A Tale of Two Communions

Whenever a church leader makes an important decision, takes a strong stand and then explains their action, they not only reveal their own priorities and convictions but also, more significantly, shape the future of the church they serve and represent. For good reason, such steps are often called ‘defining moments’ and, with the passing of time, are frequently shown to be, what might be called, ‘determining moments’. A series of such moments seems to have taken place in recent days.

The consecration of Canon Andy Lines

On June 30, 2017, Canon Andy Lines was consecrated as the Missionary Bishop of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) to provide spiritual oversight to Anglican churches in Europe that exist outside the current Anglican structures. As well as the principal consecrator, The Most Rev. Dr. Foley Beach (Archbishop of the ACNA), 11 Primates, 3 Archbishops, and 13 other GAFCON-linked Anglican bishops were involved in Lines’ consecration.

The consecration was a response to the recent decision of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), a member church of the Anglican Communion, to amend their canons to change the definition of marriage in order to allow for the ‘marriage’ of same-sex couples. Importantly, the consecration took place at the request of Anglican Christians in Britain who feel alienated from their bishops by such departures from biblical orthodoxy. The service, which was held in Edman Chapel, on the campus of Wheaton College, Illinois, was attended by over 1,400 Anglican leaders from around the world.

Among those involved in the consecration were three Australian Anglican bishops: The Most Rev. Dr. Glenn Davies (Archbishop of Sydney), The Right Rev. Dr. Richard Condie (Bishop of Tasmania) and The Right Rev. Gary Nelson (Bishop of North West Australia). Their reasons for accepting the invitation to attend and participate were straightforward. As Bishop Condie wrote in a letter “To the Bishops of the Anglican Church of Australia” (dated 26 June 2017), it was “to protect the precious gospel of Jesus Christ, his authoritative word in the scriptures, and faithful Anglicans who have been marginalised by this schismatic behaviour.” And as Archbishop Davies wrote in a “Letter to the College of Bishops” (also dated 26 June 2017), it was “an act of solidarity with those who contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” In fact, at the end of his letter, Archbishop Davies expressed the hope that his fellow bishops “would all rally to defend the Bible’s teaching on marriage, not merely for the sake of correct doctrine, but that we might preserve the message of the gospel for the salvation of all.”

Rather than heeding Archbishop Davies’ call to rally behind the Bible, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia (ACA), The Most Rev. Dr. Philip Freier, has instead offered a stinging rebuke to his colleagues. In a letter addressed “to the bishops of the Anglican Church of Australia” (sent 1 July; posted online 3 July 2017), Archbishop Freier argues that “participation by our Episcopal colleagues in the consecration of Canon Lines, with or without the support of their respective dioceses, is contrary to the spirit of the canons of the Council of Nicaea and, most importantly, outside of the authority of our National Constitution. It may also be outside the authority of the Consecration of Bishops Canon, 1966 of the Anglican Church of Australia.”

Let’s examine these three allegations one by one.

Allegation 1: Acting contrary to the ‘spirit’ of the Nicaean Canons

The Primate’s first allegation is that the participating bishops have acted in a manner “contrary to the spirit of the canons of the Council of Nicaea.” This curious charge was first levelled by Archbishop Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury) in a letter to “Primates of the Anglican Communion & Moderators of the United Churches” (dated June 2017). It is curious because the canons of the Council of Nicaea in 325, among other things, forbid Christians entering military service (Canon 12) and discourage kneeling in prayer (Canon 20).

Whatever the wisdom of such canons in their day, neither the ACNA nor the ACA is bound by them. Archbishop Freier is aware of this, as he candidly acknowledges that “these canons of themselves do not apply as canonical law in Australia.” The canons, then, do not apply ‘in letter’.

But what about ‘in spirit’? What is the ‘spirit’ of Canons 6, 15 and 16 – the particular canons that Archbishops Welby and Freier have in mind? What relevance might it have to the consecration of Andy Lines?

According to Dr Mark Smith, a specialist in Patristics at the University of Cambridge, Canons 6, 15 and 16 “address a growing problem in the church of the early fourth century. Some bishops (and, as Canon 16 notes, other clergy too), tempted by the prospect of greater wealth, influence, or prestige, sought to move from less important sees to more important ones …What is condemned in Canons 15 and 16, then, is translation for improper motives, rather than translation per se.”[1] Indeed, if it were the latter, then both Archbishops Welby and Freier would fall foul of “the spirit of the canons” – the former for having moved from being the Bishop of Durham to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and the latter for having moved from being Bishop of the Northern Territory to become the Archbishop of Melbourne.

But translations such as these are not a problem as far as the ‘spirit’ of the Nicaean canons is concerned. Therefore, the only way either Archbishop could have acted contrary to that ‘spirit’ is by moving for “improper motives” – i.e., to get more money and/or gain more power. Of course, one should charitably assume that such motives played no part in either man’s decision.

Given that “translation for improper motives” is the concern of the relevant Nicaean canons, is Archbishop Freier suggesting that such motives played a part in the decisions of those who participated in Andy Lines’ consecration? If so, what is the Primate alleging: that his episcopal colleagues are guilty of some sort of Simony? Presumably not. Such an allegation would be uncharitable in the extreme! Yet if this is not his charge, how can it fairly be claimed that they have acted in a way “contrary to the spirit of the canons of the Council of Nicaea”?

The fact of the matter, as Dr Smith rightly concludes, is that the Nicaean canons “have little, if anything, to say on the issue of Andy Lines’ consecration,” and to suggest otherwise is to make “a specious appeal to ancient rulings that neither condemn, nor even envisage, the situation we now face.”[2] This means that the participating bishops have not acted in a manner contrary to either the spirit or the letter of the canons.

The Primate’s first allegation, then, is without foundation.

Allegation 2: Acting outside of the authority of our National Constitution

What of the Primate’s second allegation – that the participating bishops have acted “outside of the authority of our National Constitution”? What elements of the National Constitution might render such participation problematic?

The Primate bases his criticism on the argument that because the ACNA “is not a member of the Anglican Communion,” it “is not in communion with the Anglican Church of Australia.” Now, depending on how he is using the word ‘communion’, this argument appears quite sound. No one is claiming that the ACNA is part of the ‘Anglican Communion’ (i.e., the international association of Anglican Churches). Membership in this ‘Communion’ is determined by the Anglican Consultative Council, and no such determination has yet been made. So, in that sense, the ACA is not in ‘communion’ (formal, structural fellowship) with the ACNA, any more than it is in ‘communion’ with various other ‘Anglican’ churches that are, likewise, not part of the ‘Anglican Communion’ – e.g., the Free Church of England (FCE) and the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa (REACH).[3]

It is this fact that gave the participating Australian bishops confidence that they could express spiritual solidarity with the ACNA without in any way acting contrary to the National Constitution of the ACA or behaving inappropriately toward the Anglican Communion. In fact, according to Archbishop Davies, it is precisely because the ACNA is not part of the Anglican Communion that the consecration of Andy Lines “can no more be called ‘border crossing’ than the ministry of other Christian denominations in the UK.” That is, Lines’ ministry will not take place inside the Anglican Communion, but outside it.

Given the clarity with which Archbishop Davies made this point in his letter of June 26, what could possibly account for the Primate’s second allegation? The answer may lie in the second paragraph of his letter of July 1. Here he says that “communion – koinonia, is a gift of our Lord to his Church.” By ‘communion’ the Primate appears to mean informal, spiritual fellowship, not (or, at least, not merely) formal, structural fellowship. If so, this would explain why the fact that the ACNA “is not in communion with the Anglican Church of Australia” appears to carry, for him, the implication that no bishop or diocese within the ACA is at liberty to express even spiritual solidarity with the ACNA.

But can the Primate really mean this? Does he genuinely believe that members of the Anglican Communion can only enjoy the Lord’s gift of koinonia with other members of the Anglican Communion? Is it really not possible for bishops and dioceses within the ACA to express solidary with other Anglican churches (like the ACNA), which not only affirm all four elements of the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888,[4] but wholeheartedly agree with our Fundamental Declarations? Is the Primate really advocating such sectarian isolationism? This would seem unlikely. But, again, it is difficult to see what other possible basis there could be for his charge.

Whatever the case, it is true that the Constitution of the ACA both determines and delimits our communion (both spiritual and structural) with churches or dioceses inside the Anglican Communion. But it does not follow that the Constitution thereby excludes expressions of spiritual communion with churches or dioceses outside the Anglican Communion. If it did, it would contradict the first of its own ‘Fundamental Declarations’, which states that the ACA is “a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ.” It would likewise constitute a rejection of the 1930 Lambeth Conference’s description of the Anglican Communion as a “fellowship, within the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” It would further make nonsense of the whole history of ecumenical discussion and cooperation going all the way back to the period of the Reformation. But, of course, none of this is either stated or implied by our National Constitution.

Therefore, on either meaning of ‘communion’ (structural or spiritual) the Primate’s second allegation is also without foundation.

Allegation 3: Acting outside the Consecration of Bishops Canon, 1966

We come then to Archbishop Freier’s third allegation: that the Australian bishops who participated in Andy Lines’ consecration may have acted “outside the authority of the Consecration of Bishops Canon, 1966 of the Anglican Church of Australia.”

The Primate rightly notes that this canon “provides expressly for the circumstances of a bishop consecrated to serve in Australia being consecrated in a Church in communion with the Anglican Church of Australia in accordance with s6 of the Constitution and stipulates the manner of that consecration.”

What then is its relevance to the consecration under discussion? None it would seem. The Primate seems to be aware of this, acknowledging that the canon “does not appear to provide expressly as to the current circumstances.” In fact, the canon is even clearer on this point, stating in Clause 3 that “this canon affects the order and good government of the Church [i.e., the ACA] and shall not come into force in any diocese unless and until the diocese by ordinance adopts the said canon.” In other words, it has absolutely no bearing on the ACNA and says nothing either for or against bishops of the ACA participating in the consecration of a bishop outside the ACA.

Therefore, the third (albeit tentative) allegation is also without foundation.

So what does this all mean?

It would not be inaccurate to call these three allegations an exercise in misdirection – even if not intended as such. For there is, quite literally, nothing to them.[5] This is disturbing enough. What is more disturbing still is the fact that although the Primate makes mention of the decision taken by the Synod of the SEC regarding same-sex marriage, he offers no criticism of it. His overriding concern is with the ACNA’s action, the Australian bishops’ participation in Andy Lines’ consecration, and the fact that “[n]either the Archbishop of Canterbury (who has responsibility for Europe) nor the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church has given their concurrence to the consecration or the proposed Episcopal ministry.”[6] This missing of the wood for the trees is made all the more glaring by the fact that, earlier in his letter, the Primate quotes the following words from Chapter 2, Section 6 of the Constitution of the ACA:

“This Church will remain and be in communion with the Church of England in England and with churches in communion therewith so long as communion is consistent with the Fundamental Declarations contained in this Constitution.”

The second of the ‘Fundamental Declarations’ of our Constitution commits us to a Reformed doctrine of Scripture (in that we affirm “all the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation”). The third commits us to a Reformed practice of ministry (in that we promise to “ever obey the commands of Christ, teach His doctrine, administer His sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, follow and uphold His discipline”). What all this means is that our ‘communion’ with other members of the ‘Communion’ is entirely dependent upon them upholding similar commitments.

On these grounds, the ACA can no longer be in ‘communion’ with the SEC. For the SEC has not only thumbed its nose at Lambeth Resolution 1.10 (1998), but pronounced decidedly against the teaching of canonical Scripture. The action of the ACNA may well be deemed “an emergency measure” (as Bishop Condie has called it), but it is an entirely appropriate one. For it is not the ACNA that has created the emergency, but the schismatic action of the SEC. It is the SEC, then, who deserve to be rebuked, not those who participated in the consecration of Andy Lines. Therefore, Archbishop Davies is to be commended for calling upon his episcopal colleagues to “rally to defend the Bible’s teaching on marriage, not merely for the sake of correct doctrine, but that we might preserve the message of the gospel for the salvation of all.” To do anything else is unfaithfulness, as these words (often, mistakenly, attributed to Martin Luther) remind us:

“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point that the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages is where the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is merely flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”[7]

Unity by itself is not a virtue. The unity which Scripture calls for is “the unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3), which is “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:13). The ACA Constitution, therefore, is right: godly communion is entirely dependent upon our united trust in the word of God, given to us in Scripture, and our united obedience to that same word. As the prayer for “the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth” in the BCP’s “Order of the Administration of the Lord’s Supper” reminds us, living in unity and godly love, requires that we “agree in the truth of God’s holy Word.” This means that we cannot be in communion (either spiritual or structural) with those in the Anglican Communion with whom we lack such agreement. Conversely, it also means that we can enjoy communion (spiritual fellowship) with those outside of the Anglican Communion with whom we have such agreement.

The question, then, for all Anglicans – both leaders and laity – is with whom will we display solidarity in this present hour? Our answer will not only define us but determine our future.


[1] Mark Smith, “Topical Tuesday: Loose Canons? Andy Lines and the Canons of Nicaea,” Church Society (20 Jun 2017).  For those unfamiliar with the terminology, ‘see’ refers to an area of episcopal jurisdiction (i.e., a diocese) and ‘translation’ simply means moving from one see to another.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Previously known as the Church of England in South Africa (CESA). It is also important to note that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York recognise the orders of all three of these Churches – FCE, REACH and ACNA – under the Overseas and Other Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure 1967.

[4] The four elements of the Lambeth Quadrilateral are: (i) the Holy Scriptures as “containing all things necessary for salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith; (ii) the Creeds (and in particular the Apostles’ and Nicene) as a sufficient statement of faith; (iii) the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as being ordained by Christ; and (iv) the historic episcopate, locally adapted.

[5] In fact, when the nature and constraints of the Constitution of the ACA are properly examined, there is even more to be said in defence of the actions of the three participating bishops. See Andrew Bruce (on behalf of the ACL Council), “Primate admonishes Archbishop Glenn Davies and Bishop Richard Condie – Anglican Church League statement,” Anglican Church League (6 July, 2017).

[6] This concern for ‘concurrence’ is puzzling. Earlier in his letter the Primate unambiguously declares that Andy Lines’ consecration “is not on any view an act in communion with the Anglican Communion and its member churches.” Formally or structurally speaking, this is correct. And this is precisely why the concurrence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primus of the SEC was neither sought nor needed.

[7] On the search for the origins of this quote, see Mark Thompson, “Evangelical Courage,” Theological Theology (Nov 17 2010).

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