Yesterday, January 14, 2016, the Meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, by a majority vote of the primates then present, voted to sanction The Episcopal Church (hereafter TEC) because of decisions made last summer by TEC’s General Convention to edit Canons and to authorize rites for marriage that use gender-neutral language. The effect of General Convention’s actions made it possible for same-sex couples in committed relationships to be married in this Church, a step made universally possible in the United States by a decision of the Supreme Court that was rendered at nearly the same time as the convening of the aforementioned General Convention.
The vote taken by the primates calls for sanctions for three years, and the sanctions would forbid members of TEC to represent the Anglican Communion at meetings with other churches or other faiths, to be appointed or elected to internal committees of the Communion, or to participate in decisions in the Anglican Communion “relating to doctrine or polity.” Perhaps you have heard all this. Many have by now, but many are have heard this news are left asking what does this mean to us who are TEC?
Well, it’s my belief that local parishes and congregations probably won’t see much change or impact from this decision. It’s largely a matter internal to the structures of the Communion and far removed from the lives of most local faith communities. It will certainly impact the work of scholars, ecumenists, leaders who serve us in Church-wide ministries, and those who have an interest in or work within the Communion’s infrastructure. So, I don’t foresee this having much impact where the rubber hits the road for The Diocese of West Missouri.
There’s another factor to consider, though. The Primates’ Meeting cannot actually mandate nor carry out the sanctions, and this is where it gets complicated.
The Anglican Communion has no official legal existence nor any governing structure empowered to exercise authority over the 38 autonomous, member Churches. Instead, it is a voluntary, international association of Churches (or provinces), TEC being one of those. The provinces (each having its origin in the ministry of The Church of England) work together and associate with one another because they are bound by a common heritage of history and liturgy, by cooperative participation in international consultative bodies, and by “bonds of mutual affection”. What ultimately holds the Communion together, though, is the shared desire to be “in full communion” with one another, meaning they share mutual agreement on essential doctrines and that full participation in the sacramental life of each province is available to all communicant Anglicans no matter where they may be from.
The unity of the Communion is aided by four structural pieces, often referred to as the Instruments of Communion since all provinces of the Communion participate in them. In order of antiquity, they are:
- The Archbishop of Canterbury, who functions as the spiritual head of the Communion. The Archbishop’s role is strictly symbolic and unifying, and he is the focus of unity since no province claims membership in the Communion without being “in communion” with him. The Most Rev. Justin Welby is the current Archbishop of Canterbury.
- The Lambeth Conference (first held in 1867) is a forum for bishops of the Communion to meet collegially to promote unity, discuss matters of mutual concern, and pass resolutions intended to act as guideposts for the life of the Communion.
- The Anglican Consultative Council (which first met in 1971) was created by a 1968 Lambeth Conference resolution, and consists of representative bishops, clergy, and laity chosen by the thirty-eight provinces. The body has a permanent secretariat, the Anglican Communion Office, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is President.
- The Primates’ Meeting (which first met in 1979) is a consultative gathering of the Primates of the 38 provinces for “leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation”.
As mentioned above, the Anglican Communion has no international juridical organization. Since there is no binding authority in the Anglican Communion, these international bodies are a vehicle for consultation and persuasion.
The one body that can actually implement the decision of the Primates’ Meeting, is the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). The ACC’s role in the Communion is to facilitate the cooperative work of the provinces by insuring exchange of information and coordinating common action among the provinces. It also advises on the organization and structures of the Communion, and seeks to develop common policies with respect to the world mission of the Church, including ecumenical matters.
This means that the ACC is the body that calls, coordinates, and invites participants to the various meetings of the Anglican Communion., and since they are entrusted to do this, they are the body that can withhold invitations to members of TEC, as the sanctions call for. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the President of the ACC, and as such he has significant influence on the actions the ACC will now take. The Anglican Communion Office, the secretariat that does the day-to-day work of the ACC, is led by the Archbishop who is aided by the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, currently The Most Rev. Dr. Josiah Atkins Idowu-Fearon, the former Archbishop of the Province of Kaduna and Bishop of Kaduna in the Anglican Church of Nigeria. I simply do not know what steps Archbishop Welby or the Secretary General will now take. Only time will tell.
If the sanctions become real—if invitations are withheld and participation by TEC is thwarted—TEC’s next General Convention will be telling. The sanctions were given a three-year duration. That’s just the same amount of time that elapses between TEC’s General Conventions. I speculate that those who instigated these sanctions will attempt further punitive action against TEC if the next General Convention does not recant the decisions made and the actions taken in 2015. In other words, the 2018 Convention could, on one hand, forestall all further intra-Communion squabbles, or it could, on the other hand, lead to a new round of sanctions or other, harsher penalties when the next Primates’ Meeting convenes in 2019.
So, we may be in a time of testing—and I believe we are—with the rest of the Anglican Communion watching to see if we will repent for our decisions, repudiate our actions, or reverse our resolutions.
What the Anglican Communion Office decides to do when it acts for the ACC is the next unknown in this drama. We don’t know and can’t now know what the curtain will reveal when it rises for Act II.