Reading Lambeth’s Tea Leaves

By John Martin

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation for his fellow primates to meet together in January has triggered a plethora of conflicting media headlines and interpretations. Perspectives ranged from Archbishop Justin Welby urging “breakup of the Anglican Communion” and taking a “last throw of the dice” to breathing “new life into the Communion.”

The invitation follows on the heels of face-to-face visits with each of the other 37 primates. In the archbishop’s words, the meeting will “look afresh at our ways of working as a Communion and especially as primates, paying proper attention to developments in the past.”

Put simply, the systems of the Anglican Communion are not working very well. There have been problems for the best part of two decades. Meanwhile we have a world on the brink of global conflict. The flood of refugees and displaced persons grows daily. Anglicans need to address a global ecological crisis. As ever, the world needs the good news of Christ. External mission requires sorting some internal wrangles.

Archbishop Welby has suggested that he is playing back what primates said to him during his visits. They clearly want this gathering to happen. As yet there is no detailed agenda for the meeting, but the primates will determine one in the months ahead.

The archbishop wants a fresh approach, having come to believe that endless meetings seeking unity were failing to achieve any progress. In the words of one Lambeth Palace source, the archbishop believes the Communion has spent “vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere.”

Lambeth insiders believe Welby’s proposal is to loosen the Communion so that the prime bond is with his office as Archbishop of Canterbury. Many primates told Archbishop Welby that the See Canterbury is symbolic, the heart of Anglicanism’s mission.

As The Windsor Report notes, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role is “pivotal” among the Instruments of Communion, the “one common factor” to all of them. His relationship to the faithful can be likened to the spokes of a wheel. Each spoke has a direct connection to Canterbury as the hub, but each has space for local expression of the Anglican ideal, way, or ethos. The farther they are from the hub, of necessity they may be more distant from others, though they may choose how and with whom they relate.

Last week’s statement does not signal a shift from communion to federation. The factors that form the ethos of Anglicanism are far wider and more pervasive than the Instruments of Communion: Mothers’ Unions, particularly in Africa; mission agencies; theological colleges; publishing; Anglican studies that have burgeoned in the last two decades; Cathedrals, as guardians of liturgical innovation and excellence; the fruits of ecumenical dialogues as major contributors to Anglican self-understanding.

There is a world of global relationships, with many dynamic and self-generating entities that will flourish and influence even if the central structures recede. There are strong ecumenical ties that can be more meaningful than relations with other Anglicans. Anglicanism lives within a networked world.

The forces at work in the global Communion crisis are complex. A considerable factor has been the emergence of the Web, which makes transparent what in earlier decades might not have been accessible. It has become possible for the beliefs and practices of the churches of North America and the United Kingdom to be scrutinized as never before by the Global South, and vice versa. It is equally possible for false information to be spread without effective rebuttal. Web-based debate has outpaced face-to-face meetings.

With this has come growing criticism of the Anglican Communion Office. The Instruments of the Communion evolved without enough thought on how they would relate. Dissatisfaction with the Anglican Consultative Council at the 1978 Lambeth Conference, for instance, led to a call for Primates’ Meetings. This added another layer of meetings and expense.

At Canterbury the Archbishop will ask the advice of the primates about the next Lambeth Conference. Members of the Anglican Consultative Council will offer their thoughts when the council meets in Zambia in April 2016. Since 1978 the ACC has launched the planning for each Lambeth Conference.

Communion leaders now speak of a Lambeth Conference meeting in 2020. Just how many dioceses will send their bishops is still an unknown. As one Lambeth employee said, “We will hold it, even if participants fit in a telephone [booth].”

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