Can we finally bury the Anglican Communion?

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these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal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?

The dust settles on the Primates Meeting

It didn’t take long, for there wasn’t much dust. It seems little happened, or in ABC-speak, “conversations took place, relationships were deepened, yada yada yada.” George Conger, Paul Bagshaw, and the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church comment.

There seem to have been some important developments, not least the recognition (finally, what took so long) that the role of the primates differs widely from local church to local church, that their power and office are often structured quite differently, all of which make unified action impossible.

Bagshaw makes two comments which seem on target, and which reflect on ongoing development in the Anglican Communion. One is that “it is an ever more clerical communion.” It’s not clear to me why, and given the enormous cultural shifts throughout the world, a narrowing of the power and role of the laity seems both wrongheaded and against the tide of history. The second comment is that, given the changes in roles for the Lambeth Conference, the Primates Meeting, and the sidelining of the Anglican Consultative Council (all of which I think are taking place and have been taking place for the last decade), power is centralizing in the Archbishop of Canterbury and in the Anglican Communion Office–as Bagshaw terms it, an international bureaucracy. This, too, seems odd to me, and somehow roughly parallel to developments in the European Union, where power has centralized in the bureaucracy, not in any deliberative bodies.

But more important than any of this may be the absence of a significant number of Primates, for whatever reason. For many of them, what the Archbishop of Canterbury does, the meetings he calls, are meaningless. Conger and Bagshaw agree that “the Anglican Communion as we knew it no longer exists,” what isn’t clear is what precisely is coming into existence. And so long as there is no lay voice at the highest levels of international meetings, I don’t think the Episcopal Church should spend time, energy, or money, trying to remain a part of it.

Anglican Eyes looking in the wrong direction?

There will be a lot of press in the coming days about the Primates Meeting in Dublin this week. Already there have been articles about which primates will attend and which won’t be there. Thinking Anglicans has the rundown. But perhaps this is better commentary: Google “bonobos” if you don’t get the reference.

Meanwhile work gets done even in Episcopal dioceses. A telling commentary from Julie Ingersoll on Religion Dispatches. Of course, there is pain. The article mentions those who went their separate way in the past decade. But the issue was never going to be resolve. There would always be contention, and in the midst of that contention, precious little good news gets proclaimed. We have gone our separate ways. Let’s get on with doing the Lord’s work in our own contexts and with our own perspectives. Perhaps the Primates are willing to do the same.

Will the Primates meet?

Quite the hubbub over this question. The primates of the Anglican Communion are scheduled to meet in Dublin in January 2011. A report by George Conger puts this meeting in question, and indeed raises issues about the Primates Meeting itself. It is important because it is one of the “four instruments of communion” so often discussed in the last 10-15 years. The meetings have at times been acrimonious, and recent ones have featured, if not outright boycotts, then pointed refusals on the part of some, to participate in joint Eucharists.

According to Conger, who tends to be a reliable source, the Archbishop of Canterbury has proposed smaller meetings of “like-minded” archbishops before the Dublin meeting itself. This report received confirmation from a number of sources. Conger goes on to say that Williams is proposing a restructuring of the meeting itself:

suggesting that an elected standing committee be created and the powers and responsibility of the meeting of the communion’s 38 archbishops, presiding bishops and moderators be delineated.

The problem here is two-fold. How can the primates be an “instrument of communion” if they cannot gather together? The second problem is an ongoing one as the ABC attempts to tinker with Anglican structures and create a more cohesive body. An elected standing committee would seem to further narrow and centralize powers within this group and decrease democratic representation. One can see similar attempts at work in the proposed restructuring of the Anglican Consultative Council–which would increase representation from the Primates, at the expense, as always of the laity.

The structures of the Anglican Communion, the “instruments of communion” are unwieldy. The alternative is to create a centralized bureaucracy that holds all power and makes the decisions. That sounds a great deal like the Vatican to me.

According to late reports, the Anglican Communion Office vehemently denies that the Primates Meeting has been canceled or postponed.

As always, you can follow the discussion on Thinking Anglicans and the Episcopal Cafe.