I have written previously about the way in which classical Anglicanism acknowledges the place of Ecumenical Councils in the life of the Church. From the beginning, there has been a conciliar impulse within Anglicanism, although there has not always been a conciliar reality. The proper role of councils within the Church was exhorted by men like Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, and especially Richard Field whose 1606 work On the Church remains the standard exposition of classical Anglican ecclesiology and really ought to be required reading in Anglican seminaries. As King James I wrote, “I reverence and admit the Four First General Councils as Catholic and Orthodox. And the said Four General Councils are acknowledged by our Acts of Parliament, and received for orthodox by our Church.” From the beginning, the authority of genuinely ecumenical councils to be deciding voices in the interpretation of Holy Scripture was enshrouded not just in Anglican tradition but in English canon law.
For Anglicanism, Councils are not above the scriptures. Rather, by warrant of scripture itself, they are guided by the Holy Spirit to be the faithful keepers and expositors of the Word of God. Anglicanism has always allowed that Councils can err, as Article XXI attests, but this does not invalidate the fact that conciliarity is the scripturally sanctioned means by which Christ governs His Church. In Acts 15, a Council of the apostles and bishops make key decisions about how the growing Church will interact with the pagan gentile world. The Council declared that the decisions they had reached “seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit,” affirming that the work of Councils is truly guided by God (Acts 15:28). This does not mean that Councils are part of some kind of ongoing revelation, but rather that God guides them in their work of receiving the revelation already given through the Scriptures, so that God’s Word may be heard, understood, and applied anew in all situations.
The Stumbling Block of Monarchy
Nevertheless, while Anglicanism has always upheld this understanding of the authority and even the relative necessity of Councils, Anglican churches have largely gotten away with not applying the principle of conciliarity to their own governance. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Convocation of bishops and clergy worked closely with the the monarch, as supreme governor, to direct the Church of England. There are reasons both political and theological for this, the most obvious theological reason being that classical Anglicanism celebrated the monarch as the embodiment of where the Church and the state came together. The Church and the state were viewed as separate institutions, both created by God for different purposes, but in and through the monarchy, the two were joined together to do God’s good work. As Article XXI asserts, “General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes.” The Anglican Reformers could not conceive of a world in which there would be no divinely appointed monarchs to maintain a balance between Church and state, each in their proper role. Just as the Emperor Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea, future councils would need to be called by the kings and queens of Christendom to address the pressing matters of the day.
The Stumbling Block of Provincialism
Early Anglicans never really envisioned becoming a missionary church. The early Divines believed that the Church of England had recovered the Catholic faith and they assumed that every nation in Christendom would soon have its own national church, more or less in line with Reformed Catholic doctrine and practice. The larger organizing of the Church’s common life would be worked out by monarchs and bishops as soon as every nation had settled its internal Christian conflicts. In the mean time, the duty of the Church of England was to sit tight and hold fast, maintaining both episcopacy and monarchy in a careful balance, keeping the nation united in the Christian faith.
Maintaining both monarchy and episcopacy turned out to be a herculean task. The internal struggles within England both before and after the English Civil War consumed much of the Church’s energy. By the nineteenth century, the monarchy remained intact in England but with a significantly diminished role in both Church and state affairs. At the same time, however, the expansion of English hegemony around the globe lead to the establishment of Anglican churches in far flung places. As the churches in each nation gained their independence, the question slowly began to arise as to just how all of these national churches were going to interact with one another. A provincial Anglicanism that only had concern for the affairs of England, or even just Europe, could afford to hang onto an antiquated notion of a conciliarity that required an interplay between bishops and Christian monarchs, but a global Church in which the majority of the faithful were not governed by a monarch or an explicitly Christian government of any kind would have to come up with another way.
The first real attempt at establishing conciliarity in the burgeoning Anglican Communion was the Lambeth Conference. The impetus for this first gathering of the bishops of the Communion was the apostasy of John William Colenso, the Bishop of Natal in the still missionary Church of Southern Africa. Colenso’s tolerance of polygamy and his dismissal of the veracity of various biblical texts caused strife throughout the Communion, bringing into question whether or not the various churches of the Communion were all truly practicing the same faith. The bishops affirmed that “in order to the binding of the Churches of our colonial empire and the missionary Churches beyond them in the closest union with the Mother-Church, it is necessary that they receive and maintain without alteration the standards of faith and doctrine as now in use in that Church” – in other words, the Anglican formularies, including the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, although the Lambeth Fathers allowed that each church might make certain alterations to the prayer book liturgies so long as “no change or addition be made inconsistent with the spirit and principles of the Book of Common Prayer, and that all such changes be liable to revision by any synod of the Anglican Communion in which the said province shall be represented.” By this, the bishops meant not only each church’s individual synod but also a new communion wide body that they proposed to create:
In the opinion of this Conference, unity in faith and discipline will be best maintained among the several branches of the Anglican Communion by due and canonical subordination of the synods of the several branches to the higher authority of a synod or synods above them. (Resolution 4)
Though the gathered bishops believed in subsidiarity, they were unwilling to allow autonomy to become a bar to the exercise of a common faith. They championed conciliarity through the establishment of a Communion wide synod of bishops as the way forward.
The call of the first Lambeth Conference for conciliarity fell on deaf ears. The Lambeth Conference has continued to meet, about once every ten years, and it has issued many pastoral edicts, but no mechanism has ever been secured for their reception by the faithful. Other governing bodies have also arisen within the Communion, such as the Anglican Consultative Council and most lately the Primates’ Meetings, but these bodies have not been representative of the episcopate at large, meaning that their ability to be conciliar in the biblical sense is limited, and their directions to the Communion have been ignored just as routinely as those of the Lambeth Conference. In the absence of a monarch, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been called upon to provide leadership in the Communion by drawing together councils of the Church, but this has proven to be a poor substitute for an actual monarch as the archbishop has few levers he can push to actually draw consensus. He is the proverbial man with a big hat and no cattle. The Anglican Communion still needs conciliarity, now perhaps more than ever, but after so many years of running in the opposite direction, it is hard to imagine how any true conciliarity might emerge.
Conciliarity and the American Church
Nevertheless, the appeal to conciliarity as a principle is not foreign to Anglicanism, even though the application is. If we want to recover it, the best place to look, in addition to the work of men like Field, Laud, and Andrewes, is at the original model of the American Episcopal Church. This may seem like a strange thing to say, given that the loudest and most persistent voice against conciliarity in the Anglican Communion today comes from the leadership of the American Church. Nevertheless, it is in the formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America that classical Anglican principles were first applied without reference back to a monarch.
Article XXI is noticeably absent from the version of the Thirty-Nine Articles adopted by PECUSA in 1801. In its place is the vague explanation that “the twenty-first of the former Articles is omitted; because it is partly of a local and civil nature, and is provided for, as to the remaining parts of it, in other Articles.” What this was code for was the rejection by early Episcopalians of the theology of the divine right of kings that was asserted by the English Church, even though the Episcopal Church strongly affirmed in the preface of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer its desire not to depart from the Church of England “in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship.”
The early American Church’s model of ecclesiology was in some ways unique in the history of Christianity. It relied heavily on democratic processes, all too easily abused by the tyranny of a politically savvy majority. Yet, because of its lack of direct interface with secular government, the polity of PECUSA allowed for a greater openness to conciliarity, at least at the local level, than the polity of the Church of England. Each diocese in PECUSA was an independent entity, bound together only through the council of General Convention, and though the General Convention allowed for representation from the laity and the lower clergy (an arguably historically unprecedented move), the greater authority still remained with the House of Bishops, an authority which has eroded considerably in modern times but which has never fully disappeared. The American Church lacked a monarch and also lacked a real primate, the original intent of the Presiding Bishop being only to chair meetings. Yet the American Church was self-consciouslyepiscopal. Though some of the early figures in the Church, most notably William White of Pennsylvania, saw episcopacy as merely salutary and not essential, others like Samuel Seabury and John Henry Hobart argued strongly for the central place of episcopacy within the Church as the glue that binds otherwise scattered dioceses together.
Models for the Future
Given that even within the American Church there is no longer much acknowledgement of the way in which dioceses are supposed to interact, it would be unhelpful to suggest that the Communion in some way imitate the American model. Nonetheless, a re-orientation towards the place of the diocese as the central unit of the Church—including the place of the bishop within the diocese—may help us to recover a sense of how the Anglican Communion might begin to apply conciliar principles. If Anglicanism is going to be viable into the future, we have to have an ecclesiology that does not depend on monarchy for survival. And if we are going to be the Church we claim to be, having at our center the Bible and the witness of the Fathers, we need to be conciliar, which means that we need to have meetings of our bishops that can actually make decisions and a framework for how those decisions can be carried out in the life of the Church.