The Archbishop of Canterbury will surrender his authority as first among equals among the primates of the Anglican Communion in light of the General Synod of the Church of England’s adoption of gay blessings.
Speaking to the opening ceremony of the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Accra, Ghana on 12 February 2023, the Most Rev. Justin Welby stated “I will not cling to place or position as an Instrument of Communion.”
His concession comes the day before 12 of the primates affiliated with the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans meet to offer a united response to last week’s vote in General Synod. The decision to introduce same-sex blessings, without seeking a Scriptural or theological foundation for the decision, or respecting the church’s agreements with other Anglican provinces has prompted the largest provinces: Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya to break fellowship.
The former Archbishop of Alexandria, the Most Rev. Mouneer Anis of Egypt, has argued the leader of the Church of England should no longer automatically be the leader of the Anglican world – an understanding that has only arisen since the mid-Twentieth century – but selected by the primates (or archbishops) from among their ranks.
In his speech to the ACC, Archbishop Welby defended the autonomy of the Church of England against demands made by other provinces of the communion that it conform to traditional Christian doctrine. To protect the Church of England’s autonomy, he would be willing to step back from his role as an instrument of communion – one of the four organizations suggested by the Virginia Report in 1997 (but never formally adopted by the communion) as foci of authority or influence in the 42 church communion.
The archbishop said:
“The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the See of Canterbury, is an historic one. The Instruments must change with the times.
“I will not cling to place or position. I hold it very lightly, provided that the other Instruments of Communion choose the new shape, that we are not dictated to by people, blackmailed, bribed to do what others want us to do, but that we act in good conscience before God seeking a judge that is not for our power, but exists for the new world with its extraordinary and terrifying threats. To proclaim Christ and turn our opportunities into realities to bless the world.
“That is the test.
“We are in a true world crisis, in which global south although economically poorer is in many ways richer in culture and community.
“A crisis, as we all know, is a moment of decision and the churches and the Communion must listen the Holy Spirit. And while doctrine and actions are called to be the same, always the Five Marks, the Quadrilateral, those are our foundations.
“The Instruments may change. Sin is to be condemned. We are to seek Christ and to obey.
“But that is where we find our difficulty, because as the well-mannered but extremely rough, English General Synod joked this last week, we are deeply in disagreement, not through lack of integrity, corruption, lying or surrendering to the culture but because we do interpret Scripture differently, we understand the work of the Spirit differently, and we look at these things with different cultural lenses. And are therefore all always wrong to some degree.”
The archbishop’s statement will be seen as a betrayal by some members of the Church of England of its historic role among the Anglican churches. However, Welby’s surrender avoids a direct confrontation with the primates that would see him ousted from leadership.
The withdrawal of England from the center of the church’s world stage, also gives the archbishop time to consolidate his flanks within the Church of England – seeing off challenges from the left that seek full acceptance of gay marriage, not merely blessings, and from the right which seek a retreat by synod on gay blessings, or the creating of a separate province or organization for traditionalists within the Church of England that is not subject to the liberal hegemony of the college of bishops and the administrators at Church House.
It is unclear how the Global South primates will respond to this change of tactics. However, personal animosities between Archbishop Welby and some of his confreers among the African primates, who do not trust him, make it likely that this will be merely the opening stage of the decolonization of the Anglican Communion.