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This page last updated 15 April 2007  

an essay for Anglicans Online

Nothing in Common?
The Revd Pierre W. Whalon

1 October 2000

These days there is a lot of talk about being "in communion" with other churches. Or not. For instance, we will soon be in communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but we will not be in communion with the Reformed churches with whom they are in communion. As confusing as that may be, there is now also a question of being in communion with other churches in the Anglican Communion.

In recent months a few parishes have decided to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Mission in America. More may well follow. The Anglican Churches of Rwanda and Southeast Asia have launched this mission to "re-evangelize" the United States. The Mission is under two "missionary bishops" ordained by them, Chuck Murphy and John Rodgers. The two provinces that ordained them recognize them as bishops, but the Archbishop of Canterbury does not. Is the Episcopal Church in communion with them, or not?

The theology of being in communion, known by the Greek word koinonia (communion) has grown out of the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation, developing themes of the documents of Vatican II. It rests upon the idea of the unity of the Holy Trinity with us. The communion that we share with God and each other mirrors the oneness at the heart of God. One biblical analogy for this is marriage.

Jesus, in his teaching about marriage, uses Scripture in a striking way. First he quotes Gen. 1: 27: "God created human beings in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Then he ignores the second creation story with Adam and his rib and connects this verse to 2: 24: "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and attaches himself to his wife, and the two become one" (REB). "What God has joined together," he concludes, "let no one put asunder." (Mark 10: 6-9 and parallels)

Because God created us male and female in God’s own image, the husband and wife become one, just as God is one. God joins them together—let no one destroy this unity, for to do so would be like trying to split God in two. This oneness is what koinonia is like. It is a mystery, declared the author of Ephesians, that refers to Christ and to the Church (Eph.5:32). When this word "mystery" was translated into Latin, it became the word "sacrament." This points to the sacrament of Baptism as the means of entering the koinonia of the Church with God. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the visible expression and celebration of koinonia.

Judging that a church is not in communion with another—schism—is therefore a very serious matter. It is metaphorically a divorce. It says "I cannot live with you anymore because of your offenses." It requires one or both to conclude that they do not love each other anymore, as Christ has loved us. Like a divorcing couple, their positions become set in stone, unchangeable. Communication ceases. Usually each party concludes that God has abandoned the other, because of some defect in their doctrine or discipline. One denies the other’s authority to celebrate the Eucharist, attacking the validity of the other’s holy orders. So the common life, the essence of koinonia, vanishes.

In the past, war often followed a schism. Today, we speak of "impaired communion," because of the inability to recognize the holy orders of another church, or, in the case of ordained women, not recognizing certain clergy of another church. By and large, Baptism in water in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit has become considered sufficient to establish this impaired communion. But the common life, which the Eucharist brings into visibility, does not exist.

The way Anglicans are in communion with each other is through communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England. Through the lineage of bishops and dioceses associated with Canterbury, a worldwide communion of national churches has sprung up. Each church is independent in terms of its own governance, but related by a common heritage and bonds of love for Canterbury and each other. There was intercommunion, since Anglican clergy were completely interchangeable. This loose confederation usually deferred to the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head, and the decisions of the Lambeth Conferences of bishops, though purely recommendations, have been accorded much weight.

The first real threat to this loose arrangement came with the ordination of women to the priesthood and then the episcopate. Some Anglican churches ordain women, others do not. The Church of England presently does not ordain women to the episcopate. This has caused an impaired communion, because not all Anglican priests and bishops are interchangeable among the provinces of the Anglican Communion. It also generated some small schisms, with groups leaving the Anglican Communion, usually after failing to convince Canterbury to recognize them.

The question of the place of homosexuals in the church has reached some urgency in certain Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church. This has provoked a backlash, especially in those provinces of the Third World that consider homosexuality to be purely aberrant behavior. This backlash has recently developed into a movement to restrain the Episcopal Church in particular from carrying out plans to ordain gays and bless their unions. The General Convention’s decisions in 1997 and 2000 to enforce the canons on women’s ordination seem to have been the catalyst. Conservatives either for or against women’s ordination but opposed to the full acceptance of gay couples apparently believe that one day canons prohibiting that opposition will be enforced against them.

So now we have the Anglican Mission in America. It seeks to provide an alternative jurisdiction for those Episcopalians who cannot countenance these developments. But are they in the Anglican Communion?

In February, George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a letter to the heads of the Anglican churches. To these primates he asserted that he did not recognize the ordinations of the two Americans in Singapore. In March, the primates gathered in Oporto, Portugal, and among other things, unanimously affirmed Carey’s position.

This would seem to be the end of the attempt to form a mission from the Third World to rescue the Episcopal Church from its putative follies. But then the two churches ordaining the bishops in Singapore declared that they were in fact bishops of their respective provinces. After the General Convention, they were given permission to proceed. How does this square with the primates of Rwanda and Singapore signing the Oporto Communiqué? The answer at this point in time is unclear. But it probably has to do with the Kuala Lumpur Statement.

This statement emerged from the 1997 meeting of 80 delegates from the Anglican provinces of the Southern Hemisphere in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.* It categorically denies any moral value to homosexuality, arguing exclusively from biblical prohibitions. The Standing Committee of the Province of Southeast Asia declared that it would not be in communion with any province that did not abide by the Statement. Since then, others have joined them in that position.

The General Convention’s passage of D039, the resolution on unmarried couples, could be seen as an implicit repudiation of the Kuala Lumpur Statement, though it does not mention gay couples. This would then give a rationale to ignoring the Oporto agreement and going ahead with the Anglican Mission in America. So far, this remains speculation. In any event, the American Anglican Council, a group of conservative American bishops, clergy and laity, has endorsed the Mission and says it recognizes the Singapore bishops.

One can speculate further and wonder whether the ultimate goal is to accept Episcopal parishes and even dioceses into the Mission, as well as starting new parishes, until it reaches a credible size. Then the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of the Communion would be asked to choose the Mission as the authentic American Anglican province, over against the Episcopal Church. The rationale would be that parallel adversarial jurisdictions are completely un-Anglican, and that several provinces are no longer in communion with the Episcopal Church but rather with the Mission.

While this is pure speculation, nevertheless this is a crisis for the Archbishop of Canterbury, right now, for the whole Communion. There is no judicial mechanism for "excommunicating" a province. Canterbury does not have the power to tell a province what to do. The Archbishop is the spiritual head of the Communion, but only in the moral sense, not the juridical sense. The 1998 Lambeth Conference recommended some moves toward a more central authority, but its resolutions have met with considerable resistance. The authority of Archbishop Carey and his successors to settle the matter will be severely tested. They need and deserve our prayers.

Where is Jesus in all this? It all seems so far removed from the Gospel and the real mission of the Church. But we doubtless will have some decisions to make, depending on what happens outside the Episcopal Church. No matter what that outcome may be, these decisions should be based first on the inestimable value of our koinonia. Just as Jesus taught with marriage, to split the church is metaphorically to split God in two—an abomination. What God has joined, let none of us put asunder. The Church’s long experience with schism after schism should teach us that its short-term benefits have never and cannot ever cover its long-term costs. Our unity with God and each other is priceless. How we have squandered that inheritance, the firstfruits of the Kingdom, in interminable squabbles, power plays, and other concessions to Antichrist spanning a millennium!

As bishops and dioceses, parishes and clergy try to make sense of all this, the words of Paul to the divided church in Corinth come to mind as a place to start: "... take our appeal to heart, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of peace will be with you ... The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all." (2 Cor.13: 11b-14).

Fr Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write to him at

*Anglicans Online note: Simon Sarmiento's report on the origin and wording(s) of the Kuala Lumpur statement is here.

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.