What is Welby saying in his letter to the primates?

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;  


“If—” by Rudyard Kipling

What is going on in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter to the primates? On one level we have a “churchie” missive from the Most Rev. Justin Welby, announcing the date of the next primates meeting — coupled with a plea to ignore the bad press the Church of England has been receiving from conservative critics over its muddled responses to same-sex marriage.

However, the letter can also be read as a window into the worldview of the Archbishop of Canterbury — the world of an English public schoolboy. Here we see the cult of the heroic loser — of Dunkirk, Boudicca or Bonnie Prince Charlie. The cult of ritual modesty and understatement pulses through the archbishop’s writings, such that it animates his understanding of Scripture and models how he believes leaders should behave.

For many Americans, Archbishop Justin Welby appears weak and vacillating. Yet there is a method to his madness and it would be a mistake to assume he is out of his depth. In the same way the British governed their empire, through delegated authority to the local chiefs backed up by behind the scenes persuasion, Justin Welby has telegraphed to the primates his methodology for managing the Anglican Communion.

Last November Anglican Ink learned Archbishop Welby had written to the primates announcing the dates of their next meeting.  The news of another meeting set our hearts aflutter. The January 2016 meeting did the archbishop no credit in the eyes of his conservative peers. His promises were not kept and his weaknesses shown up by other actors on the Anglican state. The cartoonish behavior of Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the ACC Secretary General, had also led to a collapse of collegiality and trust. What better for an Anglican news outlet than the prospects of reporting on another dysfunctional Anglican family Thanksgiving.

One archbishop asked us if we had a copy of the letter. When informed we did not, he helpfully said it would be worth our while to get one. However, he declined to give us his. Nevertheless the letter did make its way down the chain to us. And our archiepiscopal friend was correct — it was worth our while.

It begins with the modest proposal that there is no salvation for Anglican archbishops outside the church, his church that is– saith the Archbishop of Canterbury. In a letter dated 28 Nov 2016 the archbishop propounded a modern version of the traditional teaching, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, in a letter outlining his beliefs on the nature of authority.

The letter opened with a handwritten salutation followed by a brief exegesis of Mark 4:41.  Archbishop Welby offered the commonplace observation that the storms of life had “always been the experience of the Church, the people of God since the first days, even since the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.”

He observed these storms were physical and spiritual, and then drew upon Ephesians 6:12 to place the dissension within the primates over innovations in doctrine and discipline put forward by the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada in a spiritual light. “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, least of all against each other,” the archbishop noted.

There were “many storms in the Anglican Communion” in addition to the on-going political, economic and social upheavals facing some provinces. He argued the primates had to stick together and the church remain unified, for there was no access to Christ without the church.

We are all in the one boat. There is no other boat than the church, because only there do we find the presence of Jesus and only from the boat are we able to witness to the Kingdom of God. Even in the fiercest storm the safest place to be is in the boat, where Jesus is.

From this premise of their being a single ship of faith, implying that he was its captain, Archbishop Welby moved on to the celebration of a peculiarly English mindset, the cult of the heroic loser.

Citing the English rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, the archbishop argued that “true leadership is not found in perfect decisions but in persistence through the trials.”

He cited with approval Sacks’ interpretation of the Jacob story from Genesis through English cultural eyes. Not the American admiration for the victor, but steadfastness in defeat is the key element of character and leadership for the archbishop.

Rabbi Sacks ended his reflection on Jacob writing: “to try, to fall, to fear, and to keep on going: that is what it takes to be a leader. That was Jacob, the man who at the lowest ebbs of his life had the greatest visions of heaven.”

After setting the parameters of the argument, he announced the next gathering of primates will not be a “Primates Meeting” but a gathering of the “Primates of the Communion”, a polite fiction that will permit those churches who have broken with the Episcopal Church and have stated by action of their synods that they will not meet with the Episcopal Church to attend the party.

The primates will gather in Canterbury from 2-6 October 2017. He added the agenda will be set by the primates, in consultation in the months ahead. “As last time, it will be for the Primates attending to decide on the agenda, and I will be consulting with you about this over the next year.”

However, Archbishop Welby stated that he hoped to ward off a boycott of Lambeth 2020. “From my own point of view, it seems to me that a serious consultation on the shape of Lambeth 2020 would be in order, as well as how we meet (all together or regionally or both) between October 2017 and the Lambeth Conference.”

The letter closed in an unusual twist, with a rejection of “unfortunate and continued inaccurate comments on the situation over same sex relations in the Church of England.” One primate told Anglican Ink they were amused by the inclusion of the Nye Letter attacking GAFCON-UK in the archbishop’s missive, noting if that was the best argument Lambeth Palace had, then the archbishop would be in some trouble to defend the Church of England from censure from the primates.

What then to make of all this? Some will hear this letter to say — “There is only one boat for Anglicans, and that is the ship I captain. Do not be seduced by GAFCON into thinking there are alternatives.”

Or, it is a florid reminder of the October party in Canterbury.

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