Actions and Consequences: Reflections on the State of the Anglican Communion

Actions and consequences: Reflections on the state of the Anglican Communion

by Andrew Goddard

Summary: Reflecting on Fulcrum’s call not to invite the Presiding Bishop to the Primates’ Meeting in Ireland, the consequences of inviting her are highlighted: the widespread principled absence of many Global South primates. As it is still unclear why the Presiding Bishop was invited after the breach of the moratorium and the Pentecost Letter, three possible scenarios are outlined in the hope that the rationale for this decision may be made clear. Then, drawing on past Primates’ statements and statements from TEC, three justifications for non-invitation and grounds for non-attendance are outlined: developments in TEC are now indisputably a breach of the moratoria, TEC has displayed a lack of integrity in its dealings with the Communion and its own stance reveals a lack of coherence in teaching and practice while increasingly signalling a determination to re-define the Christian doctrine of marriage. After exploring some of the challenges of holding a meeting to address key issues in the Communion but with the leaders of most of the world’s Anglicans not present, possible future paths for the Communion are outlined in relation to both the need for serious theological discussion about sexuality and the need to reform the Instruments, all of which have seen their authority eroded through this crisis. The conclusion notes that various actions and inactions in recent years have had serious damaging consequences and highlights the need to pray that, while nothing said or done this week can be painless, the actions of this gathering of Primates may have positive consequences for the Communion’s future unity.

Introduction: Invitations and Absences

Following the consents being given to the consecration of Mary Glasspool, Fulcrum issued the following statement:

This is a clear rejection of the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates' Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council.

We believe that it is vitally important for the Primates' Meeting planned for January 2011 to go ahead, and that for this to happen the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church should not be invited to attend. Actions have consequences.

Consequences did follow from the consecration, as outlined in the Archbishop’s Pentecost Letter of 2010, but the Presiding Bishop was invited to attend to the Primates’ Meeting. Although not in the form Fulcrum wished, it is now once again clear that indeed ‘actions have consequences’.

The Secretary General has stated that 7 or 8 Primates have written to him saying “they would not be attending the Dublin meeting because of the presence of the Primate of The Episcopal Church and recent developments in The Episcopal Church”. Although it is unclear how many will stay away for this reason (or for other reasons but having sympathy with such principled non-attendance), it is evident that these consequences now extend wider than the GAFCON Primates’ Council (many of whose provinces’ bishops did not attend Lambeth in 2008) and include a number of leading ‘moderate’ Global South primates.

The Global South website contains an unsigned editorial dated 21st January which makes clear that this decision ‘was not a sudden or knee-jerk reaction’ and explains that

The concerned group of Global South Primates had communicated very clearly with the Archbishop of Canterbury, especially those who were present at the All African Bishops’ Conference (Entebbe, Uganda Aug 2010), in a private conversation with him. They have indicated that it would be extremely difficult - and in fact, quite pointless - for them to be present at the planned Primates’ Meeting 2011.

Unless and until there is unequivocal commitment to honour the agreed basis of Lambeth Resolution 1.10 and implement the decisions of previous Primates’ Meetings (2005, 2007, 2009) expressed in the respective Communiqués, especially that of Dar es Salem 2007, it will only lead to further erosion of the credibility of the Primates’ Meeting and accentuate our failure to honour the work already done by them.

Why was the Presiding Bishop invited?

There is, at present, no explanation as to why it was decided to invite the Presiding Bishop to the meeting despite it being apparent for some time that this action would have such serious consequences for the standing of this gathering of the Primates and potentially for the Primates’ Meeting as an Instrument of Communion.

The decision to diminish the representatives of TEC (and subsequently also the Southern Cone) on faith and order bodies was explained by the Secretary General as due to the fact that TEC did not share the faith and order of the vast majority of the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop stated in his Pentecost Letter

I am aware that other bodies have responsibilities in questions concerned with faith and order, notably the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Standing Committee. The latter two are governed by constitutional provisions which cannot be overturned by any one person’s decision alone, and there will have to be further consultation as to how they are affected. I shall be inviting the views of all members of the Primates’ Meeting on the handling of these matters with a view to the agenda of the next scheduled meeting in January 2011.

It is understood that although the Presiding Bishop did attend the July 2010 meeting of the Standing Committee following the Glasspool consecration she was requested not to do so. It is unclear if a similar request was ever made concerning her non-attendance at the Primates’ Meeting. Whatever was sought informally, her invitation to the Primates’ Meeting as a full member has created the anomalous situation where Kathy Grieb (a New Testament scholar who apparently thought consents in Los Angeles should be withheld out of respect for the moratoria) was only invited to the last Unity, Faith and Order meeting as an observer because she happens to be a member of TEC but the Presiding Bishop of TEC, who acted as chief consecrator of Mary Glasspool, is invited to represent it as its Primate at the Primates’ Meeting.

There appear to be the following three possible explanations for this anomaly.

First, despite the Pentecost Letter stating that all members of the Primates’ Meeting would be consulted in relation to the Primates’ Meeting this never occurred and the Archbishop of Canterbury decided that in this case “one person’s decision alone” could determine the situation.

Second, the views of all Primates were sought and the consensus was that the Presiding Bishop should be invited as usual or there was no consensus. As a result, despite it being clear that some were so strongly opposed as to refuse to attend a meeting with her present, the status quo ante prevailed and she was invited. If this decision was the outcome of consultation it would be valuable for the unity of the Communion and for restoring faith in its Instruments if the same level of transparency was shown here as was shown in relation to the consultation over the response of TEC bishops in New Orleans to the Dar Primates’ Meeting. Then a detailed statistical breakdown of responses was published and the Archbishop clearly stated in his Advent 2007 letter

The responses received from primates differed in their assessment of the situation. Slightly more than half of the replies received signalled a willingness to accept the Joint Standing Committee's analysis of the New Orleans statement, but the rest regarded both the statement and the Standing Committee's comments as an inadequate response to what had been requested by the primates in Dar-es-Salaam. So we have no consensus about the New Orleans statement.

The third option is that consultation took place with the Primates but only over the form of the meeting not its membership. It has been suggested that, although the Archbishop clearly has the authority not to invite bishops of Communion provinces to the Lambeth Conference (as happened in 2008 in relation to Gene Robinson and conservative bishops consecrated by some African provinces to serve in the US), he does not see himself as having the same discretion and authority in relation to the Primates’ Meeting. The claim is that this is a meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Primates (or Presiding Bishops or Moderators) of all churches on the ACC Schedule must be invited by the Archbishop. Again, if this is the rationale for the invitation to the Presiding Bishop then it would be good for it to be stated and defended publicly to clarify the situation and make clear that the Archbishop understands himself to be bound in some way as regards his invitations (although clearly he is not legally bound as, unlike ACC, the Primates’ Meeting has no constitution or legal personality but is, like the Lambeth Conference, a gathering at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury).

What has TEC done wrong?

Although some will assert that there should be no questions raised about the Presiding Bishop attending as usual, there are a number of reasons why the conduct of her province and her own conduct as its Presiding Bishop justify the objections to her presence and give grounds to those who have regrettably decided not to attend given her invitation.

Breaches of the moratoria

First, and most obviously, the Presiding Bishop was chief consecrator of Mary Glasspool, a partnered lesbian priest, as bishop. This represented a clear and unequivocal rejection of the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution and the Communion’s moratorium on such consecrations.

Second, although this has received less attention, TEC has increasingly disregarded the moratorium in relation to blessings. While, in the past, there may have been some ambiguity about its stance, there can be no question now that this moratorium is not respected. In the last few weeks alone, we have seen the diocesan Bishop of Massachusetts preside in Boston Cathedral at what is clearly a liturgy of same-sex marriage for two senior women clergy – the President and Dean of Episcopal Divinity School and Canon to the Ordinary in the diocese.

This was followed by the publication by The Standing Liturgical Commission of The Episcopal Church of theological and liturgical principles for liturgies of blessing. The liturgical principles include the statement that ‘The proposed rites must be an expression primarily of the entire Church, not the couple seeking a blessing’. This echoes the twenty-year old decision of General Convention in 1991 that in relation to sexuality “a broad process of consultation be initiated on an official pan-Anglican and ecumenical level as a bold step forward in the consideration of these potentially divisive issues which should not be resolved by the Episcopal Church on its own”. This signals that, either TEC believes it can determine, on its own and in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, the mind “of the entire Church” or that it is in some sense aware that its actions contradict principles which it claims to uphold. When the Primates last met in Ireland – at Dromantine in 2005 – they stated

We ask our fellow primates to use their best influence to persuade their brothers and sisters to exercise a moratorium on public Rites of Blessing for Same-sex unions and on the consecration of any bishop living in a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage (para 18).

Nothing since has altered that stance and yet the Presiding Bishop has now herself consecrated such a bishop and is doing nothing to persuade even her fellow bishops to exercise a moratorium on public rites of blessing for same-sex unions.

At Dromantine the Primates also stated

Whilst there remains a very real question about whether the North American churches are willing to accept the same teaching on matters of sexual morality as is generally accepted elsewhere in the Communion, the underlying reality of our communion in God the Holy Trinity is obscured, and the effectiveness of our common mission severely hindered (para 12).

There can now be no question, certainly in relation to TEC, that the province is not willing to accept this teaching and as a result our communion in God the Holy Trinity is now worse than “obscured” and the effectiveness of our common mission more than “severely hindered”.

The lack of integrity

It could be claimed that the moratoria are an un-Anglican imposition on TEC, that they believe they are being led by the Spirit, and the disregard of the moratoria is not therefore necessarily wrong. Leaving aside the fact that they have been repeatedly reaffirmed by the Communion, the statements noted above show that TEC itself has some sense that it should not act unilaterally in these matters despite its determination to do so. Furthermore, both implicit and explicit reassurances have been given to the Communion in the course of the last six years that TEC was seeking to live within the moratoria. As a result, as Fulcrum stated in March 2010,

It is important that this is not simply a matter of disagreement about biblical interpretation and sexual ethics although these are central and important. It is now very clearly also a fundamental matter of truth-telling and trust.

The New Orleans statement of the House of Bishops in September 2007 in response to the Primates meeting in Dar explicitly stated that they would “exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion” and that “non-celibate gay and lesbian persons” were among such candidates. They also stated that “We, the members of the House of Bishops, pledge not to authorize for use in our dioceses any public rites of blessing of same-sex unions until a broader consensus emerges in the Communion, or until General Convention takes further action” but there is no sign of any action being taken against the Bishop of Massachusetts.

As noted above, the Archbishop of Canterbury recognised that “slightly more than half of the replies received signalled a willingness to accept the Joint Standing Committee's analysis of the New Orleans statement, but the rest regarded both the statement and the Standing Committee's comments as an inadequate response”. It is now clear that even what many Primates then thought inadequate is no longer the mind of TEC.

This followed Archbishop Rowan’s earlier letter of invitation to the Lambeth Conference which clearly stated (italics added) that

coming to the Conference does not commit you to accepting every position held by other bishops as equally legitimate or true. But I hope it does commit us all to striving together for a more effective and coherent worldwide body, working for God's glory and Christ's Kingdom. The Instruments of Communion have offered for this purpose a set of resources and processes, focused on the Windsor Report and the Covenant proposals. My hope is that as we gather we can trust that your acceptance of the invitation carries a willingness to work with these tools to shape our future. I urge you all most strongly to strive during the intervening period to strengthen confidence and understanding between our provinces and not to undermine it.

It is now clear that in relation to the Presiding Bishop (and many other TEC bishops) who attended Lambeth such trust was unfounded and there is a determination to act in ways which undermine rather than strengthen confidence and understanding with other provinces.

The lack of coherence

In addition to this lack of integrity there is also the continued practical and theological incoherence of developments in TEC in relation to liturgical practice and theological beliefs. This makes it almost impossible for other Anglicans to understand their position or to engage them in discussion.

Back in May 2003 the Primates’ meeting in Brazil stated, “The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions”.

The Windsor Report noted that “Without commenting on the constitutional propriety of steps that have been taken, we would want to observe that normally in the churches of the Communion there is not unqualified freedom on the part of any bishop or diocese to authorise liturgical texts if they are likely to be inconsistent with the norms of liturgical and doctrinal usage extant in the province's Book of Common Prayer or other provincially authorised texts” (para 138). It also stressed that, in ongoing work in this area, “Such a process of study and reflection needs to include clarification regarding the distinction, if such exists, between same sex unions and same sex marriage” (para 145).

In TEC, however, we have seen in the last year (1) a March 2010 report on same-sex relationships in the life of the Church to the House of Bishops in which the majority pressing for change do so by developing ‘a theology of marriage including same-sex couples’ and by arguing ‘that the church should marry same-sex couples’ (p 40), (2) a diocesan bishop presiding at a same-sex wedding in the diocese’s mother church, but (3) official theological and liturgical principles being published for rites of blessing that make no reference to marriage but talk of “covenant relationships”. The pattern of both determined rejection of Communion teaching and practice and lack of theological coherence within that rejection is indisputable.


The problem with TEC is therefore not only that it has now demonstrated it is paying no regard to the Communion moratoria and rejects Communion teaching. It is that it has done this despite for the last seven years saying otherwise and it is doing so in a way that not only fails to engage the rest of the Communion but is internally incoherent and now often explicitly challenging not just the Christian sexual ethic but the Christian doctrine of marriage.

What about this meeting?

It has been clearly stated by the Secretary General that the agenda and outcome of the meeting is “in the hands of the Primates’ themselves.” Much has been made of the fact that this is a different sort of meeting:

After the last Primates’ Meeting in Alexandria, Egypt in 2009, a number of Primates felt that at the 2011 meeting a mechanism should be found to address the big issues affecting the life of the Communion. In response to these requests a different kind of meeting has been arranged: a facilitated conversation with the aim of identifying, exploring, and, where possible, proposing next steps for those issues identified by the Primates as most seriously affecting the life of the Communion and their Provinces.

There is, of course, the problem that the decision of some not to attend (in addition to the regular inability of some to attend) means that this is not a representative gathering. It is clear that for almost a quarter of the Primates (representing probably nearer three-quarters of Anglicans), there is an issue so big that they so strongly believe has not been adequately addressed over at least eight years that they have decided not to attend. Although other issues are important and will be raised, the question of “the presence of the Primate of The Episcopal Church and recent developments in The Episcopal Church” which has led to this principled absence must be given its proper significance.

The Secretary General and an ACO press release have made clear that “The Primates who have turned down the invitation to this week’s Primates’ Meeting because of developments in The Episcopal Church are still committed to the Anglican Communion”. It is therefore vital that even if their voices cannot be heard in person, the nature and strength of the concerns raised by these absentees are seriously weighed and considered by those who do attend (even though many of them may be more naturally sympathetic to TEC’s stance on sexuality). It is also vital that, although very few of the Primates apart from Archbishop Rowan have held office and attended all the meetings even since Dromantine in 2005, the history of the interaction between TEC and the Primates and decisions of past meetings are not erased from the collective memory. Without binding those who gather, they need to inform decisions and statements made at this meeting even as it seeks a more constructive way forward out of the cul-de-sac in which the Primates’ Meeting now appears to find itself.

It is also particularly important that those who are not present are nevertheless able to be fully involved in the appointment of new members of the Primates’ Standing Committee, the reform of which also needs urgent consideration so that its composition more justly reflects the composition of global Anglicanism.

Where next?

At the heart of the crisis there remain two key issues – divisions over same-sex relationships and the growing lack of trust in the Instruments as a means of addressing these effectively.

In relation to the former, it is now clear that TEC has abandoned its pretence of respecting Communion teaching and the moratoria. Canada, while more cautious and careful than TEC, is taking a stance which many clearly view as involving a certain amount of pretence and pushing the moratorium on blessings beyond what was ever intended. Other provinces, most obviously in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, desire, to varying degrees, to move in a similar direction. One of the rarely noticed but significant casualties of the actions of New Westminster and General Convention 2003 was that it destroyed any chance of developing the work of the International Anglican Conversations on Human Sexuality set up after Lambeth 1998. Shortly after it reported, attention turned to the actions of provinces in conflict over Communion teaching and that has been the focus ever since. The book produced out of the Listening Process for Lambeth 2008 – The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality – is an excellent resource but has also received little structured attention in the Communion. As a result, we are still in the situation summed up in the title given to the English edition of Oliver O’Donovan’s Fulcrum sermons – A Conversation Waiting to Begin.

At General Synod, Archbishop Rowan spoke about the need for the Church of England to discover new ways of addressing this issue and in particular to explore the theological issues and differences:

this has become a cardinal example of how we avoid theological debate. The need for some thoughtful engagement that will help us understand how people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism can come to strongly diverse conclusions is getting more urgent, because I sense that in the last few years the debate on sexuality has not really moved much.

Although focussing on the Church of England he acknowledged that the challenge was much wider – “I'm told fairly often that the lack of advance in nurturing this debate properly is a serious failure in the leadership of the Church and the Communion. I am bound to accept my share of reproach”. While it may seem impossible in the current context, some way of enabling genuine theological discussion between provinces in relation to its teaching on sexuality is urgently needed if we are to break out the impasse described by Archbishop Rowan as one where it seems that we “think that there is no respectable debate to be had” or “think that the debate is entirely over”. It may be that a renewed Primates’ Standing Committee could oversee or be the core of a fresh initiative here that enabled serious theological dialogue and clarification of theological issues by Anglican leaders at an inter-provincial level.

Any such initiative may, however, prove impossible not only because of the breadth and depth of disagreement and mistrust in relation to sexuality but because of the other key area, the state of the Instruments of Communion. Each one of them has been seriously damaged as a consequence of actions and inactions over the last eight years.

The Lambeth Conference in 2008 suffered from the absence of many large provinces. The ACC’s handling of the covenant and subsequent concerns about its constitutional revisions in 2009-10 also weakened that Instrument and it must now be uncertain how well-attended its next meeting will be at the end of 2012. Although not strictly one of the Instruments, the Standing Committee has also been damaged by a number of resignations from Global South members and its handling of questions about its own membership. It is now clear that the Primates’ Meeting is the next casualty to be seriously damaged by the actions of TEC and the failure to respond adequately to these. As the Anglican Communion Institute recently commented, the Primates’ Meeting is broken and needs fixing: “the composition and good working of the Primates as a Meeting, as a council, must be addressed by the Primates”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s authority is inevitably also diminished by these events, especially when his invitation to fellow Anglican primates to gather to take counsel is one which, because of who is invited, a significant number of Primates cannot in conscience accept. It is clear that, barring a miracle, there cannot again be a Primates’ Meeting in which the Archbishop of Canterbury gathers all Anglican primates from across the Communion: either the Presiding Bishop of TEC is not invited as a primate in full and equal standing or a significant number of Primates will not attend. Although some of those associated with GAFCON have spoken openly of a non-Canterbury communion, this is, thankfully, something which few are actively seeking. It is, nevertheless, increasingly obvious that this will be the next pressure point on the trajectory which has been travelled since 2003 and increasingly rapidly since 2007-8. There needs, therefore, to be a recognition that if the Instruments are unable to make themselves “fit for purpose” and the see of Canterbury continues to prove unable or unwilling to act in ways that secure the unity in truth of the Anglican Communion then God in his providence may raise up one or more other Anglican metropolitans who are able to fulfil at least some of Canterbury’s traditional responsibilities in relation to the majority of the Communion.

Conclusion: Actions have consequences

It is a biblical principle that we reap what we sow. The actions of North American provinces since 2003, the actions in response from other provinces and the actions (and subsequent inaction) of Primates’ Meetings have reaped quite a whirlwind. Whatever happens in Ireland there will be further consequences as a result and for some Anglicans those consequences will be painful – there are no painless ways forward from our current situation. The danger is that actions this week will produce consequences that simply harden rather than constructively address the impasse over sexuality, further erode the Instruments’ authority and alienate the majority of the world’s Anglicans. Such consequences would also undermine the covenant as the best long-term means of providing commitments and agreed structures to prevent the repetition of the last eight years and place the Communion on a firmer footing.

Humanly speaking, the history sketched above and the absence of key Primates from this meeting give little ground for hope. We are, however, drawing to the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Although that officially ends as the Primates begin their meeting on Tuesday, if Anglicans across the Communion continued such prayers through the rest of this week and focussed them on Anglican unity, who knows what surprising actions and consequences may yet result from this gathering of Anglican primates.

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