By Christopher Wells

Come one, come as many who are able to register in time! Register immediately (space is limited) for “‘God Wills Fellowship’: Lambeth Conference 1920 and the Ecumenical Vocation of Anglicanism,” Oct. 2-3. Seminarians; graduate students; scholars; lay leaders; deacons, priests, bishops: all are welcome.

In partnership with Lambeth Palace and Westminster Abbey, the Living Church Institute is delighted to help host what promises to be a serious and invigorating exploration of Anglican ecumenical commitments and the future of the Anglican Communion. Meeting in the Guard Room at Lambeth Palace, we will start with a seminar led by world-class theologians, digging carefully into classic Anglican texts of the last century, beginning with the Lambeth Conference of 1920, which established the trajectory of Anglican common life. That evening at Westminster Abbey, Ephraim Radner will answer the question “Is there a rationale for the Anglican Communion?” The next day, back at Lambeth Palace, African, American, Asian, Canadian, and English theologians will explore together the identity and basic commitments of Anglicans as a communion of Christians called to unity.

What can be hoped for in such a meeting? Are not the various factions of Anglicanism so riven at this point, so out of step with one another, that little or no good can come from continued conversation? Moreover, what role can North American Anglicans play? — the very ones who, depending on your perspective, have either culpably caused our divisions or otherwise made them necessary in service of a higher calling. Good questions. I can only say come and see, since this colloquium is taking place in no small part thanks to North American leadership, including three sponsoring institutions invested in the outcome: Communion Partners, Virginia Theological Seminary, and Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.


Well, OK, since I’m here, I can say a few more things about the purpose and need for this colloquium, starting with the present context of Anglican communion. Long-suffering servants of Anglican ecumenism and specifically Anglican ecclesiality will know that our work here — ad extra and ad intra, if you will — is clearly common. The call to cultivate communion in Christ is the same wherever it takes place; thus, we Christians “walk together,” as best we can.[1] The ancient Greek word synodos, from which derives the English synod, literally means “a way together.” All Christians who share a common baptism and faith should walk together by identifying the shape and form of their life as a path given by God, which necessarily includes the structure and order of the Church.

Anglicans have long pledged themselves to the pursuit of “full visible unity” as a call of God.[2] Jesus prayed that all Christians may be one, for the sake of the world (John 17). As we pursue fullness of unity, we struggle to discern when our differences reflect a God-given and -intended diversity and when they reflect sinful division. Variety is not always good. “By their fruits you will know them,” says Jesus (Matt. 7:16; cf. Matt. 13:24ff., the parable of the wheat and the tares).

Even so, Anglicans and Christians of various minds about important things can start down the same road together by honoring, listening to, and loving one another. All disagreements will not vanish, and they will sometimes necessitate walking at a distance. We should take one another at our word, however, when we profess faith in Christ Jesus.

As we progress along this road, leaders in the churches must speak concretely and specifically, because our faith touches the details of our lives as created by God for certain purposes and ends revealed in Holy Scripture and received by the Church Catholic over time. We speak doctrinally in response to the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ, in whom we live. Accordingly, the work of ecclesial articulation and doctrinal development can never be completed in any particular church, nor in the one Church, until the Lord returns. The Church is ever-reforming, and thereby ever renewed, refined, and perfected.[3]

Christian truth is at once catholic and apostolic: catholic because shared throughout the world and across time; apostolic because given and articulated as the deposit of ancient faith. If the catholic aspect of the Church especially pertains to the “structures of conciliar relations and decision-making,”[4] as well as the visibility of a common ministry and common witness, the apostolic aspect of the Church concerns the content of the faith itself: right doctrine, as a true reading of the Scriptures in accord with ecumenical consensus.

As Anglicans seek to grow more fully into common faith and life with one another and with other Christians, we need continually to explore and explain what we think, make decisions, and commend our conclusions to all churches and people of good will. The Lambeth Conference of 2020 beckons as the next, major opportunity for the Anglican Communion to make progress in this regard.

To be sure, fullness of Anglican communion is unavailable at present and likely not forthcoming in the near future, just as imperfect communion too-often remains the ecumenical status quo. The Primates’ Meetings of 2016 and 2017 issued a challenge to the American Episcopal and Scottish Episcopal churches by requiring a three-year “distance” from faith and order (“doctrine or polity”) engagement at the Communion level and by initiating a Task Group to help heal hurts and to explore both commonalities and “deep differences.” When Christians find themselves at odds about the faith, the communion we share is not erased, but it is diminished and weakened. 

Especially here we see that the work of inter-Anglican life together has become ecumenical, on the way to hoped-for reconciliation. During this time, we should seek the “highest degree of communion possible.”[5] The Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England recently commended that church’s creative structural accommodation of various views of the ordination of women, arrangements that amount to “a remarkable adventure in how ecclesial communion can be sustained without agreement in belief and practice on something that has been considered to be of decisive importance for ‘full’ communion.”[6] Similarly, the Communion Partner bishops of the Episcopal Church described the 2018 General Convention’s preservation of a “place for traditional theological witness” regarding marriage as “a helpful space of differentiation, set within the wider communion of baptism and faith that we continue to share, however imperfectly.”[7]

Through this ecumenical lens, all Anglicans may view the intra- and extra-mural challenges of communion as a call both to sustained patience in charity and to sustained pursuit of shared faith and order. Neither is optional nor dispensable within the Christ-formed economy of the one Church. The next season of the Anglican Communion will be shaped, to a significant extent, by the manner in which we take up again this old and holy work.

May the Lord help us to do so with energy, generosity of spirit, and evangelical seriousness. If the upcoming London colloquium plays a small part in advancing this cause, it will have been worthwhile.

Cæli enarrant


Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and editor of the Living Church Foundation.

[1] See, e.g., Primates’ Communique, 2016; ARCIC III, Walking Together on the Way, 2018.

[2] LC 1920, Res. 9: Appeal to all Christian People; LC 1998, Res. IV.1(a); LC 2008, Indaba Reflections, § 71; Anglican Covenant, 2.1.5.

[3] See the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, passim, and ARCIC II, The Gift of Authority, §§ 41-44.

[4] WCC, The Church: Towards a Common Vision (2013), § 37.

[5] LC 1998, Res. III.2(d); Windsor Report, § 19; Communion Partners, Austin Statement (July 13, 2018), § 6.

[6] General Synod, Communion and Disagreement: A Report from the Faith and Order Commission (2016), §68.

[7] Austin Statement, §9; and see now the “Communiqué” of May 3, 2019.

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is Director of Unity, Faith, and Order for the Anglican Communion, and served for 13 years as executive director of the Living Church Foundation, Inc.

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3 Responses

  1. C SEITZ

    “Christian truth is at once catholic and apostolic: catholic because shared throughout the world and across time.”

    I wonder if the reflexive recourse to the word “catholic” by anglicans continues to make sense. The “throughout the world” character of an AC at our present time is invested in diversity and New Truth (cf catholic “across time”). Those who believe in “New Truth” recite the same creed as Roman Catholics and the Orthodox and claim the word means “diversity” or “autonomy” globally represented.

    Can anglicans discuss “catholic” reality without those who use the word in its intended sense?


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