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Narratives and counter-narratives: The case of ACC-16

Editor’s note: updated on Feb. 2, 2017 with a new link at the bottom. 

Many events in the Anglican Communion’s recent history seem to admit differing interpretations, depending on one’s sense of the underlying narrative. Was the consecration of Gene Robinson one more step in TEC’s “never-ending march toward justice”? Or was it another example of American imperialism: cowboy politics and a go-it-alone mentality writ into the life of global Anglicanism? Is opposition to (or mere hesitancy regarding) gay marriage really a commitment to “sacramental apartheid”? Or is it fidelity to Scripture and tradition? And so on. The narratives we tell ourselves shape our perception of events, and a clear lesson of recent years is that the Communion isn’t shaped by the same story. A global “we” perspective is often missing from Anglican reporting and commentary.

At times, diverging perspectives are a sad but understandable reality, the necessary corollary of a global Anglican body, united across the world but still divided by time, culture, and inadvertent sin. Differing narratives have time and space to develop, even in times of good will. That sort of divergence is overcome by our commitment to each other, a commitment to “checking” and periodically retooling each other’s stories, reorienting ourselves around the one story we must learn to share: that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).

Other times, it seems certain groups hasten to foster competing narratives in order to shape the perception of events. The only way to overcome this kind of divergence is by catching it early and countering it. It is part of a gospel commitment to speaking faithfully in all our communications.

Take the question of the primates’ “consequences” (for the communiqué, see here; for background, see here and here) and the now-concluding shape of ACC-16 in Lusaka, including its format.

The ACC meeting began with a clear message from both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Anglican Communion Office: the action the primates said they required in order to continue “walking together” had been carried out as far as possible. TEC members had been removed from ecumenical bodies. Later, Canon Elizabeth Paver, vice chairwoman of the ACC, asked members if they would commit to “working through the consequences” and to “walking together.” Throughout the ACC meeting, TEC members have participated, but Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut resolved not to stand for election as chairman of the ACC in order to “facilitate our walking together in unity.”[1] No members of TEC stood for the standing committee of the ACC. Already it seemed the primates’ “consequences” were received. But more happened.

Yesterday, the ACC approved resolution C34, “Walking Together,” proposed by Sudanese delegates Daniel Deng and Harriet Baka. It reads:

The Anglican Consultative Council

  1. receives the formal report of the Archbishop of Canterbury to ACC-16 on the Primates’ Gathering and Meeting of January 2016; and
  2. affirms the commitment of the Primates of the Anglican Communion to walk together; and
  3. commits to continue to seek appropriate ways for the provinces of the Anglican Communion to walk together with each other and with the Primates and other Instruments of Communion.

Another resolution (C35) on the Primates’ Meeting was dropped because, as Archbishop Welby said (and as The Living Church reported), resolution C34 covered the “issues we need to cover.” One can see his point. Resolution C35, proposed by two Irish delegates, simply said

The Anglican Consultative Council welcomes the full text of the Primates’ Walking Together in the Service of the World.

As Welby noted, C34 already established sufficient concurrence between the ACC and the Primates’ Meeting. There was no need for two resolutions. And, at a press conference on the same day, in response to a direct question, Archbishop Welby confirmed things:

“The ACC received my report, which included those consequences,” he said. “The consequences stand.”

Welby was not alone in this view. The Living Church just reported (“The Consequences Stand“) that

The Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Communion’s secretary general, said he was pleased and surprised by how easy it had been to secure approval from the ACC for this decision.

“The surprising thing for me is the continuity between what the primates came up with and ACC,” he said. “I know there were people expecting the ACC to lock horns, and it didn’t happen. … It means I can with boldness go, and wherever I go in the Communion, I can say, yes, we are together.”

Moreover, a story from TLC reported on the nature of the meeting’s format:

The Rev. Canon John Kafwanka, the Anglican Communion’s director of mission, said [it] was designed to enhance the participation of delegates whose first language is not English or who are not accustomed to debate-style engagement. The concerns of many delegates from the Global North that a single day would be insufficient to handle all resolutions proved unfounded. (emphasis added)

In other words, the primates’ consequences were received and affirmed at a well-organized meeting that, moreover, accomplished a great deal of other things. This is the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Secretary General.

But this is not the only narrative wending its way through the Internet.

Episcopal News Service, Deputy News, and the Episcopal delegates have attempted to report an entirely different picture. ENS ran a report by Mary Frances Schjonberg with the title “Anglican Consultative Council declines to go along with ‘consequences’.” Oddly, ENS offers no evidence that the ACC chose to decline the primates’ request. It was simply asserted.

Deputy News, on the other hand, has attempted to reinforce or corroborate the opinion of ENS, by reporting the opinion of Bishop Ian Douglas.

“We’ll look back on today and see that the door could have closed or opened,” he said. “It opened.”

The turning point came when Resolution C35, which would have “welcomed” a communiqué of the Anglican Communion’s primates … was withdrawn just before debate on it was scheduled to begin. Earlier in the day, the meeting had approved another resolution, C34, that “received” the report on the primates meeting that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had given to the ACC on April 8.

Deputy News reinforces this interpretation by citing Douglas’s opinion that the ACC rejected C35 in order to keep “the meeting on track” because the other resolution would have “focus[ed] on the primates’ communiqué narrowly.”. Deputy News also claims that the meeting’s design “drew criticism from members from across the Communion.”

Finally and most recently, the Episcopal delegates have published “A Letter from Lusaka,” where they now claim that resolution C35 was turned down because it “sought to pursue further consequences against The Episcopal Church.” This is a puzzling claim. The delegates also wanted to assure members of the Episcopal Church that

ACC members seemed to have little energy for answering the primates’ call for consequences, for discussing disagreements over human sexuality, or for taking up the call of Anglican Communion Secretary-General Josiah Idowu-Fearon to pursue the Anglican Covenant.

This letter furthers the criticism of the ACC’s process, crediting it to the fact that both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Secretary General are “relatively new in their posts.”

Shall we believe the narrative confirmed by Archbishop Welby? Do the consequences stand? And was the meeting well-designed to avoid being dominated by delegates from the Global North, used to parliamentary debate in their first language?

Or shall we believe the narrative associated with ENS, Deputy News, and the Episcopal delegates’ “Letter from Lusaka”? Were the consequences avoided, sidelined, or declined in order to keep the meeting on track? Was the format a problem?

I cannot say whether the reporting of ENS, Deputy News, and the Episcopal delegates represents an inadvertent or a deliberate attempt at changing the narrative, but Justin Welby’s perspective is the important one here, since he was the president of the meeting. It includes more of the facts, including his own reported statements about the development of the resolution discussion, the perceptions of others, and why resolution C34 was favored over C35: the two resolutions covered the same ground. And “the consequences stand.”

I return to the issue of the stories we tell and of “speaking faithfully” in difficult times. Sometimes our narratives diverge naturally, due to time and distance and even inadvertent sin. Sometimes we perceive certain events differently. In this case, we must return to our common story: that of Jesus Christ, his faithfulness, and reconciliation. Other times, some of us hasten to foster competing narratives, and these must be resisted early on, before misunderstanding is sown abroad.

May we all strive to listen well and to speak faithfully in difficult times.

Dr. Zachary Guiliano is the editor of Covenant and an ordinand of the Church of England. His other Covenant posts are here.

The featured image comes via Anglican Archives

(Update: Archbishop Justin Welby has left no room for ambiguity, stating his fullest view on Facebook and in this ACNS report, “ACC commits to ‘walking together’ with Primates.” He states again, “The consequences of the Primates meeting have been fully implemented.”)

(Update 2: The Episcopal delegation to the ACC has once again disputed its meaning with an incomplete account of the meeting (Feb. 2, 2017). It is disingenuous for them to assert that they “voted” on matters of doctrine and polity, when no one formally voted at the meeting, due to the placement of all material on a consent calendar. They would do better to highlight the ambiguity of their involvement, rather than continuing asserting this incomplete account.)


[1] Bishop Douglas wants to say that this was “not in response” to the primates’ communiqué, but in order to avoid division in the church. I can see why this might be an important distinction for Bishop Douglas’s own decision-making process, but the two are essentially identical: the primates requested Episcopalians to stand down in order to avoid further division and promote unity. It simply seems that Ian Douglas agrees with the primates that Episcopalians cannot currently serve easily as representatives or focuses of unity.


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