Archbishop Rowan has clarified the intent of his earlier note to Bishop Howe, and this clarification is to some extent helpful, as it corroborates my suspicion that the Howe communication was a nonce letter and not intended as a formal policy statement. Still, it is disturbing to note even in this communication a persistent subtle diminishment of the “national church.”
It isn’t really a matter of “units” as such. Talk of “basic units” gets a bit odd, as we could say the basic unit of a church is a brick, but no one worships in a brick! So while I acknowledge the Ignatian notion that the sacramental fullness of the church can be found in the liturgy with all orders of ministry present — a notion celebrated by Bishop Zizioulas — yet when it comes to polity the province is the smallest church entity that can exercise all of the functions of a church — including the creation of new bishops.
So the Archbishop has clarified that what he was getting at is that priests must relate to the wider church through their diocese. What he doesn’t mention is the similar fact that bishops (and dioceses) no less relate to the communion through their province. There is an organic unity here that works on up through the various levels, about which I will speak more below. For the nonce, though, let me note that in support of the Archbishop’s view concerning priests, the defining canonical point for the licensing of foreign clergy both in TEC and the CofE is not merely that they are validly ordained and related to some bishop or other, but that they are a “member of a church in communion” with the receiving church. Yes, their membership is through a diocese (hence the need for a letter dimissory), but it is the connection of that diocese with a church — which is to say, a national, provincial, or particular church — with which the receiving church is in communion that makes the ultimate difference in their being licensed or not. Dioceses simply do not stand alone, apart from the national or provincial church, and they derive much of their competence to function from participation in the larger body.
Of course, bishops as individuals may well relate directly to Canterbury when he invites them to Lambeth — but even this invitation hinges to a large extent upon their being bishops of a church that is a member of the Anglican Communion. This importance of the national church is what appears to be missing, or downplayed, in Archbishop Rowan’s thinking.
The Fractal Church
We are at a point where the integrity of Anglicanism as a specific form of polity is in danger. I put this in the framework of the equilibrium of systems: the “equilibrium point” of Anglicanism (as opposed to that in other systems of church government) has been, from the at least the time of recognized ecclesiastical independence of Scotland and the US, to reside at the provincial level. We have never had a higher governing body to oversee the relationships of the various provinces. Anglicanism’s global identity has been that of a communion, a fellowship of autonomous provincial churches — neither a “world church” like the Roman Catholic Church, nor a federation like the Reformed Churches.
At the levels of polity below the international, Anglicanism (at least in the US and England, as well as a number of other provinces) has a fractal quality. Fractal structures, for those not familiar with them, are structures that replicate certain features at various scales. This gives them a certain organic robustness and resiliency. The Episcopal Church has such a structure — from parish to diocese to province — which has not yet been effectively mirrored to the communion level. That is, at every level we Episcopalians have governance by clergy and laity together — but then the interprovincial level gives us things like Lambeth and the Primates. Now, this is in part because — while The Episcopal Church has preserved lay involvement, inherited from England, at all levels (in part via Bishop White’s familiarity with the US Congress), and the Church of England continued its lay involvement (originally through the Crown, then King-in-Parliament, and later in the Synod) — not all of the other provinces in the Anglican Communion share in this particular aspect at either local, diocesan, or provincial levels. Generally speaking, the churches of the Communion that related most directly to England or the US (as opposed to churches arising out of the ventures of missionary societies) tended to preserve this kind of involvement by the whole People of God.
And that is, I firmly believe, part of the problem for many of those provinces in understanding how either The Episcopal Church and the Church of England function. Churches in which bishops are elected only by other bishops, or in which the Archbishop has ultimate veto power, will not well fit into a larger entity at a level of scale resembling that in the provinces in which the laity and clergy are more intimately involved in provincial government.
Rather, these churches are accustomed to their own more clericalized fractal hierarchy: the parish priest who sits in the diocesan house of clergy; the diocesan bishop who sits in the house of bishops; the primate who sits in the Primates meeting — it all seems very logical, but it leaves out that intrinsic element so vital to Anglicanism in its founding expression: the involvement of the whole People of God in the government of the church.
I think we are in definite need of some form of an Anglican Congress, involving laity and clergy as well as bishops, at the level of the Communion. Though the ACC is a move in that direction, it has been subsumed by the pressure towards the episcopate in Lambeth and the Primates.
A fractal structure may help to restore some of our equilibrium: the balance we have enjoyed over the last two centuries or so is being pressured by various forces. This is, I think, the fundamental “tear in the fabric” that results when provinces have a different internal structure that is not replicated at the higher level: it is not just that some provinces have done things not all provinces approve of, but that we arrive at these decisions in very different ways, and yet have no overarching superstructure to govern the resulting tension — we are merely pulled back and forth in the quest either for more elasticity or more rigidity.
A properly fractal solution would be to work for an Anglican Congress — not more power to Lambeth or the Primates. The authority of such a Congress would have to be decided, of course, and agreed to by all — if, indeed we decide we need that level of governance. It might be good to begin by exploring the variations in polity in and between the member churches. A common agreed upon code of canon law might also be helpful, though it might equally be decided to take more of a live-and-let-live approach as far as internal affairs go.
Speaking practically, though, I would suggest that an Anglican Congress might be something a bit larger than the present ACC, with perhaps three persons in each order representing each province. My hope would be that this would be a body for discussion and implementation of broader global concerns, not primarily the place to hash out disagreements between the provinces — which I really do think are best handled ad hoc between the disagreeing parties, even to the extent of impaired communion. (I don’t think all problems have to be solved in the short run; some will take care of themselves in time.) So I see the primary utility of such a Congress as a more effective means at communication and mission organization. In fact, I think Anglican Mission Congress should be the proper name.
The dangers of final decisions
Ultimately, we may be dealing with a case of Schrodinger’s Church: we have been able to maintain our state of being neither congregational nor curial as a communion, but if we force the question, we may find that we will collapse into one form or the other — and Anglicanism’s experiment will be over. That, I think, would be a great loss to the Body of Christ.
Tobias Haller BSG