Keep Canterbury Relevant

By Josiah Idowu Fearon

When I served on the Lambeth Commission that produced The Windsor Report, one of my fellow one of the commission members asked a formative question: Who are you writing for? This question jolted us all. We debated, discussed, and discovered finally that within the Anglican Communion we have three distinctive groups: conservatives, liberals, and a large group of liberals and conservatives (an estimated 70%) who want to get on as a family in spite of their theological and ecclesiological differences I assume most of us at this Conference are within the 70 percent bracket — those who are working for our family to focus on kingdom principles and to be prophetic in the different parts of God’s world where we have been planted.

Unfortunately the 15 percent of people on each side of this center are bent on forcing their theological and ecclesiological positions on the Communion. This, to my understanding, is the Achilles heel’ of our Communion.

In his address “‘Holding Fast and Holding On’: The Instruments of the Anglican Communion,” Lord George Carey reminds us: “The Anglican instruments of Unity have arisen primarily out of conflict and a desire to be true to our ecumenical goals.” Lord Ramsey reminds us that our main goal is to “unite the Church of Christ.” These Instruments of Unity — the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting — need to be re-evaluated in the light of the problems we face today.

The Archbishop of Canterbury
Anglicans have insisted on certain things, what we believe to be basic Catholic facts and principles: the Scriptures, the sacraments of salvation (Baptism and Eucharist), the Creeds, and apostolic ministry embodied in the historic episcopate. Given those basic facts and principles, Anglicans seem ready to be in communion with other Christians and create united churches with them (see Michael Ramsey, The Anglican Spirit, p. 125). The Archbishop of Canterbury represents the Communion in these ecumenical contacts and roles.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is our symbol of unity, and this office should and will remain, but why? Listen to Lord Ramsey:

the very term “Anglicanism” is one produced by the situation of sad Christian disunity and disappearance of Christian disunity might well mean the disappearance of the word “Anglicanism.” Until that happens, we believe that God has given us real work to do, and “Anglicanism” describes that work (pp. 125-26).

The Archbishop of Canterbury represents this movement, and this instrument therefore is an essential, at least until the entire Church becomes one. “We are going to devote ourselves to our mission completely, not by viewing Anglicanism as an end in itself, but as a fragment of the One Holy Catholic Church of Christ” (Ramsey, p. 126).

If the Archbishop of Canterbury matters in the missions of Anglicanism, does it need revamping? This instrument is very relevant, as Lord Carey said from his experience in that office. Here are some of the vital functions that make this instrument relevant:

  • The Archbishop has direct power to invite or withhold invitation to the Lambeth Conference.
  • The Archbishop has a personal ministry of recognizing with whom he is in Communion, even though the Anglican Consultative Council deals with legislative processes.
  • The Archbishop by his office has a goal and a vision for the Communion. In the words of Lord Carey, “The Communion may be, to quote the familiar mantra of the Communion, Episcopally led and synodically governed.” But this leadership can only be conducted with the agreement of the Communion and its instruments.
  • In certain final cases only an Archbishop of Canterbury can intervene, such as in Lord Carey’s intervening amid Rwanda’s genocide.
  • The Archbishop, even as Primus inter pares, is president of the Anglican Communion in that he presides over each of the other Instruments of Unity.
  • In order to make this instrument more effective and relevant to the Communion today, I make two proposals:
  • In tenor with the gospel principle of persuasion, the ABC needs to consult annually with the primates and some senior bishops and archbishops within the Communion.
  • In consultation with primates and senior bishops from some provinces, the Archbishop should appoint liaison officers who keep his office well informed of situations from their parts of the Communion.

Although Archbishops of Canterbury have resisted a patriarchal or papal role within the Communion’s affairs, they have a real influence unlike that of any other primate or archbishop.

Lord Carey has said, “They can steer, push, and lead, but they can’t rule.” African bishops and archbishops find this “can’t rule” concept difficult. This, from my limited experience, is at the root of a significant number within the conservative 15% from Africa who think the office of the Archbishop is not effective enough and so would want to take over the Communion. The ecclesiology and theology of most African Anglicans are built around “autocracy.” For a number of few but loud African archbishops, bishops, and primates, the Archbishop should “rule” and not only “steer, push, and lead.” Thus in this instrument lies what I am afraid could be described as a clash of cultures.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has come to be known as a ‘focus of unity” rather than an “instrument of unity.” What is the intention of those who made this change, and what implications does it have for the leadership role of the Archbishop?

The Lambeth Conference
Let us remember that this instrument came into being as a result of the Bishop John Colenso crisis in 1867. Since 1998 this instrument has come under severe criticism because it does not represent clergy and laity. The invitation to the Lambeth Conference of 1897 was sent out by Archbishop Edward White Benson before his death in 1896. Archbishop Frederick Temple, who succeeded him, kept faith with the invitation. Archbishop Benson wanted the Lambeth Conference to take decisions on the organization of the Anglican Communion. He then made proposals for committees to work on the following: a “central consultative body,” a “tribunal of reference,” and the “position and functions of the Lambeth Conference.” American bishops became suspicious and were vehemently opposed to any attempt to establish any authoritative relation to the see of Canterbury.

The Committee on the Organization of the Anglican Communion recommended the establishment of a “tribunal of reference” to review questions submitted by the bishops of the Church of England and colonial and missionary Churches. This tribunal, the committee said, should be presided over by the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and comprise the bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester, and representatives of each province.

There was also a hint that the Archbishop of Canterbury should assume the title “patriarch” of the Anglican Communion. Again, American bishops opposed any idea of a Canterbury patriarchate, and to the recommendation of the tribunal of reference, which was not adopted. Instead, a Central Consultative Council, as an advisory body, was approved, and Archbishop Temple established it. The American bishops were suspicious even of this. It is worth noting that even at this early stage the American bishops seemed to have determined that the purpose of Lambeth Conference should continue to be for talk and consultation and not for decisions or to exercise authority on behalf of the whole Communion.

Looking back, that was the initial intention of what this instrument was set up to achieve, though it was the Colenso affair that forced the first Lambeth Conference to hold. By Lambeth in 2008 we had weathered the storm for more than 100 years. As assessed by Professor Ephraim Radner, the last Lambeth Conference did not give an impression to the world of a united family called the Anglican Communion. Should the Lambeth Conference continue to be for talk and consultation and not for decisions or exercising authority on behalf of the whole Communion?

Decisions were not allowed at the Lambeth Conference of 2008, and it is my humble submission that that decision was very unfortunate. That was an opportune time for the proposed Anglican Covenant to be debated and some decisions taken, even if the controversial Section 4 were rejected.

My submission is that this Instrument of Unity still matters and therefore it is my submission that we urgently set up a commission to have a second look at the intentions of Archbishop Benson and see how we could adapt them to the 21st century.

The Anglican Consultative Council
The ACC emanated from the 1968 Lambeth Conference. The Rev. Canon Colin Craston described the main reason for the evolution of this instrument: “Changes in the relationships between the Churches of the Anglican Communion and organizations convinced the Lambeth fathers that a new pattern of regular consultation was now necessary, in which ‘Anglicans may fulfill their common inter-Anglican and ecumenical responsibilities in promoting unity, renewal and mission of Christ’s Church’” (Lambeth Conference Report, 1968, p. 145).

Does this instrument matter in the Communion today? Speaking as an African Anglican bishop, and having sounded the opinions of Africans, Asians, and Arab colleagues, it is my opinion that for this instrument to carry the Church Fathers along in its ecumenical responsibilities in promoting the unity, renewal and mission of Christ’s Church, two changes need to be given an urgent consideration:

  • The council needs to be headed by an experienced bishop. When Bishop George Selwyn was appointed “corresponding secretary” of the Anglican Communion in 1867, the fact that he was a bishop made relationships much easier. He related to other bishops as colleagues and they were able to discuss matters as Church Fathers. Today, for a General Secretary to write letters of instruction to a diocesan bishop tastes sour.
  • The council needs to come directly under the oversight of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who already chairs the meetings. The General Secretary should be responsible to the Archbishop and not be understood as the executive running the entire Communion. This will create a better rapprochement between the Archbishop and the Primates’ Meetings, and make planning for the Lambeth Conference an ongoing activity.

This instrument is a very important one in the search for authority within the Communion. With these proposals, the three-fold order inherited from the early Church is retained. The council, chaired by the Archbishop and led by a staff in episcopal order with clergy and lay representatives, would easily see its decisions endorsed by the various provinces of the Communion. To increase the credibility of the council, provinces should be encouraged to see that their representatives truly represent the women and men in the pews representing the two main traditions, conservative and liberal, that comprise the Communion.

The Primates’ Meeting
The youngest of the instruments first met in 1979 and in recent years it took the lead in trying to stop the crisis that has almost succeeded in tearing the communion apart. The achievements of this instrument have been carefully enumerated by Professor Radner in his essay, “Can the Instruments of Unity Be Repaired?”:

  • It provided articulate, clear, and seemingly consensual directives.
  • With the Archbishop of Canterbury, it commissioned the Lambeth Commission that produced The Windsor Report.
  • It attempted to carry through with a common vision for a disciplined reordering of global ecclesial relations.

However, in the words of Lord Carey, “the one Instrument of Unity that seems to have been emerging into a position of strength in recent decades is vigorously resisted by the ACC which feels threatened by it while certain Provinces — notably in North America — desiring total autonomy theologically from Communion, while at the same time imposing total autocracy within their boundaries.”

Because we are Anglicans and Episcopalians we need not be hesitant or embarrassed about empowering our primates in the Church to have real and special authority at Communion levels. For this reason I strongly support this instrument of unity with these recommendations:

  • That each Primate coming to the Primates’ Meeting attends in the company of two other senior bishops who specialize in some specific areas relevant to the discussion. I propose two representatives so as to have both liberal and conservative opinions expressed during the discussions.
  • That recommendations from Primates’ Meetings should be taken by the Archbishop to the ACC for input from the other two segments that make up the Communion. This reconstituted ACC would act as a clearinghouse.
  • This enlarged Primates’ Meeting should be able to recommend decisions to the entire Communion for implementation at each provincial level.

I propose that, because the gospel is not coercive but persuasive, our structure should adopt this kingdom principle. This calls for patience on the side of the various theological positions within the Communion, especially extreme liberals and extreme conservatives. May I draw our attention to the debate on polygamy and full membership of the Communion, which was first brought to the 1888 Lambeth Conference. A Communion position was not finally arrived at until Lambeth 1988 — 100 years! What a lesson in patience!

Both extreme conservatives and extreme liberals have contributed to the incapacitation of the Instruments of Unity. Liberals have been disobedient in carrying out agreed decisions while conservatives have been too arrogant in their choice of words and actions. There is therefore a need for repentance and the desire to accept the truth that, whether conservative or liberal, we belong to one family and there is the need to follow the biblical principle of humility.

I do share the concern of Bishop Stephen Sykes that in the midst of this heat on the Communion both sides will think the reform of the structures is just a front for this or that solution to the problem. He counsels: “We have to come to some understanding on the substance of the matter and then discuss the structure, i.e., how the instruments could be used in keeping the cohesion that we very much desire.”

I support the idea put forward by Radner and Christopher Seitz of promoting spiritual communion: “The present dispute suggests that there isn’t much spiritual communion within the church. At worst, it looks as if there are two hostile traditions cohabiting in one institution.” Are Anglicans from whatever group ready to be members of the church that includes people opposed to their opinion?

I do not share the opinion of many that the Anglican Instruments of Unity have collapsed and that none of them works anymore. When I was growing up as a boy-soldier in the early 1960s, my commandant at the Nigerian Military School, Zaria, was used to saying to us during our map-reading exercises: “Boys, if you are not sure of where you are heading, at least remember where you are coming from.” The middle group of 70 percent of the Communion are being pulled by the 15 percent extreme conservatives and 15 percent extreme liberals to a destination we do not know. We have an enviable history; we have a mission and a vision as Anglicans. Both extreme groups need to be reminded that mere radicalism cannot produce unity in the truth of Christ, but a watered-down version of Christianity (Ramsey, p. 124).

Those of us in the 70 percent need to recover a theological coherence, a recovery that is true to our own appeal to Scripture, tradition, and reason, an Anglican way that blends the givenness of God’s revelation and the exploration of its meaning in any age (Ramsey, p.124). I hope these recommendations will help us give a new life to these Instruments of Unity, because they matter. In the words of Lord Carey, “the Anglican Communion has to be led and the Communion has to struggle to work as a united body.”

The Rt. Rev. Josiah Idowu Fearon is Bishop of Kaduna, Nigeria.

Image of Josiah Idowu Fearon by Sue Careless


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