19 March 2015

Anglican Studies (2014-2015) 9.2: Is there an
appropriate ecclesiology for the Church of Ireland?

The Primates of the Anglican Communion at their meeting in Swords, Co Dublin, four years ago. Seated on each side of Archbishop Rowan Williams are Archbishop Alan Harper and Canon Kenneth Kearon; in the back row (second from left) is the Irish-born Scottish primus, Bishop David Chillingworth

Patrick Comerford

MTh Year II

TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

9.30 a.m. to 12 noon, The Hartin Room.

Thursday, 19 March 2015, 9.30 a.m.:

9.1, Is it possible to speak of an Anglican ecclesiology?

9.2, Is there an appropriate ecclesiology for the Church of Ireland?


Last night, as the Post-Communion Hymn at our Community Eucharist [18 March 2015]: we sang a song that reminded us constantly:

We are your Church.
We need your power in us …

We are your Church.
We pray revive this earth …

We are your Church.
We are the hope of on earth.

But what do we mean in the Church of Ireland when we speak of the Church?

And how do we understand the Church of Ireland as being Church?

We have discussed Scripture and the Creeds; we have looked at Patristic understandings of the Church; we have considered at the 39 Articles; we have been reminded of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.

And we have looked at some particularly unique Anglican understandings of the Church and Anglican ecclesiological self-understanding.

But does the Church of Ireland have a particular and unique ecclesiological self-understand?

So let us turn to the Preamble and Declaration, which is constitutionally self-defining for the Church of Ireland (see The Book of Common Prayer, pp 776-779).

There, we see a number of ecclesiological definitions of the Church of Ireland:

● It is self-regulating.
● It is governed synodically by bishops and the representatives of the clergy and laity.
● It is the “Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland”.
● It accepts and believes the Scriptures.
● It confesses the faith of the Primitive Church.
● It ministers the doctrine, sacraments and discipline of Christ.
● It maintains inviolate the orders of bishops, priests and deacons.
● It is Reformed and Protestant.
● It sees the Reformation as an important landmark.
● It receives the 39 Articles, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, subject to lawful changes.
● It will maintain communion with the Church of England and other (unnamed) Anglican) churches.
● It seeks peace with all Christians.
● The General Synod shall legislate for the Church of Ireland … when it is consistent with its episcopal constitution.

We could ask whether these principles have been adhered to with some development over the last two or three decades.

How did the decision to ordain women as priests and bishops help or hinder communion with the Church of England?

How was the decision on the inter-changeability of ministry with the Methodist Church consistent with the promise to “maintain inviolate the three orders of bishops, priests or presbyters, and deacons in the sacred ministry”?

Could the Episcopal Lutheran Churches in the Porvoo Communion challenge whether the Church of Ireland has managed to maintain inviolate the order of deacons?

How do these ecclesiological statements of self-understanding relate to some present-day expressions of ecclesiology?

Modern expressions of ecclesiology

Behind every architectural or musical revision, behind every new programme and every new survey, there is a new ecclesiological agenda and idea. And that agenda and proposal always has built-in strengths and built-in weaknesses.

If the rector moves the altar out into the middle of the church and replaces the pews with a circle of chairs, he is making a statement about the doctrine of the church as the “Whole People of God.”

When a new Canadian Anglican Hymn Book was proposed, it articulated a vision of the Church the voice of social justice, particularly from the standpoint of radical feminism.

Each proposal, therefore, has its own ecclesiological emphasis, its own emphasis on a particular model of the Church.

Avery Dulles offers some models of Church:

1, Church as institution.

2, Church as Community or the Body of Christ.

3, Church as Sacrament.

4, Church as Herald.

5, Church as Servant.

6, Church as School of Discipleship.

So, let us look at some contemporary understandings of Church as we reflect on an appropriate ecclesiology for the Church of Ireland.

1, The Church as Missional Community:

The Coliseum in Rome … Romans 16 offers an image of the embryonic Church in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Romans 16, we have an image of the embryonic Church in Rome. There, the people are gathered as a society of friends and their leadership serves the community, not the other way round. In gender terms, its sociological set-up reflects the reality of the community served, with women among the prime apostles. But this appears to be a non-institutionalised understanding of Church.

But do we – indeed, should we, go back to being an embryo? On the other hand, we need to be aware that all our set-ups are provisional. The visible Church in every age is a delivery system for the kingdom, not an end in itself.

The institutional structure is a transmission system. But for what?

Yet, if we cast off our history, the Church becomes merely a present-tense existential experience, a concept but not a community.

We may want to get the top down/bottom up balance right. But what is at the top and what is at the bottom?

2, The Church as Catholic whole:

Saint Augustine uses the term ‘Securus judicat orbis terrarium’

Saint Augustine uses the term: Securus judicat orbis terrarium – the whole world of Christians is the safest judge. The Creeds define the core, but the details have to be worked out in real time.

If all the Christian expressions in the world agreed on something, that would be fine. They never have agreed; indeed, are they ever likely to?

How do we define or delineate the whole orbis terrarium? Can no one Church encompasses the whole?

How does this make us accountable to other Christians, especially those outside Anglicanism?

There are dangers of developing too narrow and too institutional a definition of orbis terrarium, particularly when we go beyond the Creeds, and raise current issues on which the Creeds have nothing to say.

We can be in danger of becoming self-absorbed and obsessed, wanting the Church to reflect our own agenda.

3, The Church as social and human reality:

Saint Maximus the Confessor and His Miracles … a 17th-century icon from Solvychegodsk

Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks of the Church as “enfleshed incarnation.” We are responsible to proclaim afresh the works of God in every culture and generation. This means being open to culture, as Saint Paul was at the Areopagus, but radically grounded in Christ and the resurrection. Some might argue, for example, that the Early Church accepted the culture of slavery, for example, in order ultimately to subvert it from within. The missional principle was that being a good slave would win the slave owner for Christ.

How does the Church behave as salt and light?

There is always a danger of Christianity being interpreted as an absolute ideology; that refuses to engage with life and society around it, being in judgmental and living in a realm of fantasy. On the other hand, there is a danger of being so accepting of prevailing norms that we accept everything. So the salt that loses its capacity to flavour and the light fails to shine in the darkness.

Seeing the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Sacrament of Christ, or as an extension of the Incarnation deploys vocabulary and terms that are familiar to Anglicans. That view received some official recognition in papal encyclicals, and in-Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

4, The Church as structured society, shared institutional reality

Villa Park, the home of Aston Villa ... In even in sport, there is a boundary around the pitch that makes interaction possible

You have all taken part in the module on Canon Law. It may seem difficult and rule bound, but we have to be accountable, we need frameworks that facilitate growth, that respect others, that facilitate the transmission of the faith in ways that are authentic across the whole community, and we need to build on and learn from past experience.

Even in football, like every sport, there is a boundary around the pitch that makes interaction possible. The rules of the game are not an end in themselves, but they facilitate the game.

But there is always the danger of legalism that creates an obsession with structures. It allows a lack of self-awareness and discourages versatility. On the other hand, if anything goes, we can descend into individualism, egotism and anarchism. We stop become a Church and start being individual congregations, or merely bundles of people gathered around one despot.

How do we maintain a viable working structure to support a community that prioritises grace not law, that is founded on faith not works.

For many people, “the Church” in common conversation means “the Clergy.” Family members and parishioners have already talked about you “going into” or “joining the Church” when they mean going for ordination. William Stringfellow says our view of priesthood.

is so radically misconceived that the clergy have become a substitute laity whose function is to represent publicly – in place of the laity – the presence of the Church in the world... a superficial, symbolic, ceremonial laity. (William Stringfellow, A Public and Private Faith, p 38).

We could say that do not make the Church the Church by whom you ordain, or do not ordain, but by the quality and depth of faith, hope and love in the whole Christian community.

5, The Church as Pilgrim People

Monk’s Gate, the West Sussex hamlet near Horsham where Vaughan Williams first heard the tune he used for Percy Dearmer’s rewriting of John Bunyan’s pilgrim hymn … Do we know where we are going as the Pilgrim People?

Much ecclesiology is based on how the organisation is functioning, how we are managing to stand still when all else seems to be collapsing around us.

But the real question might be where we are going.

Are we like hamsters going around on a treadmill, or on a wheel in a cage?

The Christian story presents history as a journey which begins in the garden and ends in the city. As the Church, we travel together on this journey, even if we often walk close to the edges, looking forwards to transformation and fulfilment. It is a journey marked by experiment and learning, and sometimes even by division.

But in the end, we believe, the Kingdom emerges from the Church which is less than the Kingdom, and all will be revealed.

There is always the danger of becoming entrapped or paralysed in existing structures, living in a Church that is driven by fear and compulsion, rather than inspired by passion and hope. We can take the past too seriously … and the future not seriously enough.

On the other hand, there is the danger of turning hope into a political programme and absolutising it, while losing our grip on the historical roots of faith. This is the danger of under-estimating the value of the deposit of faith, and over-valuing our own ideals, so that we take the future too seriously and the past not seriously enough.

6, The Church as The People of God:

The whole people of God symbolised in the figures on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today, we may think, of the church as a community of inter-personal relationships, democratic, egalitarian and intimate, summed up in the phrase, “The People of God.” I was reminded in a conversation earlier this week on Saint Patrick’s Day that one description of the Church in the Irish language is “Pobal Dé,” the “People of God.” It is a phrase that is Biblical in its origins, if not in its current meaning.

But the concept of the Church as “People of God” can also be objected to as being exclusivist, quasi-racist and self-serving. Is the Church, as the herald of divine justice, not the servant of the oppressed and disadvantaged?

7, The Church of the Baptised:

The whole world is invited to be part of this great assembly ... both to watch and take delight in the world but also to take part in his work

There is also a baptismal ecclesiology, that Baptism is really the critical sacrament. “The Baptised,” therefore, are the only real ministers in this view. However, the Eucharist is the central act of the worshipping church. “Baptism is Eucharist begun; Eucharist is Baptism completed,” in George Worgul’s succinct formula. (George Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor: A Validation of Christian Sacraments, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985, p. 188).

The president of the Eucharist is the Bishop, or the Priest serving as the Bishop’s delegate.

The laos, the People of God, is the critical element, without the people there are no clergy.

However, what would it be to have the Baptised without bishops, priests and deacons are what, exactly?

The Orthodox ecclesiologist Metropolitan John Zizioulas, in particular, points out in his Being as Communion that a careful study of I Corinthians 12 shows that for the Apostle Paul the Body of Christ is composed of the charismata of the Spirit, which pertain to the charisma or membership of the body.

Drawing on Scriptural and Patristic studies, he speaks of the People of God as an order of the Church that is constituted by virtue of the rite of initiation (Baptism-Chrismation).

The People of God is an order of the Church, gathered with the bishop, priests and deacons, and the sine qua non condition for the Eucharistic community to exist and to express the unity of the Church.

The Eucharist is offered to God in the name of the Church, and brings the whole Body of Christ up to the throne of God. There is no ministry in the Church other than Christ’s ministry

Laos means the whole people of God, the word liturgy means essentially the work of the people, and so all our liturgical language is phrased in terms of the worship and work of the whole People of God:

We being many are one body,
for we all share in the one bread.

– (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 218).

The central act of the Church gathered is the Eucharist, to which Baptism is the admission. Austin Farrer, the great 20th-century English theologian, even claimed that to miss Divine Service voluntarily was to “maim” the Body of Christ.

The distinctive Anglican ecclesiology that must become clearer in the years to come will therefore affirm and subsume features of various baptismal and eucharistic theologies of the Church.

The debate today

Any discussion of an ecclesiology of the Anglican Communion or Anglicanism is limited because of the degree of theological independence enjoyed by individual Anglican provinces. The dispersed nature of authority with its correlative acceptance of the integrity of national churches and provinces to make theological decisions based on their own processes of discernment renders a definition of a pan-Anglican solution to any theological problem almost impossible.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said that “the use of the word Anglicanism can be very misleading’ as ‘the Anglican will not suppose that he has a system or a confession that can be defined … side by side with those of others.”

Anglicanism is not a confession or a system of belief but rather exists as a distinctively theological ethos; a method.

The very existence of the Anglican Communion as a family of churches that share a common or related origins, albeit with divergent theological perspectives, gives rise to a challenge to the notion that Anglicanism possesses no special doctrines of its own.

The special doctrine of Anglicanism is its ecclesiology, and this is, in esse, an ecclesiology of communion.

Foundational to each of the local churches that comprise the Anglican Communion is the diocese, overseen by a bishop. Each local worshipping community gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, which is an anticipation of the Universal Church. As John Henry Newman put it: “Each diocese is a perfect independent Church, sufficient for itself; and the communion of Christians one with another, and the unity of them all together lie…in what they are and what they have in common.”

The Anglican Communion, however, does not regard itself as the universal church, but always as a provisional manifestation. Anglican ecclesiology does not make exclusive claims for itself. It recognises that union with Christ is the true sign of ecclesiality and that, consequently, all faithful constitute the church empirically.

The provisional or penultimate character of Anglicanism

The Adoration of the Lamb on the Throne ... the main panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. Stephen Bayne says Anglicanism is forever restless until it finds its place in the one Body

Anglican ecclesiology sees itself, and all churches, as provisional in light of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. This self-understanding gives Anglican ecclesiology its distinctive character, and it is for this reason that Anglicanism does not need much specific doctrine, since it is comfortable drawing upon the common inheritance of Christian tradition, supplemented with contemporary experience.

Stephen Bayne says “the vocation of Anglicanism is to disappear because Anglicanism does not believe in itself but believes only in the Catholic Church of Christ; therefore it is forever restless until it finds its place in that one Body.”

Robert Runcie emphasised that the provisional nature of Anglicanism: “We must never make the survival of the Anglican Communion an end in itself. The Churches of the Anglican Communion have never claimed to be more than a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Anglicanism has a radically provisional character which we must never allow to be obscured.”

Michael Ramsey observed that Anglicanism’s credentials become “its incompleteness … [therefore] it is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic … by its very brokenness [it is] to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”

Classical Anglican ecclesiology is rooted in an idea of communion, that is mutual inter-dependence. Through its provisional character Anglicanism is profoundly uncomfortable with ecclesiological disunity, and so it hold within it divergent opinions in creative tension as an attempt to maintain unity and communion.

The 1888 Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral affirmed that the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God, the historic creeds, the two dominical sacraments and the historic episcopate were the four fundamental non-negotiables for communion. It specified what bishops thought was a helpful account of the unity that Anglicans sought with one another and also with other non-Anglican Christians.

Although more recently additional qualifications have been articulated, the Quadrilateral constitutes the basis of the common witness of Anglicanism as a communion of local churches, aspiring to unity with the church universal.

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927) ... are all doctrines of the Church unsatisfactory until the Kingdom comes?

The ecclesiological question then is what is the Anglican Communion?

Is it a church?

Is it a federation of churches with shared theological convictions?

Is it a particular expression of the mystical church bound together in grace?

The Anglican Communion possess certain ecclesial qualities such as professing the creeds and the interchangeability of ministry, but it is not a church, for it lacks a central authority, and common canon law, liturgy and uniformity of doctrine.

Neither is the Anglican Communion simply a federation of like-minded churches, its numerous doctrinal disagreements prevent this.

Instead it is a fellowship of particular churches bound together in ecclesial communion, that is recognition of common ecclesiality, sharing an ecclesial commitment and a mutuality of participation in the sacraments.

As a mutually interdependent koinonia it prefigures the purpose of the ecumenical movement, being in itself a particular expression of the mystical church yet recognising that it is not an end in itself.

Anglicans are clear about the relationship between local and universal. Each local Anglican Church is mystically part of the Catholic Church, while each local church strives to model its idea of fellowship through participating in the mutual life of the Anglican Communion.

In other words, the relationship between local and universal is one of communion, interdependence.

Paul Avis summarises it this way: “Communion — whether between individual Christians in the Body of Christ, or between particular churches within the universal Church — is something given in the realm of grace. It is intimately connected to the sacraments. In baptism we are brought into communion with the Triune God and one another; in the Eucharist — Holy Communion — we are sustained and strengthened in that communion. Communion is God’s greatest gift to us in this life and it will be completed and fulfilled in the next.”

A shared Anglican ecclesiology?

Paul Avis, in his book The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2007, pp 160-162), lists the principal sources (indicative rather than definitive texts) that are relevant to Anglican ecclesiology as:

● The historic formularies (i.e., the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 1550/1662 Ordinal).
● The ecclesiological teachings of the Lambeth Conferences since 1867.
● The report of the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission, Doctrine in the Church of England (1938).
● Recent ecclesiological statements from the House of Bishops of the Church of England.
● The ARCIC Agreed Statements.
● The Dublin Agreed Statement (1984) of the international Anglican-Orthodox dialogue.
● The WCC Lima Statement, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982).
● The WCC Faith and Order Commission statements on unity, including New Delhi (1961) and Canberra (1991).
● The Porvoo Communion Statement (1996).
● The writings of Richard Hooker summarised by PE More and FL Cross in their 1935 anthology Anglicanism (London: SPCK, 1935).
● The corpus of Anglican spiritual and theological writing anthologised in Love’s Redeeming Work edited by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams (Oxford: OUP, 2004).

Paul Avis concludes his chapter on ‘Anglican Ecclesiology in the Twenty-first Century’ with this assessment of the state of Anglicanism today:

“Anglicanism does indeed attempt to hold together elements that are opposed in other traditions – though not without strains. It defines itself as catholic and reformed; orthodox in doctrine yet open to change in its application. Its polity is both episcopal (and its bishops have real authority) and synodical – an unusual combination in a church that has maintained the historic episcopate. It acknowledges an ecumenical council as the highest authority in the Church, but is not opposed in principle to a universal primacy and virtually never has been. It confesses the paramount authority of Scripture, but reveres tradition and harkens to the voice of culture and science. It tries to be neither centralized nor fragmented, neither authoritarian nor anarchic. It is comprehensive without being relativistic. This interesting experiment has endured and evolved for nearly five centuries; in spite of the present difficulties, I believe it is worth persevering with.” [Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: T&T Clark, 2007), pp 168-169.]

But given the present difficulties, can Anglicanism persevere?

Indeed, we might ask, can it survive?

And what is holding Anglicanism together at this present moment?

Unity agreements and the future of Anglicanism

The future of Anglicanism was never seen in isolation from the future of the rest of the church. From the beginning, the Lambeth Conferences looked at both the future of Anglicanism, and the ecumenical future. But today question marks hang over the future of the Anglican Communion, and these include the following issues:

● Whether the Anglican Covenant is still on the agenda for the Anglican Communion.
● Whether the Anglican Covenant is in danger of creating a two-tier Anglican Communion.
● Whether the Anglican Covenant is in danger of creating an Anglican ‘Curia’.
● The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the focus of unity for the Anglican Communion.
● The future of the Lambeth Conference as a purely Episcopal gathering.
● The status, role or authority of Lambeth Conference resolutions.
● The tension between maintaining theological diversity and unity in communion.
● The possibility of a future Anglican Congress that is representative of the laity.

Although the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) continue, in many ways, to dominate the agenda, the budgets and the ethos of the Anglican Communion. As Professor Alister McGrath pointed out at a conference in Oxford on the “Future of Anglicanism”: “On any given Sunday there are more Anglicans attending church in the west African state of Nigeria than in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia, taken together.”

Anglican Churches are thriving and growing in many parts of Africa and Asia. But Anglicans appear to be in decline, numerically, in the traditional Anglican heartlands such as England, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In America, the decline of Anglicanism or Episcopalianism is in sharp contrast to the rise in membership of pentecostal and evangelical churches. Alister McGrath claims: “The implications for the future direction of Anglicanism are momentous.”

The future of Anglicanism and other communions of churches

But of course, the Anglican Communion is not the only communion or grouping of churches of which the Church of Ireland and other Anglican Churches are now a part. In terms of looser alliances and federations we are part of the Irish Council of Churches (1922), the Conference of European Churches (1957), the World Council of Churches (1948) and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (1990).

From the very beginning, the Lambeth Conferences were concerned not only with the unity of the churches that now form the Anglican Communion, but were anxious to pursue unity with other Churches, including the Old Catholics and the Scandinavian Lutherans.

The Anglican Churches and the Old Catholics have been in communion since the Bonn Agreement (1931), recognising each other’s orders, episcopate, ministry, &c, so forming effectively an overlapping communion – at least on continental Europe.

But the Church of Ireland is also part of a closer communion of churches, which is emerging in Northern Europe and which is being referred to increasingly as the Porvoo Communion – a grouping of more than a dozen Anglican and Lutheran churches in these islands, Scandinavia and the Baltic states. The contact group met here in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute two years ago [April 2013].

Update on the Anglican Covenant

The Anglican Covenant was sent to the provinces for their adoption, and the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, when it met in Armagh four years ago (May 2011), agreed to “subscribe” to the Covenant.

In the Church of England, the Act of Synod adopting the Covenant has been sent to the diocesan synods. The General Synod voted on 24 November 2010 to send the Covenant to diocesan synods. However, a majority of diocesan synods (26-18) voted against adopting the Covenant, blocking the question being brought back to General Synod for a final vote.

The question now is whether the Anglican Covenant is still on the agenda for the Anglican Communion as a whole, and whether it can ever come back on the agenda for the Church of England.


The Anglican experiment shows that in a divided Christian Church there cannot be any church that is not provisional. All churches are provisional in light of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that Christians aspire to be, yet constantly fall short of being.

Next week (26 March 2015), 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.:

10.1, Anglicanism, ecumenical engagement and inter-religious dialogue.
10.2, The Church of Ireland, ecumenical engagement and inter-religious dialogue.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This is an extended version of notes prepared for a lecture on the MTh Year II course, TH8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, on Thursday 19 March 2015.

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