By Andrew Goddard

Prior to the 2022 Lambeth Conference I mapped the recent history of the Anglican Communion’s wrestling with questions of ecclesiology and sexuality up to the end of Archbishop Rowan’s time and then developments under Archbishop Justin. Where do things stand on these matters now?

“Intense Ecclesiological Development”

As the Conference drew to a close, in his third Presidential address, Archbishop Justin stated that “this week has not planned to be but has become a time of intense ecclesiological development, and thinking and reflection for the Anglican Communion.” The evidential basis for this strong claim is presumably the text of the Calls introduced by the Archbishop and his earlier letter and speech. These raised important questions in relation to

  • their content,
  • their relationship to the previously-developed accounts of the Anglican Communion’s ecclesiology and how it might shape our response to the crisis, and
  • the respective roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference in articulating the Communion’s ecclesiology.

My initial analyses of these appeared in a number of articles (helpfully brought together by Anthony Smith here) and I have recently tried to draw some threads together in my recent After Lambeth article.


A central concern raised by the Calls and the Archbishop’s earlier contributions was that their “intense ecclesiological development” was not just Canterbury-initiated but potentially Canterbury-imposed. Furthermore, it looked like it could constitute a major break with the historic and ecumenical ecclesial vision that had shaped The Windsor Report, the proposed Anglican Covenant and the decisions by the Primates in 2016. These earlier interventions, and the rapid revisions to the first draft of the key proposed Call on Human Dignity, emphasized provincial autonomy and cultural diversity. They stressed the need for the Communion to accept the implications of these in relation to sexuality and the ordering of its own life. There was, it seemed, no concern to seek to order the Communion’s common life in the light of its agreed teaching on sexuality expressed in Resolution I.10 from 1998 and its developed ecclesiology. That ecclesiology recognizes limits to autonomy (a helpful discussion remains the paper produced by Norman Doe for the Lambeth Commission) and that ignoring these limits has consequences for the life of the Communion. This is what the Communion has been wrestling with, particularly since 2003. None of that, however, was evident in the Archbishop’s initial contributions.

“Not a Single Church”

One way ecclesial plurality was emphasized was in the Archbishop’s reminder that “we are a Communion of Churches, not a single church.” Initially stated in his speech introducing the Call on Human Dignity, this was repeated in his final Presidential address. This is an important truth but it cannot stand alone. It needs to be complemented by another important truth captured in the classic definition of the Communion given by the 1930 Lambeth Conference in Resolution 49: “The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church…” The discussion of levels of communion in The Virginia Report of 1997 (chap. 4) therefore begins “The Churches of the Anglican Communion belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

The Archbishop’s proper denial — “not a single church” — and emphasis on ecclesial plurality (“we are a communion of churches”) cannot trump this fundamental creedal confession of “one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” to which we belong. Any account of autonomy and plurality has to be located within that primary confession of unity and oneness. Resolution 48 in 1930 made clear that autonomy of churches was an intrinsic part of an Anglican vision of the one church (“The Conference affirms that the true constitution of the Catholic Church involves the principle of the autonomy of particular Churches”). Crucially, autonomy does not stand alone. It is “based upon a common faith and order”. A major question now is the extent to which there is currently “a common faith and order” within the Communion.

The final Presidential address went some way to addressing this but also raised important questions. Archbishop Justin succinctly captured and commented on two key pairs in the Anglican Communion’s self-understanding: “We are a communion of churches catholic and reformed, autonomous and interdependent: and we must keep to the principles of both.” The key question is how this outline description of “a common faith and order” relates to his earlier statements. These seemed to offer a quite different interpretation to that previously commended and developed by the Instruments of both our differences over sexuality and how, as a communion of churches, we should respond to these.

“Catholic and Reformed, Autonomous and Interdependent”

The Archbishop amplified the first pair by noting that “the Scriptures are the core, the very heart, of our reformed tradition” and that the catholic tradition is marked in part by “the historic episcopacy” and “that we are part of God’s holy church.” How then should we view a situation where the bishops within the historic episcopacy, of a communion which is “catholic and reformed,” gather together in common counsel and restate, “in view of the teaching of Scripture,” traditional catholic teaching concerning patterns of holiness? When they also declare together certain behavior to be “incompatible with Scripture”? Surely such restatements must have enormous significance for the churches of that communion within the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church? Any church should not be surprised when rejecting statements of this form, from this source, leads others to doubt its claim to be “catholic and reformed” as defined by Archbishop Justin.

In relation to the second pair, the Archbishop’s use of “interdependent” was important and welcome given its significant absence from earlier statements. It was linked to “the catholic principles and teaching of social organization”: “interdependence is expressed by solidarity, the Catholic Social Teaching of solidarity, our mutual support, and by seeking the common good, a third key Catholic Social Teaching principle.” That is why “we accept a level of mutual accountability without mutual control”.

Here again questions need to be asked: can the unilateral actions rejecting Communion teaching, and also the unilateral actions intervening in other provinces, really be viewed as expressions of “mutual support,” seeking the common good of the communion of churches? Does the response to The Windsor Report by these churches really demonstrate any serious form of “mutual accountability”? If not, then it is unsurprising that we cannot simply move on as a Communion as if nothing significant has happened in our common life. If there are no longer any “consequences” for such actions and given the Conference was denied any chance to state its mind on all that has happened since 2008, in what sense can we see “mutual accountability” at work in the Communion?

There is, though, one aspect of this account which may be thought to explain and justify the earlier statements concerning “the reality of life in the Communion today” and the seeming acceptance, even commendation, of the fact that “we have a plurality of views”. Once again it is the question of autonomy which, albeit briefly, Archbishop Justin spent most time unpacking in his third address. He did so in two key ways.

I — Autonomy and Centralization

The Archbishop set up a contrast between autonomy and centralization which he defined as “the habit of control and the exercise of power. It is very difficult to break.” This was then immediately followed by that key phrase “we are a Communion of churches, not a church” and a statement that “we accept a level of mutual accountability without mutual control.”

While agreeing with the very real dangers of centralization, I read the current implications of this quite differently. First, there is no pressure in the Communion to deny the autonomy of member churches by centralizing power and control in such a way as, for example, to give the Archbishop of Canterbury (or another Instrument) the authority to depose and replace serving bishops in those churches or a right to veto provinces ordering their own church according to their own canons and constitution. Contrasting with late 19th-century Roman Catholicism, and appealing to the church Fathers, that is the sort of “habit of control and the exercise of power” which autonomy in Anglicanism has traditionally sought to protect member churches from.

However, autonomy “based upon a common faith and order” needs ways in which, if one church’s autonomy is understood to be being exercised contrary to that common faith and order, the communion of churches as a whole is able to protect its common faith and order and re-configure its shared life in relation to that church. Such decisions shouldn’t be centralized in one person. That is why three corporate Instruments also share in this responsibility of overseeing the Communion’s life.

Because we are “reformed and catholic” it has particularly been (in the words of the 1930 resolution) “the common counsel of the bishops in conference,” gathered from dioceses across the globe, and “mutual loyalty” to this which sustains the Communion. In the last Lambeth Conferences taking and giving voice to common counsel the bishops also looked to the Primates’ Meeting as having an important responsibility in this area (1988 Resolution 18 and 1998 Resolution III.6). This was sought post-2003 and happened in 2016 under Archbishop Justin. It is what, in their Communiqué at the end of the Conference (6.7, (k)&(l), p13), the Global South now seeks to revive as part of “a resetting process.” This will “set forth the orthodox reading of Scripture as the basis for ‘faith, order and practice’” and develop “regulatory ways and disciplines that ensure and encourage Provinces and dioceses to abide by the common mind of the Primates or the Bishops in council.”

Second, recent years have seen

  • The failure of the 2008 and 2022 Lambeth Conferences to give voice to the gathered bishops
  • The Primates’ inability to implement their proposals from 2003 onwards
  • The apparent sidelining of the Primates’ agreed “consequences” in 2016 including them not being brought to the Lambeth Conference
  • The production and handling of the Calls process
  • The prominence (even dominance) of the Archbishop’s input to this and the 2008 Conference
  • The weight seemingly given to the Archbishop’s statements altering the historic corporate mind of the Communion in relation to the status of its teaching on both sexuality and ecclesiology

Taken together these suggest that currently within the life of the Communion perhaps the most serious threat of “the habit of control and the exercise of power” which “it is very difficult to break” relates to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. We have the paradox that, based on a flawed appeal to preserve provincial autonomy from alleged centralization, the Communion may now be even less able than previously to address its difficulties in part because of a greater centralization on the See of Canterbury in the ordering of its own life.

II — Autonomy and Subsidiarity

Autonomy was also unpacked by appeal to Catholic Social Teaching:

Autonomy is an expression of subsidiarity, the principle in Catholic Social Teaching that we should always work at the most local level possible.

Again I support subsidiarity but find myself reading its implications differently. The key question is always that of determining “the most local level possible”: who decides this and on what basis? Here in the UK our courts are deciding whether the Scottish government has the right to call another referendum on Scottish independence or whether that decision resides with the UK government. In the US, part of the conflict over abortion is whether this should be determined at a federal or state level. In his earlier comments about how different provinces, in their different contexts, have reached different conclusions concerning same-sex unions and marriage, the Archbishop appeared to imply this was a legitimate development, presumably on the basis of subsidiarity. But once again this seemingly ignores and effectively overturns how subsidiarity has been appealed to within the Communion since at least The Virginia Report (4.8-4.27) and The Windsor Report (paras 38, 72-86, 94-95).

A helpful discussion of these questions appears in the work of the Inter-Anglican Theology and Doctrine Commission between 2001 and 2008. The IATDC (the precursor of IASCUFO which builds on its work and that of The Windsor Report and IASCER) set out how to relate questions concerning subsidiarity to the life of the Communion. In 2003, it noted (para 22) that “historically Anglicans have dealt with their conflicts in consonance with the principle of subsidiarity. Indeed, Anglicanism has a natural inbuilt reticence to ‘stealing’ from lower levels the decision making responsibilities that are properly theirs.” However, they continued:

But if a matter arises of crucial importance to faith and life, or if a matter generates such dispute that it threatens the bonds of the Anglican Communion, the Communion as a whole, through its highest levels of authority, has a responsibility to be properly involved in the handling of the dispute. A process which involves mutual accountability and receives wisdom from the whole of the Communion commends itself in such circumstances. (p. 115)

They set out questions for reflection when discerning the implications of our commitment to subsidiarity in situations of divergence and conflict. If matters are critical to Christian faith and communion then “they ought to be dealt with beyond the local level of the Communion’s dispute settling processes by those who have responsibility for the ‘care of the churches’ of the Communion.” If they are not, that is not the end of the matter. There is the further question of the significance of the “nature of the disputes regarding these matters.” Here IATDC were clear (p. 116) that

If the Primates decide that the dispute is not that significant in respect to its intensity, extent and substance then the matter has to be handled differently under the operation of the principle of subsidiarity, and decided at the appropriate lower level.

If the Primates decide that the nature of the dispute is of such significance – with reference to its intensity, extent and substance – that it makes for the disunity of the Church then the matter needs to be addressed at the higher levels of the Communion.

These three characteristics of any dispute — intensity, extent, and substance — were picked up and directly related to subsidiarity in their October 2006 response to the Covenant:

Over time, the Church has learned that not all conflicts are on the same level of importance. Some differences of opinion are minor or matters of temporary or local significance. Other have lasting effects, involve large numbers of people, affect multiple situations, and treat issues of great weight and substance. The principle of ‘subsidiarity’ suggests that disputes of local importance can most efficiently be decided at the local level; on the other hand ‘what pertains to all ought to be decided by all’. In discerning whether a conflict should be addressed at the local level, the universal level, or at some level in-between, the three criteria of ‘intensity, extent and substance’, as proposed in our report of 2003 commend themselves. If a conflict has become intense, it is less likely to be resolved easily at the local level; if its scope is extensive, involving many people in multiple locations, a universal solution is probably required; if the matter is substantial rather than trivial or peripheral, a larger structural resolution seems indicated. (3.2, p. 85)

Given the intensity, extent, and substance of the ongoing conflict (evident, for example, in the number of bishops again not attending Lambeth and the response of many in attendance) it is difficult to see how subsidiarity can justify the Communion accepting the divergent discernments of provinces in their contexts.

These questions are closely related to whether matters are adiaphora. As Tom Wright wrote, explaining the key discussions of this in the Windsor Report (especially Sections A and B), we need to consider

the key interlocking themes of autonomy and subsidiarity, “adiaphora” and — flowing from these — the all-important question of how the church can discern the difference, so to say, between those matters which make a difference and those matters which don’t make a difference…this is the point upon which the current problems turn.

The Archbishop’s approach earlier in the Conference seemed to say these matters are adiaphora and so to be left to each province but, as these accounts from IATDC and Wright show, this cannot be defended simply by appealing to subsidiarity and autonomy.

The logical problem becomes clearer once we accept that autonomy is “based upon a common faith and order.” Who determines whether an exercise of provincial autonomy is indeed so based? The answer cannot be that this is up to the province itself to determine. It would then be marking its own homework and any province could, in principle, unilaterally redefine catholic faith and order. It is the communion of churches that therefore has somehow to make that determination because the test is “common faith and order.” In theory, of course, that Communion determination could be given by the Archbishop of Canterbury alone. That would though represent a dangerous level of centralization, particularly were his determination on a matter to over-ride the previous determinations of the other Instruments and to disregard the Communion’s previous theological work.


I concluded my previous Covenant article asking whether the Conference could retrieve something of what the Communion has been historically. It was not given the opportunity, as a Conference, to do that. All is not lost, however. Elements of the Archbishop’s contributions, particularly in his final address, give hope for some degree of continuity with the Communion’s historic self-understanding and vision. Other elements, however, raise a number of serious questions and concerns particularly concerning autonomy and subsidiarity. These apparently represent a major break with the received account of these key concepts. This then results in drawing dangerous implications for ordering the Communion’s life. If these features are embraced as the fruit of the Conference’s “intense ecclesiological development” or simply allowed to stand by default (rather than being subject to further scrutiny and refinement, such as that implicit in the Global South’s communiqué) then sadly Ephraim Radner will be proved right and we have just witnessed, despite all the good it has accomplished relationally, “The Last Lambeth Conference.”

About The Author

Andrew Goddard is assistant minister at St. James the Less, Pimlico, London and tutor in Christian Ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and Westminster Theological Centre.

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John Bauerschmidt
4 months ago

Thank you for this fine analysis of the Archbishop’s Third Presidential Address; also for calling attention to the significant articulations of the IATDC 2003 paper and 2006 response to Windsor. To my mind, these earlier explorations of the import of subsidiarity for ecclesiology makes the Third Presidential Address less idiosyncratic, but also effectively undercuts its conclusion that subsidiarity can guide us through this crisis! I’ve made a similar comment in a soon to be released blog post. Thank you again for your excellent work.

4 months ago

Thank you, as always, Andrew. The situation in the CofE looks as fraught as can be recalled. LLF is about to time out as a place holder. +Oxford and a cohort around him now for SS marriage. Crown transition. Hindu PM. It looks as though temporizing strategies are, well, timing out. Canterbury Dean in a civil marriage. It must be obvious that the AC will sense all this commotion, now no longer patient of bluster. A reconfiguration of the AC might be just what God has in view, for the health in other places bears testimony to its resiliency and… Read more »

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