Tough Questions at Canterbury

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Postcard from London

Without doubt one of the most impressive contemporary Anglican leaders is the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town. He is a striking presence with an apt turn of phrase. His spirituality was formed in the classic high-church tradition.

The Province of Southern Africa that he leads is engaged in an internal debate about sexuality, and the differences are deep. What happens in Southern African will be a portent for Anglicanism elsewhere. Undoubtedly his voice will be prominent during media briefings about the Primates’ Meeting that began Oct. 2 in Canterbury.

For Makgoba, the Anglican experience can be likened to family relationships where different viewpoints are inevitable. “I deliberately use the word family, because within any family there will be some pulling left, some pulling right, and different views,” he said in one of the briefings before the Primates’ Meeting. “But we are committed to walking together in God.”

The Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury (Oct. 2-6) is the first since January 2016. Under the leadership of Archbishop Justin Welby, a pattern is emerging in which the assembled archbishops agree on the agenda as the meeting begins.

According to briefings issued by the Anglican Communion Office, the meeting is expected to include sessions on mission and evangelism; reconciliation and peace-building; climate change and the environment; and migration and human trafficking. All these issues press heavily on many member churches of the Anglican Communion.

There is always a turnover of members. Sixteen new primates have taken office since 2016, among them the Most Rev. Ezekiel Kondo of the newly created Province of Sudan. There will be absentees: the primates of Nigeria and Uganda have announced they are not attending because of their sharp disagreement with other member churches in long-running disputes about sexuality.

Archbishop Welby has said the 2016 meeting was “one of the most memorable weeks of my life” and that he has high hopes for this meeting: “There will be a whole lot of fresh energy and fresh excitement — and, no doubt, some tough questions.”

Chief among these tough questions is the issue of Anglican unity in a context of irreconcilable differences about sexuality, Archbishop Welby said in British GQ.

“I am having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century and to respond appropriately with an answer for all people — not condemning them, whether I agree with them or not,” Welby said in an interview with Alastair Campbell, press secretary to former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships,” he added.

“I am also aware — a view deeply held by tradition since long before Christianity, within the Jewish tradition — that marriage is understood invariably as being between a man and a woman. Or, in various times, a man and several women, if you go back to the Old Testament.

“I know that the Church around the world is deeply divided on this in some places, including the Anglicans and other churches, not just us, and we are — the vast majority of the Church is — deeply against gay sex.”

The primates attending the 2016 gathering unanimously voted to walk together, although differences between them might mean walking at a slight distance. They set up a task group to examine what was required to restore relationships and rebuild trust within the Communion. There will be a preliminary report. With the recent decision of the Scottish Episcopal Church to revise its official liturgy to allow same-sex marriages and the first such weddings having already taken place, the rift has deepened.

The 2016 gathering called for the suspension of the Episcopal Church from various representative Communion roles in response to its actions. Conservatives are now calling for similar sanctions against the Scottish church. It has as a key role in ecumenical dialogue with Reformed churches.

From the time of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, Anglican international gatherings have always met amid worries about unity. In 2016 some predicted a walkout by some of the more conservative primates. It didn’t happen and the gathering found a way to hold together. The primates always seem to find one, even if the basis for this is fragile.

The Primates’ Meeting is not a supreme court and has no powers to overrule the governing bodies of member churches of the Communion.

The deeper question is the effectiveness of the various instruments of Communion (the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Conference, and the Office of Archbishop of Canterbury).

All these came into their own as the churches emerged from a colonial past. The issue now is whether they are fit for purpose. The remaking of the Anglican Communion is a huge task, and that needs to begin with serious and sustained theological reflection.

John Martin


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