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Getting the Anglican Story Half Right

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 23, 2008

At the risk of seeming ungracious to Anglicans and Episcopalians, one has to wonder about the understanding of the Anglican communion expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the opening of the decennial Lambeth Conference. Essentially, Dr. Rowan Williams admitted that Anglicanism cannot be guided by Revelation.

Commenting on the extreme divisions between liberals and conservatives in Anglicanism, chiefly over the acceptance of homosexuality, Williams argued that the only way forward is to rebuild relationships among all groups so that the Church can chart a new course through deep deliberation. He envisioned a number of future possibilities, from a loosely federated association of local churches with different practices to a strong communion (whatever that might mean) that develops new ways to accommodate diversity. In any case, he insists that any limitations on diversity which will characterize the Anglican Communion in the future must develop “not by centralized control but by consent.”

Nowhere in Dr. Williams’ address was there any mention of fidelity to Revelation, though he did mention God’s glory and the “good news of Jesus Christ”. The Archbishop clearly regards the Anglican communion as one of many modes of expression of the wider Church of God, entrusted by God to the Anglican bishops so that they can work out its particular shape and direction themselves. Consider this key passage:

But God does not hand out general prescriptions and inspirations: God works through the specifics of the community that is called in Christ's name -- the Church. And the Church is known in diverse forms and traditions. So God has not only entrusted to us the task of sharing in his mission; he has also entrusted to us one particular way of embodying and serving this mission. He has entrusted to us this extraordinary thing called the Anglican Communion. And in our time together he is asking us, more sharply than ever before, perhaps, what we want to make of it -- how we use the legacy we have been given for his glory and for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Now if Dr. Williams had been discussing the efforts of a local church to determine the programs and emphases most suited to inculcate the universal truths of Christianity in its own cultural situation, his remarks might be greeted with cautious optimism. If he were discussing the need to clarify the special charism of a particular religious community, his observations would be unobjectionable. But Dr. Williams was commenting on a growing split within Anglicanism over the truth itself. This debate is not about discipline or programs or policies, it is about doctrine. Sadly, Dr. Williams apparently believes he is addressing these key issues of Faith in a vacuum, serving a God who “does not hand out general prescriptions”, a God Who has neither revealed Himself nor His holy will.

Of course, if Anglicans have to make up their religion as they go along, then by all means let them do so with good relationships and deep mutual deliberation. Their communion was, in any case, born of a human compromise, a via media which combined Protestant doctrine with Catholic liturgy so as to change the substance of the Faith without alarming the populace. But it is startling to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury actually admit that his Church has no other way to proceed than to make it up as it goes along.

It would seem inescapable that if God did indeed entrust the Anglican Communion to the Anglican bishops, He did not do so in order that they might determine truth for themselves. Alternatively, if the Anglican bishops must determine truth for themselves, then clearly Anglicanism did not originate with God. Those who perceive nearly everything in political terms of deliberation and compromise, including most reporters, have missed the real story of the current Lambeth Conference, just as they have always missed the real story of Anglicanism itself. But Rowan Williams and the many bishops who applauded him have gotten one half of the real Anglican story exactly right. Now they just need to figure out which half.

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