By George Sumner

With the latest disputes about the nature of the Anglican Communion, how we order our common life (such as it is), and especially the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury within it all, we need careful thinking. Here I offer three observations, drawn from African Anglicanism, which set the stage for a thought experiment.

My first example stems from my early years of ministry in Tanzania. African culture has a deep appreciation for the wisdom of its elders, urithi wa hekima ya mababu na mabibi (literally “the inheritance of the wisdom of the grandfathers and grandmothers”). This carried over to the coming of the gospel to East Africa. In this sense, the missionaries were spiritual ancestors. Communications from Global South Anglicans regarding their relationship to Canterbury reflect this concern with ancestry.

Think also of the importance of the history of the martyrdom of the first generation of Christians in Uganda. To pass on faithfully what is inherited (what the ancient Church called tradition), in this case the gospel, is a virtue and a calling that African Anglicans can remind us of. This is the same reason that visitors from around the communion find a tour of Canterbury Cathedral so moving. It is a quasi-sacrament of the history of costly witness, which is their inheritance too. In this spirit, symbolically, spiritually, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the heir of Augustine, Becket, Cranmer, Temple, is their (and our) grandfather too. Can the confusion of a few years negate the inheritance of more than 14 centuries?


My second example is roundabout. I’ll start with the recent Global South Fellowship Covenant. You may recall that the original idea of an Anglican Communion covenant was proposed by a design group commissioned by Archbishop Rowan Williams to consider the early conflict over Anglican churches’ stance on same-sex unions. The prominent theologian Oliver O’Donovan called it the “only game in town.” At the heart of the idea was the possibility of provinces banding together because of common commitments. However, the prospect of discipline led to several campaigns against the proposal, and the covenant as an official feature of the communion came to naught. But the idea did not die. A version of the covenant has sprouted from the ground up, as it were.

This covenant is not part of the official ecclesiastical structure of Anglicanism, but it arose to renew and challenge that structure, not to abandon it. In this, it reminds me of a word that Eliud Wabukala, retired Archbishop of Kenya and chairman of GAFCON, once spoke to me when he was visiting Toronto (since he was a graduate of Wycliffe College). He said that he thought of that then-new movement of traditional Anglicans as something similar to Balokole, the East African Revival. The latter was a movement of renewal meant to awaken the Christian somnolent, eventually throughout East Africa. We might say that it was in its own way an earlier form of what is now called “differentiation,” a group challenging the Church as a whole on behalf of the whole. The Global South Covenant could be seen in the same way.

We should take these ideas and bring them to bear on today’s situation. Most prominently, at the recent Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Ghana, there was at least an honest recognition that we are in a fractured state, and new possibilities for the future need to be considered. Archbishop Welby admitted the impossibility of his position, with its conflicting simultaneous demands. At the same time, we recognize that the easiest solutions, to drift into autonomous corners or simply to fracture in two, do not constitute answers to the question of how we are to have koinonia, a common life. Leaving aside the rich symbolic legacy of the See of Canterbury would be a great and unnecessary loss. There is surely not one answer to the future. New thinking about Canterbury, which I will describe in a moment, needs to be considered with other needed initiatives constantly in view.

One such concomitant idea is that of principled differentiation, which our premier theological group, the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity Faith and Order, has been tasked with considering. Differentiation recognizes that differences are found not only between, but also within, provinces and churches. At this point we can see how differentiation may have a relation to the idea of a covenant. It is a means by which members can join together in a common witness about truth. Those who do so are answering the questions “Who are we really? What is the norm of belief by which we must live?” Within a larger body, this implies a vocation to witness to the truth as the Word of God enables us to understand it.

Third, I offer a constitutional and canonical example. For years, in the constitution of the Anglican Church of Kenya, the primate had automatically also been the bishop of the megacity of Nairobi. Other provinces, such as the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, had wrestled with the question of whether primacy and a diocesan see can be handled simultaneously. In 2002, under the leadership of David Gitari, the Kenyan church came up with a creative solution: it carved a tiny jurisdiction, specifically the area of the cathedral, out of the whole, and created a kind of mini-diocese. Since then the primate has also been the bishop of the Diocese of Nairobi Cathedral. This precedent might indeed be applied to the conundrum of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Assuming all that has preceded, we come around to our proposal. The See of Canterbury combines, impossibly, leadership of the Church of England and of the Anglican Communion. It is hedged in by ancient canonical legal requirements and political pressures born of establishment. But its symbolic weight is irreplaceable. Leave the Archbishop of Canterbury in place, as one of the two primates of the English church, with all that goes with that office. And then create a new episcopal office, the Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral, within the bounds of the grounds. This could be by analogy with the Secretary General, though it would need the agreement of the Church of England. Together build a second cathedra, from the wood of every province, and place it off-center in the sanctuary.

Pause for a moment to consider such a symbol. The Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral, most likely now from the Global South, sits in the chair of the grandparent, spiritually speaking. It will be a chair for an apostolic envoy to the communion, a chair filled with 1,500 years of history, a missionary chair not only in the line of Augustine, but also of Kivebulaya, Azariah, and Luwum and all their global mission colleagues. It will embody the reach of the gospel to the ends of the earth and back to the apostles. And yet the Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral inhabits a cathedral now with two bishops, itself a symbol of complexity and differentiation, and in the midst of that a symbol of collegiality too. The second cathedra evokes deep and ancient memory, of the martyrs, of the margins of the church, whose representative now sits on the chair of authority.

So many details would remain to be worked out. The following are jottings at best. Financial and administrative oversight would be seconded to the Archbishop of Canterbury permanently, while its liturgical life is overseen by a vicar of the Church of England of the new archbishop’s choosing. The Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral would have, as a minimal job description, chairing the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting. Maximally the Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral would summon the Communion to the embrace of truth and unity (Ps. 85:10-13). The bishop would be given offices at Lambeth and Canterbury, but the main working office could be in the home church. Regulations that govern the communion would need to insert the words “Bishop and Cathedral.” (But, I should hasten to add, all other rules and protocols would remain in place. A new Canterbury would have no more power to change the autonomy of provinces, nor membership in the communion, than the old one.)

Solving some of the practical questions that ensue becomes thornier, but it would still be possible, since all the rights and responsibilities of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England remain untouched. The Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral would remain a member of the House of Bishops at home, with some kind of licensing or reception in the Church of England. Such a bishop would need to be chosen by the communion. (Amid much talk about post-colonialism, this would be a concrete step in that direction.) I suggest that both the primates and the Anglican Consultative Council collaborate on a list of candidates from among all active bishops in good standing in the communion. Then all bishops of the communion would vote.

I do not claim this one idea solves all our issues — it would be enough that this act of disentanglement and global empowerment makes a contribution. Have you thought of problems with it that I haven’t? Good! This idea would require many people and considerable time. You may reject this whole idea, finally. Okay, but bear in mind that the structure we now have has shown itself to be broken, over a period of years, and more vividly in the past few months. Some new direction is required. May the Holy Spirit open this path for our whole communion.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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8 Responses

  1. Paul Wheatley

    Thank you for this interesting and thought-provoking proposal, Bishop Sumner, as well as your attention to the important voices speaking for change outside the colonial structures of the past. My question about your proposal is its historical precedent outside of the Diocese of the Nairobi Cathedral you mention, specifically outside of Anglicanism. In recent history, many issues have been raised around “boundary crossing” and overlapping jurisdictions. Does this not create a jurisdiction that overlaps, albeit in the very small geographical space of the Canterbury Cathedral grounds, with the See of Canterbury? The answers to these questions would impinge on what I perceive to be one of the necessary premises for a workable solution to the current conflict: Is it ecumenically recognizable to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox interlocutors? The role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, with his relative confinement to the Phanar, seems somewhat analogous, although he retains responsibility for the See of Constantinople, however diminished those responsibilities may be in the present day, historically speaking. By my lights, Anglicans worldwide have a two-fold challenge in the present day: 1.) Work toward unity within Anglicanism, while also 2.) maintaining (and hopefully advancing) our ability to move toward union in the ecumene.

    • C R SEITZ

      Yes, yes, yes re: our intelligibility to the Catholic and Orthodox bodies. And for own sense of self and mission. The default to ‘we are messy and that is good’ must time out. It is lazy and spiritually depleting.

  2. Pierre Whalon

    Creative thinking, as usual, +George. This reminds me of our book When Churches in Communion Disagree. Also, when the Episcopal Church made the Presiding Bishop independent of a diocesan see, the Diocese of Virginia in 1940 proposed giving the office a small area as a jurisdiction. A possible historical precedent?

  3. Michael Tessman

    Kudos! A most illuminating (occasionally amusing!) “experiment” worthy of +George’s experienced and perceptive imagination. Might he be a ”candidate”?

    A “first” problem is that the CofE remains a defacto “State” church. So, whilst this experiment would differentiate the episcopacies (leaving the ABpC to Crown appointment and letting the other be “elected” by pan-Anglican provincial representatives) it doesn’t address the jurisdictional anomalies. Here, a TEC example may apply: TEC (formerly ECUS(A) and PECUSA) has never been (despite recent rebranding!) a “State” church, though it has never seriously disowned its dejure status: Eg. The “National” Cathedral by extension. Other Anglican provinces may attempt to enjoy such notoriety, whether they succeed or not, and this, I would argue, contributes to ongoing “colonialist” confusions in both first and third world contexts. TEC (CofE) may no longer be the Republican Party (Tories) at prayer (thank God) but, neither is it an “international” church as the latest rebrand (“THE” Episcopal Church) suggests. These are not accidents of ecclesiastical debate; rather, they are calculated political decisions for the sake of institutional preservation (as all “systems” endeavor to do, be they successful or not, by any measure of “success”).

    Reading this “thought experiment” conjured up cherished memories of sitting in the great Marian Basilica constructed over the Franciscan porziuncula in Assisi (which many a tourist misses by going immediately “up the hill” to see the Giottos (I know, I did it myself the first time!) as well as images of “added layer’s of bureaucratic dysfunction” – in keeping with my systems training. A current ecclesiastical example might be the United Methodist “churches” (no longer “United” – but, having done so intentionally rather than acrimoniously; schismatic no less). What many USA folks don’t realize is that Methodists have had an “international” polity, not dissimilar from the Anglican Communion. The point is, heresy can be managed (Eg, marriage canons) whereas schism is most often irreparable. Just consider the “lifting of ex-communications” (1965) from the Great Schism (1065) Rome and Constantinople, ten Centuries ago! Has it brought East and West any closer to actual “communion” let alone the Unity for which Jesus prayed (John 17:21ff)?

    The Anglican Communion’s bonds of affection have never been so strained. Akin to a Two State solution in Israel-Palestine, a Two Tier episcopate in Canterbury will not find a political solution; only by prayer and fasting might such a supernatural transformation come to pass. Yet, “all my hope on God is founded” (sung, of course, to Herbert Howell’s tune Michael.

  4. C R SEITZ

    This has been the sort of proposal (long sought by many of us, as confident as we could be, that carrying on with the status quo would time out; within TEC and more globally). So it is good at last to hear it from within the bosom of TEC.

    That the ABC has himself realised it is time for wider consultation a) within the Instruments b) concerning his own specific role and c) about how the way the Instruments can re-conceive the polity of the AC — are all positive signs.

    The rest is about prayer and discernment. Lenten Blessings.

  5. C R SEITZ

    “Leave the Archbishop of Canterbury in place, as one of the two primates of the English church, with all that goes with that office. And then create a new episcopal office, the Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral, within the bounds of the grounds.”

    If I may. The problem with this kind of idea is that 1) it arises from outside the Church of England and b) purports to design a ‘solution’ to an Anglican Communion issue plopped down within it.

    To my mind this has been a fatal flaw in all recent thinking: the idea that the Church of England has its own genuine investment in resolving a wider Anglican Communion problem. It is a proposal from outside the dynamics of the Church of England itself, and not in line with the realities on the ground there. It bespeaks the desire of conservatives in the wider Communion to retain the idea of an historic See, that is out of touch with the complex situation that the wider Communion represents to the Church of England as such. Many there view ‘Communion’ as Empire and Commonwealth chiefly (regardless of whether this is true; it isn’t). They are now coming to terms with what they regard as the downside of having had the See in this role. Conservatives inside the CofE are themselves not of one mind on the place of the CofE within the global communion, as well.

    In short, it is an outsider’s solution/dream that is insufficiently attuned to the very serious challenges the CofE itself must now face, probably for several years, in the light of the LLF process and the recent imbroglio over its next declension (trying to disentangle “Holy Matrimony” from civil marriage).

    My own view is that ++Welby is right (seconded by Poggo of the ACC) that a meeting of the Primates is in order in coming months. They are the ones to take upon themselves the design for a map for the future leadership and polity of the AC at large. Our prayers should be with them. The GSFA signatories lacked SE Asia in the recent statement, as well as others. Whatever that is about will have to be resolved. Lenten Blessings.


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