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What the Primates meeting means for the future of the Anglican Communion

The Primates of the Anglican Communion are meeting in Canterbury this week. The topic of homosexuality is expected to dominate discussion. Dr Ian Paul looks at the history of the Anglican Church's debates on this issue and explains what the future could hold

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has invited the 38 Primates of the Anglican Communion (archbishops who lead the different provinces) to a meeting in Canterbury this week, at which they can ‘look afresh at our ways of working as a Communion and especially as Primates, paying proper attention to developments in the past.’ In other words, the current way of working isn’t working, and something needs to change.

What isn’t working?

One of the traditional habits of the Anglican Communion is for the bishops from all the provinces to meet once every ten years as the Lambeth Conference. The last significant meeting was in 1998, and in response to shifts in some of the (culturally) Western churches, it passed resolution 1.10, which both affirmed the ‘traditional’ position on same-sex sexual activity, whilst encouraging a listening process.

The resolution did not resolve difference—in fact, it only made things worse. The Episcopal Church in the US resented being told what to do, and continued in its moves to affirm same-sex relations. In 2003 it appointed Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire.

What happened next?

A process was set in motion in the Anglican Communion which Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, hoped might maintain unity and provide space for discussion. The Windsor Report recommended a moratorium on further approval of same-sex relations, but did not propose any discipline for provinces which had not adhered to Lambeth 1.10. It proposed an Anglican Covenant which would, in effect, provide a new vehicle for unity in the Communion, but this has not been widely accepted.

In the meantime, a number of primates from the global south met as the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in 2008, calling for the church to resist secularisation and return to biblical orthodoxy. This happened a month before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and 200 bishops declined to attend Lambeth. GAFCON also called for the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) as an alternative, ‘orthodox’ Episcopal church in the US and Canada, and this went ahead in 2009.

Why has this been so difficult?

The underlying problem is that the Anglican Communion lacks the structures that you might expect of a global denomination. This is partly to do with history and partly to do with theology. Historically, the Communion developed almost by accident, in a patchwork of arrangements as the ministry of the Church of England was devolved to locally-led Anglican churches. The relationships with other denominations, with local culture and with the Church of England varied from place to place. With no formal shared structure, the network developed four ‘instruments of unity’:

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the ‘focus of unity’ but has no actual authority over provinces;
  • The 10-yearly Lambeth Conference, which can formulate resolutions but cannot do anything if provinces don’t abide by those resolutions;
  • The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) which, as its name suggests, is ‘consultative’;
  • The Primates’ Meetings, first convened by Donald Coggan in 1979 as a place for ‘leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.’

Theologically, the different churches have been on different journeys in relation to their origins. The Church of England still officially abides by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and the 39 Articles of Religion. Any new liturgy has been strictly ‘alternative’ to this and does not replace it. In other parts of the Communion, some churches still actively use the BCP whilst others have replaced it with modernised or indigenised prayer books. So, in effect, just about the only thing that the churches in the Communion have in common is a liturgical approach to worship and leadership by bishops. As Justin Welby comments: ‘We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted.’

What has Justin Welby done?

Rowan Williams was criticised for allowing the processes to drift without offering any decisive leadership. He only visited provinces when invited, and was not pro-active in building relationships. By contrast, Justin Welby made visiting all provinces in the Communion a priority. He appointed a moderate conservative, Josiah Idowu-Fearon from Nigeria, as secretary to the ACC, and Graham Kings as Mission Theologian to the Anglican Communion.

But this latest move appears to signal Welby’s belief that the previous work at maintaining or creating unity through structures is a waste of time and effort. A Lambeth Palace source said the Archbishop felt the disputes meant the Church was 'spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere'.

Why is this controversial?

Some see this as the end of the Anglican Communion, and therefore an abandoning of a significant exercise in Christian unity. Others see this as an astute move which will allow new energy to be put into relationships within the Communion. 

But there are other points of controversy. Welby has invited Foley Beach, archbishop of ACNA, to attend as well. This has been interpreted as an approval of conservatives in the US who are not formally ‘in communion’ with the Church of England. And Welby’s language about Scripture has been seized on by some as being ‘unAnglican’, as it does not explicitly mention tradition and reason.

Some are trying to interpret what is going on in terms of the balance of power in Anglican relations. Is Welby making an attempt to retain power and influence, by abandoning previous mechanisms for the Communion’s work?

I have an alternative suggestion: let’s actually take his words at face value.

‘It must also be a way forward, guided by the absolute imperative for the church to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, to make disciples and to worship and live in holiness, and recognising that the way in which proclamation happens and the pressures on us vary greatly between Provinces. We each live in a different context.’

I think Justin is recognising the reality of the situation we are in; he does not want to put any more effort into meetings and proposals which are not actually going to deal with the controversial issues at hand; and he wants to focus on the more important issues of missional engagement and discipleship.

What will be the impact for the Church of England?

Andrew Brown in the Guardian slightly mischievously suggests that, if different parts of the Anglican Communion drift apart, different parts of the Church of England will follow suit, looking to various different directions globally as they do so. But this overestimates the importance of global Anglicanism on the domestic church. The C of E has previously been perfectly capable of making up its own mind on important issues, and it will continue to do so.

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