In the first of a two-part series, the Executive Director of the Living Church Foundation, Dr Christopher Wells, explores how the Church can remain united despite deep difference.
At a recent meeting of the Communion Partner bishops and friends from around the Anglican Communion, we took the opportunity to study several texts produced by groups in the Church of England: the report of the Faith and Order Commission to General Synod, “Communion and Disagreement” (June 2016), and the Church of England Evangelical Council’s (CEEC) recent reflection, “Gospel, Church & Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life” (January 2018). Each text is filled with riches; and we were struck by how much stronger we would be if Anglican teachers around the world met more frequently to pray and study together to form a common mind, and to go deeper into the essentials that – ought to – bind us together. The Lambeth Conference stands as the principal, occasional locus for just such reflective work, and it is good to see gathering momentum on the way to the 2020 meeting.
The main achievement of Communion and Disagreement is its winning and creative appropriation of the main streams of ecumenical thinking about the Church as both baptismal and eucharistic. We Christians learned, over the course of the long 20th century, to think of the Church to which we all belong as a communion of communions – incorporating vast differences, navigating divisions and bids of would-be reconciliation, and called finally by God to a single visibility of witness. A key point here is that communion is not an all-or-nothing affair but rather a richly layered set of relationships with God and one another. These relationships may grow in intimacy and sharing or alternatively shrink through periods of neglect or alienation.
How is this possible? Holy Scripture and the early Church teach that basic bonds and shared faith, however incomplete, are indelible, and may be fanned into fullness at any time, through our obedience, by God’s grace. Augustine of Hippo developed this tradition of thinking about the Church as sacramentally constituted life together – beginning in baptism and ending in eucharistic communion as a visible sign of unity with our Lord: the Catholic Church completed.
Communion and Disagreement appropriates the tradition by following a recent statement of the World Council of Churches that sets out five elements of “full communion”:
Communion  in the fullness of apostolic faith;  in sacramental life;  in a truly one and mutually recognised ministry;  in structures of conciliar relations and decision-making; and  in common witness and service in the world. (section 43 of Communion and Disagreement, see also the section 45 of the very similar statement by ARCIC, Church as Communion).
All of these elements are essential to the truth of the Christian gospel. They are therefore part and parcel of the Church’s whole life. Because, however, Christians disagree with one another – and inherit divisions, in the form of different churches, not of our own making – we find ourselves faced with the difficult work of sifting competing teachings and striving to overcome separation.
Just here, we naturally must begin by seeking out and defending truth and unity in our local churches; but the “end game” is wider unity with all Christians and churches, in a fullness of shared faith commonly confessed. In this way, local ecclesial truths will give way, and feed into, a broader, apostolic consensus, after which all the faithful must always strive (see sections 45-56 of Communion and Disagreement).
We should underscore here that truth is not different in different places; truth is one. But different places – that is, different communities and churches – articulate the truth differently, partly because they find themselves at various places along the road of faithfulness, with varying degrees of understanding of, and resistance to, the entirety of the gospel. Christian love starts at home, and so, too, Christian teaching, since the Christian faith finally subsists in the hearts and minds of individuals who are called and must answer for themselves, confessing “I believe” (Credo). We can only begin where we are. The question is, where are we going from here, and how may we seek the Lord and follow his Way?