The primates of the Anglican Communion have met for the first time in five years, after having met rather regularly every 2 or 3 years since their first meeting in 1979. Why this gap? Anyone reading this article will know that our Communion — from archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons, and laity to dioceses, congregations, families, and friends — is divided over the issue of human sexuality. The failure of the primates to meet is but one manifestation of this global and yet very personal conflict.
The 2011 Primates’ Meeting in Dublin was attended by only 23 of 38 Primates. It was obvious that calling another Primates’ Meeting would not be helpful if a significant number would not attend. When Justin Welby was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury, he thus made a commitment to visit each of the primates in his or her own locale, before calling another meeting. In order to get them to the meeting, Welby assured the primates that they could, indeed, set the agenda.
And so they did. Item #1 on the agenda, they said, “was to discuss an important point of contention among Anglicans worldwide: the recent change to the doctrine of marriage by The Episcopal Church in the USA.”
What did they say?
After much back and forth, the primates determined that the Episcopal Church had unilaterally changed the doctrine of marriage, even after having been asked not to, and that it would therefore experience consequences.
Over the past week the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ. We looked at what that meant in practical terms ….
It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.
Do the primates have the authority?
The question that a number of commentators are asking is: Can they do that? Do the primates have the authority to “requir[e] that for a period of three years” TEC will not represent the Anglican Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, nor be elected or appointed to internal standing committees of the Communion?
Among others, Andy Doyle, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, rightfully points out that
[w]hile the Primates may ask this for their own body, as one of the instruments of the Anglican Communion, it does not make the same automatically true for the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), a second of the three [sic] instruments of the Anglican Communion. That Council will have to make its own decisions according to its bylaws and constitution. The next meeting of the ACC is this April.
Any fair observer will acknowledge that the primates do not have the legislative authority to make this pronouncement. That observation does not end the conversation, however. The primates’ response is truly unprecedented in the history of the Anglican Communion. The reason it is unprecedented is that nothing like this has occurred that would cause such a sui generis decision to be made.
Since its inception, the Anglican Communion has lived together not by legislative authority but by a messy sort of grace rooted in relationships. When asked what makes us Anglicans, Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “We meet.” Now, we may not like his answer, and I’m not sure how precisely theological it is, but he does hit the nail on the head. One way that we know we are Anglicans is that our bishops and primates meet together, and have done so as a common family for some time. And, at the recent primates’ gathering, they stated what needs to happen for the primates and the Communion to continue to meet. The primates want to continue to walk together. So, what does it take? The Episcopal Church must learn to live into the consequences of its decision to change the doctrine of marriage.
Do the primates have the legislative authority to make such a pronouncement? No. But our bond and common identity as Anglicans is not governed by law but by the grace of relationships. The primates acknowledged that our (their) relationships are strained and broken. Then, as a body, they agreed upon what it takes to keep the relationships moving forward. In my view, their response was not a legislative dictum but a relational response.
Is this the final step? Of course not. But it is moving us forward, allowing us to continue to walk together as a Communion while, as a Communion, we continue to do the hard work of theology together.
So, which direction will we go? Will we stand on our legislative rights and walk backwards away from each other? Or will we walk forward in the direction of relationship, which has up to this point been the basis for our common life as a communion?
When I was in college and discussing the issue of women’s ordination with a Roman Catholic friend, I said to him that we had been dealing with this issue for several decades. He responded, “That’s the difference between my church and yours. In your impatience, you think in terms of decades; we think in terms of centuries.”
If we choose the path of legislative rights, we will surely end up fracturing, going our separate ways. If we choose the path of relationships, we just might be able show the world a witness of the Church doing the hard work of theology while maintaining its unity.