I’ve not paid attention to matters related to the world-wide Anglican Communion for some years. After the relative disaster of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 and the apparent collapse of efforts to create a more binding relationship among the provinces by means of the Anglican Covenants, I suspected the Anglican Communion would continue to exist more as an idea than as reality. When Archbishop of Canterbury Welby announced he wasn’t going to convene a Lambeth Conference in 2018, the reality seemed quite dead.
Not so fast. When he made that announcement the ABC also said he was going to convene a Primates’ Meeting–for those unfamiliar with odd and obscure Anglican vocabulary, “Primates” are Archbishops and other heads of provinces; provinces being national, or multi-national branches of the church.
That group is meeting this week in Canterbury, England. There was much speculation in the run-up to its gathering about what might emerge. Tensions over matters related to full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians continue to cause friction. Would Archbishops from the Global South show up? Would they force action against the Episcopal Church over our decision to permit same-sex marriage?
The Primates have spoken. They have asked the Episcopal Church to temporarily withdraw (for three years) from Anglican and ecumenical bodies:
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these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal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.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is representing the Episcopal Church at this meeting. Episcopal News Service offers these words from him in response to the Archbishops’ Communique:
“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”
Pain indeed. Whenever relationships are broken, whenever there is division in the church, there is pain. Archbishop Welby himself reportedly said in an address to the Primates:
We so easily take our divisions as normal, but they are in fact an obscenity, a denial of Christ’s call and equipping of the church. If we exist to point people to Christ, as was done for me, our pointing is deeply damaged by division. Every Lambeth Conference of the 20th century spoke of the wounds in the body of Christ. Yet some say, it does not matter, God sees the truth of spiritual unity and the church globally still grows. Well, it does for the moment, but the world does not see the spiritual church but a divided and wounded body. Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father sent me so send I you”. That sending is in perfect unity, which is why even at Corinth and at the Council of Jerusalem, we find that truth must be found together rather than show a divided Christ to the world.
Powerful words, but they ring rather hollowly this evening.
The Anglican Communion may not seem like a big deal to many Episcopalians. It may not even seem real. And it may be that the Archbishops’ decision will have little impact. After all, the Episcopal Church is not going to revisit its decision concerning same-sex marriage. Other provinces already recognize and perform same-sex marriages and its likely that others will join that group. I’ve long expected that ultimately the communion would divide internally along such lines, even as the church in the US has with a parallel entity the Anglican Church of North America existing alongside the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the powerful forces at work in our society that are changing how people relate to institutional churches. As denominations decline and denominational loyalty disappears, what might any of this matter in thirty or fifty years?
Still, there’s an important role for international relationships with Christians in other countries. Through such relationships we are reminded of the universal nature of the church and through such relationships we can cooperate with Christians in other countries in all sorts of ways. Grace’s membership includes people from England, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Barbados, and Jamaica. Just this past Sunday an African family recently relocated to Madison from another city in Wisconsin visited Grace. How will our congregation be affected by the Primates’ decision today?