Welby Urges Structural Reforms for Anglican Communion

Archbishop Justin Welby plays traditional drums at the opening service of the 18th Anglican Consultative Council. | Neil Turner for the Anglican Communion Office

By Mark Michael

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby urged the Anglican Communion to consider a reconfiguration of its Instruments of Communion — including a recasting of the archbishop’s role — to help it meet the challenges of a changing world and protracted division over human sexuality.

In his February 12 presidential address, which opened the 18th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) in Accra, Ghana, Welby acknowledged that the Church of England’s decision February 9 to permit the blessing of same-sex unions challenged the communion’s continued unity. He also alluded to tension between his roles as primate of the Church of England and chief spiritual leader of the communion.

“The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the See of Canterbury, is a historic one. The instruments must change with the times,” Welby said. “I will not cling to place or position. I hold it very lightly, provided that the other Instruments of the Communion choose the new shape — that we are not dictated to by people, blackmailed, bribed, to do what others want us to do. But that we act in good conscience before God, seeking a church that is not for our power, that exists for the new world, with its extraordinary and terrifying threats, to proclaim Christ and turn our opportunities into realities to bless the world.

“A crisis, we all know, is a moment of decision, and the churches and the communion must listen to the Holy Spirit. And while doctrine and actions are called to be the same always — the five marks [of mission], the [Chicago-Lambeth] Quadrilateral — those are our foundations. The instruments may change.”

Such change, he indicated, would equip the communion to deal more effectively with major shifts in geopolitics, the acceleration of climate change, and rising persecution of believers. But Welby also hinted that the Church of England’s recent decision may have forced the communion to a breaking point.

“As the well-mannered but extremely rough English General Synod showed this last week, we are deeply in disagreement — not through lack of integrity, corruption, lying, or surrendering to the culture — but because we do interpret Scripture differently. We understand the work of the Spirit differently, and we look at these things with different cultural lenses, and are all, always, wrong to some degree,” he said.

Interdependence vs. Unity

Any change in the Communion’s structures, Welby noted, should aim to answer a “huge question,” namely, “How can we bridge the gap between interdependence and autonomy without the abuse of power?”

Intensifying trends toward individualism, he noted, have made the first commitment scandalous to many in the West, where “where community and mutual responsibility have almost been eliminated philosophically over the last 75 years. … You find them in families and in small communities, but they are no longer the main way we relate to each other, and to others around the world.

“In the last few weeks, as part of our discussions about sexuality and the rules around sexuality in the Church of England, I talked of our interdependence with all Christians, not just Anglicans, particularly those in the Global South with other faith majorities. As a result, I was summoned twice to Parliament and threatened with parliamentary action to force same-sex marriage on us, called in England ‘equal marriage.’

“When I speak of the impact that actions by the Church of England will have on those abroad in the Anglican Communion, those concerns are dismissed by many. Not all, but by many in the General Synod.

“The instruments must give us the tools for mutual help, tools which mean that we consciously, explicitly, say that obedience to God comes ahead of loyalty to country,” he added later in the address.

“That was not popular when I said it last Monday night, to some members of Parliament.”

At the same time, Welby argued, autonomy is an important safeguard against the abuse of power, particularly given colonialism’s role in shaping the Communion.

“At the local level … intentional discipleship is necessarily lived differently in each place because of different cultures. For we are not the same, although we are one. One of the basic reasons why, as well as being interdependent as provinces, we are also autonomous. There is no good reason why one group in one part of the world should order the life and culture of another.

“Such control was colonial abuse, and we are trying to move away from it, and such control is often neo-colonial abuse. Money, power, access to resources, should never call the tune. Yet such is the lust for power of all human beings (and I point to myself, I include myself, for I sin like everyone else) that one group always seeks to tell another what to do.

“That is why, in a post-colonial world, where every day we face more attacks on Christian faith and Christian churches, we have to find marks and signs to show we are one and yet marks and signs that do not result in the imposition of one powerful group’s values coming from their culture — not from Scripture — on another.”

“Submission to the will of those outside our own province must be voluntary, never compelled,” he added.

After Welby’s address, ACC members engaged in the first in a series of Bible studies on passages from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ early ministry. The Bible studies, and the gathering more generally, focus on the Five Marks of Mission, which define the communion’s work in evangelism, discipleship, service, social transformation, and the care of creation. The Five Marks date back to the sixth Anglican Consultative Council Meeting, held in 1984 at Badagry, Nigeria.

Opening Service Honors President

The ACC meeting was officially opened in the afternoon, with a service of Holy Eucharist at Christ Church, Legon, on the campus of the University of Ghana. Drummers greeted arriving worshipers on the church porch, and Christ Church’s large choir led the congregation in a series of traditional Anglican hymns. The Archbishop of Canterbury pounded traditional drums in a brief ceremony at the close of the service to signal the meeting’s official start.

Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, who described himself as “a devout member of the Anglican Communion,” attended the service with his wife, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, and several members of his cabinet. He was presented by Welby with the Cross of St. Augustine for distinguished service to the Anglican Communion, an award that had also been presented the previous day to the Asantehene, the traditional king of the Ashanti people.

Archbishop Cyril Kobina Ben-Smith, the primate of the Church of the Province of West Africa, thanked President Akufo-Addo for his deep commitment to the church, and his assistance with a number of partnerships in ministry to the poor and the “Green Ghana” initiative, as well as the establishment of eucharistic services at the seat of government. The bond between the church and government, Ben-Smith said, “has become stronger than ever. His excellency’s support of the church has been outstanding.”

Akufo-Addo praised the historic contributions of Anglicanism in “shaping our nation, particularly in religion, education, and health care.” He applauded several new initiatives that the church has undertaken to ensure its financial sustainability, including the Diocese of Accra’s development of the country’s largest privately owned rubber plantation. “In recent years,” he said, “the Anglican Church has been a good example of love for one anther and being gracious to those in need.”

Following the service, the President and Mrs. Akufo-Addo hosted members of the ACC at a dinner in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s honor at Jubilee House, the presidential palace in Accra.

The ACC will meet in Accra on February 12 to 20. Representatives from 39 of the communion’s 42 provinces share in the gathering, with each province sending two or three participants, depending on its size. The Churches of Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda were invited to send representatives, but chose to boycott the gathering because of the communion’s failure to discipline provinces that have embraced progressive teaching and practice on human sexuality. The three churches have chosen not to participate in most gatherings of the communion for more than a decade, including last summer’s Lambeth Conference.

The gathering, Archbishop Welby noted in his address, is the most synodical in form of the communion’s four Instruments of Communion, and the only one to include lay members. It is also the only legally constituted entity among the four and directly oversees the work of the Anglican Communion Office, which is based in London.

The Episcopal Church’s representatives to the ACC are the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of Maryland; the Rev. Canon Ranjit Mathews, canon for mission advocacy, racial justice, and reconciliation in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut; and lay Canon Annette Buchanan, a former Union of Black Episcopalians president from the Diocese of New Jersey.


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