Who admits to membership in the Anglican Communion?

A communiqué from this week’s primatial gathering in Canterbury addressed the status of the Anglican Church in North America thus:

The consideration of the required application for admission to membership of the Communion of the Anglican Church of North America was recognised as properly belonging to the Anglican Consultative Council. The Primates recognise that such an application, were it to come forward, would raise significant questions of polity and jurisdiction.

I suggest that whoever wrote this paragraph of the communiqué, or indeed the primates themselves, have misstated the situation to some extent. Much of the response that follows is drawn from a weblog post that I wrote in 2006 regarding this issue, though I addressed the question at that time in order to develop an understanding of whether the primates could expel from membership or not. (Since the implosion of Classical Anglican Net several years ago, that post is available only through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine). Whether they can “suspend” from membership would appear to have been answered affirmatively given this week’s action regarding The Episcopal Church. Regarding the bodies competent to admit national (provincial) Churches to the schedule of membership of the Communion, I think that my argument still holds up nine years later.

Who has the authority to determine the member Churches of the Anglican Communion? Clearly the answer is one or more of the “Instruments of Unity” of the Anglican Communion: the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury—though +Cantuar is perhaps better understood as a “servant” of unity, and the Anglican Consultative Council, newest of the instruments.

The answer to the question of which instrument of unity is determinative of membership seems largely to depend on the theological and ecclesiastical opinions of the person answering. Theologically conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians, those who used to rejoice in the descriptor “reasserters” (following Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon’s nomenclature), have tended to understand either the Lambeth Conference or the Primates’ Meeting as having this authority. Thus, on this view the primates meeting together in February 2007 could determine the discipline to which The Episcopal Church would be subjected, or could at least make a recommendation the Lambeth Conference which will meet in 2008, understanding that the episcopal Conference will take up their recommendation and reject it or act on it. Theologically liberal or revisionist Anglicans and Episcopalians, those whom conservatives used to call “reappraisers”, tend to deny such determinative (or even commendatory) authority to the primates, and some have suggested that the Anglican Consultative Council, by virtue of its more “democratic” nature (it is the only instrument to include in its membership clergy and laity as well as bishops), has the membership-determining authority. Today’s communiqué would seem to follow this reasoning as well.

Conservative Episcopalian lawyer and sometime weblogger Brad Drell entered these speculative waters shortly before I did in 2006 with “Is Membership In The Anglican Consultative Council A Prerequisite To Being A Member of the Anglican Communion? Who Decides Who Is In And Who Is Out?,” in which he concludes on the basis of an examination of the constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council that, while the Archbishop of Canterbury is the final arbiter of who is in communion with the See of Canterbury, that the Primates’ Meeting could “by majority vote, recognize a new North American Province on a majority vote, and there wouldn’t be a whole lot anyone could do about it.”

Brad’s understanding of the authority of the Anglican Consultative Council is, I think, correct. The constitution of the ACC clearly states that the Council has a facilitative and advisory role, including in the division of existing provinces of the Communion and the formation of new provinces. This latter role, that of facilitating and advising, is clearly indicated as just that in various resolutions of the ACC over its meetings from 1971 to the present (the texts of these resolutions are published online at the Anglican Consultative Council’s website). At their meeting in Panama City, Panama, in 1996 the Council affirmed “its commitment to assisting in the creation of new Provinces, where conditions indicate that such a development is appropriate in the Anglican Communion”; urged “those involved in promoting the creation of new Provinces to consult the Council through its Secretary General and other officers from the earliest stages in their discussions”; and affirmed “the guidelines set out in previous Council resolutions.” At their 1973 meeting in Dublin, the ACC recommended “that the diocese of Melanesia and the Province of New Zealand proceed with plans for constituting a Province of Melanesia, and that when these are agreed to by the diocese and the General Synod of the Province, the Council recommends that the new Province may be formed.” The Council has offered similar recommendations – note, not directives – on the formation of new provinces since the first meeting in Kenya in 1971.

The ACC’s constitution clearly establishes the membership of the Council (based on a Resolution 69 of the 1968 Lambeth Conference), and the Council has welcomed new provincial members from time to time. For example, at their Panama City meeting in 1996, the Council welcomed the Province of Mexico and the Province of South East Asia (successor to the Council of Churches of East Asia) to membership in the Council (cf. Resolutions 1, 2 and 3), and at the 1999 meeting in Dundee, Scotland, welcomed the Anglican Church of the Central America Region and the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui into membership (the last time that new provinces were welcomed to membership).

That membership in the Anglican Communion constitutes membership in the Anglican Consultative Council rather than vice versa is strongly suggested (and nearly explicitly stated) in the language Resolution 25 of the 1990 meeting in Wales:

This Council welcomes the Philippine Episcopal Church, hitherto a member of the Eighth Province of ECUSA, as the latest member Church of the Anglican Communion, and thus of this Council.

So the question remains, who determines membership in the Anglican Communion?

The answer, at least from the Anglican Consultative Council’s own resolutions, is unequivocal – surprisingly so, in fact, given how this question has been argued over the past number of years.

In 1993, at a joint meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council, the following resolutions were passed (emphases mine):

Resolution 47: New Provinces of Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire

Resolved, that this Joint Meeting of the Primates and the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council welcomes the creation of the Province of Burundi, the Province of Rwanda, and the Province of Zaire and requests the Primates to add them to the list of Member Churches of the Anglican Communion, and that they be added to the Schedule of Membership of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Resolution 48: New Province of Korea

Resolved, that this Joint Meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council welcomes the progress towards the creation of the new Province of Korea in April 1993 and requests the Primates to add it to the list of member Churches of the Anglican Communion following its inauguration, and that it be added to the Schedule of Membership of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Carefully reading the resolutions, two things should be noted.

First, the Council explicitly recognizes the Primates as having the authority to determine the membership of the Anglican Communion (though we should also bear in mind that the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the primus inter pares and focus – or servant – of unity among the Primates, will have a fundamental role in that determination). The Council does not direct the Primates to add the new provinces to the list of member Churches, as though the Primates were simply recording secretaries, but rather requests the admission of the new provinces to membership in the Communion.

Second, the principle that membership in the Communion determines membership in the ACC is affirmed, although as the case of the united Churches of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh demonstrates, membership in the Anglican Consultative Council does not determine full membership in the Anglican Communion.

As many readers are aware, the united Churches of South India, Pakistan, North India and Bangladesh were formed through arduous ecumenical discussion and work over a number of years among young missionary churches of various Reformation (and other Protestant) traditions: Anglican, Reformed-Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, Disciples. I am most familiar with the Church of South India, and using this Church’s reception into the Anglican Communion hope further to demonstrate that the authority to receive churches into full membership in the Communion resides both with the Primates of the Communion and with the decennial episcopal Lambeth Conference.

The Church of South India was formally inaugurated in 1947 by the union of the South India United Church (an earlier union of churches in the Congregational and Presbyterian-Reformed traditions), the southern Anglican dioceses of the Church of India, Burma and Ceylon, and the Methodist Church in South India. The scheme by which the union took place was both innovative and controversial, given that, while the united Church was committed to the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyter and deacon, the ordained ministers of all the uniting churches were received into the united Church without reordination. At the inauguration service the Anglican bishops in the union ordained and consecrated several candidates from the non-episcopal churches to the episcopate per saltum, that is, without their first having been ordained to the diaconate and the presbyterate by bishops in historic succession. These new bishops, one of whom was the great missiologist and pastor Lesslie Newbigin, joined with the Anglican bishops to provide the episcopal oversight of the dioceses of the new Church, no distinction being made between the formerly Anglican bishops and the newly-ordained bishops from other traditions. Protestant pastors and Anglican presbyters alike were recognized – without any reordinations – as having valid presbyteral ministries, though the existence of non-episcopally ordained presbyters in the Church of South India delayed full communion with the Churches of the Anglican Communion until a generation had passed, and all presbyters and deacons of the Church of South India had been ordained by bishops in historic (Anglican) succession. And, indeed, this has been the case for the past nearly thirty years.

The Lambeth Conference first took notice of the Church of South India in 1948, only one year after the united Church was inaugurated. In a resolution the bishops gathered at Lambeth gave thanks to God “for the measure of unity locally achieved by the inauguration of the Church of South India”, and pledged themselves “to pray and work for its development into an ever more perfect fulfilment of the will of God for his Church”, looking forward “hopefully and with longing to the day when there shall be full communion between the Church of South India and the Churches of the Anglican Communion.” Another resolution of the 1948 Conference answered questions about the status of laity and clergy (both episcopally ordained and non-episcopally ordained) in the Churches of the Anglican Communion and admitted that the bishops at the conference were not of one mind regarding the nature of the ministries even those bishops, presbyters and deacons of the Church of South India ordained at or after the inaugural service, though the resolution went on to state that “no member of the Conference desires to condemn outright or to declare invalid the episcopally consecrated and ordained ministry of the Church of South India.”

Resolutions dealing with the Church of South India, and eventually with the other united churches, were passed by each succeeding Lambeth Conference. In 1968 the Conference recommended that “Churches and provinces of the Anglican Communion re-examine their relation to the Church of South India with a view to entering into full communion with that Church.”

As the years passed, several Anglican Churches entered into full communion with the Church of South India, such that in 1971 the first meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Kenya passed the following resolutions:

Resolution 2: United Churches and the Anglican Communion

The Council recommends that united Churches in full communion with Anglican Churches or Provinces should be invited to send delegates to future meetings of the ACC, who should have equal status with Anglican delegates.

The Council instructs the Standing Committee to consider how representatives of such Churches may best participate in the work of the ACC.

Resolution 3: Church of South India

The Council notes that seven Provinces have requested full communion with the Church of South India and that eleven other Provinces have indicated their intention to work towards full communion. It urges all other Churches and Provinces to give further careful consideration to their relationships with the CSI with a view to entering into full communion with that Church.

Resolution 4: The Churches of North India and of Pakistan

The Council recommends that Churches and Provinces which have not yet established full communion with the new Churches of North India and Pakistan should do so as soon as they are able.

The 1978 Lambeth Conference took up the ACC’s recommendations in Resolution 14, “The Wider Episcopal Fellowship”:

The Conference requests the Archbishop of Canterbury: 1. in consultation with the Primates, to convene a meeting of Anglican bishops with bishops of Churches in which Anglicans have united with other Christians, and bishops from those Churches which are in full communion with Anglican Churches; and to discuss with them how bishops from these Churches could best play their part in future Lambeth Conferences; 2. to recognise the deep conviction of this Lambeth Conference that the expressed desire of both the Lusitanian and Spanish Reformed Churches to become fully integrated members of the Anglican Communion should receive both a warm and a positive response.

Parenthetically, this was also the Lambeth Conference which passed resolutions clearly indicating an understanding of the collegiality of bishops in the Anglican tradition as exercised across provincial boundaries, as for example in Resolution 13, “Lambeth Conferences”:

In order that the guardianship of the faith may be exercised as a collegial responsibility of the whole episcopate, the Conference affirms the need for Anglican bishops from every diocese to meet together in the tradition of the Lambeth Conference and recommends that the calling of any future Conference should continue to be the responsibility of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that he should be requested to make his decision in consultation with the other Primates. While recognising the great value which many set on the link with Canterbury, we believe that a Conference could well be held in some other province.

and in Resolution 11, “Issues Concerning the Whole Anglican Communion”:

The Conference advises member Churches not to take action regarding issues which are of concern to the whole Anglican Communion without consultation with a Lambeth Conference or with the episcopate through the Primates Committee, and requests the Primates to inititate a study of the nature of authority within the Anglican Communion.

Here the bishops gathered at Lambeth clearly recognize their episcopal ministry as encompassing a discerning role for the Communion as a whole, and not only in their own provinces.

The united Churches of South India, Pakistan and North India participated as members of the Anglican Consultative Council for the first time at the 1984 meeting in Badagry, Nigeria (the Church of Bangladesh would not participate in the ACC until the 1990 meeting in Wales). At this meeting the ACC passed a resolution on the “United Churches and the Lambeth Conference”:

In the light of its consideration of the implications of full communion the Council welcomes the proposed invitation to representatives of the United Churches in full communion and other churches in full communion, to discuss the question of membership of the Lambeth Conference at the Primates’ Meeting due to be held in March 1986.

At the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, held in Singapore in 1987, the Council passed the following resolution on “United Churches in Full Communion”:

THAT this Council:

resolves that the ACC should now move towards normal membership of the Council for all united Churches with which the Churches of the Anglican Communion are in full communion (i.e. the Church of South India, the Church of North India, the Church of Pakistan and the Church of Bangladesh);

requests the Lambeth Conference of 1988 and the Primates’ Meeting of 1989 similarly to consider full membership of those bodies for united Churches in full communion.

At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, the united Churches were invited into full membership in the Anglican Communion:

This Conference:

1. Expresses its gratitude for the presence of bishops from the Church of South India, the Church of North India, the Church of Bangladesh and the Church of Pakistan, acknowledging that their presence reminds us that our commitment as Anglicans is to the wider unity of the Church.

2. Affirms the request of ACC-7 (Resolution 17) that all United Churches with which the Churches of the Anglican Communion are in full communion be invited to accept full membership in the Lambeth Conference and the Primates Meeting (as is already the case with the Anglican Consultative Council)….

Through this fifty year history of Lambeth Conferences, Primates’ meetings and meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council, two things emerge regarding the determination of membership in the Anglican Communion.

First, the Anglican Consultative Council exercised a conscientious role in assisting Anglican provinces and autonomous dioceses in forming new provinces of the Anglican Communion and in recommending the recognition of those provinces (including the united Churches) by the Primates and bishops of the Anglican Communion as provinces of the Communion. However, the Anglican Consultative Council does not ordinarily initiate the process of forming new provinces.

Second, over its nearly fifty year history the Anglican Consultative Council has demonstrated a clear understanding that the Primates of the Anglican Communion, along with the Lambeth Conference of bishops, have the authority to determine membership in the Communion. While not explicitly stated in ACC resolutions, the “gathering authority” of the Archbishop of Canterbury to invite bishops to the Lambeth Conference as a servant of unity within the Communion should also be recognized. At the same time, as one of the resolutions of the 1978 Lambeth Conference recognizes, +Cantuar should exercise his gathering authority in consultation with the other Primates of the Communion.

This is precisely as it should be. Bishops are those ministers who have been called by God through the voice of the Church and ordained to exercise, through the Holy Spirit, a ministry of discernment and guardianship of the faith for the entire Church, a ministry that is recognized in the examination of a bishop-elect found in most Anglican ordinals. It is far too easy to let issues of communion and membership within a Communion of churches falsely to assume a merely institutional form. Catholic teaching would have us understand that communion is personal, that it is focused in the bishop, and that we are in communion with one another insofar as our bishops are in communion with each other. Given this, it is unremarkable that bishops – and particularly those bishops with primatial authority within their provincial Churches – should determine matters of membership and communion.


B. Todd Granger is a physician who has practiced internal medicine for over a quarter of a century. Interested in theology, church history, liturgics, and music since high school, he is currently in master's degree studies at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He is a member of Church of the Holy Trinity (a parish of the ACNA Diocese-in-formation of Christ Our Hope) in Chatham County, North Carolina. Married for twenty-nine years, he and his wife Jill have three daughters.


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