Michael Nazir-Ali, in his chapter in Celebrating the Anglican Way, notes that there is a certain missionary understanding of the Church that is intrinsic to Anglican ecclesiology. Anglicanism has always been concerned with catholicity, but this has never demanded uniformity of expression at the local level. Instead, borrowing from the thought of William Reed Huntington, Nazir-Ali stresses that ’the Anglican Church, in its fundamental doctrine, [calls] the local church to be and to become the catholic church in that place’ (61). Wherever the Anglican Church goes, it is expected to be a faithful expression of the one, holy, catholic Church, but a faithful local expression of catholicity. This missionary focus means it is always concerned with being the Church for that specific place. Nazir-Ali continues:
[Anglicanism has always required] that local churches should be firmly rooted in local cultures and that they should be responsive to the challenges and opportunities provided for them by their locality. It is true, of course, that even such local mission cannot be exercised in isolation from brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Indeed, there must be a partnership of giving and receiving even in such situations. In the end, however, the local church’s role cannot be usurped by anyone else (62).
Nazir-Ali goes on to argue that this principle of locality gives validity to different expressions of the Church in different contexts, because ‘in the culturally plural situations in which the Church so often finds itself, a variety of responses is needed’ (63). Whilst it is important that the Church in its local context continues to participate in the wider life of the Church and to order its missional priorities accordingly, it is also important that each local church act in line with the ‘discernment and direction of the movement of the Spirit’ (63) to enable fruitful mission and witness in that specific place.
Bruce Kaye, in his book, An Introduction to World Anglicanism, makes a similar observation, and notes that this emphasis on locality is one of the fundamental differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. Where Roman Catholicism operates with the principle of centralisation and imposes its structures and patterns wherever it goes (and Vincent Donovan's book, Christianity Rediscovered, is a fascinating indictment of that paradigm), Anglican ecclesiology prioritises a ‘commitment to the local’ and does so ‘on the assumption that each local church is committed to the Catholic faith in its entirety and it holds that faith in freedom’ (210-211). Quoting Mandell Creighton, Kaye continues:
[Local churches] have no power to change the Creeds of the universal Church or its early organisation. But they have the right to determine the best methods of setting forth to their people the contents of the Christian faith. They may regulate rites, ceremonies, usages, observances and discipline for that purpose, according to their own wisdom and experience and the needs of the people (211).
This commitment to locality is one of the reasons Anglicanism around the world has such a diverse character, and indeed, has flourished in so many of the places it was introduced. However, my experience here in England, at least at the parish level (although limited, and something that perhaps ought to be further explored by empirical means), is that this emphasis on locality has in many ways been lost. For example, instead of being attentive to the context it exists in, the character of a parish church sometimes seems to morph according to the preferences of its vicar or priest. In other cases, I see adverts for incumbents that require an applicant to be respectful of a church's particular heritage and tradition. And a friend recently told me of a large church in a middle-class part of a city that planted another church in a much more working-class area, yet almost completely failed to reach anyone in that area because it was a carbon copy of the planting church.
Yet these are precisely the kinds of things an emphasis on locality should guard against. Being the local expression of the catholic Church does not allow us to prioritise our own preferences or the patterns and expressions of our tribes and traditions, but instead requires us to survey the landscape around us and to be attentive to the context we are ministering in so that our mission and witness flourishes in those places.
The Church ultimately exists, both globally and locally, for the life of the world. And as Nazir-Ali and Kaye point out, this is something that lies at the heart of Anglican ecclesiology.