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Beyond Conflict


“Our conversations were enriching, not embattling,” said Bishop Jane Alexander, a Canadian delegate to the 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC-16) in Lusaka, Zambia. Her remarks during the council’s final session echoed a chorus of similar responses. In the words of Bishop James Tengatenga, departing ACC chairman, from his farewell sermon: “May I be a little smug and say, ‘The rumor about the Anglican Communion’s demise is greatly exaggerated?’”

Under the theme “Intentional Discipleship in a World of Difference,” ACC-16 tackled common challenges across the Communion, in the shadow of the January Primates’ Meeting and its relational consequences for the Episcopal Church (see TLC, Feb. 21, “A Fragile but Intact Communion”). Notwithstanding the advice and objections of varying voices, the Episcopal delegation announced at the outset its intention to participate fully in the council. The Nigerian, Rwandan, and Ugandan delegations, associated with the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), in turn boycotted the meeting, while the Most Rev. Mouneer Hanna Anis, Archbishop of Egypt and Primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, sent last-minute regrets on similar grounds.

In the face of these headwinds, attending their first ACC meeting in their respective roles, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Secretary General Josiah Idowu-Fearon showed great skill in maintaining a focus on what old-style ecumenists call “life and work” initiatives. Streamlining the legislative process, they sidestepped contentious debate about resolutions, relying instead on Indaba-style discussion of common needs and strategies.

After initial jitters, the council found its feet when delegates, sorted into inter-provincial groups, reflected together on the Five Marks of Mission in light of local priorities. Multiple points of convergence emerged. Many Anglicans suffer from climate change. Gun violence is overwhelming American and South Sudanese society. Islamic extremism threatens vulnerable Christian communities on several continents. Many delegates, especially from poorer provinces, rose to share stories of suffering, and then called the council to unity for the sake of common witness.

Unity and mission returned as themes in a series of presentations by Anglican Communion Office (ACO) staff. An impressive resource on intentional discipleship spurred conversations about connecting faith and life. In his presidential address, Archbishop Welby urged delegates to move beyond internal conflicts and focus instead on the “global and generational challenges” of climate change and religiously motivated violence. Plenary sessions spotlighted dynamic work among African youth. Exuberant worship led by local choirs lifted spirits.

The entire meeting made a case for what ecclesiological architect Paul Avis, in a report approved by the gathering, called “mission in communion,” and the council applied the argument from unity on several scores. Archbishop Welby described Anglican unity in discipleship as “the pearl of great value … the only way we show to the world that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.” Archbishop Idowu-Fearon chided GAFCON provinces for refusing to contribute to the ACO’s budget for several years while benefiting from its programs. With remarkably little contention (pace subsequent scuffles), the council backed the primates’ consequences for the Episcopal Church by “receiving” Archbishop Welby’s report, which also reiterated the primates’ unanimous rejection of laws that punish people attracted to the same sex. And Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut, in a gesture of gracious restraint, refrained from running for chairman of the standing committee, placing conscientious respect before “rights” (cf. 1 Cor. 10: 23-33).

On all counts, ACC-16, like the Primates’ Meeting before, marked an encouraging step for all who work and pray for Anglican unity. More prayer meeting than parliament, the council sought to strengthen “bonds of affection” across a communion deeply challenged by repeated unilateral action.

Archbishop Welby sees that communion subsists in affectionate relation: we wash one another’s feet, as the primates did in January; and such sacramental gesture in turn shapes Welby’s approach to church order. As in his opening remarks, Anglican authority may emerge “primarily out of loving one another more than through rules and regulations, or hierarchies.” In this case, relational and canonical approaches are contrasted, as we seek a balance of “freedom, order, and human flourishing,” a trio of values Welby has highlighted before.

In part the archbishop’s approach reflects a habit of reserve common among Anglicans in addressing questions of order and discipline. He also remains, at heart, an evangelical, perhaps content to work within hierarchical structures while sitting lightly to more ambitious theological claims that sustain them.

Archbishop Idowu-Fearon implied in his address, however, that something more robust is needed in order to address deep and recurring division. The long-term flourishing of the Communion demands relational warmth and Catholic structure. We will not always have archbishops so charismatic, nor delegates so gracious. In the words of Professor Norman Doe, quoted by Idowu-Fearon, Anglicans should set out clearly “the jurisdictional boundaries of the instruments of the Communion,” and so “fill a vacuum and provide a set of house rules for the Anglican Communion to address issues.”

Which is to say, in the great good news from the meeting in Lusaka: the Anglican Covenant is back on the table, following a recent decision by the ACC’s own standing committee. To be sure, the Covenant [PDF] was not discussed at length by delegates nor taken up in the council’s 45 resolutions, but this is not surprising: council members were doubtless unprepared, and much more work of a serious sort, round the Communion, would be required in order to proceed intelligently and wisely. Basic ecclesiological study, and indeed reception of two generations of ecumenical research, is needed. This is the work of the Covenant process. Along the way, perhaps partial adoption of the introduction and first three sections — setting forth the unity, heritage, and missionary vocation of the Communion — could make sense. These parts of the Covenant are generally admired and may help to focus our collective mind on the sorts of structures needed to sustain both common faith and common order, mutually reinforcing as these must be.

This work will be enormously challenging, but its necessity is unavoidable — if, as ACC16 affirmed again, we hope to answer the call of communion. In a high point of the meeting, Archbishop Idowu-Fearon invoked the “prophetic” challenge of Bishop Stephen Bayne, the Communion’s first executive officer and an American, in a remarkable text written in 1961. If Anglicans are to resist the dangers “of isolation, of provincialism, of division and narrowness, which breed weakness and disunity, and which dissipate strength and defeat our essential unity and mission,” Bayne wrote, then we must learn “to think and choose and act together,” not as “a surrender of our traditional freedom, but rather an intelligent and far-seeing use of it.”

With sure-footed leaders, clear focus, and a working consensus, the Anglican Communion may yet, in the providence of God, manage to think and choose and act in service of the unity and mission of the one Body. We may, that is, embrace our catholic, evangelical, and ecumenical vocation. Pray for the Church.


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