The Windsor Report 2004

Autonomy

  1. This diversity is enshrined in the autonomy of the individual provinces. This is fundamental to Anglican polity. But 'autonomy' is a much-misunderstood concept and, not least because it is often referred to in current disputes, it is important to examine it in more detail.

  2. Although there is a sense in which the Church of England's break with Rome in the sixteenth century was an assertion of that Church's 'autonomy', in more recent times the concept of 'provincial autonomy' in Anglican thinking was developed in its early twentieth century context to signify 'independence from the control of the British Crown'. The established Church of England of the Reformation was, and remains, subject to the royal supremacy, and many overseas Anglican churches at one time or other had been similarly subject; speaking of their ‘autonomy’ came to refer to their disengagement from that supremacy.

  3. A further development in meaning then occurred: as provinces received or devised their own constitutions, autonomy (itself acquired or derived, not inherent) came to be interpreted more in terms of “the right of each church to self-determination”, expressed in the possession of extensive powers over the determination of local issues[43]. Thus, some provincial constitutions formally grant to their principal synods extensive jurisdiction over a wide range of matters including faith, order and discipline. At different times, this right to self-determination has been expressed by Anglicans variously as: autonomy (of province or diocese)[44], independence as a limited freedom[45], and, recently, within a more nuanced context of interdependence and subsidiarity[46]. These autonomous structures create a context in which the unity of the Communion, described above, can be expressed in diverse ways. This inevitably raises the key question of how much diversity is to be allowed or encouraged, on what matters, and under what conditions.

  4. The word 'autonomy' represents within Anglican discourse a far more limited form of independent government than is popularly understood by many today. Literally, 'autonomous' means 'having one's own laws' (auto - self, nomos - law), and the autonomy of a body or institution means “[t]he right of self-government, of making its own laws and administering its own affairs[47]. In the secular world it is well settled that 'autonomic' laws are those created by a body or persons within the community on which has been conferred subordinate and restricted legislative power. Autonomy, therefore, is not the same thing as sovereignty or independence; it more closely resembles the orthodox polity of 'autocephaly', which denotes autonomy in communion.

  5. A body is thus, in this sense, 'autonomous' only in relation to others: autonomy exists in a relation with a wider community or system of which the autonomous entity forms part. The word 'autonomous' in this sense actually implies not an isolated individualism, but the idea of being free to determine one's own life within a wider obligation to others. The key idea is autonomy-in-communion, that is, freedom held within interdependence. The autonomy of each Anglican province therefore implies that the church lives in relation to, and exercises its autonomy most fully in the context of, the global Communion. This idea of autonomy-in-relation is clearly implicit in the laws of some churches: for instance, South East Asia describes itself as “a fully autonomous part of the Anglican Communion”.[48]

  6. As the right to self-government, autonomy is a form of limited authority. Ordinarily, an autonomous body (unlike a sovereign body) is capable only of making decisions for itself in relation to its own affairs at its own level. Autonomy, then, is linked to subsidiarity (see paragraphs 38-39, 83, 94-95).

  7. Understood in this way, each autonomous church has the unfettered right to order and regulate its own local affairs, through its own system of government and law. Each such church is free from direct control by any decision of any ecclesiastical body external to itself in relation to its exclusively internal affairs (unless that external decision is authorised under, or incorporated in, its own law).[49]

  8. However, some affairs treated within and by a church may have a dual character: they may be of internal (domestic) and external (common) concern. Autonomy includes the right of a church to make decisions in those of its affairs which also touch the wider external community of which it forms part, which are also the affairs of others, provided those internal decisions are fully compatible with the interests, standards, unity and good order of the wider community of which the autonomous body forms part. If they are not so compatible, whilst there may be no question about their legal validity, they will impose strains not only upon that church's wider relationship with other churches, but on that church's inner self-understanding as part of “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” in relation to some of its own members.

  9. In our view, therefore, 'autonomy' thus denotes not unlimited freedom but what we might call freedom-in-relation, so it is subject to limits generated by the commitments of communion. Consequently, the very nature of autonomy itself obliges each church to have regard to the common good of the global Anglican community and the Church universal.

  10. These ideas are shared by other Christian traditions. At the present time, we sense that these ideas are also well understood in terms of the autonomy of an individual diocese in relation to the province of which it forms part, and perhaps also an individual parish in relation to the diocese of which it forms part, since they have been given strong institutional expression. They seem much less well understood when it comes to the autonomy of a province in relation to the global Communion.

  11. Since autonomy is closely related to interdependence and freedom-in-relation, there are legitimate limits (both substantive and procedural) on the exercise of this autonomy, demanded by the relationships and commitments of communion and the acknowledgement of common identity. Communion is, in fact, the fundamental limit to autonomy. In essential matters of common concern to the worldwide fellowship of churches (affairs, that is, which touch both the particular church and the wider community of which it forms part), we believe that each church in the exercise of its autonomy should:

    • consider, promote and respect the common good of the Anglican Communion and its constituent churches (as discerned in communion through the Instruments of Unity)

    • maintain its communion with fellow churches, and avoid jeopardising it, by bringing potentially contentious initiatives, prior to implementation, to the rest of the communion in dialogue, consultation, discernment and agreement in communion with the fellowship of churches (through the Instruments of Unity), and

    • be able to depart, where appropriate and acceptable, on the basis of its own corporate conscience and with the blessing of the communion, from the standards of the community of which is an autonomous part, provided such departure is neither critical to the maintenance of communion nor likely to harm the common good of the Anglican Communion and of the Church universal (again, as determined by the Instruments of Unity).

  12. 'Autonomy' in this sense is thus closely linked to subsidiarity, discussed above[50]. This is clear in The Virginia Report which was presented to the Lambeth Conference 1998. It argued that “a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.” (4:8). “However,” the Report continues, “when decisions are taken by Provinces on matters which touch the life of the whole Communion without consultation, they may give rise to tension as other Provinces or other Christian traditions reject what has been decided” (4:13). In this same section on subsidiarity The Virginia Report makes reference to the Report of the Eames Commission (III, 43-44), noting that where such decisions are concerned, there is need for consultation with appropriate agents of Anglican interdependence prior to action.

  13. Autonomy and Communion therefore belong together, as many Christian traditions have stressed and as, indeed, emerges from our ecumenical dialogues. They are thoroughly compatible, interdependent and directed to the same goal, namely the mission of the Church. Each draws from the other in creative tension. Each church has a corporate ecclesial personhood and exists in and for its fellow churches. Each church has for itself the greatest possible liberty which is compatible with the unity and good order of the Anglican Communion, in governance, ministry, doctrine, liturgy, rites, ecumenism and property.

  14. Autonomy gives full scope for the development of authentic local living out of the Christian faith and mission, in what has come to be known as inculturation. This is an essential part of the Christian mission: each church must find fresh ways to proclaim the Gospel of Christ into the context of the world in which it is living. The eternal truth of the gospel relates in different ways to the particulars of any one society, as we see already within the life of the earliest church as described in Acts. This combination of faithfulness to the gospel and inculturation into different societies will inevitably produce a proper and welcome diversity within the life of the Church. Such diversity sometimes raises the question as to whether faithfulness has been abandoned (think of the shock to some devout Orthodox worshippers at observing western Christians crossing themselves the wrong way round); but diversity, as we have seen, is in principle to be welcomed and celebrated as normal and healthy. As the 1988 Lambeth Conference put it:
    “It is right and proper that the one faith and discipline of the Church should be 'incarnate' in varied cultural forms … the Gospel of Jesus does not come to people in the abstract, but to specific men and women.”[51]
  15. There are, however, limits to diversity. In the life of the Christian churches, these limits are defined by truth and charity. The Lambeth Conference of 1920 put it this way:
    “The Churches represented in [the Communion] are indeed independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognises the restraints of truth and love. They are not free to deny the truth. They are not free to ignore the fellowship.”[52]
    This means that any development needs to be explored for its resonance with the truth, and with the utmost charity on the part of all - charity that grants that a new thing can be offered humbly and with integrity, and charity that might refrain from an action which might harm a sister or brother.