‘body’ here without falling prey to the criticism aimed at Working As One Body (the Turnbull Report of 1995) for adopting one image – and that the most conservative – for the Church. I am fully aware of the varieties of models of the Church in Scripture. In this case ‘body’ simply refers to what the Church is in its corporate existence.]

At this point I need to ask your permission to move rather rapidly from the absolutely general question with which I have begun, to one very specific instance of what it means to be the Church. The example I want to take is only one of many, and not necessarily the most important. But it illustrates, I believe, something of very great general importance. The Church, at its heart, has a divinely bestowed mission of embodying kindness. Put away from you, says the author to the Ephesians:

All bitterness and wrath and anger and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Eph. 4:31-2)

This kindness can and should take the form of hospitality - so we have the explicit teaching of the New Testament about hospitality (which I have no need to summarise). But hospitality is an established cultural practice taking many particular and different forms in different groups. It is a manifestation of gift-giving and gift-exchange and the subject of numerous diverse conventions. The teaching that membership of the Church entails the obligation of hospitality has to be worked by members of the church in such a way that it is recognisable as hospitality in their own given context, and also that it is motivated by a kindness consistent with the love lying at the heart of Christian mission. But plainly, as we gather examples of hospitality from different contexts, the what and the how of the gift-giving involved in all hospitality varies from place to place. What counts as a gift, the language, including the body-language, with which it is given, what kind of obligation it entails, if any – all these are highly particular. And, of course, mistakes and distortions can occur. What is supposed to be hospitality can become, if one is not careful, a form of aggression or condescension, or be motivated by self-interest. The fundamental idea of kindness, then, is anything but redundant in the shaping of hospitality; but it remains the case that kindness can have diverse outcomes within particular cultural traditions.

Now this, of course, is familiar theological territory often known as ‘inculturation’. To be the Church, we say, is to be embodied or inculturated in a particular context. But another way of speaking of this situation is to distinguish two ways of describing what inculturation involves, respectively the ‘thick’ embodied way and the ‘thin’, general or universalised way. In terms of our example of hospitality the Church is the Church in deed and in truth when it practices a genuinely kind hospitality (along, of course, with many other requisite characteristic) in a particular place at a particular time. That is its ‘thick’ embodiment, and it is the primary and real form of the Church. But the Church is also the Church when it teaches Christians in every part of the world the divinely-given mission of kindness, one result of which teaching is that Christians from different parts of the world, with different traditions of hospitality, can recognise kindness when they experience hospitality in a different form.

This distinction between thick and thin ways of understanding particular cultural traditions has recently been used by an eminent American political philosopher, Michael Walser. He has applied it in a particularly sensitive and interesting way to the problem of distributive justice. How is it, he asks, that we know enough about justice to recognise gross injustice when we encounter it internationally, but not enough to imagine that we (in our Western context) can satisfactorily draw up rules for distributing resources, say in China or Afghanistan? The idea of justice, he argues, is inherently thick. ‘Here it is’, he asserts, ‘richly referential, culturally resonant, locked into a locally established symbolic system or network of meanings’ (p.xi). That is how we learn it and practise it, in our own particular contexts. But we need to be sophisticated enough to accommodate a sufficient amount of relativity (but not complete relativism) if we are to understand why our solutions to distributive questions ought not, and cannot be applied in every part of the world. It is because of the experience of thick forms of justice that we can construct a universal, or thin view of it, in the light of which particular forms of injustice in different parts of the world can be identified and opposed. The case, he argues, is not that we start with a thin universal or minimalist account, and try to ‘translate’ it into thick provisions. The correct sequence is important, and gives primacy of place to thick, local traditions.

Now I have already argued that the Church has its own mission, and ought not to adopt the practices or procedures of any other organisation. So I am not about to argue that this illustration from political philosophy can be transferred without further consideration into ecclesiology. But I do want to suggest that Walser is correct to argue that, in relation to justice, our experience of a thick local tradition is the primary datum; and that the same is precisely the case in the experience of being the Church. The New Testament indeed is the literary deposit of the thick experience of being the local Church. The absolutely concrete way in which Christians of the early communities practised hospitality towards each other – and we know it was put into practice because, predictably, we hear of abuses – was one embodied form in which they were kind to one another, and not merely to each other but also, it seems, to strangers. And that was how they came to meet, so the author of Hebrews assures us, angels unawares (Heb. 13:2).

If you have followed the argument as I hope, it will be evident that it has an important general bearing on the formulation of a universal doctrine of the Church. If the primary being of the Church resides in its thick local embodiment, we arrive at a thin or universal understanding of the Church by a process which involves reflecting on a plurality of local forms of embodiment. This reverses the sequence from the widely held and understandable assumption that we begin the process of reflection by formulating a universal doctrine of the Church which is then, as it were, ‘translated’ or ‘inculturated’ into a diversity of contexts. One must take this project absolutely seriously and respectfully because it is the current teaching of the Roman Catholic Church; on one aspect of this I want to comment shortly.

But permit me to observe at this point of our argument how much more intelligible this makes our relationship to the understandings of the Church which we find in the pages of the New Testament. It is notorious, for example, that we are confronted by a plurality of images of the Church – one well-known study put the number at ninety-three – and a variety of stages of self-understanding corresponding to different contexts and pressures. These are all, in terms of the distinction we are using, ‘thick’ ideas of the Church, and they are diverse. It makes, therefore, no sense to try and accumulate them into one universally applicable ‘doctrine of the Church’. The process is more indirect than that.

The same distinction helps us also with the problem of what is sometimes called ‘primitivism’, the attempt of a modern church to fashion the whole of its life according to the form and substance of the primitive church. Inevitably this leads to acute problems, not merely because of the variety of structures developed in the early communities, but also because of the sheer difference in scale, attitudes and context in the modern world. To recognise the New Testament as evidence for a plurality of thick ecclesiologies, though it makes the task of being the Church in our context more complicated, nonetheless frees one from the superstition that our duty is simply to recreate the primitive church.

How then are we to interpret the massive achievements of Roman Catholic ecclesiology, which holds, in the famous phrase of the Second Vatican Council, that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church ‘subsists in’ the Roman Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium I, 8)? Roman Catholic ecclesiology and Canon Law can be seen as a massive and remarkable attempt to fashion and to enforce a thick, universal ecclesiology – and this is precisely how Michael Walser sees it, the ecclesiological equivalent of the vain attempt to conceptualise universal standards of distributive justice (see Thick and Thin, 48f). But on this, as on so many other questions, it is a mistake to think of the Roman Catholic Church as an ideological monolith. There is, in fact, a vigorous discussion, not as well known to Anglicans as it should be, precisely about this question; can there be a proper degree of local relativity of ecclesiologies consistent with the ministry of a universal primacy? Put in terms of our distinction, can you have both thick local ecclesiologies and a thin, universal ecclesiology? But precisely if that is a correct way to pose the question, the answer is plainly, Yes. The difficulty for Catholic ecclesiology is to acknowledge the conceptual primacy of the local embodiment of the Church.

One of the aspects of the current debate in Roman Catholic ecclesiology concerns the familiar, but also new term ‘subsidiarity’. It is important to be clear about the definition of this word, which, of course, is linked to the familiar adjective ‘subsidiary’. ‘Subsidiarity’ (Subsidiarität in German) is the doctrine that higher bodies are subsidiary to lower bodies in respect of certain questions. It was formulated as a social-philosophical principle in the Encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, and encapsulated three basic ideas:
Human beings are themselves the subject of rights and no collectivity must claim the sole competence to do what is within the individual’s power
Larger units in society should not deprive smaller units of the capacity to carry out those actions of which they are capable
The state, in particular, has the duty to help lower units carry out what is within their power and competence

The negative side of the first and second of these ideas has been pithily phrased by the contemporary management theorist, Charles Handy, in the maxim, ‘Stealing people’s decisions is wrong’. At the same time, however, the social context for formulating the idea of subsidiarity implies both the existence of a state, and its capacity to define what is within the power and competence of a lower unit. Subsidiarity does not, and cannot mean the dissolution or abdication of the responsibilities of the centre. Handy is quite clear that even a devolved, de-centred company organisation needs the emergency power of swift intervention if something goes wrong in a part of it. Subsidiarity is not another name for every small group or individual claiming the unfettered right to do what is right in their own eyes.

The relevance of all this to ecclesiology is obvious; and its bearing upon Anglican ecclesiology has recently made public in two recent documents, one internal to the Church of England, the Turnbull Report of 1995, the other the report of the International Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, the Virginia Report of 1998. Both of these affirm that Anglican ecclesiology is committed to the doctrine of subsidiarity. In the Church of England terms, it would not therefore be right for the Archbishop’s Council to deprive, let us say, the dioceses of the capacity to carry out the mission of the Church in their area. Stealing diocesan decisions would be wrong. In Anglican Communion terms, it would not be right for, let us say, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Committee or the Anglican Consultative Council, to deprive a member province of the capacity to carry out the mission of the Church in that province. In the Virginia Report there is brief description of the different levels where competency of a certain kind exists. The task of central bodies is to help units at a ‘lower’ level (and the term ‘lower’ is put in inverted commas to indicate the absence of any judgment of inferiority – on the contrary, the ‘lower’ level is closer to where the Church is real). No one should prevent them from carrying out what is within their power and competence. And the reason why there should be a privileging of these more local embodiments of the Church is the Church’s commitment to face-to-face relationships.

All this argument in favour of subsidiarity cannot, however, be construed as asserting any kind of provincial, diocesan or parochial autonomy. It cannot, and does not mean that each unit does what it prefers irrespective of the rest. Subsidiarity, if it is to work, implies the existence of a competency over competencies. It is totally foreseeable that there will be disagreement about what falls to the competency of a lower unit. If anarchy is to be avoided it must be possible for a decision to be arrived at which establishes at what level a given question can be decided.

Let us summarise the position we have reached:
We have seen that to be the Church means to be deeply immersed in a particular community’s life, ways of thinking, assumptions, and patterns of behaviour. You only understand the Church if you can give of it a ‘thick description’, in face-to-face contact with what is going on in a particular place. It’s that kind of engagement that we glimpse in the pages of the New Testament.
We have argued that it is not impossible for a church both to be committed to, indeed to privilege such a local embodiment and also to preserve a capacity to decide what is within, and what is not within the competence of a lower body.
We have used the example of hospitality to illustrate both the kindness which is or should be characteristic of all local churches. This is an element of its ‘thin’ ecclesiology, and the particular traditions of hospitality in which such kindness is embodied at a face-to-face level. The existence of such a universal teaching is the necessary condition of Christians being able to recognise other traditions of hospitality as genuine expressions of one and the same reality.
In this way, I believe, we have shown the possibility of the co-existence of both thick and thin ecclesiologies, of both subsidiarity and competency over competencies. There can and should be for example, an ecclesiology for Australian Anglicans – indeed there is, in the writing of Bruce Kaye – without it implying that the Anglican Church in Australia, let alone any single diocese in it, is free to do precisely what it wants.

Finally, I wish to redeem the promise I made at the beginning of this lecture to refer explicitly to the current method of work of the International Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission.

As we all know, the argument about same-sex relationship threatens the disintegration of our Communion. The reason for this is not just that people disagree profoundly with each other; that, in a way, is quite normal for Christian history. The crucial matter is rather that this issue is said by some of those who oppose the change in the Church’s teaching and discipline on the same-sex unions to be church-dividing. In other words, it is asserted that it is impossible to remain in communion with those who teach that such partners are within the way of holiness laid down as the Christian life. It is important to realise that we are not being asked to make up our minds whether or not such teaching is consistent with Christian doctrine and ethics. The issue for the terms of communion is sharper. If your church, through its representative processes and in the person of its representative teachers, proposes this view, that is, that same-sex partnerships are consonant with Christian teaching and ethics, can one consistently remain in communion with such a body and such persons? That is the issue about communion in the Anglican Communion. The Commission is not asked to study the issue of lesbian and gay relationships; but it is asked to consider the problem of communion which teaching on this matter raises in the minds of some Anglicans

We are preferably well aware that there are those for whom the reference of this question to an obscure commission, which would take years to report, is a classic way of burying it. The last trump will sound, and Anglicans will doubtless appoint another commission to enquire into what it means – footnotes to a note, one might say. But this Commission believes that it has stumbled on a method, which we dare to think is original and has real merit. The planned meeting of the Commission was scheduled for the days immediately following 11 September 2001. As a consequence the diminished number of those who were able to assemble began their work by asking the whole communion for help with four questions. These we posted on the internet and circulated to all bishops and theological institutions. To our surprise we received nearly 100 replies. Encouraged by this response, we have now analysed the correspondence we have received, and have circulated six propositions with signed commentaries attached. These represent where our thinking is going at the moment, and have again been posted with an invitation for further replies.

We do not know of any other commission which has worked in this way. And we believe that the act of corresponding publicly on our progress is a way of nourishing and building up the very communion we are seeking to understand.

Let me close by citing one of the six propositions, number four. It reads:

Since the beginning of Christianity disputes have arisen in which the truth of the Gospel is seen to be at stake. Not all disputes are of such significance, but some are. In a communion made up of many different churches, discernment is required to identify what in any particular context are the crucial issues for the life of the Church.

Then follows a commentary which strongly coheres with the themes of the current lecture. ‘The Scriptures themselves’, it affirms, ‘themselves bear witness to varieties of understanding within the people of God’. This is the case for both the Old and New Testaments. The instances where a plurality of views is appropriate are balanced by occasions where it is clear that the very terms of the covenant or the new covenant are at stake. In our day we can expect diversity of practice and of theological interpretation to continue, bearing in mind the huge diversity of contexts and circumstances. At the same time we must note the conciliar process which the church evolved for identifying and dealing with the major issues. A later proposition takes up the theme of arbitration in disputes and affirms that the Church ‘needs to develop structures for testing, reconciliation and restraint’.

Twitter logo Tweet this