By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: The following was written in response to a question about whether excommunication in the Anglican tradition can really claim to be a discipline of the whole Church, given that Anglicans only claim that their tradition is part of — not the whole of — the Church. It has been lightly edited for publication here.
Thanks for writing again. I think and I hope I can answer more briefly this time! I am basically summarizing E.L. Mascall’s Christ, the Christian, and the Church, for the record.
Part of your question comes down to the artificiality of the term “Anglicanism” — so too “Roman Catholicism” or “Eastern Orthodoxy.” There are essentially two realities to the Church: there is Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and there is a local instantiation of that Church. This local instantiation is the people gathered round a bishop, understood either as the parish-in-diocese or the whole diocese together. This local instantiation is in one sense part of the whole, but in another sense it is the fullness of the Church in a local place. A parish-in-diocese lacks nothing essential to the Church — it just is the Church in a place. Everything between the diocese and the Church is, to some degree or another, an artifice. That doesn’t make it unreal, per se, much less does it make such mediating institutions or communions bad. But much mischief arises when we come to think that a jurisdiction or “communion” is more real than a diocese.
The sometimes-neurotic need among some Anglicans to be part of an “international communion” reflects, I think, this confusion. When the desire for international communion is merely about pragmatism or ecumenical impulses towards unity, this is perfectly good and healthy. But I think, for some, pointing to a “communion” of some numerically large number of Christians spanning the globe is a form of ecclesial self-justification — usually a response to an inferiority complex vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. But if the local reality is the diocese, and the ultimate reality is Christ’s Whole Church, then what matters ultimately is whether and how the diocese is in fact a local instantiation of the whole Church — which is answered not by canonical or jurisdictional ties or intercommunion agreements (as important as the latter, in particular, are), but rather through the sacraments, particularly Holy Baptism, Holy Eucharist, and Holy Orders in Apostolic Succession.
“Anglicanism,” such as it is, is part of the Church — as is Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. But my diocese just is the Church in a local instantiation. The Roman and Eastern error is in being unable to distinguish between the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox communion and Christ’s Whole Church. That imprecision is good marketing but bad theology.
All of which is to say that, if one is excommunicated from a valid diocese, one is excommunicated from the Church — not from part of it, but from the local instantiation to which one is a member, which excommunication necessarily obtains and applies across the entirety of Christ’s Church. The fact that the on-the-ground reality is otherwise — excommunicated Anglicans just go to a different church — is, as you say, no different for the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
This presents serious pragmatic difficulties and theological complexities. What is the true standing of an excommunicated Christian receiving at another altar? How do we negotiate the fact that the various instantiations of the Church do not necessarily agree on what constitutes an excommunicable offense in the first place, much less the determination over whether such an offense has occurred? These are the wounds of visible division, and the convenient fictions of Rome and the East are simply ways of avoiding difficult realities.
Fr. Mark Perkins
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.