Anglican division provides a stark warning to Catholics who want decentralisation

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu (PA)

You may have heard the saying “Queen Anne is dead”. There are a variety of explanations for the origins of the phrase, but it is generally taken to mean that an item of news is old or stale. After all Queen Anne was dying for such a long time, almost all her life, that her death was hardly earth-shattering. Recently events in the Anglican Communion make me think of this phrase now. The Episcopal Church of the USA has been suspended from the Communion for three years, following a meeting at Lambeth Palace, but there is really nothing remarkable about this. What is remarkable is that it has taken so long.

The various twists and turns of the recent history of the Anglican Communion have been chronicled by others. I would recommend reading what Fr Dwight Longenecker has to say, whose website is here. He is a Catholic priest and an American with some experience of the American Anglican scene. For a view from Canterbury, I recommend visiting Archbishop Cranmer’s blog,  which is somewhat more cheerful about the situation.

It is the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, and from a Catholic perspective, the division is the Anglican Communion represent a challenge. My view is that the Catholic Church needs to do two things. The first is to stop thinking that the Anglican Communion is a united body. It isn’t and has not been so for many years. This means, as second necessary step, that we should abandon ecumenical dialogue with the Anglican Communion, and replace it with ecumenical dialogue with individual Anglican Churches, or, where appropriate, individual Anglican dioceses. This would be far more profitable that talking to a Communion which does not hold a united position on many of the key theological matters we wish to speak about.

Essentially, the Catholic Church needs to abandon the idea that the Anglican Communion is some sort of unitary body, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury is some sort of Anglican pope. He isn’t, and he has in fact never been. Anglican ecclesiology is radically different to ours.

Nevertheless, even thought the “Anglican” label carries little doctrinal baggage with it, it is one that the American Episcopal Church would be loath to give up – hence the fact that they have never walked away from the Communion, while at the same time taking many theologically distinct positions. I am mystified by this, I really am, just as I am mystified by the way certain splinter groups like the Old Catholics are so keen to claim the name “Catholic”.

Just as the Anglican Communion is a loose confederation – getting looser all the time – of various self-governing bodies (there is a useful list here), it is also worth bearing in mind that the Orthodox are in a similar position. There is no Orthodox Church in the singular and no Orthodox pope; there are 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and the Patriarch of Constantinople presides as primus inter pares, first among equals. Just as Anglicanism has produced numerous splinter groups, so have the Orthodox Churches. Moreover, though the Catholic Church has been in ecumenical dialogue with Constantinople for many years, this does not mean that we have enjoyed similarly fruitful dialogue with other Orthodox Churches. To put it mildly, the Orthodox Churches are not all singing from the same hymnsheet when it comes to dialogue with Rome.

Neither should we forget those Oriental (as opposed to Eastern) Orthodox Churches, which are neither in communion with us or Constantinople, such as the Copts and the Assyrians, with whom the Catholic Church has had fruitful dialogue of late.

You might at this point think that I am going to end with the observation that there is no unity without the See of Peter, and the woes of the Anglican Communion are a direct result of their denial of the Petrine ministry. Actually, I do think that. But what strikes me, even more so, is that loose confederations of national churches are a recipe for disaster, and the whole concept of a national church is not just a bad idea, but one with no theological basis. In short, those who want decentralisation in the Catholic Church, and greater “synodality” – be careful what you wish for! Whichever way you look, whether to Canterbury or to Constantinople, the view is not encouraging.