The Windsor Report 2004

Discernment in communion and reception

  1. As the whole Church, corporately and individually, gives attention to the reading and pondering of scripture, we are called to the specific unifying task of a common discernment in communion. We come from a rich variety of cultures, and each of us is called to read scripture within, and apply it to, our own particular setting - and to respect the fact that other churches face the same demands within their own contexts. We cannot, therefore, confine our readings of scripture to our own setting alone (as scholarship, sometimes claimed as the preserve of the western academy, has often done). On the contrary, one of the ways in which we discern the limits of appropriate inculturation is by our rendering account to one another, across traditional boundaries, for the gospel we proclaim and live and the teaching we offer. One of the hallmarks of healthy worldwide communion will be precisely our readiness to learn from one another (which by no means indicates an unquestioning acceptance of one another's readings, but rather a rich mutual accountability) as we read scripture together. To the extent that this has not been a major feature of our common life in recent decades, we should not be surprised that major divisions have opened up amongst us. It is by reading scripture too little, not by reading it too much, that we have allowed ourselves to drift apart.

  2. Within our common life, one way in which unity has been maintained is by subjecting fresh developments within the Anglican Communion to a test of reception. In classical theological terms, 'reception' was the process by which the pronouncements of a Council of the Church were tested by how the faithful 'received' it. The consensus fidelium ('common mind of the believers') constituted the ultimate check that a new declaration was in harmony with the faith as it had been received. More recently, the doctrine has been used in Anglicanism as a way of testing whether a controversial development, not yet approved by a universal Council of the Church but nevertheless arising within a province by legitimate processes, might gradually, over time, come to be accepted as an authentic development of the faith. This offers a clear threefold sequence:

    1. theological debate and discussion
    2. formal action, and
    3. increased consultation to see whether the formal action settles down and makes itself at home.

    This process of consultation, designed to strengthen Communion, is the very opposite of confrontation, and leads to a shared discernment of God's truth. It is a key way of maintaining the unity of the Church through a time of experiment and uncertainty.[41]

  3. We should note, however, that the doctrine of reception only makes sense if the proposals concern matters on which the Church has not so far made up its mind. It cannot be applied in the case of actions which are explicitly against the current teaching of the Anglican Communion as a whole, and/or of individual provinces. No province, diocese or parish has the right to introduce a novelty which goes against such teaching and excuse it on the grounds that it has simply been put forward for reception. In such a case, if change is desired, it must be sought through the appropriate channels, which we describe elsewhere.

  4. The Anglican Communion is thus bound together in a variety of ways, with scripture as the constant factor, the historic episcopate, the Instruments of Unity, and the synodical life of the Church as the practical means of living together under scripture, and with discernment and reception as the modes in which the Communion operates in relation to new proposals and the emergence of differences. It is important to note that these Bonds of Unity are different in kind from those which operate in the Roman Catholic Church, in which the Pontiff, with the support of the Curia, enjoys “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power”, which he can always freely exercise[42]. The Anglican way, theological, symbolic and practical, is diffused among the different aspects of the life of the Communion precisely in such a way as to give supreme authority, in the sense outlined above, to scripture as the locus and means of God's word, energising the Church for its mission and sustaining it in its unity.