Today, I offer two tenuously related thought experiments having to do with Anglicanism.
Experiment 1. Anglicanism has made much of apostolic succession, which is a major part of its claim to catholicity. (I should point out, however, that other Christian denominations claim to be part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” in the absence of not only apostolic successions but also of bishops.)
The notion of apostolic succession has a certain romantic attraction, but how important is it really? Suppose some plague wiped out all Anglican bishops, or even all bishops of whatever stripe. (Perhaps some new virus suddenly made purple dye toxic. Anyway, this is a thought experiment, remember?) Would Christianity have been wiped out due to the lack of bishops and the apparent inability to create new ones? Of course not! Not only are bishops not necessary for transmitting the faith, but bishops have often been responsible for heretical movements. Moreover, I refuse to believe that apostolic succession is some sort of magic provided by God. (I’m sure that some will dispute this.) If we feel the need for bishops, we can simply consecrate some more, even in the absence of other bishops to lay on hands. Surely the very first bishop, whoever that was, was not consecrated by three other bishops!
Experiment 2. Imagine a world just like the world today, but lacking an Anglican Communion—a world with 38 churches related historically to the Church of England but with no formal institutional ties. The question is would we feel the need to invent an Anglican Communion, and, if we did, what would it look like?
The answer, I think, is maybe, but I doubt that any resulting communion would look like the present one. To begin with, I do not think the Archbishop of Canterbury would be so central. England could get away with asserting a special place for the archbishop in an age of empire, but I suspect the former colonies would be less deferential these days. (In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s having any real power is a relatively recent—and arguably illegitimate—phenomenon.) There is perhaps some utility in Anglicans gathering to get to know one another, swap ideas, and discuss possible mechanisms of coöperation. In this more democratic age in which both travel and communication are more easily accomplished than formerly, I don’t think a convention of bishops—and certainly not one lasting as long as the current Lambeth Conference—would be the first sort of meeting people would think of.
Actually, I suspect that our churches would see themselves first as Christian churches in the world, rather than as members of an Anglican fraternity. We make much of our ties between diverse dioceses across the world and our ability to channel aid through other Anglican churches in time of need. An Anglican Communion is not needed for this—we have no need even now for an intermediary in London—and the lack of a communion might encourage closer ties with other churches, which might not be such a bad thing.
In any case, we surely would not begin a new communion with some covenant that surrendered our independence.
What do you think?