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Conflict as Communion: Toward an Agonistic Ecclesiology

  • Kyle B.T. Lambelet


Though Anglican theologians, clergy, and laypeople have written and spoken extensively about the current status of the Anglican Communion, the conceptualization and practice of conflict has itself remained largely unexamined. This essay argues for the necessity of a better theology of conflict, one rooted in a Trinitarian account of unity through difference. It shows that Anglicans have tended to think of conflict-as-sin or conflict-as-finitude. The essay commends a semantic shift that develops conflict-as-communion. Conflict is a means of grace that animates the divine life of the Trinity, enables God’s work of salvation in history, and is a natural part of good human sociality. This theology of conflict can allow generative relational practices, some of which are already in use across the Anglican Communion.


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Kyle B.T. Lambelet is a postdoctoral fellow at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA.



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2 Booty, John E., The Episcopal Church in Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1988 ).

3 Hassett, Miranda Katherine, Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007 ).

4 O’Donovan, Oliver, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008 ).

5 Bates, Stephen, A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004 ).

6 Brittain, Christopher Craig, A Plague on Both their Houses: Liberal vs. Conservative Christians and the Divorce of the Episcopal Church USA (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015 ). See also Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet (ed. Weis, René; The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series; London: Arden Shakespeare, 2012 ).

7 Douglas, Ian T., ‘Called to Reconciliation: The Challenge of Globalization and the Anglican Communion’, in Griswold, Frank T. and Braver, Barbara Leix (eds.), I Have Called You Friends: Reflections on Reconciliation: In Honor of Frank T. Griswold (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2006), p. 156 .

8 One notable exception to the announcers of doom are historians. See Chapman, Mark D., Anglican Theology (London: T & T Clark, 2012 ). See also the volume edited by Power, Thomas P. (ed.), Change and Transformation: Essays in Anglican History (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013 ). Another exception are priests and canons like C.K. Roberts who are thinking with Scripture about ecclesial conflict. See Robertson, C.K., ‘Courtroom Dramas: A Pauline Alternative for Conflict Management’, Anglican Theological Review 89.4 (2007), pp. 589610 . While I sympathize with aspects of Roberts’ project, I still find his essay overly concerned with conflict as a problem to be managed.

9 Hassett, Anglican Communion in Crisis, p. 72.

10 Bates, A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality, p. 137.

11 The Lambeth Commission on Communion, ‘The Windsor Report’ (London: The Anglican Communion Office, 2004), paras. 22–42.

12 Webster, John, ‘Theology and the Peace of the Church’, in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T & T Clark, 2012), p. 150 .

13 Webster, ‘Theology and the Peace of the Church’, p. 162.

14 Brittain, A Plague on Both their Houses, p. 209.

15 Radner, Ephraim, The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), p. 26 .

16 Peter Akinola quoted in ‘Nigeria Bishops Scorn US “Cancer”,’ BBC News, July 4, 2006, available at:

17 Kaye, Bruce N., Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith: The Anglican Experiment (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), p. 4 .

18 Kaye, Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith, p. 166.

19 Chapman, Anglican Theology, p. 7.

20 Partridge, Eric, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (New York: Greenwich House, 1983), p. 115 .

21 It is essential for my argument to disaggregate conflict and violence. While the theological dimensions of this separation will have to be taken up elsewhere, see Lederach, John Paul, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997 ); Lederach, John Paul, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (The Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding; Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003 ); Lederach, John Paul, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 ).

22 Baker, Anthony D., ‘On Making Them All One: Unity, Transcendence and the Anglican Church’,Journal of Anglican Studies 5.1 (June 2007), p. 11 .

23 Frederick Dennison Maurice cited by Chapman, Anglican Theology, p. 186.

24 Tanner, Kathryn, Christ the Key (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 154 .

25 Coakley, Sarah, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘on the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013 ).

26 See Augustine, ‘On the Trinity’, in Schaff, Philip (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (trans. Arthur West, vol. 3; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1887 ), bks. XV, ch. 17, available at:

27 As Karl Rahner rightly argued, ‘the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity’. We cannot know about the internal life of the Trinity without knowing about its effects in the world. Rahner, Karl, The Trinity (trans. Joseph Donceel; New York: Continuum, 2001), p. 22 .

28 This is not, as John Milbank might accuse, an ‘ontology of violence’ because I have disaggregated conflict and violence – an elision that leads to significant confusion in Milbank’s work. See Milbank, John, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 2nd edn, 2006 ).

29 Lederach, Building Peace; Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation; Lederach, The Moral Imagination.

30 Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, p. 33.

31 Springs, Jason A., Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society: From Enemy to Adversary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 256 .

32 Participation is the key theological concept that animates Bishop Victor Atta-Baffoe’s account of ecclesial unity. See Atta-Baffoe, Victor, ‘Living in Communion within Anglicanism’, Journal of Anglican Studies 14.2 (November 2016), pp. 226-35. He retrieves this concept from Richard Hooker. See Hooker, Richard, ‘Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V’, in Keble, John (ed.), The Works of That Learned and Judicious Divine Mr. Richard Hooker: With an Account of his Life and Death by Isaac Walton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1836), II, chs. 5156 .

33 MacDougall, Scott, ‘The Covenant Conundrum: How Affirming an Eschatological Ecclesiology Could Help the Anglican Communion’, Anglican Theological Review 94.1 (2012), pp. 526 .

34 Thompsett, Fredrica Harris, ‘Inquiring Minds Want to Know: A Lay Person’s Perspective on the Proposed Anglican Covenant’, in Naughton, Jim (ed.), The Genius of Anglicanism: Perspectives on the Proposed Anglican Covenant: Essays and Study Questions (Chicago Consultation, 2011), pp. 2936 , available at:

35 Kaye, Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith, p. 8.

36 According to the Virginia Report these are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council, though these are not as stable and authoritative as some would like. See Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, ‘The Virginia Report’, in Anglican Consultative Council, Rosenthal, James, and Currie, Nicola (eds.), Being Anglican in the Third Millennium: The Official Report of the 10th Meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council: Panama, 1996 (Harrisburg, PA: Published for the Anglican Communion by Morehouse Publishing, 1997 ). See also Doe, Norman, ‘The Instruments of Unity and Communion in Global Anglicanism’, in Markham, Ian S., Hawkins, J. Barney IV, Terry, Justyn and Steffensen, Leslie Nuñez (eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Anglican Communion (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013 ).

37 Rowan Williams, ‘Archbishop’s First Presidential Address’, quoted in Kaye, Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith, p. 166. See also Douglas, Ian T., ‘Authority, Unity, and Mission in the Windsor Report’, Anglican Theological Review 87.4 (2005), pp. 567-74 (573).

38 See also Wondra, Ellen K., ‘Problems with Authority in the Anglican Communion’, in Kwok, Pui-lan, Berling, Judith A., and Paa, Jenny Plane Te (eds.), Anglican Women on Church and Mission (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2012), pp. 2136 .

39 Lederach, The Moral Imagination, pp. 78–80.

40 Kwok Pui Lan, ‘From a Colonial Church to a Global Communion’, in Kwok et al., Anglican Women on Church and Mission, p. 14.

41 One example that transpired on an elite level but is still positive is represented in the Final Report from the International Anglican Conversations on Human Sexuality called together by Archbishop Cary following the 1998 Lambeth Conference. See

42 Douglas, Ian T., ‘An American Reflects on the Windsor Report’, Journal of Anglican Studies 3.2 (December 2005), pp. 155-79 (155).

43 Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, p. 31.

44 Kwok Pui Lan, ‘From a Colonial Church to a Global Communion’.

45 Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, p. 49.

1 Kyle B.T. Lambelet is a postdoctoral fellow at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA.



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