Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury wears a hat given to him by Pradeep Samantaroy, Amritsar, Church of North India (United) after the plenary session on Reconciliation in the Main Venue at the 2022 Lambeth Conference held at The University of Kent in the United Kingdom. Photo: Neil Turner for The Lambeth Conference. Monday 2nd August 2022 August

From last week, the Anglican Communion exists in two different realities, or perhaps two different dimensions.

It may be not unlike the difference between the empirical world of Newtonian physics where the rules are solidly in place and determine what happens, and a form of “quantum ecclesial world” where cause and effect are more random and follow different dynamics.

A number of the Anglican Primates, representing something like 80 per cent of the Anglican membership worldwide met together in Kigali, Rwanda, to respond to the Church of England’s General Synod legitimising the blessing of homosexual partnerships.

In response, after many speeches of lament and theological outrage, they decided to draft a letter of protest to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, Justin Welby has been playing a slow and careful game of brinkmanship with the conservative majority of his Communion for a long time. Indeed, he inherited this strategy from his predecessor.

The bureaucracy at Lambeth Palace remains in control of the instructional levers of the Anglican Communion, and the opposition is reduced to writing postcards or protest from abroad, with little actual effect.

Welby has been as careful as he can not to give his opponents in the Anglican Communion, or indeed at home, the red line of changing the doctrine of marriage. And so, in a tactic that may be replicated elsewhere, he has been content to simply change pastoral practice.

He continues to insist that this change of authorised prayers, (which while voluntary places a target on the back of every Anglican minister who declines to offer the service) has not changed the doctrine of the Church of England.

His conservative critics across the Anglican Communion, knowing the rules of the game, have been trying to agree on some other a red line they can respond to which, if and when crossed, would allow them to remove the Archbishop of Canterbury from his position as chairman or “primes inter pares” of the Anglican Communion.

There were two difficulties they faced. The first was that some were unsure that the authorised prayers constituted a red line, and the second, that if the rules governing the Anglican Communion’s constitution were followed, Welby himself would have to agree to his own ecclesial defenestration for it to be legal and formal. There was little doubt, that the very last thing that’s Justin Welby would countenance would be his removal as convenor and chair of the Communion.

When it came to theological principles, Welby’s critics often quoted the Marx Brothers teasing quip aimed at the ethically flexible  “if you don’t like my principles, don’t worry, I have others”.

But no one ever questioned his institutional principles. They, unlike the theological and ethical positions he has taken, are unyielding. So it is no surprise that observers believe he would do all that he could to retain both the pragmatic political control and the status of the symbolism of retaining oversight of the Anglican family.

The Church of England may be one of the smallest provinces numerically, but it has been very jealous of its status as mother Church of the 500-year-old Protestant project.

For some years now, the Church of England has recognised that its historical ownership of the Anglican project might need to be adjusted in favour of the claims of the African primates whose membership have soared while the C of E’s has shrunk.

But like a skilled negotiator he is, the Archbishop has been spinning out the process of consultation, think-tanks, position papers and consultations endlessly without any actual movement.

In fact for change to take place, the four “Instruments of Communion” around which worldwide Anglicanism is constructed would all have to agree and mandate such a constitutional change. They are the ten yearly Lambeth Conference; the Primates meeting; the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

That indeed is the Newtonian world of Anglican ecclesiastical diplomacy. The quantum world of the conservative dissidents has finally decided to bypass this decades-long traffic jam, and go for an ecclesial putsch. But they are left with the problem of whether quantum protest and realignment will have any effect in the more ordered world of Newtonian ecclesiology?

The difficulty is that in the Anglican ecclesial world there are no papal bulls of excommunication. There are only letters of protest.

At the “Gafcon”  meeting of conservative Anglicans in Kingali last week, the dissidents moved from only penning letters of protest to a registering a long but muscular vote of no confidence in the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“We have no confidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the other instruments of communion led by him are able to provide a godly way forward that would be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficient and authority of Scripture.”

In a secular organisation this might alarm shareholders, investors and members and shake the confidence in the appointed leadership to such an extent that the chairman would for reasons of honour or realpolitik be forced to resign.

But not in the C of E. Welby knows very well that for as long as the dissidents don’t declare UDI and form an alternative communion, he is untouchable.

And there are two other factors which will allow him an undisturbed sleep at night.

The first is that one reason why the UDI or schism option has not, and probably will not happen, is that English canon lawyers wrote most of the constitutions governing the African provinces. To make legal changes these constitutions would have to be revoked and re-written.

This process has, perhaps intentionally, been designed to take a very long time. Some provinces have to wait for two separated meetings of governing bodies that only gather once every few years. So this is not going to happen quickly and will take a sustained effort if it is to happen at all.

The other reason is that a number of the albeit very few English bishops and allied conservative agencies like the Church Society have an investment in the organisation of the Church of England continuing uninterrupted. And they made long and heartfelt pleas insisting that not all was lost; that the progressives were not as determined on excluding them as they pretended to be; that the conservatives might yet mount an institutional take over through the Synodal and senior appointments process.

It is hard to know whether they actually believe these claims, so unimaginably far-fetched are they as a realistic prospect, but that have said them with tears in their eyes, and conviction in their voices. And this has added to the sense of constitutional and theological confusion in Kigali.

The outcome of all this is that the status quo remains the same. There is and will be no formal schism within the Anglican Communion. Instead the strategy of boycotting meetings, writings letters of protests, expressing votes of no confidence will continue. The disparity between the numbers of Anglicans which rather oddly diminish rapidly in the Province of Canterbury and York but grow readily throughout Africa will also continue.

The word on the street is that having recently spoken very publicly about his vulnerability to despair and depression, comparing himself unfavourably to Eeyore, Welby will enter into a long and peaceful retirement; but only after he has claimed his place in history by crowning the new King.  

The impossible task of management of the Anglican Communion will be passed to the next Archbishop of Canterbury. If, as many predict, that will be to Dame Sara Mullaly, the present holder of the office of the bishop of London, she will be in a position to bring all her lifetime skills as a nurse to a seriously troubled and ailing patient.  Whether the patient will welcome her pastoral and theological skills, is another matter entirely.