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Revisiting Anglicanism’s Vocation to Disappear

  • Eugene R. Schlesinger


In face of uncertainty about the Anglican Communion’s future, this article attempts to rearticulate a vision of Anglicanism’s vocation in terms of its incompleteness and provisionality. Drawing from the thought of Michael Ramsey, Ephraim Radner and Paul Avis, I suggest that Anglicanism’s vocation, like that of any church, is to disappear. At the same time, it is a vocation tempered by the knowledge that, even in its incompleteness and provisionality, Anglicanism has a pastoral responsibility to provide care for the Christians within the Communion. Finally, this is a penitent vocation, and one which is held out as an invitation to all Christian churches.


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Dr Eugene R. Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University, USA.



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2. In the interest of avoiding cumbersome circumlocutions, allow me to simply clarify that any references to an ‘Anglican Church’ do not indicate that I am under the misapprehension that the Anglican Communion is a worldwide church. Rather, ‘the Anglican Church’ refers simply to any particular national or local church comprising this worldwide communion of churches. Similarly, references to Anglicanism as a ‘church’ refer not to a worldwide entity, but to the tradition that finds its expression in these churches.

3. This way of putting things, of course, comes from Bayne, Stephen F., ‘Anglicanism – The Contemporary Situation: This Nettle, Anglicanism’, Pan-Anglican 5 (1954), pp. 39-45 (43). I do not engage with Bayne directly in this article because the triad of Ramsey, Radner and Avis is more germane to what I propose than he is, and I lack the space to adequately include him in my considerations. Similarly, Tyrrell Hanson, Anthony, Beyond Anglicanism (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1965) came to my attention too late to be adequately incorporated into this article, the argument of which was already fully formed by that time. As fruitful as further engagement with Hanson’s important proposals would be, parsimony dictates leaving that for another context.

4. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue, leading me to refine my thought on the matter. The only profundity in view is, perhaps, the mysterium iniquitatis.

5. While I recognize that there are other ways of understanding Anglican identity, mine is unapologetically Catholic in the sense articulated by Ramsey: Anglican churches hold the Catholic faith, are informed by Catholic ministerial order, and worship God according to Catholic liturgical rites (see below). Of course, Anglican churches have also passed through the Reformation, but this does not efface their Catholicism, but rather reforms it. Admittedly, I am arguing from this particular perspective rather than for it. This is unavoidable, given the constraints of a journal article with its own distinct agenda.

6. These epistemological and metaphysical claims are informed by Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (eds. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran; Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, 3; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), pp. 45-46, 651-52, 689-90.

7. Ramsey, Michael, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge: Cowley, 1990 [1936]) . On Ramsey’s ecclesiology see Williams, Rowan, ‘Theology and the Churches’, in Robin Gill and Lorna Kendall (eds.), Michael Ramsey as Theologian (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995), pp. 9-28 ; Dales, Douglas, ‘“One Body”: The Ecclesiology of Michael Ramsey’, in Douglas Dales (ed.), Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and his Writings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 223-238 ; Webster, Peter, Archbishop Ramsey: The Shape of the Church (The Archbishops of Canterbury Series; Farnham: Ashgate, 2015) . Webster’s treatment helpfully places Ramsey’s ecclesiological thought within its historical context and traces its development over the course of his archiepiscopate.

8. See especially Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, pp. 3-42. Rowan Williams notes that these chapters of Gospel and the Catholic Church ‘are really a long meditation on 2 Corinthians 4 and 5’ (‘The Lutheran Catholic’, in Dales, Glory Descending, p. 212).

9. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 9. On this passional understanding of the Church’s essence, see, e.g., Williams, ‘Theology and the Churches’, pp. 11-12; ‘The Lutheran Catholic’, pp. 221-22; Dales, ‘Ecclesiology of Ramsey’, pp. 224-25.

10. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, pp. 43-50. On this see Dales, ‘Ecclesiology of Ramsey’, p. 229.

11. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, pp. 55-67.

12. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, pp. 85, 221-23.

13. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, pp. 174, 219-20.

14. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 223. Dales, ‘Ecclesiology of Ramsey’, p. 227; Louis Weil, ‘The Liturgy in Michael Ramsey’s Theology’, in Gill and Kendall, Ramsey as Theologian, pp. 146-47.

15. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, pp. 5, 174.

16. Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 7. See further Williams, ‘Lutheran Catholic’, p. 221; Dales, ‘Ecclesiology of Ramsey’, p. 229.

17. Ramsey, Gospel and Catholic Church, pp. 2-4, 217. In this connection see especially Williams, ‘Lutheran Catholic’, pp. 211-22.

18. Ramsey, Gospel and Catholic Church, p. 218. Note Avis’s similar judgment below.

19. See, e.g., William Palmer, A Treatise on the Church of Christ: Designed Chiefly for the Use of Students in Theology (2 vols.; London: J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 3rd edn, 1842).

20. Ramsey, Gospel and Catholic Church, pp. 217-18.

21. Ramsey, Gospel and Catholic Church, p. 220. See further Dales, ‘Ecclesiology of Ramsey’, p. 234.

22. Indeed, Rome denies the major premise of this syllogism.

23. E.g., Abbott, E.S. et al., Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1947), pp. 49-56 . Note Paul Avis’s remark that ‘the claim that Anglicanism possesses a unique gift for fostering synthesis between Christian traditions will be greeted with amused incredulity by some of our ecumenical partners and is not generally supported by the internal experience of Anglican churches.’ The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: T&T Clark, 2007), p. 23.

24. One instance of this actually occurring is the Concordat between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, according to which the Anglicans agreed to recognize Lutheran ministries, while Lutherans agreed to, henceforth, be folded into historic episcopal succession. A similar agreement between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church has also recently been proposed.

25. Nevertheless, Gospel and Catholic Church predates these developments by nearly three full decades.

26. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium (November 21, 1964), no. 8 (in Norman Tanner [ed.], Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils [2 vols.; Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990], II, p. 854). Pius XII’s 1943 Encyclical, Mystici corporis had used the simple copulative ‘est’ (no. 13).

27. See, e.g., Sullivan, Francis, ‘Response to Karl Becker, S.J., on the Meaning of Subsistit In ’, Theological Studies 67.2 (2006), pp. 395-409 .

28. Avis makes a similar point (Identity, pp. 3-4), though I reached this conclusion independently of him.

29. See his 1995 Encyclical, Ut unum sint, no. 54.

30. So, Lumen gentium, no. 8 (Tanner, Decrees, II, p. 854). This principle is even more strongly stated in the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio (November 21, 1964), no. 3 (Tanner, Decrees, II, p. 910).

31. Indeed, this self-understanding may be an aspect of Rome’s particular ecumenical vocation, though I cannot address that question here.

32. I lack the space to develop this contention in this context. In a future article, I hope to more fully explore the ecclesiological assumptions that animate the various communions and their bearing on the ecumenical task.

33. This is the main thesis of Radner, Ephraim, The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) .

34. E.g., Cunningham, David S., ‘A Response to Ephraim Radner’s The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West,Anglican Theological Review 83 (2001), pp. 89-102 . To my mind, a significant amount of this criticism stems from a failure to grasp Radner’s central point and/or a misreading of that point, though these misreadings are perhaps exacerbated by a somewhat melodramatic style and a tendency towards hyperbole on Radner’s part. At the same time, while the hyperbole can get in the way of clarity, it is nevertheless an appropriate literary form for Radner’s subject matter. His elegiac writing corresponds to the lamentable state of affairs to which he tirelessly seeks to call our attention, namely that the Church is divided. For better readings of Radner’s argument see, e.g., Mangina, Joseph L., ‘Review Essay: The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Division in the West’, Pro Ecclesia 9 (2000), pp. 490-496 ; Marshall, Bruce D., ‘The Divided Church and its Theology,Modern Theology 16 (2000), pp. 377-396 .

35. Williams, ‘Lutheran Catholic’, pp. 220-21. Williams writes with particular reference to Radner’s Hope among the Fragments: The Broken Church and its Engagement with Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004). In that book, Radner briefly interacts with Ramsey and notes his debt to Ramsey’s passional reading of the Church (pp. 232-33), though elsewhere in his œuvre engagement with Ramsey is lacking.

36. Radner, End, pp. 25, 278-83; Hope, p. 24; A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), pp. 127-40.

37. Though, per above, this is not an accurate statement of contemporary Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

38. This perspective appears as early as Radner, Ephraim, ‘The Cost of Communion: A Meditation on Israel and the Divided Church’, in Ephraim Radner and R.R. Reno (eds.), Inhabiting Unity: Theological Perspectives on the Proposed Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 135-153 (135). It is reiterated in End, passim; Hope, pp. 30, 36, 71-75; Brutal, pp. 155-65.

39. Radner, Brutal, pp. 135-38; End, pp. 6-8, 278.

40. Hence my appeal to Avis, below.

41. See especially, Radner, Hope, pp. 23-76. His reflections there are a development of his call in End, to ‘some profound kind of staying put’ (p. 352).

42. See the previous section for how this same reality is expressed by Ramsey.

43. Radner, Hope, p. 75.

44. Radner, Hope, p. 72.

45. Radner, End, p. 342. See also Mangina’s clarification of Radner’s intent with language of pneumatic deprivation (‘Review Essay’, pp. 490-92).

46. Radner, End, p. 352.

47. Subsequently, Radner has developed his vision of what this involves, and done so with particular reference to conciliar procedure. Conciliar proceduralism is no substitute for the charity nor for the Holy Spirit who gives that grace, but it does provide a form which can be inhabited over time in hope that this charism would be bestowed by the Spirit. See Radner, Hope, pp. 39-54; ‘Conciliarity and the American Evasion of Communion’, in Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner (eds.), The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of Global Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 220-40; Brutal, pp. 186-217, 257-64, 300-307. Radner’s actual positive proposals for the shape of such a common life are most explicitly articulated in Brutal, pp. 462-68.

48. Radner, Hope, p. 207.

49. E.g., Radner, ‘Cost of Communion’, pp. 144-45, on the loss of denominational identities; End, pp. 67-102, 154-71, 238-57, on the division–justifying logic of these identities’ development.

50. This is the major burden of the argument in Radner, Brutal, where Radner puts it forward as the only workable theory of Christian unity available, and as the only one adequate for a phenomenological analysis of the concrete entity, Church, which is also confessed to be ‘one’ (see especially pp. 1-15, 396-99, 443-47).

51. For my part, I suspect that it might take the form of something along the lines of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral with its minimal formal requirements, and (in the form adopted by the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops in 1886) disposition to ‘forego all preferences of [one’s] own’ in the interest of union (The Book of Common Prayer [New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979], p. 876). The proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, with its focus almost entirely on relational (rather than doctrinal or moral) matters also shows promise in this regard. With or without a formal adoption of the Covenant, I suspect that the way forward would look a lot like relating in the ways the Covenant proposes. See Avis, Paul, The Vocation of Anglicanism (London: T&T Clark, 2015), pp. 61-79 , for a commendation of the Covenant.

52. After all, notes Radner, if unity is dependent upon consensus, then all it will take to sunder any reforged unity is the emergence of new disagreement. End, p. 170. It is for this reason that he propounds a unity grounded in the love of even one’s enemies, rather than in agreement. For an attempt to think through the liturgical conditions for the re-emergence of charity within the context of divided Anglicanism see Schlesinger, Eugene R., ‘The Fractured Body: The Eucharist and Anglican Division’, Anglican Theological Review 98.4 (2016), pp. 639-659 .

53. Radner, End, p. 332.

54. Avis, Identity, pp. 2-4, 8-11, 165-68; Anglicanism and the Christian Church: Theological Resources in Historical Perspective (rev. and expanded edn; London: T&T Clark, 2002), pp. 344-54.

55. So Avis, Identity, p. 140.

56. See especially Avis, Paul D.L., Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole? (London: T&T Clark, 2010), pp. 188-189 .

57. Avis, Identity, p. 2. Note the further judgment in Ecumenical Theology, 107. For the original statement from Bayne, see ‘This Nettle’, p. 43 (Avis footnotes From Power to Partnership [London: Church House, 1991], p. 113).

58. Avis, Identity, p. 5.

59. This is not to suggest that Avis does not take division seriously as something to be overcome. He obviously does, and his ecumenical work bears this out. See especially Avis, Ecumenical Theology.

60. Avis, Identity, p. 4.

61. Thoroughly substantiated in Avis, Anglicanism and Christian Church, pp. 1-58. See also Avis, Identity, pp. 15, 64-67.

62. Avis, Anglicanism and Christian Church, p. 346. See also Ecumenical Theology, pp. 1-4, 16-17.

63. Avis, Anglicanism and Christian Church, pp. 344-47.

64. Avis, Anglicanism and Christian Church, p. 347. I should note that, while it is surely prudent (and charitable) to avoid causing ecumenical partners unnecessary offense, that is hardly a criterion for evaluating theological claims. Indeed, it is question begging to suggest that we cannot hold the historic episcopate to be essential to the Church because it offends ecumenical partners. The proper ordering of the Church is precisely what is in question. If the threefold ministerial office is essential to the Church, then the ecumenical offense this causes is not unnecessary.

65. Avis, Anglicanism and Christian Church, pp. 351-52.

66. Ramsey, Gospel and Catholic Church, p. 219. For Avis’s citation see Anglicanism and Christian Church, p. 351.

67. Avis finds support for this paradigm in the Sixth Lambeth Conference’s ‘Resolution 9: Reunion of Christendom’, Lambeth Conference Website (August 15, 1920), (see Anglicanism and Christian Church, pp. 352-54). The emergent baptismal ecclesiologies, which are especially evident in the American Episcopal Church also gesture towards such a paradigm.

68. Avis, Anglicanism and Christian Church, pp. 348-54. Note the similar judgment of Colin Davey, ‘The Ecclesial Significance of Baptism According to Anglican Ecumenical Documents’, One in Christ 35.2 (1999), pp. 131-42.

69. Ramsey, Gospel and Catholic Church, p. 84.

70. Avis does come close to this in Avis, Ecumenical Theology, pp. 151-53.

71. This leaves unaddressed the question of whether some communions more closely approximate the Catholic Church as ultimately intended by Christ than others. Insofar as my argument is pressing provisionality and incompleteness, this more quantitative approach is immaterial. Qualitatively, we all stand on level ground: either incorporated into Christ or not. Quantitatively, some may be in more desirable positions than others, but the qualitative dimension is of such importance that quantitative questions simply do not enter into consideration at this point (though there are other contexts where they need to be addressed).

72. See the classic judgment of Augustine in De baptismo (Traités anti-donatistes [ed. G. Bavaud, trans. G. Finaert; vol. 2; Bibliothèque augustinienne; Oeuvres de saint Augustin 29; Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964]).

73. This particular turn of phrase was suggested to me, in another context, by Philip Anderas.

74. See, e.g., Radner, End, p. 342.

75. Ramsey, Gospel and Catholic Church, p. 174.

76. I articulate something along these lines in Schlesinger, ‘Fractured Body’, pp. 651-59.

77. Radner, End, p. 352.

78. Radner, End, p. 195.

79. Radner, Brutal, p. 447.

80. I wish to gratefully acknowledge that this essay was made possible by the generous provision of a Rev. John P. Raynor, SJ Fellowship, which I held at Marquette University for the 2015–16 academic year, when it was written, and to thank Matthew S.C. Olver for his comments on an earlier version of it.

1. Dr Eugene R. Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University, USA.

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