December 14, 2010

Musings on Communion Agreements

My recent post “Two Anglican Thought Experiments” got me thinking about the nature of communion and of agreements concerning communion between churches. My musings, of course, arise in the context of a proposed Anglican Covenant that would, according to the Windsor Report (§118), “make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion.”

Curiously, the Anglican Communion has been a fellowship of churches in communion with one another in the absence of explicit agreements defining the nature of their relationships to one another. This situation has led to confused expectations about such routine matters as how clergy can be transferred or the status of deposed clergy. (See my essay of nearly four years ago “The Covenant We Do Need.”) The situation also seems to make it easy for one church of the Anglican Communion unilaterally to declare itself out of communion with another Anglican church, since it is bound in communion only by tradition. The proposed Anglican Covenant hardly improves this state of affairs, although it does potentially regularize the anathematization of churches.

What is “full communion” between churches, anyway? There seems to be no definitive definition of “full communion,” but, generally, it is an understanding between churches that (1) allows for the full participation of members of each church in the ceremonies of the other and (2) provides, to a greater or lesser degree, for the interchangeability of clergy. An agreement establishing such a relationship might also provide for mechanisms to monitor or maintain it. Full communion presumably is predicated on substantial agreement on doctrine and, perhaps, ecclesiology.

We have been told repeatedly, of course, that the Anglican Covenant is “the only way forward,” but that analysis arises out of either a perverse lack of imagination or, as is more likely, a surreptitious desire to transform our Anglican Communion into an Anglican Church, and a reactionary one at that. In any case, I thought it might be instructive to examine other agreements establishing communion between churches.

In particular, I chose to look at the decade-old agreement establishing full communion between The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The agreement, “Called to Common Mission,” can be found, along with explanatory text, in “Commentary on ‘Called to Common Mission’.”

The Episcopal–Lutheran Agreement

“Called to Common Mission” contains this description of full communion (§2), which is elaborated upon in later sections of the agreement:
We therefore understand full communion to be a relation between distinct churches in which each recognizes the other as a catholic and apostolic church holding the essentials of the Christian faith. Within this new relation, churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous. Full communion includes the establishment locally and nationally of recognized organs of regular consultation and communication, including episcopal collegiality, to express and strengthen the fellowship and enable common witness, life, and service. Diversity is preserved, but this diversity is not static. Neither church seeks to remake the other in its own image, but each is open to the gifts of the other as it seeks to be faithful to Christ and his mission. They are together committed to a visible unity in the church’s mission to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.
Certain elements here, such as the juxtaposition of “interdependent” and “autonomous,” will be familiar to those acquainted with the Anglican Covenant. What is definitely in a different spirit than is evident in the Anglican Covenant, however, is this: “Diversity is preserved, but this diversity is not static. Neither church seeks to remake the other in its own image, but each is open to the gifts of the other as it seeks to be faithful to Christ and his mission.” Uniformity is not the goal here.

In following sections, the churches declare that they “recognize in each other the essentials of the one catholic and apostolic faith,” as set forth in such documents as “the unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Small Catechism, and The Book of Common Prayer of 1979.” Specific common beliefs previously agreed upon are then cited, though not at length. Significantly, in §22, we find the clarifying assertion that “the two churches declare that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith, although this does not require from either church acceptance of all doctrinal formulations of the other.” The framers of the Anglican Covenant, on the other hand, demand a greater uniformity of “full communion,” or perhaps some Communion churches have an expansive notion of the “essentials of the Christian faith.” (Historically, homophobia has not been an “essential” of the Christian faith.)

Having established agreement on essential doctrine, the Episcopal–Lutheran agreement turns to mission. It begins in §6 with:
The ministry of the whole people of God forms the context for what is said here about all forms of ministry. We together affirm that all members of Christ's church are commissioned for ministry through baptism. All are called to represent Christ and his church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to participate in the life, worship, and governance of the church. … Because both our churches affirm this ministry which has already been treated in our previous dialogues, it is not here extensively addressed.
The passage essentially establishes that each church has the same relationship to its members, which removes any bar to those members moving between the two churches.

Much of the rest of “Called to Common Mission” deals with ordained ministry, about which the two churches have held different views. Most notably, although both churches have bishops, those of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have not maintained apostolic succession, are chosen for a fixed term, and have not been the exclusive agents of ordination. The basic agreement concerning ordained ministry is outlined in the commentary on §8:
We agree to the common, though not necessarily identical, pattern of one ordained ministry shared between the two churches. The Episcopal Church continues the general, historic pattern of three forms of such ministry—bishops, priests, and deacons. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continues the pattern of one form of ordained ministry. Each church’s ordained ministries remain governed by their respective church body. As we live into the common practices of ordained ministries of the two churches, though not identical, [they] will allow the sharing of ordained ministers.
In what follows, both churches give a little. Dealing with deacons is put off for another day. (The Lutherans have non-ordained deacons and are not required by the agreement to ordain them.) The Lutherans “acknowledge immediately the full authenticity” of Episcopal deacons, priests, and bishops. Episcopalians do the same for Lutheran pastors. A shared episcopate requires a gradual process by which new Lutheran bishops experience the laying on of hands by bishops in apostolic succession and the ordination of pastors with the laying on of hands by bishops becomes normative. The Episcopal Church, changed its canons to allow temporarily (i.e., until the exception becomes unnecessary) Lutheran pastors not ordained by bishops in apostolic succession to serve in The Episcopal Church.

These arrangements lead to this extraordinary statement (§14):
For both churches, the relationship of full communion begins when both churches adopt this Concordat. For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the characteristics of the goal of full communion—defined in its 1991 policy statement, “Ecumenism: The Vision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”—will be realized at this time. For The Episcopal Church, full communion, although begun at the same time, will not be fully realized until both churches determine that in the context of a common life and mission there is a shared ministry of bishops in the historic episcopate.
The agreement goes on to declare that ministers of each church may serve on a temporary basis in the other, consistent with that church’s traditions and may transfer from one church to another on a permanent basis by making the appropriate declarations to the receiving church. In other words, re-ordination is never necessary when a minister moves between churches.

The agreement establishes a joint commission (§23), accountable to the two churches, for consultation, support, etc. The commission is given no enforcement function.

Rather optimistically, “Called to Common Mission” offers this thought (§24):
In thus moving to establish, in geographically overlapping episcopates in collegial consultation, one ordained ministry open to women as well as to men, to married persons as well as to single persons, both churches agree that the historic catholic episcopate can be locally adapted and reformed in the service of the gospel. In this spirit they offer this Concordat and growth toward full communion for serious consideration among the churches of the Reformation as well as among the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.
Finally, the document declares (§25) that it does not affect existing relationships between the parties and other churches, and it does not create new communion relationships with churches in communion with the principals. (This is non-obvious. See “Some Mathematical Reflections on Communion.”) Both churches agree to consult on communion agreements with other churches, to work together on such agreements where possible, and to “not impede the development of relationships and agreements with other churches and traditions with whom they have been in dialogue” (§26).


The influence of the Chicago–Lambeth Quadrilateral is apparent in “Called to Common Mission.” In particular, the requirement for an “Historic Episcopate, locally adapted” has prevented The Episcopal Church from acknowledging immediately a full communion relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The asymmetry of the relationship came as a bit of a surprise; I have always assumed that if Church A is in full communion with Church B, then Church B must be in full communion with Church A. Of course, in this case, the full-communion relationship is seemingly not symmetric because the two churches define “full communion” differently. By the Lutheran definition, I suppose, our two churches are in full communion with one another.

I have thought it odd that, for example, that the Church of the Province of Uganda could consider itself in impaired communion (i.e., not in full communion) with The Episcopal Church at the same time The Episcopal Church has not declared itself out of communion with the Ugandan church. One might argue that this is possible because the two churches are using two different definitions of full communion. (Uganda apparently defines “the essentials of the Christian faith” differently.) Actually, I suspect that, even by this measure, The Episcopal Church is not in full communion by its definition with the Church of the Province of Uganda, as I suspect that the interchangeability of clergy is substantially impaired in the current circumstances. Of course, Episcopalians are too polite to make a fuss over this.

Remarkably, although the Anglican Covenant is supposedly all about maximizing the degree of communion within the Anglican Communion, it fails to define “full communion.” Moreover, although the Covenant has a good deal to say about required doctrine, it is less forthcoming regarding other obligations, unlike “Called to Common Mission.” Does a church have to contribute funds to maintain the Anglican Communion? Must its primate attend meetings? Can a church issue a blanket prohibition of clergy from one particular Anglican Communion church from preaching or celebrating in its own churches? Of course, Section 4 of the Covenant would allow any church to “raise a question” about such practices, but the Covenant’s silence makes the entire disciplinary process of Section 4 a complete crap shoot. No one can say in advance what is allowed and what is not. The Covenant creates a Communion government of (almost exclusively) men, not of law (canon, or whatever). This is a major reason to reject it out of hand.

“Called to Common Mission” stands in stark contrast to the Anglican Covenant in that it provides no disciplinary mechanisms at all. It is an agreement developed in a climate of love, trust, and hope; not one of loathing, suspicion, and despair.

Another difference in the two documents is one remarked upon above. There is no attempt made in the Episcopal–Lutheran agreement to bind both churches to identical doctrines. Documents specific to each church, as well as documents developed in common, are recognized as acceptable, even though they may not all say exactly the same thing. “Called to Common Mission” is much more generous with respect to doctrine than is the Anglican Covenant.

This raises an interesting point. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is explicitly acknowledged in “Called to Common Mission,” but the Covenant references no prayer book subsequent to 1662. That book was written more than a century before The Episcopal Church came into existence, was compiled with no American influence, and was never used by The Episcopal Church. The Covenant seeks unity on the basis of our churches’ historical roots and seems ignorant of the fact that churches have moved away from those roots, possibly growing in quite different directions. This fact should have led to a generous acceptance in the Covenant, but we see instead quite the opposite: a rejection of differences and an insistence on a reactionary view of what the Anglican churches must be.

Reading “Called to Common Mission” raises the question in my mind as to what churches Episcopalians would be most comfortable in. Whereas I would feel pretty much at home in a Lutheran church, I suspect that I would feel like an alien intruder attending a church in Uganda, Nigeria, or Rwanda. If so, why should The Episcopal Church be so concerned about its communion with such churches? One can suggest reasons, of course, but not reasons to compromise our own understanding of the gospel to placate the episcopal autocrats of such churches.

We should, I think, dump the whole idea of an Anglican Communion in which each church is like every other church. Instead of bothering with the hopelessly flawed Anglican Covenant, we should draw up an agreement describing how our churches will pursue common mission and what our expectations are of them (including obligations of financial support). Meanwhile, we should pursue bilateral communion agreements with those churches of the present Communion with which agreements analogous to “Called to Common Mission” are possible.

Perhaps after the Anglican Covenant project fails, the Communion will take up that idea.

No Anglican Covenant

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  1. Interesting post! A couple thoughts arise.

    You wrote:
    "The Covenant seeks unity on the basis of our churches’ historical roots and seems ignorant of the fact that churches have moved away from those roots, possibly growing in quite different directions. This fact should have led to a generous acceptance in the Covenant, but we see instead quite the opposite: a rejection of differences and an insistence on a reactionary view of what the Anglican churches must be."

    As we discussed earlier, one problem is that Dr. Williams and the supporters of the proposal conflate unity and uniformity. As the Lutherans and Episcopalians demonstrate this is neither necessary nor wise. We are not all alike and the effort to make us appear to be is doomed.

    It is also interesting to consider how confused we permit ourselves to be in the Lutheran / Episcopal agreement. It is possible to imagine an Episcopalian deacon serving a Presbyterian minister in a Lutheran church without any communion between Episcopalians and Presbyterians! Ugandan not so much.

    Thanks for the research. It is indeed instructive.


  2. Thanks for this post. We actually wrote the "full communion" definition while drafting Called To Common Mission. The term had been used for years (primarily by the Lutherans and their ecumenical partners), but there was no clear definition. I agree with you that CCM, and perhaps other ecumenical agreements, are much healthier expressions of a "missional covenant" than the proposed Anglican Covenant. Thanks for raising this...
    Bishop Chris Epting


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