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Primates Weigh Redefinition of the Communion

Primates representing 30 of the Anglican Communion’s 42 member churches discussed possible changes to the Anglican Communion’s 90-year-old definition, shared stories of mutual struggle, and met with Pope Francis at a Primates’ Meeting held in Rome April 29-May 3.

Archbishop Justin Welby said that the leaders of nine member churches from the Global South had stayed away for reasons of conscience. This triples the number who absented themselves from the 2022 Primates’ Meeting in London, making this one of the most unrepresentative gatherings since the primates began meeting in 1979.

“It has been a very emotional week,” Welby said at a May 2 press conference, noting that he had been moved to tears by discussion of some of the challenges that fellow primates are facing. “Although we are divided by so much — and I’m talking about culture, language, history, background — one thing we have in common is a profound love for Jesus Christ. That is shared by all of us, regardless of our views on other issues.”

“It has been quite sad that some of the members of our family are not here, for a variety of reasons,” Archbishop Albert Chama of Central Africa. “We feel strongly that as a church, we are a family, and we need to carry one another.”

GSFA Leaders Stay Away

The primates of 12 of the Communion’s member churches did not attend the gathering. Only seven of Africa’s 15 Anglican churches were represented (Burundi, Central Africa, Kenya, Mozambique and Angola, Tanzania, Southern Africa, and West Africa). Welby said that two primates were unable to attend for personal reasons and that two primates who stayed away out of conscience had sent letters of support to the gathering.

Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, vice president of the House of Bishops, represented the Episcopal Church on behalf of Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry. Curry is recovering from multiple hospitalizations, and has been medically cleared only for short-distance travel.

In their February 2023 Ash Wednesday Statement, issued shortly after the Church of England’s General Synod voted to authorize rites for same-sex blessings, members of the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA) said they were “no longer able to recognise the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt. Hon & Most Revd. Justin Welby, as the ‘first among equals’ Leader of the global Communion.” Because of his position as the leader of a church that “has departed from the historic faith passed down from the Apostles,” they added, he is “no longer the Chair of the Primates’ Meeting.”

“We do not accept the view that we can still ‘walk together’ with the revisionist provinces as prescribed by the Anglican Communion Office and in the exploratory way proposed by IASCUFO (Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith & Order) at the recent Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)-18 meeting,” they added.

The Ash Wednesday Statement was signed by the primates of 10 of the Anglican Communion’s member provinces. Only two of these, Archbishop Samuel Mankhin of Bangladesh and Archbishop Leonard Dawea of Melanesia, attended this week’s meeting in Rome.

The meeting was boycotted by the six primates who serve on the GSFA’s Steering Committee (Archbishops Justin Badi Arama of South Sudan, Tito Zavala of Chile, Stephen Than of Myanmar, Titre Ande Georges of Congo, James Wong of the Indian Ocean, and Samy Shehata of Alexandria).

Chama said that he and several other primates who had come to Rome were also planning to attend the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans Assembly in Egypt in June, a gathering called “to reset the Communion on its biblical foundation,” in the Ash Wednesday Statement’s words.

While there, Chama added, “We hope to encourage our brothers that were absent that next time they need to come, to sit, and we talk as a family, so that we can start journeying together in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ; and that the Great Commission is not only to certain type of people, but to all of us who profess the faith in Christ Jesus as our Lord.”

Redefining the Communion

Four sessions of the gathering were devoted to discussion of a working paper that proposes structural revisions to the Communion.

The paper, prepared by IASCUFO in the last 18 months, “imagines afresh the Anglican vocation to seek and serve the visible unity of all Christians, addresses honestly the fractures of the Anglican Communion, and describes the evolution of the structures of the Communion from 1867 to the present,” said the meeting’s communiqué. It was commissioned by the Anglican Consultative Council during its February 2023 meeting in Accra, Ghana.

The Rt. Rev. Graham Tomlin, chair of IASCUFO, indicated that the primates supported a proposal for revising the definition of the Anglican Communion created by the 1930 Lambeth Conference, which is incorporated into the constitutions of many member churches of the Communion, including the Episcopal Church (Preamble): “The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the see of Canterbury.”

The definition needs rethinking, Tomlin said, because “our structures have changed since then. We now have an Anglican Consultative Council. We have a Primates’ Meeting, which we didn’t have in 1930. Demographically, the central gravity of the Communion has changed hugely in that time.”

“In 1930, it felt like you had the mother church with some small children around it. Now we have a different kind of family,” he added. “We have grown-up children, and the mother is still there, but in a different position for the family.”

Tomlin did not provide specifics about proposals for a new definition, but decentering the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury seems almost certain, in a context when so many Anglicans in the Global South have declared themselves to be in impaired communion with the current occupant of the See because of decisions made by the church he leads.

Tomlin said that another of IASCUFO’s proposals, that one of the Communion’s primates be elected to lead the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council in place of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was not accepted by the primates.

But, he added, “there was a real expression of the need for both wider support for the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury within the Anglican Communion and the need for some kind of expression of the developing nature of the Communion in our structures.”

Tomlin said that further revisions would be made to the working paper, incorporating the feedback received from the primates, and that a text would be released to the public in one or two months.

Meeting with the Pope

Pope Francis met with the primates on the morning of May 2, and shared an address focused on the call to church unity and deeper synodality, defined as the use of more extensive consultation in decision-making.

The Catholic Church is in the midst of its own somewhat messy discernment about governance and structure, highlighted by two lengthy gatherings called “The Synod on Synodality” in Rome, one last October, and the next this October.

Building on commitments emphasized during the most recent round of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, the church is seeking to expand the role of the laity and parish clergy in decision-making. The goal is to move, in the pope’s words, “not occasionally but structurally towards a ‘synodal Church,’ an open square where all can feel at home and participate.”

Pope Francis said to the primates, “Only a love that becomes gratuitous service, only the love that Jesus taught and embodies, will bring separated Christians closer to one another. Only that love, which does not appeal to the past in order to remain aloof or to point a finger, only that love which in God’s name puts our brothers and sisters before the ironclad defense of our own religious structures, only that love will unite us.”

The gathering also included a pilgrimage to several of the city’s historic basilicas, and the primates joined the Community of Saint Egidio for Evening Prayer at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastavere on May 1. This Catholic lay association, founded in 1968, is devoted to service of the poor and has played an important role in conflict resolution in numerous war-torn regions.


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