Inside the Canterbury primates gathering

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Tales from the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral

Somewhere in the interplay of personalities, cultures and beliefs of the archbishops gathered this week in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral is a great novel waiting to be written. This isn’t it.

Action and adventure wait as you read through this account, but no great work of art is likely to spring forth from my keypad today. But couching the January 2016 primates gathering in the cold prose of chronology does not capture its essence. Tolstoy’s dictum found at the start of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, may help explain the “why” of the primates’ censure of the Episcopal Church of the USA – for the story of the primates meeting is the story of an unhappy family.

So what happened? In the run up to the meeting Archbishop Justin Welby wrote to each of the primates and Archbishop Foley Beach asking them to list the issues they wished to see placed on the agenda. A second letter was sent out reporting on the results of the first.

Archbishop Welby invited 39 other primates from the “official” membership roster of the Anglican Communion, along with Archbishop Foley Beach of the ACNA, Archbishop of York John Sentamu (who rejoices in the title of Primate of England, while Justin Welby is Primate of All England) and the secretary general of the Anglican Consultative Council, Dr. Josiah Idowu-Fearon to attend.

Four primates did not attend: Bishop Renato Abibico of the Philippines, Archbishop Sturdie Downs of Central America, Archbishop Brown Turei of Aotearoa and Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales – (If there are 38 provinces including England how could Archbishop Welby invite 39 primates? Because Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia have three co-primates and two of the three said they would come. (I.e., 38 – 1 = 37 + 2 = 39)

On the morning of the first day, Archbishop Welby announced that he had closed the cathedral to visitors and the primates were invited to a time of prayer for two hours. They were free to wander through the cloisters of the cathedral, pray in its chapels, or gather as they saw fit in groups to meditate upon the Lord, and seek his guidance for the week to come.

Archbishop Beach told AI this was the highlight of his week, and would be something he would remember the rest of his life.

Following lunch the first business session was held and Archbishop Welby delivered his presidential address to the gathering. The tone of the speech, coupled with its call to repentance, renewal and grace flowed naturally from the morning of prayer, one primate noted. Conservatives heard Archbishop Welby to be saying he was on their side, and understood their concerns.

The primates were then given slips of paper summarizing the results of the solicitation of agenda items and asked to select four topics for discussion. The primates were able to decide on three items, with the first being “Our response to the actions of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention of 2015”.  Until the last session on Friday, the gathering focused on this one issue.

GAFCON leaders told AI the focus on the Episcopal Church’s decision at its June General Convention in Salt Lake City to begin the process towards approving rites for the blessing of same-sex unions was the action that gained the full attention of the primates. While the GAFCON leaders sought to recount the divisions of the past 13 years since the election and consecration of Gene Robinson, the trajectory of the meeting followed the path of the formal legislative action taken by the Episcopal Church to change the doctrine of marriage.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz of Canada told the gathering his church’s General Synod would take up the subject of same-sex marriage at its General Synod this summer, but stressed that no provincial wide decision had been reached. Canada, one participant explained, did not capture the imagination of the primates.

As discussions continued into Tuesday on the setting the agenda, it became apparent that for 20 of the archbishops, this was their first meeting as primate. Some were unaware of the problems facing the Episcopal Church of the USA, Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Church in North America and asked why the North Americans could not settle their own problems without the intervention of the wider Communion.

Archbishop Beach and Bishop Curry, supported by their allies, summarized the theological and pastoral concerns that had led to the current situation. Archbishop Stanley Ntagali summarized the position of his province, and on the evening of the 12th withdrew from the meeting, writing to his province the following evening that he could not continue in the discussions due to the Church of Uganda’s formal position on talks with the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada.

Bishop Curry shared his vision of the call to social justice and welcome given to the Episcopal Church. He told ENS’s Matt Davies: ““Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome.”

He told ENS that he had rebutted charges the Episcopal Church had been captured by secular culture. “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.”

The meeting was conducted in an open and fair manner by Archbishop Welby who sat as president of the gathering, participants told AI. Archbishop Paul Kwong on 15 Jan 2016 said the Canterbury gathering was the best of the four he had attended as the primates had control of their agenda and the pace of discussions. At one point the bishops were asked to break into small groups led by facilitators to discuss an issue according to the principles of the Delphi method, a management technique developed by the RAND Corporation in California in the 1970s, but the GAFCON and Global South primates balked at the suggestion. Archbishop Welby reversed course and the meeting through the rest of the week functioned as a committee of the whole.

Archbishop Beach told AI the dispute was a salvation issue. “Millions of souls were affected by false teaching.”

Archbishop Welby asked Archbishop Beach what it would take to reconcile the ACNA and the Episcopal Church. Archbishop Beach said the ACNA asked the Episcopal Church to repent of its ungodly innovations, to end all litigation immediately, to give restitution for the millions of dollars in property and assets taken from departing congregations, to “restore to us our pension” and “rescind” the depositions of the over 700 clergy kicked out of the Episcopal Church.

Archbishop Welby asked Bishop Curry and Archbishop Hiltz if they would like Archbishop Beach to be absent during the discussion of question one, but the two agreed to his continued participation.

Archbishop Beach was invited to vote on the resolutions dealing with the Episcopal Church on Wednesday and Thursday, but declined, noting that he was not an official member of the primates meeting. However, he also said that he felt it would not be proper for him to vote on the matter before the gathering as he had an interest in its outcome.

The consensus of the meeting by Wednesday was that the Episcopal Church’s adoption of rites for same-sex marriage at its 2015 General Convention changed the doctrine of marriage. The debate centered not on the merits of same-sex marriage or if the Episcopal Church had the right to take such a step, but upon the consequences for the Episcopal Church for having taken this action.

A resolution was brought forward on Wednesday asking the Episcopal Church to voluntarily withdraw from the instruments of communion as it revisits the issue of same-sex marriage – which the primates stated was contrary to the doctrine and discipline of the formularies and Books of Common Prayer. Bishop Curry told the meeting the Episcopal Church would not comply with such a request. The issue was put to a vote and the call for a voluntary suspension was defeated 15 to 20, with liberals and conservatives voting against the center.

As the debates progressed the coalition of traditionalists in the GAFCON and Global South movement saw their numbers grow. The Archbishop of Tanzania, who had reestablished relations with the Episcopal Church in the months before the meeting, joined the ranks of the traditionalists as did hitherto uncommitted archbishops.

On Thursday a resolution was reintroduced calling for the mandatory withdrawal of the Episcopal Church’s representatives from the leadership of the communion and its various commissions and bodies, until the 2018 General Convention scheduled to meet in Austin, Texas responded to the primates call to halt the implementation of same-sex blessings. The resolution further instructed the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a task force to oversee implementation of the reforms.

Archbishop Welby pledged that he would not act as his predecessor, Rowan Williams, and fail to follow through on the primates’ call for action. A vote was taken calling for mandatory sanctions and it was adopted 27 to 8 – (an unofficial result).

By the close of Thursday many of the traditionalist primates felt they had achieved all they could from the meeting. When the group photo was taken, Archbishops Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria, Eliud Wabukala of Kenya, Foley Beach of the ACNA joined Stanley Ntagali of Uganda in withdrawing from the deliberations.

Speaking to ENS at the close of business on Thursday, Bishop Curry said: “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.”

“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.”

He said he told the primates: “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.”

“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.”

On Friday the primates turned to other matters, agreeing to a 2020 date for the next Lambeth Conference, and addressing some of the subsidiary issues brought before the meeting.

Archbishop Beach told AI the formal status of the ACNA within the Anglican Communion, as defined by membership in the Anglican Consultative Council was not raised in the gathering. “This was not the forum for that discussion,” he said, noting we are a “Church in the Anglican Tradition in full communion with some of the provinces of the Anglican Communion.” The ACNA would be asking itself whether membership in the ACC was “something we want officially to apply for.”

When confronted with his wife’s infidelity, Alexei Karenin wrote to Anna “The family cannot be broken up through caprice, perversity or even crime of one of the married couple.” He told her “Our life must go on as heretofore.”

For Foley Beach the issues are salvation and fidelity to Scripture. For Michael Curry it is social justice, welcoming the outcaste, and fidelity to Scripture. For Justin Welby the issue was preserving the family – keeping up appearances so that the Communion’s life goes on “as heretofore.” For traditionalists the sanctions imposed on the Episcopal Church were too light, but a start in the right direction. For the Episcopal Church and its allies the sanctions were a disgrace to the witness of the church in a broken world. For the Archbishop of Canterbury and those in his van, they were sufficient to keep the conversation going in hopes that a solution may one day be found.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy quotes a French proverb: “Happy people have no history.” Where there are dramatic events, where there is material for an interesting story, there is unhappiness. Anglicanism has the makings of a great story.