Reflections on the aftermath of the Primates Meeting at Canterbury

“Inclusion here, where it applies to gay life-styles, means the exclusion of those who hold to an orthodox reading of Scripture.”

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” Joshua 24.15.

If we look to Scripture when difficulties arise between Christians we have on the one hand the profound call to unity amongst those who love Jesus that we find in St John, 17. 20ff:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

But we also have Jesus’ instructions on how to approach conflict in St Matthew chapter 18.15ff

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

In the light of the global struggle between two conflicting ways of being Christian that the Anglican Communion has struggled with, we might see the gathering of the Primates in January 2016, as the final stage, played out globally rather than locally, in the process Jesus describes above.

The mantra of the culturally attuned liberalism within Anglicanism is one celebrating and ensuring ‘inclusion’. At first sight this might seem to be fulfil some of the conditions of Jesus’ invitation to unity. The difficulty is, as we have seen and known for some while, that inclusion does not mean what it says. Rather it means the reconfiguration of different sets of values.

Inclusion here, where it applies to gay life-styles, means the exclusion of those who hold to an orthodox reading of Scripture.

What happens if we ask questions to aid our discernment about what lies behind the movement of inclusion and the claim for social justice that liberal Anglicanism, and particularly TEC, celebrates and pursues?

At the level of intellectual and rational analysis, it appears to be a recent meme which we can usefully describe as Cultural Marxism, since it pursues similar goals to Marxism, but without the economics. It poses as a spiritual movement, but it is in fact a political one; and a political one that flies in the face of Scripture and the way in which the faithful have always understood Scripture. 

In John 17 Jesus offers the key to discerning the quality of unity he calls us to. It is unity of and in the Spirit, in specific distinction to patterns of relating that are rooted in ‘the world.’ Theologically the world is the place where God’s will is rejected and the authority of Scripture and the fidelity of the disciples opposed:

“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. …. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” John 17.14 ff.

At the heart of the allegiance of the disciples and the Church is a quest for purity and sanctity. This will often require a rejection of the political in order to preserve fidelity to the Spirit.

The story of the conflict within the Anglican Communion during the last 40 years has been the story of orthodox faith struggling against a competing theology configured by ‘the world’. The emerging liberal theology developed an allegiance to politicised concepts of egalitarianism, and a masking of the impurity of sexual appetites and exploration outside marriage. This developed in direct contrast to a fidelity to Scripture and a pursuit of purity that characterises orthodox Christianity.

We might then see the Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury in January 2016, in the context of Matthew 18. This is the place where the narrative is “told to the Church” to see if those who sin will still refuse to listen. The Primates represent the whole of the Anglican Church.

In fact this resort to the authority of the Primates was prefigured by Archbishops Drexel and Gomez in their prescient book ‘Mending the Nets’ in 2001. There they suggested exactly the remedy in principle that Justin Welby was driven to by circumstance. They even foresaw the sanction of disciplining or removing a heterodox Province from Communion affairs if absolutely necessary. Their solution was side-lined and ignored. The question Canterbury 2016 poses appears to be ‘is what happened there too little and too late’?

The full story of the harassment and persecution by TEC of those who remained faithful to Scripture emerged. When asked by Archbishop Welby what it would take to be reconciled, Archbishop Beach of ACNA said that it would need 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 over 700 clergy kicked out by the Episcopal Church.” (

Few of the Primates had been appointed long enough to be fully informed about the developments of recent history. As they heard it first hand, the mood of the majority of Primates changed. Consequently it was decided that TEC were to be given one last chance: three years to reflect, pray and consider the trajectory of their choices, and the effect they had on the unity of the Anglican Communion.

There will have been many Anglicans across the world who would have seen this as last opportunity for hope. It seemed, at the very least, an opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit room to melt hearts and transition world-views from the political to the pneumatic.

Tragically, a series of responses from senior voices within and without TEC emerged almost immediately. Their effect was to undermine this hope.

The first came from Archbishop Welby himself. He used the press conference that followed the Primates’ meeting immediately to appeal to the LGBTQi community for forgiveness for whenever they felt they had been treated badly by the Anglican Church.

One might have thought that in the context of the discussions of the week he would have wanted to have apologised to the 700 clergy who, looking to his office for leadership and inspiration, had been deposed?  But he chose to focus his pastoral concerns elsewhere.

Gay Jennings, president of the House of Deputies in TEC and a member of the Anglican Consultative Council, (the ACC)  was the first voice within TEC to dismiss the relevance of the Primates’ gathering, and their attempt at providing a window for discernment.  

She did so almost immediately. She repudiated their authority to do what they had done. She said,

“I want to assure you that nothing about what the Primates have said will change the actions of General Convention that have, over the past four decades, moved us toward full inclusion and equal marriage.”

The next voice was Bishop Tengatenga, who is chairman of the ACC and speaks on behalf of TEC.

In a public conversation with the Dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South held in February 2016,  he claimed

“the legal and ecclesial structures of the Anglican Communion did not permit the primates, or any other instrument of communion, to discipline a member church.”

He insisted TEC would continue its membership and participation of the ACC whatever the Primates thought they had decided.

However, in asking what role the instruments of the Communion might play, an examination from a more neutral view would look at them, (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates meeting) – and see that the first three are compromised or dysfunctional.

The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury has been seen as too partisan by the GAFCON Primates to guarantee their respect and allegiance.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury attempted to rescue what he could. By calling together the Primates he made a last ditch but well judged attempt to find a reconciled way forward. He recognised the Lambeth Conference will never meet again in the form it once did. He saw too that the ACC, which derives its functionality from a resolution by the 1968 Lambeth Conference, has neither power, authority nor the means to adjudicate or solve this schism in the Communion.  He wisely turned to the last remaining instrument of Communion, a gathering of the Primates.

If the authority, the judgement and the integrity of the Primates were recognised by the whole Communion, there would be some hope that with penitence and a modified series of priorities, the Communion might just hang togeth

The most recent response in TEC has come from Presiding Bishop Curry, answering questions at the National Press Club in Washington at the end of February.

He began by insisting that TEC had two allegiances and only one was to the Communion, the other was to the prevailing culture;

“Firstly, the Primates understood clearly that we as the Episcopal Church are committed to the Anglican Communion but we are equally committed to being a House of Prayer for all people,” he said. “And as I said to [the Primates in Canterbury], we believe in full inclusion and marriage equality.

In the face of a call to repentance he clarified TEC’s position.

“We are not going to change our position. This is who we are.” 

He placed the decision of the Primates in the narrowest of contexts. He described the consequences put forward by the Primates as “surgical”, saying:

“The limits are very specific and focused. They have to do with ambassadorial functions and direct leadership functions. They don’t deal with other things.”

He saw the decision of the primates meeting as the

“expression of displeasure that didn’t go too far”

Where can the Anglican community go from here?

Justin Welby must be given credit from doing all that lay within his power to fulfil the mandate found in Matthew 18, and giving the Primates’ Meeting one last chance to express a common mind. As Archbishop of the Communion, he is to be congratulated on the strategy he adopted by calling together the final part of the instruments of Communion that had sufficient functionality.

At the same time, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he reflected his personal views in his deference and apology to the LGBTQi community and culture in the immediate aftermath of the meeting in Canterbury. This appeared odd, mistimed and misplaced.

Furthermore, in an interview by a Government minister in the leading journal, the Spectator, published in London at the same time, he gave prominence to a promise to attend the hypothetical gay wedding of one of his children. As he did so he showed no recognition that as Archbishop he also had responsibilities to Scripture, tradition and the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Given that this wedding was hypothetical, rather than as yet, real, this was a statement of theological and political priority by him personally. This was his position on the theological and spiritual map that charts the division of the Communion.

For those who hoped that the breathing space of three years might produce enough repentance, change of perspective and change of behaviour by TEC and those provinces committed to following the same zeitgeist, it must now be clear from Jennings, Tengatenga and Curry, and even perhaps Welby himself, that there is no hope.

This is not just about the internal politics of the Anglican Communion.

Wherever Western secular culture touches the life of humanity, the zeitgeist is at work. It has changed the public space to the extent that in a variety of countries on a variety of continents, those who hold to biblical principles on gender and sexuality are becoming ostracised and even criminalised.

With every passing month this grip on the public secular imagination and mind-set grows more powerful and threatening. Perhaps in the light of this rapid cultural development and gathering pressure, the voices from TEC have acted as a gift rather than a threat to the Primates?

The gift would be to demonstrate to the GAFCON primates that the conditions of the three-year pause are already broken.

The gift would be to avoid wasting three years during which cultural change will only speed up, to no useful effect.

The authority of the last of the remaining functional instruments of Communion, the Primates’ meeting, has been denied and even derided.

The Primates who held to orthodox rather than heterodox Christianity might see their immediate priority as being to draw together Anglicans across the world who are determined to be faithful to the Scriptures and their expression in the Jerusalem Declaration. In so doing they would provide them with the faithful episcopal leadership that their communities need and demand in what appears to be becoming a time of purging and even persecution.

This appears to be the moment of a parting of the ways within Anglicanism.

The repudiation of the jurisdiction of the Primates infers either the ejection of TEC and those provinces who mirror their values, or a division of the Anglican world into two separate jurisdictions, with each deciding which God they will follow: the god of the zeitgeist, of the God of the Bible?

“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

It seems we are no longer asking with Tertullian ‘what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem’? How does the Church relate to Society? We are asking a more complex and challenging question. What do those who acknowledge the Holy Scriptures and their authority have to do with those who reject them?

Many Anglicans across the world, probably most, may see this as constituting a defining moment for faith and faithfulness, and look to the GAFCON Primates, echoing Joshua;

“As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.”

© Gavin Ashenden.

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