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Gifts of Communion: Recovering an Anglican Approach to the ‘Instruments of Unity’

  • Stephen Pickard


The Anglican Communion has developed ‘Instruments of Communion’ to aid communication and sharing of wisdom throughout the Communion. When the Archbishop of Canterbury invited bishops from the Communion to attend a meeting at Lambeth in 1867 to consult and seek common counsel for the good order and care of the churches of the emerging Anglican Communion the first of the Lambeth Conferences took place. In more recent decades the Anglican Consultative Council and Primates’ Meeting have developed to enable the bishops, clergy and lay people of the worldwide Anglican Communion to listen to one another, share their life and join in common mission. In recent years these four elements in international Anglicanism – the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting – have become known as Instruments of Unity or Communion. Tensions and fractures in the Communion have raised questions about the value or use of the so-called Instruments of Unity.This article analyses the concept of ‘Instrument’ and assesses its value for understanding the nature of the Anglican Communion. It argues that the Instruments have a gift-like character and function in a quasi sacramental manner. As such they are indwelt rather than used in a tool like way. This approach to the Instruments of Communion gives high priority to the character and disposition of human agents participating in Communion structures and the importance of fostering a deeper communion among the Instruments for the sake of the Church and its witness to the gospel.


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Dr Stephen Pickard, is Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and Associate Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University, NSW, Australia.



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2. This article is a revised version of a section of a paper originally prepared for the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) meeting in Cape Town, December 2010.

3. Daniel Hardy in ‘Anglicanism in the Twenty-First Century: Scriptural, Local and Global’, unpublished paper, ARR 2004, identifies two basic dynamics in Anglicanism today that falsify the Anglican idea of the Church. One response is an over-authoritarian response that seeks to control the emergence of the church in new times and places by focusing on the past and stressing permanence. This response places a premium on stability and fixity. The other kind of response to an emergent Anglicanism is an over-realization of the ecclesia in new possibilities. The accent here is on change in response to new situations. The focus shifts from permanence to progress. This move is quite understandable, indeed necessary, for the gospel is always requiring new and fresh interpretation. But the danger is always that the reference to the ultimate aim of Anglicanism – of a renewed and fuller sociality with God – is often lost sight of or ignored. As a result the Church is assimilated to a prevailing cultural, social, economic dynamic that is fundamentally self-referential. The focus on progress becomes disconnected from the wider sociality of the church that it is intended to serve.

4. Michael Poon, ‘The Anglican Communion as Communion of Churches: On the Historic Significance of the Anglican Covenant’, presented at the IASCUFO Capetown meeting, 2010, para. 37 writes: ‘The term “instrument of unity” was used in discussions on the ecclesiological significance of the varieties of “Christian councils” that have emerged in the post-War years. Lukas Vischer insisted that Christian Councils should be “instruments of unity”. By this he meant the ecclesial reality should not be sought in Christian Councils but in the communion among the Churches. “As structures, Christian Councils have only an instrumental ecclesiological significance in the promotion of this communion.” This instrumental and provisional role was underscored in the 1982 “Consultation on the Significance and Contribution of Councils of Churches in the Ecumenical Movement” in Venice and the 1986 Second Consultation on Councils of Churches as “Instruments of Unity within the One Ecumenical Movement” in Geneva.’ For Vischer see Vischer, Lukas, ‘Christian Councils: Instruments of Ecclesial Communion’, Ecumenical Review 24.1 (1972), pp. 7287 (77, 80). See also Hervé Legrand, ‘Councils of Churches as Instruments of Unity within the one Ecumenical Movement’, in Thomas F. Best (ed.), Instruments of Unity: National Councils of Churches within the one Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1988), pp. 55–71; More generally see Konrad Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1991).

5. Poon, ‘The Anglican Communion’, para. 38: ‘The “instruments of unity” concept appeared in the Seventh Meeting of ACC in 1987. It was used in the Report “Unity and Diversity within the Anglican Communion: A way forward” as a collective name for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting. Before this, Lambeth 1978 used the term “structures in the Anglican Communion; in 1984 the Secretary General used the term “inter-Anglican organization” in his ACC-6 Opening Speech’.

6. Poon, ‘The Anglican Communion’, para. 37. The idea of an ‘ecclesial deficit’ was discussed in the Windsor Continuation Group Report to the Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2008. In section D of that report, para. 51, it was noted that ‘a central deficit in the life of the Communion is its inability to uphold structures which can make decisions which carry force in the life of the Churches of the Communion, or even give any definitive guidance to them’. The report then noted that ‘Other commentators will argue that such mechanisms are entirely unnecessary, but this touches upon the heart of what it is to live as a Communion of Churches’. The ecclesial deficit concerns both the determination of the limits of diversity in the fellowship of Anglican churches and capacity to exercise authority to discipline churches that disregard such limits. What this means is that the notion of an ‘ecclesial deficit’ is an essentially contested ecclesiological concept.

7. Poon, ‘The Anglican Communion’, para. 38.

8. In the late thirteenth century the usage is in relation to a ‘musical instrument’, from the Latin, instrumentem meaning ‘a tool, apparatus, furniture, dress, document’; from instruere meaning to ‘arrange, furnish’ (see instruct). The broader sense of instrument as ‘that which is used as an agent in a performance’ is from the mid fourteenth century. Instrumental as ‘musical composition for instruments without vocals’ appears from 1940. Instrumental (adj.) is from the late fourteenth century; ‘of the nature of an instrument’, from instrument + al. The meaning as ‘serviceable, useful’ is from 1600. Musical composition for ‘instruments only’ is attested by 1940. For further see Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

9. Polanyi, Michael, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 59.

10. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 60–61.

11. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 56.

12. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 61, writes: ‘If we were blindfolded we cannot find our way about with a stick as skilfully as a blind man does who has practised it a long time. We can feel that the stick hits something from time to time but cannot correlate these events. We can learn to do this only by an intelligent effort at constructing a coherent perception of the things hit by the stick. We then gradually cease to feel a series of jerks in our fingers as such – as we still do in our first clumsy trials – but experience them as the presence of obstacles of certain hardness and shape, placed at a certain distance, at the point of our stick … When the new interpretation of the shocks in our fingers is achieved in terms of the objects touched by the stick, we may be said to carry out unconsciously the process of interpreting the shocks … we become unconscious of the actions by which we achieve this result.’

13. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 56, states: ‘The kind of clumsiness which is due to the fact that focal attention is directed to the subsidiary elements of an action is commonly known as self-consciousness.’

14. Whilst all may espouse the ideal of being one church exactly what such oneness looks like – theologically, ecclesially and juridically – is in dispute. In other words what is contested is the practice of being one church.

15. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 57.

16. Communion is strengthened as more and more parts of our lives and church are directed to God's purposes. The instruments of communion are means through which the life of the church can be directed towards God. This implies a recovery of the transcendence of the instruments beyond the merely pragmatic.

17. Unpublished paper, ARR 2004, ‘Anglicanism in the Twenty-First Century: Scriptural, Local and Global’. Hardy is commenting on the famous aphorism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge that captures the matter well: ‘He, who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own Sect or Church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all’ (Coleridge, S.T., Aids to Reflection [ed. John Beer; London: Princeton University Press, 1993], p. 107).

18. I have in mind here the remarkable analysis of Jürgen Habermas in The Theory of Communicative Action. II. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (trans. Thomas McCarthy; Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1987), where he discusses the effects of rationalization on modern society, and the uncoupling of the lifeworld from the system.

19. See Brittain, Christopher, ‘Confession Obsession? Core Doctrine and the Anxieties of Anglican Theology’, Anglican Journal of Theology, 90.4 (2008), pp. 777799 and especially pp. 789, 791, 793, 794.

20. Brittain, ‘Confession Obsession?, p. 793.

21. Quoted in Brittain, Confession Obsession? (from Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 1.1.1.).

22. Quoted in Brittain, Confession Obsession?, p. 794.

23. Quoted in Brittain, Confession Obsession?, p. 794.

24. Comment of Kevin Vanhoozer quoted in Brittain, Confession Obsession?, p. 795.

25. Brittain, Confession Obsession?, p. 795.

26. Brittain, Confession Obsession?, p. 795.

27. Gregory of Nazianzus struck a note of realism regarding bishop's meetings: ‘For my part, if I am to write the truth, my inclination is to avoid all assemblies of Bishops, because I have never seen any council come to a good end, nor to be a solution of evils. On the contrary, it usually increases them. You always find there a love of power which beggars description; and, while sitting in judgment on others, a man might well be convicted of ill-doing himself long before he should put down the ill-doings of his opponents. So, I retired into myself; and came to the conclusion that the only security for one's soul lies in keeping quiet.’ (Epistles of Gregory CXXX, Letter to Procopius, ad 382).

28. It is an ecclesial version of the concept of ‘the butterfly effect’. Theologically this is grounded in the deep interconnectedness of the whole of creation.

1. Dr Stephen Pickard, is Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and Associate Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University, NSW, Australia.

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Journal of Anglican Studies
  • ISSN: 1740-3553
  • EISSN: 1745-5278
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