Primates Unite on Crises

When Anglican primates meet they are never entirely cut off from events back home. As he took part in a closing press conference in Canterbury for the 2017 Primates’ Meeting, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of Kenya was acutely aware of violent protests back home resulting in a shooting and use of tear gas by police.

The mood is tense in Kenya as the nation prepares to reprise its presidential election. The need for a repeated vote prompted Archbishop Justin Welby to take the somewhat unusual step of beginning a press conference with prayer.

At the first Primates’ Meeting in Ely in 1979, Archbishop Allen Johnston of New Zealand found himself working out how to respond to the crash of a local commercial airliner. During the second Primates’ Meeting, cross-border military clashes between two countries in the Southern Cone of South America left the primate of the area close to tears as he told the story.

This generation of primates represent areas of the world where there is acute food insecurity, where Christian minorities suffer persecution, where there is drought and flood because of climate change, and where civil wars cause large-scale displacement of people, and spill over into violence against women and children. It is a world of 65 million refugees and an estimated 40 million victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.

The Archbishop of Canterbury saw these crises as an opportunity to “return the Primates’ Meeting to what I think all of us have wanted it to be.”

The meeting’s final communiqué reflected themes of evangelism, peacebuilding, refugees, climate change, freedom of religion, and hunger.

For Archbishop Paul Kwong of Hong Kong, a veteran of six Primates’ Meetings, this was his “best yet.” For Archbishop Ole Sapit, new to Primates’ Meetings after 18 months in office, “the big thing was the presence of each other because we are a Communion and we are a Communion called as a witness in a broken world.” An emphasis on mission gave him “a lot of hope.”

The church, he said, must avoid being “narrow-minded” and show the world the “total gospel,” including responses to social need and holding national and church leaders accountable.

“The spirit here was what are the weighty issues that are facing the world?” he said. “We can’t allow ourselves not to listen to what is happening in the world around us.”

The primates have established a commission to address interfaith tensions. The Rt. Rev. Mouneer Anis, Bishop of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, will chair the new group. He addressed the primates via video link from his diocese’s new media center. He has long-standing links with Muslim thinkers in a nation known for its persecution of Christians.

A new project was announced to empower spouses of bishops from resource-poor settings. Archbishop Sapit knows the value of such assistance. He was born in a remote part of Kenya and orphaned at an early age. He was the only member of his family to have an education, which the development agency World Vision made possible.

His wife, he said, had no education whatever, but when he became a bishop, without any training she was thrust into leadership of church women’s work and “left to hold everything together” in his absences.

The project, which has practical support from Caroline Welby, will offer training in best business practices and leadership and will create support groups for isolated bishops’ wives.

Other matters

Welby said the meeting heard heart-rending accounts of failures to deal properly with sexual abuse. On Oct. 6 a group representing abuse survivors held a vigil outside the meeting and met with some of Welby’s staff. He said there was a “legacy of failure” to protect vulnerable people and care for survivors.

Welby refused to name persons or places involved in cross-border interventions. There was, however, a call for a “season of repentance and renewal” on this vexed issue.

The primates left it to Archbishop Welby to decide whether they will meet again between now and the Lambeth Conference in 2020.

John Martin


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