By Mark Michael
The primates, or chief bishops, of 30 of the Anglican Communion’s 42 provinces gathered at Lambeth Palace in London this week, their first in-person gathering since January 2020. A further nine bishops, who were unable to travel to London because of COVID-related travel restrictions, participated virtually in the gathering’s business sessions. Among other things, the primates drafted a communique which called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and urged prayer and action on behalf of those impacted by a series of political and climate-related disasters.
The meeting, which constitutes one of the Anglican Communion’s four Instruments of Communion, was the sixth convened by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who described it as “the best I have been to” at a press conference on its final day.
“It was a very positive and encouraging primates’ meeting,” added Archbishop Samy Fawzy Shehata of the North African Province of Alexandria, who joined Welby, Archbishop Azad Marshall of Pakistan, and Archbishop Linda Nicholls of Canada in the press conference. “The unity I see; there may be differences on some views, but we can still talk with one another,” Shehata added.
Primates’ Meetings are, by tradition, informal gatherings, largely focused on prayer and fellowship. Welby shared a series of reflections on leadership based on passages in St. John’s Gospel, and the primates also participated in Bible studies on 1 Peter, the foundational text for this summer’s Lambeth Conference.
The bishops also “were able to talk and hear about the burdens we each face in our provinces and home regions,” a process that Nicholls described as allowing her fellow Anglicans to “know us as a family in God together.”
The meeting’s four-page communique addressed a series of international crises, beginning with Russia’s five-week-old war against Ukraine. “We are particularly aware of the humanitarian crisis and other catastrophic effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We call for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine,” the primates said.
They also devoted time to discuss a proposal to increase the wider Anglican Communion’s involvement in the selection of future Archbishops of Canterbury, a conversation that Shehata said had been one of the highlights of the gathering. “The large majority of the primates were generally supportive of the direction of travel,” the communique noted.
It also laments the intense suffering associated with climate change, especially the devastation brought to Mozambique and Madagascar by a series of recent cyclones. It reiterates that the Diocese of Egypt is “an integral and constituent part of this Church,” in support if its ongoing struggle to secure full state recognition, and expresses concern at the “continuing misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan to unfairly target religious minorities,” a cause in which Marshall serves as a leading public voice.
Other sections expressed concern about “the increasing use of ‘fake news and false reporting,’” an unresolved dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the pending construction of the Grand Ethiopian Dam, and increasing refugee problems and food insecurity in many parts of the world.
The primates also expressed excitement about gathering with more than 700 fellow bishops for the Lambeth Conference this coming July and August. Welby said that the pre-Lambeth bishop’s conversations convened online over the last year have been “one of the best innovations of this Lambeth Conference.” He added, “It is, in effect, a four year conference: two years virtually, two weeks physically, two years follow-up.”
Marshall, who will be attending his third Lambeth Conference this summer, said “For us, the Lambeth Conference has already started. Our fellowship has been very meaningful, and those relationships that have already formed will be more meaningful when we meet together.”
The primates spent time at the gathering reviewing the Lambeth Conference’s program, and Welby said, “It is certainly one of the agreed aims of the primates – I think, by everyone – that we do not have the whole Lambeth Conference spent talking about issues of human sexuality, but we look at those things that are destroying tens and hundreds of millions of human lives, and will do even more around the world. The title of the conference is ‘God’s Church for God’s World,’ and the encouragement for it is to look outwards and to look at other issues that are deeply troubling to the way we treat people on the edge.… Things that come under the heading of God’s call to the Church to speak for justice in every area, and not to human sexuality alone.”
The leaders of three large provinces, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda, chose not to attend the meeting, as in recent years. “Our reflections, deliberations and fellowship are diminished by their absence. We miss them and their prayerful wisdom, and we long for the time when we will all meet together,” the communique said.
Welby said the missing primates had not given him specific reasons for their absence, but added, “They don’t want to be in the room with those who have changed their teaching on marriage and the nature of human identity.”