The Anglican Communion draws its boundaries of doctrinal coherence wide, effectively basing its vision in the (alleged) dictum of Elizabeth I: "have no desire to make windows into men’s souls." It is a formula that has served the Church of England well, enabling a comprehensive settlement that has made it a truly national church, and which has united thousands of Anglicans around the world in bonds of history, culture and liturgy.
But it is also a formula with a weakness at its heart as recent developments, particularly but not exclusively in the field of morality, have given rise to sharp differences of opinion - so serious that almost a third of bishops stayed away from the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
How to adjudicate between different doctrinal or moral positions? As Archbishop Welby has acknowledged, “We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in scripture, properly interpreted.”
And therein lies the problem. Who is to interpret the scriptures properly? Formidable scholars have pored over the scriptures both in Africa and the United States, but have come to opposite conclusions. Who, then, is to judge between them? How can a Communion which is viscerally opposed to centralised authority, draw some line around what it means to be an Anglican?
The Most Rev Justin Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, agonised over this and sought to square the circle by proposing an Anglican Covenant, which would offer a non-coercive framework for some common doctrinal identity. It was not just the Episcopal Church of the United States which was not having this; even the Church of England declined to accept the Covenant.
The current Archbishop seems to have decided that a new approach is called for. There is a mood of crisis. He has postponed indefinitely the Lambeth Conference due to be held in 2018, and last December stated that the worldwide Anglican Communion possibly “will not hold together”.
But we should beware seeing him as wringing his hands in desperation; he is far from saying that it is all up for Anglicanism. Archbishop Welby’s experience in conflict resolution calls for a more hands-on approach: speaking directly to disaffected parties rather than proposing abstract solutions. He has set himself the task of meeting every Anglican Primate personally, and his call to the Anglican Primates to meet in Lambeth next year should be seen in this context.
It is indeed difficult to imagine a solution to the present crisis, when, for example, Nigerian bishops declare themselves to be out of communion with their American brethren. To our Catholic ears, the language used by the Archbishop’s staff of "moving into separate bedrooms" sounds an effective end of communion, a formalising of a rift – and for Roman Catholics, such an arrangement would indeed signal a serious breach of communion.
But one of the key theological and cultural elements of Anglicanism is its willingness and ability to devise a formula, to develop a way of working and living together which, if not theologically coherent, at least allows business to continue.
What Archbishop Welby seems determined not to permit is for the current situation of stand off, paralysis, and recrimination, to continue.
This is what lies behind his invitation to the 37 Anglican primates to meet him at Lambeth early next year. Commentators are already suggesting this means a ‘slimmed-down’ communion. In fact, the robust nature of Anglicanism, the still deep affection for its ethos and tradition, combined with the not inconsiderable skills of the Archbishop, mean that it is far too early to call time on the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Mgr Mark Langham (pictured above) is a former secretary to the Anglican and Methodist dialogues at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He is now Catholic Chaplain at Cambridge University