Icon (Close Menu)

Perspectives on the Primates’ Meeting

This address by the Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, was delivered at the study day (January 29, 2016) before the seating of the Rt. Rev. Peter Eaton as Bishop of Southeast Florida. 

There is a famous optical illusion that I am sure you have all seen: it’s a drawing of what could be either a very young woman or a very old woman. What you see is a matter of perspective.

The recent gathering of primates has attracted the attention of both secular and church journalists alike, and the blogosphere is so full of commentary and interpretation that I can barely keep up with it. The good news is that the world has noticed the Anglican Communion! The disturbing news is how much these commentaries vary so wildly from each other. I am left wondering whether they are talking about the same meeting. Did the primates’ gathering become an optical illusion? It is a matter of perspective.

Let me share with you my perspective as the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, who works for all four Instruments of Communion: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council (meeting in eight weeks), the Lambeth Conference (in 2020), and the Primates’ Meeting. During my 25 years as a bishop and archbishop of the Church of Nigeria, I have travelled extensively throughout the Anglican Communion, and have come to love my Anglican sisters and brothers in Christ: Anglicans from every theological and cultural perspective. Nowhere was the breadth of all these Anglican perspectives clearer to me than when I served on the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which produced The Windsor Report in 2004. So I am no stranger to the complexities, conflicts, and miracle that is our Anglican Communion. I am a charismatic and evangelical Anglican; I believe and experience the power and presence of the Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Church.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury announced the primates’ gathering last September, I said in my own press release: “This is a most welcome development. The Anglican Communion must now allow the Holy Spirit to intervene in the differences that divide us.” “This is an opportunity,” I said, “to listen to useful ideas from this group on how we continue as a Communion in light of the search and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit.” And I called on all Anglicans to pray for the primates.

The primates’ gathering was soaked in prayer and the experience of the Holy Spirit among us. Anglicans from all over the world — and our ecumenical partners — kept the primates in their prayers. At Canterbury the primates gathered at the regular times of daily prayer with the people and clergy of the Diocese of Canterbury with their archbishop in the cathedral. And the primates prayed. They met in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, a place hallowed by the prayers of Christians for a thousand years. And the Holy Spirit heard our prayers. I cannot remember another event that has been so fervently held in prayer by so many. This is the first perspective that I would offer you.

The meeting was of Anglican primates, yes, but it was more than an Anglican event; it was ecumenical. Even among the primates, four were the moderators of united churches from South Asia. The leader of Archbishop Justin’s facilitation team is an Anabaptist. The Roman Catholic Church sent the primates a remarkable sign of solidarity by lending us for a week the head of the crosier of Pope Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine to Canterbury in 597. This gift reminded us of not only the unity of the Anglican Communion, but of the wider unity for which we prayed last week during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Jean Vanier — a Roman Catholic layperson — came to Canterbury to talk to the primates about healing and reconciliation. The primates received ecumenical greetings from around the world. Let me read to you part of the message from the World Council of Churches:

The Anglican Communion has offered so much to the churches’ vocation of striving for justice and peace and for visible unity. The ecumenical movement continues to look to you for leadership and inspiration.

Unity is a gift and a calling. God’s will for all of creation is reconciliation through the love of Christ, and that we might live together in unity guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. This aspect of our faith, this content of our hope, is not optional, but rather is a reflection of God’s own being.

There is the perspective of dialogue. A journalist challenged me in public about whether dialogue can ever really change people’s minds. I responded that the purpose of dialogue is never to change anyone’s mind. Dialogue is about understanding another person. And the primates did engage in the hard work of dialogue. They had to listen and to understand each other, their different contexts with the diverse challenges in witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ. Some of those contexts are places where Christians are a minority, and where they are persecuted, even suffering religiously motivated violence. Most of the contexts are where Anglicans are small minority churches. Some are places where the effects of the environmental crisis are so severe that entire communities will disappear. Anglicans are among the world’s refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers; Anglicans are among those who seek to address this current crisis, welcoming displaced peoples into their nations, churches, and homes. The primates know that the current global crises demand common and coordinated responses from a united family of churches.

In the mix of all that threatens the world today, the issue that keeps Anglicans from fulfilling our common mission is our public disagreement on questions on human sexuality. From the perspective of the majority of primates, the common direction was given by the Lambeth Conference of 1998, in Resolution 1.10. I quote:

  • We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
  • [This conference,] while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
  • [It] cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;

Although this resolution was passed by the majority of the bishops in 1998, it has not been unanimously acted upon by the churches of our communion. As an African and Anglican, I am most challenged by the reality that in many of our countries, including my own, homosexuality is a criminal offence. I have made many people in my church and in the government of Nigeria very angry with me by my repeated objections to the criminalising of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I greeted the statement of the Primates in 2005 when they said:

  • We continue unreservedly to be committed to the pastoral support and care of homosexual people. The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us. We assure homosexual people that they are children of God, loved and valued by him, and deserving of the best we can give of pastoral care and friendship.

In Nigeria, other parts of Africa, and in many other places in the Communion — including North America, let us be honest — Anglicans must go much further to enact both the spirit and letter of this part of Lambeth 1.10 and the 2005 Primates’ Meeting. TEC has stood up for the rights of gay and lesbian people here and around the world, and I am inspired. But changing the doctrine of marriage to include those same people has not inspired most of the Anglican family. Because they are in communion with you, and choose to walk with you even though they cannot agree with or receive the decision of the General Convention, they are perceived as being pro-gay churches. Being in communion with you threatens their witness to the same Lord Jesus, especially but not only in Muslim contexts, where the cultural sensibilities about human sexuality are so very different. In short, your decision puts many of us at risk.

In the recent General Convention, you demonstrated a hope that it is possible to disagree on this issue within your church and remain in communion with one another. It is a hope that will be tested, as you know. And for the rest of the communion, such living together in disagreement will perhaps be even more difficult. As much as Episcopalians are scandalised by the criminalisation of homosexuality in some parts of the world, know that other Anglicans are scandalised by your change of the doctrine of marriage.

The primates from the global south heard how your witness and mission in the USA are impaired by being in communion with them. Do you know that, because of the perspective that by rejecting the decision of the Episcopal Church on the doctrine of marriage the Anglican Communion is therefore homophobic, there is an early day motion this week in the British Parliament to disestablish the Church of England? It will fail, but it is significant.

There was a moment in the meeting when the minority of primates from provinces that could accept TEC’s decision, and the majority of primates who could not, saw that the only way forward was to walk apart, and to let two different Anglican Communions get on with their lives without having to worry about offending the other. There was such sadness in the room that morning. But, when Archbishop Justin put this option to the primates directly, the miracle happened: they unanimously decided to walk together! They bore witness to a costly unity to something deeper: our communion together in the Risen Christ. Ecclesiologists call it “bonds of affection.” I call it love! The churches of the Anglican Communion in clumsy, inarticulate, and imperfect ways love each other. But, the divisive issue had to be addressed, and a solution found that would keep us walking together, but at the same time, walking at a safe distance from the actions of the General Convention last summer.

In the end, no church was expelled or suspended from the Anglican Communion. TEC remains a vital and loved member of the family. Its internal decision to change its doctrine has not, however, been received by the majority of Anglican churches. A concrete expression of that non-reception is to say that for a time — three years — TEC no longer represents the Anglican Communion on ecumenical or interfaith bodies; while this consequence applies to TEC as a whole, it practically involves a three-year absence of a gifted priest, ecumenist, and Bible scholar who serves on our dialogue with the World Communion of Reformed Churches. A member of TEC will not be elected to the next triennium of the Standing Committee. Current members of TEC serving on internal bodies of the Communion will not be part of decision-making on matters of doctrine and polity.

I know that for your church to accept these consequences is to accept a costly and painful unity. But please know that for many of the primates, who needed an even safer distance from TEC, the consequences as they stand put them, too, on the path of costly unity.

The perspective that the primates’ gathering was homophobic is not reflected in their communiqué, where they repeated their condemnation of homophobic prejudice and violence; they rejected again criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people. While there were initial demands for the disciplining of churches who offer pastoral care of gay couples by liturgical rites of blessing, this was simply not mentioned in the communiqué; in the end, the issue is the unilateral change of the doctrine of marriage.

So what did the primates achieve? They met: that was a huge achievement. They prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that was given to them. The Anglican Communion is fragile, but intact. The primates asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish a task group to continue the conversation about how to maintain this restored relationship, especially on how we deal with other issues that diminish our capacity to walk together (e.g., lay presidency, support for the criminalisation of homosexuality, collusion in corruption, etc).

I rejoice that the primates chose to walk together, because what keeps us together is not agreement or uniformity, but the presence of the Risen Christ among us. He makes us a communion, and so we are stuck with each other. When Christians are unable to agree with one another, yet choose communion, refusing to say “I have no need of you,” we bear evangelical witness to the One through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross. Unity is about evangelical witness.

And so the last thing the primates did in Canterbury was to reflect on the Church’s mission in evangelism. Every single one of the primates committed themselves and their churches “to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.” So from my perspective as Secretary General, and as a charismatic and evangelical Anglican, that final thing that I would like to say about the primates’ gathering is “Praise the Lord!”

The Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon is Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. The featured image comes via Primates 2016. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Clarity About Ambiguity

The Ambiguity of Being Lonergan and the Problems of the Supernatural By Jonathan R. Heaps Catholic University of America Press, 250...

The Hajj: A Muslim Vision for the Interreligious Life

Community is a messy and wild business. As someone who loves her community deeply, sometimes my impulse is...

With the Grain of the Prayer Book

In early February 1685, King Charles II fell ill and clergy across the country, perhaps somewhat strangely, began...

Sent to Coventry, Called to Windsor

Having been “sent to Coventry” in 2008 to be Bishop of the Diocese of Coventry in the West...