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This page last updated 12 July 2004
Anglicans Online last updated 17 December 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online

What constitutes a sufficient body to be church?
Tobias S. Haller BSG

Lately there has been a good bit of talk about what constitutes the essential 'unit' of the church: parish, diocese, province or communion. First of all, I admit to being troubled by talk of 'units' of the church. I tend to follow the Pauline model of 'organs' or 'members' which, if cut off from the body, no longer function. So my question would be, what constitutes a sufficient 'body' to be 'church?' This seems to be the crucial question. Of course, it might be better to say (and I think this is the most 'true' statement) that 'church' subsists wherever two or three faithful gather, and in the company of all the baptized, and everything else in-between is a matter of polity!

That being said, the terrestrial church militant, in Anglicanism, at least, took form within 'national' boundaries. This is writ deep in our history and practice, from the first assertions of independence from Rome (not under Henry VIII but far earlier under Edward III; and indeed at the Reformation the English scholars tried to read it all back into the correspondence of Gregory and Augustine!). This concept of nation-church persisted at the American Revolution, necessitating the creation of a new ecclesial entity, as the Preface to the American BCP makes clear. So too with each new Province as the old English colonial structure was dismantled. This was the model that William Reed Huntington took as self-evident in his thought on 'The National Church' and 'The Peace of the Church.'

Now, taking this view of the nation-church as a sufficient (hardly omni-competent) embodiment of 'church' does not mean closing oneself off from participation in larger coalitions, federations, communions, or whatever you want to call them. Huntington was, after all, a champion of church union! His argument, as indeed mine, is that this is a practical matter.

Finally, then, leading me to attempt to answer the question of where the canonical limits of church authority lie: At present, the 'canonical' limit of church authority (for Anglicans) is at the 'national' level. That is simply a fact of history and present reality. That does not mean, however, that the various national churches of the Anglican Communion could not, by their own mechanisms, choose to set aside the at present loose and informal 'instruments of unity' and authorize the creation of a synodical body, with representatives (one would hope in all orders of ministry) from the various member provinces. There has, historically, been strong opposition to this suggestion: note the documents that led to the creation of the Lambeth Conference, for example, and its own oft-repeated claims that it is not a legislative synod but a conference of bishops gathered for consultation. And I think with good cause!

In the present model of the Anglican Communion, churches for the most part derive their membership in it not from making a confession but from acknowledging their history, both political and liturgical. This is a wonderfully organic model. Other churches join the communion (I am thinking primarily of the uniting churches) by being able to 'sign on' to the Lambeth Quadrilateral. It is true that this leaves a great deal in the hands of the 'local' or 'national' or 'particular' church; it takes a great deal of trust, and the allowance for breadth of interpretation and application of Scripture that has long been a hallmark of Anglicanism. But it appears to me that this is the model we should continue.

It has worked well for a number of years, until the recent move to impose a single view on the matter of homosexuality, a view upon which, as the new C of E study document states, there is no consensus. That statement cuts both ways: in the scholarly community today, there is no longer a consensus (whatever Lambeth 1998 said) that all homosexual relationships are contrary to Scripture. Too many good, wise and learned Anglicans have come to reevaluate the church's traditional teaching on homosexuality to pretend that the 1998 Lambeth Resolution should be given the weight of law, and that anyone who opposed it (and there were quite a few) should no longer be part of the Communion.

In earlier years, Lambeth was studious to avoid controversy for just this reason. The question that must be raised then, is: Can a communion include those who are unwilling to remain in communion with those with whom they disagree? To what extent is unanimity a requirement for communion? If we can remain unified on the 'essentials' of the Lambeth Quadrilateral (trusting each other to interpret the Scriptures with sufficient fidelity and not judging each other) then there is hope for the Anglican Communion. If instead we become fixated on passing resolutions determining who is in and who is out, we cease to be a voluntary society of the faithful and become little more than a sect. There is great wisdom in the Anglican acknowledgment that the church is a mixed body in which good and bad coexist (see Article XXVI). This is what Jesus was getting at in the parable of the wheat and the tares: let them grow together until the harvest.

At present, we are in danger of seeing Anglicanism uprooted by the very people most zealous to preserve it. I firmly believe that tolerance in communion is the better way, and earnestly pray that we can proceed in trust and charity and fellowship, even when we disagree. For the matters we agree on are infinitely more important than those which separate us.

Brother Tobias welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bsg@earthlink.net.


TOBIAS STANISLAS HALLER is Vicar of Saint James Church, Fordham, in the Bronx, New York. He is a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, an American monastic order.