Did The Anglican Communion Change in 1963?

 on June 13, 2024

Historians from Canada and elsewhere recently met in Toronto to try to determine whether the Anglican Communion was changed forever in 1963.

Planning for the historical conference was led by Bishop Terry Brown, an assisting bishop in the diocese of Niagara. Unfortunately, he died a few days before the conference began on April 12.

Eighty people from as far away as Britain, Australia, and the Philippines gathered in person or via Zoom. Twenty-one papers were delivered. Bishop Susan Bell, a member of the Canadian Church Historical Society, chaired one of the sessions.

The historians focused on the Anglican Congress of 1963, which brought a thousand Anglicans from all over the world to Toronto for a week. The Congress endorsed a statement, prepared by the primates of the Anglican Communion, entitled “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ” (MRI).

Participants, including Bishop Susan Bell, listening to one of the plenary sessions during the conference.

The Anglican Congress of 1963 was front-page news in Canada. The opening service, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Maple Leaf Gardens, was attended by 17,000 people, and was broadcast live by the CBC. The timing of the event was significant because it followed the dismantling of the British Empire in the 1950s, and the creation of four new autonomous provinces in Africa; the first autonomous African province, in southern Africa, had been created in 1870. In 1963, all five African archbishops were white men from Britain. Inculturation was just beginning in the over- seas Anglican world.

Before 1963, the Anglican Communion had been described as the Church of England, the Episcopal Church of the USA, and their overseas dependents. For example, until 1955, the Anglican Church of Canada was called the Church of England in Canada. The MRI document, by contrast, affirmed that all Anglican provinces were equal partners. Some say that MRI represented a radical reorganization and renewal of the Anglican Communion. They point to the creation of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Partners in Mission program as partial evidence.

Others say that the result was simply a new chapter in colonialism, with the Church of England and the Episcopal Church maintaining hegemony. And MRI did nothing to change the colonized situation of Indigenous Anglicans in Canada.

Another argument is that MRI did accomplish something, but the wrong thing. It preempted international ecumenical discussions for church reunion, and left African and other overseas Christians saddled with divisions created by Europeans centuries earlier.

Whatever the results on the institutional level, though, many individuals were transformed in their sense of discipleship. The late bishop, Terry Brown, cited its influence in his decision to become a missionary to the South Pacific. So does Peter Coffin, the retired bishop of Ottawa, who served in Borneo in the 1970s.

Not surprisingly, at the end of the conference, the historians still disagreed. But they found that the issues remain pertinent. The member provinces of the Anglican Communion still find themselves challenged in different situations whether to look inward to their own national interests, to engage deeply with the rest of the Anglican world, or to give the priority to ecumenical relationships.

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