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Why suspending the Episcopalians demonstrates Welby's brilliant leadership

Dr Ian Paul analyses the Primates' decision to suspend the Episcopal Church from full participation in the Anglican Communion for the next three years

Prior to the gathering this week of the Anglican Primates (heads of the 38 autonomous Anglican provinces) almost everyone predicted it would end in disaster.

There was suspicion from the moment that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, announced the ‘gathering’ (not an official meeting) that it would end in tears. And only last week all the speculation was about when it would fail, not if.

But contrary to all expectation, not only have almost all the Primates stayed together (The Archbishop of Uganda left on Tuesday), they have issued a clear statement, agreed by a two-thirds majority, which offers a form of rebuke to the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) for its acceptance of same-sex marriage.

What did they decide?

It is worth noting carefully what the statement, which was due to be released today but was leaked yesterday and then confirmed, does and does not say. On the one hand, it does not expel TEC from the Anglican Communion; there had been a previous motion asking TEC to voluntarily withdraw, but that was defeated by 20 votes to 15. At numerous points the statement emphasises the continuing relationship between the Churches of the Communion, and the commitment of its leaders to continue to work together.

There is an emphasis on the need to preserve unity, despite differences of view on the nature of marriage. And there is an explicit commitment to set up a process to address the differences that have arisen. All of this has meant that the conservative group, GAFCON, have expressed their unease at the outcome. This does not address the matter in the way they would have liked, and they (rightly) see this as the start of a process, and not the end. It does not yet settle the matter.

On the other hand, it is difficult to see how the statement could be any stronger in its censure of TEC without actually expelling them. For three years, until their next General Convention in 2018, they will not have a vote in Communion matters, will not function as ecumenical representatives of the Communion, nor be able to participate in its internal workings. As TEC’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, told the other primates, the church will find this hard to take.

So the statement has ended up steering a very careful middle course about which the ‘extremes’ are unhappy, but which has nevertheless held everyone together.

How did this happen?

Many will attribute this outcome to Justin Welby's political shrewdness. In his opening address on Monday evening, Welby made much of his own personal indebtedness to African Christianity (which he experienced in his gap year before going to Cambridge) for bringing him to living faith. And he has made use of the same team of negotiation facilitators who have supported the ‘Shared Conversations’ in the Church of England over the last two years. But there are two other factors that it would be too easy to ignore.

The first is Justin Welby’s deep commitment to the importance of relationships. This is what he was referring to when he talked of ‘reconciliation, even if we don’t reach agreement’ in interviews immediately before the gathering. This is what he meant when he talked of disunity being deeply offensive to God. And this is what drove him, in his first year in office, to personally visit every single one of the primates in the other provinces. (By contrast, Rowan Williams visited few, and only went when invited.)

It is this commitment to relationships that is evident in the statement. Though TEC will not have a vote, it will ‘have a voice’. Though trust has been badly damaged, the relationship has not been ended.

The second is the commitment to prayer. Welby made this his number one commitment when he took up office, and he has invited a community of young people to spend a year at Lambeth to share in its life of prayer. These young people were present in Canterbury to pray throughout the gathering, and I expect they will be very excited at the outcome.

What will be the result of this decision?

Those who take a ‘liberal’ view of same-sex relationships and want the Anglican Communion to follow the lead of TEC, will be frustrated, disappointed and angry. They will be cross that no reference has been made to the rights of gay men and women in many of the African countries where homosexuality is illegal. But this view fails to understand what the meeting was about. The Primates meeting was not really about the immediate issue of sexuality, but the process by which this is debated and acted on in different parts of the Communion. 

There will be more formal effects in other parts of the Communion. Both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Scottish Episcopal Church have strongly signalled that they want to move to recognise same-sex marriage. If they go ahead, it will be in the knowledge that there will be ‘consequences’ for the part they play in the Communion, that they will be moving away from the majority view.

Within the Church of England, this is bound to give encouragement to ‘traditionalists’ who would agree with the view of marriage, as between one man and one woman, that the statement affirms. And I suspect that there will be a sense of growing respect for Justin Welby. He has managed, in three short years, to address effectively the two major issues which dogged the primacy of his predecessor, Rowan Williams—the move to accept women bishops in the Church of England and the divisions in the Communion on sexuality. As one or two lone voices suggested, the next result could well be new life and vigour breathed into this global church.

And the wider media? If it isn’t written off as yet another expression of the church’s ‘homophobia’, I suspect the whole thing will be greeted with mute incomprehension.

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