What’s at Stake for Primates?

Analysis by John Martin

Anglican Primates meet in Canterbury Jan. 11-16, their first meeting in five years. What are the chances of ending the stalemate that has effectively paralyzed the global Anglican Communion since the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson in 2003? Will the meeting make it though the week without the predicted walkout by at least four African leaders?

A key moment at the first-ever Primates’ Meeting at Ely in May 1979 sums up the dilemma of Anglicanism. Authority in the church was an agenda item. The Most Rev. Moses Omobiala Scott, Bishop of Sierra Leone and Primate of West Africa, a man descended from slaves, explained then that for him and the church he led, the locus of authority existed in his province’s General Synod. No one demurred.

Later the Rt. Rev. John Howe, the secretary general, added: “Leaders come to the various international Anglican bodies and consult. On their return home they will take into account the fruits of that consultation and make decisions according to the local constitution, culture, and circumstances.”

Here in practice was the principle of provincial autonomy, a principle stated by the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 and consistently repeated.

The hot topic for the first Primates’ Meeting was the ordination of women as priests. Even back then, many predicted it would split the global Anglican Communion. Some hoped or thought the primates would take the role of a Supreme Court or College of Cardinals, entering into judgment on Anglicanism’s controversies. When they met in 1979, however, it was immediately obvious they had no intention of taking that road.

Anglicanism was never a homogeneous entity and never amenable to central control. This is traceable to how the churches were formed in a colonial period that bequeathed a communion of episcopally led and synodically governed churches.

A useful analogy might be that Anglicanism is like the lithosphere, composed of several tectonic plates. Distinctive versions of Anglicanism exist on somewhat incompatible plates. One is the High Church version that grew out of the mission work of the venerable United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (now US) and its satellites.

The more Protestant wing exists in three forms, described recently by Bowman Walton on Fulcrum’s website: “New York liberalism, Durham open evangelicalism, and Sydney confessionalism co-exist among other poles of a multipolar community united in service and mission.”

What united Anglicans were not doctrinal formulae but an intuitive commitment to something largely undefined, often given expression as “the Anglican way.” Something deep in Anglican DNA recognized others as familial, and this was visible in patterns of worship and even church buildings. Put simply, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this was the key thing about Anglicanism: “We meet.”

For a century from the first Lambeth Conference it was possible for these varied dioceses and provinces to meet internationally by consensus. That worked through the era of airmailed letters. But the advent of the Internet and electronic media means that what happens in different parts of the world can be scrutinized immediately. Unilateral action by an autonomous province can be discomforting for Anglicans elsewhere. The consecration of Bishop Robinson, and similar subsequent decisions, proceeded despite calls for restraint. This prompted some leaders to demand a more stringent basis for unity.

The quality of preparation for this meeting seems to be of a different order than before. Under Archbishop Justin Welby’s sure hand the meeting has its own website and Twitter feed, with a flow of daily weblog posts. There is every possibility of a substantial wave of intercession.

You would think from media reporting and the blogosphere that the Anglican Communion alone is convulsed by controversy regarding human sexuality. Not so.

“There is not one mainstream church that is not struggling with questions of human sexuality,” said the Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearson in a recent interview with the BBC.

He had just returned from attending for the first time the regular meeting of general secretaries of the main Christian world communions. Across many years some of these leaders have said they are taking their cue on how to act from what happens within Anglicanism.

So it is entirely possible that there will be a walkout in Canterbury next week. That would not signal the end for global Anglicanism. Since Anglicans are episcopally led but synodically governed, attempting to leave would move provinces into uncharted territory. The door to the Anglican household would always remain open.

But even at this late hour there is an opportunity and challenge to discover a deeper form of communion. Our world needs to see this demonstrated. Yes, sexuality is a vexed issue. But can global Anglicanism afford to remain immobile in a world that, as Pope Francis has said, may already be experiencing World War III?

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