A Response to Anglican Mainstream on The Advent Letter 2008
of the Archbishop of Canterbury
It is now almost a month since the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent Letter was published. Among many responses, one of the most recent is that of Anglican Mainstream (AM) which appeared earlier this week. It is important both because of the groups comprising AM (eg Reform, CEEC, New Wine and Crosslinks) and their significance among evangelical Anglicans in the Church of England and other Anglican churches in the British Isles and also because of the wider Communion influence of Chris Sugden, AM’s Executive Secretary.
Issued by Chris Sugden and Philip Giddings on behalf of Anglican Mainstream it opens with a self-identification (“We identify ourselves as those who, with orthodox Anglicans worldwide, are committed to the life-transforming call to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and therefore to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all he has commanded us”) which appears also to be offered as a means of discerning the true body of Christ within the Anglican Communion (“We understand ourselves to be brothers and sisters with them in the faith once delivered to the saints”).
Reaffirming they are ‘gladly members’ of the Communion, the authors highlight the primary issue as they see it – whether ‘the instruments of the Anglican Communion… would be able to affirm that this biblical faith is central to the Communion’s life, teaching and behaviour…affirming the biblical teaching and recommending protection for those who seek to proclaim and demonstrate the transforming power of the biblical gospel for all’.
While they believe earlier actions – Windsor Report and Primates’ Meetings – “pointed to this end” and “recognise with gratitude positive aspects of the Archbishop’s letter” (commending John Richardson’s discussion) they imply that the Advent Letter represents a failure to follow through these earlier successes and “respectfully seek to differ with the Archbishop on the following five points.”
Each of these is worth stating, examining and evaluating.
AM interpret the Archbishop’s words that “we need to honour the hard work done by the bishops of TEC… and determine a way forward” as meaning that “he accepts that TEC is not going to change and therefore, apparently, should not be required to change”. It is, however, unclear what exactly they mean by this.
It is not so much that “he accepts that TEC is not going to change” as that it has changed (certainly since GC 2003) in certain respects but that it remains unclear how much it has changed. He “accepts” where TEC is now (and so that it “is not going to change” further) only in the sense that he sees no point in once more pressing TEC either to change more or to clarify the extent of their change.
I am unclear in what sense AM therefore thinks that he apparently accepts TEC “should not be required to change”. The obvious question is “required by whom and required in what manner?”. The Archbishop is clear – and has provided the evidence in his support – that there is no current consensus in the Communion as a whole as to whether or not TEC has changed enough. The nature of the Communion is such that there is no mechanism by which the Communion can “require” a member church to change. This in part explains the importance of the covenant process (which AM – as in their response to Dar – again fails to mention!)
The next line in the argument – It follows that, if the rest of the Communion are to be able to continue to receive TEC in some way as part of their Christian fellowship, it is the rest of the Communion who will have to change” – is similarly unclear. For example, nothing in the letter or any of the Archbishop’s statements state or imply that the rest of the Communion is going to have to change its teaching. In fact quite the contrary, in a clear aim at those violating Windsor and the mind of the Communion, the Archbishop states
“At the moment, the question of ‘who speaks for the Communion?’ is surrounded by much unclarity and urgently needs resolution; the people of the Communion need to be sure that they are not placed in unsustainable and damaging positions by any vagueness as to what the Communion as a whole believes and endorses, and so the issue of who represents the Communion cannot be evaded….Not everyone carrying the name of Anglican can claim to speak authentically for the identity we share as a global fellowship”.
It would appear that the “change” that AM believes the Communion “will have to” undergo in the light of the Advent letter is “to accept those who promote immoral behaviour”. This “acceptance” is expressed by refusing to withhold fellowship or to instruct them “for the purpose of repentance and restoration to fellowship”. Such a “change”, it is said, “would not be acceptable” as it “is contrary to biblical teaching and practice”. However, no justification is offered for this and no explanation is given of how past practice in this area is being changed.
This issue is perhaps becoming the heart of the matter at the moment (not least in relation to GAFCON, supported by both Chris Sugden and Bishop Wallace Benn who is on the AM Steering Committee). There are important questions here about relating to those Christians with whom one is in a serious moral disagreement. These need to be a matter of urgent and careful theological discussion among those opposed to TEC’s behaviour but they risk getting lost in political manoeuvres and party polemics.
Four questions in particular need to be considered –
1. “what is biblical teaching and practice on this matter?”
2. “how would it relate to the current situation and homosexuality?”,
3. “how could it be implemented given the current structures of the Communion?”
4. “what should the response be if the Communion’s structures fail and so act contrary to Scripture?”.
Time and space prevent them being considered here – the articles by Craig Uffman here, here, and here on the Covenant site offers an alternative perspective to that of AM and has engendered some debate on various blogs. The complexity of the issues is illustrated simply with reference to the first of the six New Testament passages which AM cites (John 8:7; 1 Cor 5: 9-13; 2 Cor 7: 8-11; 2 Timothy 2.25; Titus 1. 9-11; 2 John 10-11). It is not immediately obvious how the story of the woman caught in adultery, and in particular the words of Jesus in John 8:7 (”If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”) help AM’s case. How does Jesus’ refusal to condemn someone caught in the immoral behaviour of adultery and to apply the Mosaic penalty against her (and there are numerous other similar examples in the gospels of similar responses by Jesus) show that “to accept those who promote immoral behaviour is contrary to biblical teaching and practice which withholds fellowship and commends instruction for the purpose of repentance and restoration to fellowship”?
For AM, the focus of the problem in terms of people is then defined as “those who consecrated Gene Robinson to be a bishop” and the refusal to withhold fellowship is focussed on the fact that “the Archbishop accepts” that they “will be present at the Lambeth Conference”.
This is most likely true as the Archbishop certainly has not withdrawn the invitations. However, it must also be stated that the invitation list is still open to change and AM does not acknowledge this. The Letter states that
“I have underlined in my letter of invitation that acceptance of the invitation must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference’s agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a Covenant….I intend to be in direct contact with those who have expressed unease about this, so as to try and clarify how deep their difficulties go with accepting or adopting the Conference’s agenda”.
The letter also includes in the remit of the proposed advisory group –
“to consider whether in the present circumstances it is possible for provinces or individual bishops at odds with the expressed mind of the Communion to participate fully in representative Communion agencies, including ecumenical bodies”.
While these commitments may not now be able to influence Lambeth invitations it certainly shows that the issue of “withholding fellowship” is not being rejected by the Archbishop as starkly as suggested by AM.
With colleagues in the Anglican Communion Institute I have argued for some time that non-invitation to Lambeth should be implemented as a form of discipline. ACI proposed in a major submission to the Lambeth Commission (Communion and Discipline) that this should be applied, at that time to those who consented to Gene Robinson’s election in 2003. I therefore share AM’s concerns here and wish the Archbishop had been able to withdraw invitations. However, I believe that their appeal to Windsor here is flawed.
AM claim that the fact that the Archbishop “accepts that those who consecrated Gene Robinson to be a bishop will be present at the Lambeth Conference” is “in contradiction to the clear assertion of the Windsor Report (para 134), that those who took part in the consecration of Gene Robinson should withdraw from representative functions”. The reality is in fact much more nuanced. Para 134 – which AM cites – reads
“pending such expression of regret, those who took part as consecrators of Gene Robinson should be invited to consider in all conscience whether they should withdraw themselves from representative functions in the Anglican Communion. We urge this in order to create the space necessary to enable the healing of the Communion. We advise that in the formation of their consciences, those involved consider the common good of the Anglican Communion, and seek advice through their primate and the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
This paragraph clearly fails to support their claim that the Archbishop has contradicted Windsor. This is so on two grounds. First, the call for consecrators to withdraw is ‘pending such expression of regret’, a reference to the previous part of para 134 calling on TEC ‘to express its regret’ for its actions at GC 2003. An expression of regret was offered by GC 2006 and, although I and others argued it was not quite what Windsor sought, the Primates at Dar clearly accepted it. It could therefore be argued that this part of 134 no longer has force as the consecrators are embraced personally within the corporate regret offered by TEC and the acceptance of this by Dar. Second, AM omit the key final sentence of para 134 – “We urge all members of the Communion to accord appropriate respect to such conscientious decisions”. This strictly means that the Archbishop of Canterbury would be acting contrary to Windsor if he did not respect the consecrators’ conscientious decisions and simply withdrew his invitations if they conscientiously decide to accept.
Where AM is (almost) right, however, is that Windsor clearly thought it best that the consecrators should not participate in Communion life “in order to create the space necessary to enable the healing of the Communion” and it does appear that their participating is frustrating rather than enabling healing and is not for “the common good of the Anglican Communion”.
Windsor urged the consecrators to “seek advice through their primate and the Archbishop of Canterbury”. As a result, while it is false to say the Advent Letter is “in contradiction to the clear assertion of the Windsor Report”, the spirit of the Windsor Report is probably best implemented if the Archbishop includes all the consecrators in those with whom he is in direct (and appropriately private) contact to “clarify how deep their difficulties go with accepting or adopting the Conference’s agenda”. As part of that he could encourage them to show their commitment to “implementing the recommendations of Windsor” by seeking his advice about their participation at Lambeth. If they insist on coming he could (although the tension with respecting conscientious decisions noted above remains) be urged to consider using the authority he has which is acknowledged in para 110 (not para 134) and “invite participants to the Lambeth Conference on restricted terms at his sole discretion” as “full voting membership of the Conference is perceived to be an undesirable status” which “would militate against the greater unity of the Communion”. It remains the case, however, that this must finally be his judgment and there is strong evidence that non-invitation would also militate against the greater unity of the Communion.
AM also express a concern that “the Archbishop accepts that TEC should remain part of the Anglican Communion fellowship”. The obvious problem here is that there is currently no mechanism by which TEC can be removed from the Anglican Communion – hence again the importance of the covenant.
The following statements about the Archbishop’s view of TEC also appear confused. It is claimed that “because TEC is not “a monochrome body” in its current approach” the Archbishop believes that “external interventions are not justified” and it is argued that this is paradoxical. The argument here appears to be that the orthodox, by staying in TEC, create the situation which then makes external intervention on their behalf unjustified.
The problem is that the Archbishop does not hold that external interventions are unjustified because TEC is not uniform – he says ‘I understand and respect the good faith of those who have felt called to provide additional episcopal oversight in the USA’. He does raise numerous concerns about this practice but none of these is the one claimed here about TEC as a mixed body. That TEC is indeed a mixed body is rather a statement of fact which, when read alongside the parable of the wheat and the tares, warns against precipitate radical action against TEC. Once again, though, it must be recalled that the Archbishop has clearly accepted that the covenant - once agreed - may lead to distinguishing constituent and associate Anglican bodies.
AM states they “stand with these orthodox Anglicans” and criticises the Archbishop for saying that “they are clearly in fellowship with the Communion” but then not doing anything - he “offers them no protection” when “TEC not only deposes many of these orthodox pastors but also pursues them and their congregations in the courts”.
Here again the question has to be asked – “what protection in practice could the Archbishop offer?”. He has no authority to prevent TEC taking court action beyond his moral authority. He again strongly exercises this in the letter when he writes about “complex and unedifying legal wrangles in civil courts”, reiterates that “serious concerns remain about the risks of spiralling disputes before the secular courts, although the Dar-es-Salaam communiqué expressed profound disquiet on this matter, addressed to all parties” and says “I wish to pursue some professionally facilitated conversations between the leadership of The Episcopal Church and those with whom they are most in dispute, internally and externally, to see if we can generate any better level of mutual understanding”.
Furthermore, the Archbishop has not – much to the annoyance and anger of many - taken any action against those within the Communion who have offered protection to these parishes. This makes it very difficult to justify AM’s further claim that the Archbishop “regards those who have offered protection by welcoming them under their oversight as equal transgressors of appropriate Christian behaviour” and that this is “to equate emergency measures with the immoral behaviour which precipitated them”. Nothing in the letter is cited in support of this claim, probably because such a departure from the Windsor analysis is not present. The only possible line of argument I can see is in relation to the non-invitation of AMiA, CANA and other ‘missionary bishops’ to Lambeth. These consecrations, however, go beyond protection by welcoming people under existing oversight to the creation of new ministries of oversight. Even here those who have offered such radical measures – Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda - have not be regarded as equal transgressors along with Gene Robinson as they have been invited to Lambeth, although paradoxically they may refuse to attend. The rationale for this non-invitation is not some calculus of “equal transgression” or “moral equivalence”. It is that the conference is a meeting of bishops of the Communion and they – like Gene Robinson – have been consecrated against the counsel of the Instruments and – in line with Windsor para 110 – their full voting membership of the Conference is perceived to be an undesirable status” which “would militate against the greater unity of the Communion”.
AM believes that the Archbishop - in maintaining that “genuine ministry and mission can survive even where the reading of Scripture is so defective that other parts of the Communion find it to be no longer recognisably ‘Christian’” – does not make sense.
I share AM’s concern here about allowing authentic ministry even where there is departure from Scripture. This – like the four points noted above (in section I) - is another key area where there needs to be urgent and careful theological discussion among those opposed to TEC’s behaviour before gut reactions are set in stone and lines drawn in the sand. Nevertheless, I think the Archbishop’s position is rather more nuanced than AM allows and that his distinctions as a way of interpreting and responding to the current crisis are much more valuable than AM suggests. The Archbishop’s primary concern here is that there needs to be a Communion discernment about whether “the whole structure of mission and ministry has failed in a local church that commits itself to a new reading of the Bible”. This is not – if we are committed to being a Communion within the church catholic - something that should be decided unilaterally and then acted upon by individual Christians, congregations or even provinces. There is some evidence in the letter that such discernment will be part of the work of the Lambeth conference, hence the importance of attendance at it.
AM further claims, “and thus that serious difference in views on the interpretation of scripture on first order issues does not affect shared fellowship in Christian mission”. Leaving aside whether there is the necessary connection implied by ‘thus’, there are two major problems here. First, it seems to assume that the current dispute is one in which we see “serious difference in views on the interpretation of scripture on first order issues” but the Communion has never used the language of “first order issue” (and it is unlikely the Archbishop classes it in these terms) and such a phrase needs more unpacking. (I hope at some point to return to my earlier blogging on this subject). Second, the Archbishop has said quite the opposite to what AM claim – not that differences here do not affect shared fellowship in Christian mission but that “there must be ways in which others can appropriately distance themselves from decisions and policies which they have not agreed”. It is perhaps AM’s reading of the letter rather than the letter itself which “does not make sense”.
Finally, AM protest that
“instead of calling the Primates, who are representative leaders of their provinces to meet to consider TEC’s response to Dar-es-Salaam, the Archbishop has himself decided not to meet them and has substituted a hand-picked team of supposed specialists to determine the future life of the Communion in all its representative bodies. He is acting alone in this”.
Once again I find myself both in much sympathy with AM but also ultimately unconvinced by their critique. I too believe it would have been best if all the Primates met to evaluate TEC’s response. However, it cannot be denied that there were clearly serious problems – financial, logistical, political - with that way forward. Indeed, a case can be made that to call such a meeting at this time would have been to put on this Instrument more pressure than it could be expected to bear and be action damaging to the Communion. It is ultimately the Archbishop’s decision whether to call an emergency meeting and he clearly took advice from the Primates about whether this was needed. The consultation with the Primates showed limited support for this way forward. Apparently only 3 of the 26 Primates who replied requested such a meeting! For the Archbishop to call an unscheduled meeting when there was such limited demand would probably be irresponsible, especially if, as claimed, several primates were very hostile to the idea.
The proposed alternative is one AM describes as the creation of a “hand-picked team of supposed specialists to determine the future life of the Communion in all its representative bodies”. In addition to its rather cynical tone, this description seriously distorts the role of that group according to the letter.
It is not some separate “hand-picked team” doing its own thing but a group who will work ‘in close collaboration with the primates, the Joint Standing Committee, the Covenant Design Group and the Lambeth Conference Design Group’. The reason it is needed is because, far from “acting alone in this”, the Archbishop wishes to work collegially on ‘the unanswered questions arising from the inconclusive evaluation of the primates to New Orleans’. Although clearly different, there are parallels in this way forward with Windsor’s proposed Council of Advice (paras 111 and 112). There is nothing at all to suggest that it will “determine the future life of the Communion”, it will simply “take certain issues forward to Lambeth”. Far from determining the future life “in all its representative bodies” it is, as noted, working closely with those bodies and “will feed in to the discussions at Lambeth about Anglican identity and the Covenant process” - a sign, once again, of the importance of attending Lambeth and supporting and shaping the Covenant process.
Finally, rather than being an initiative originating with Lambeth or ACO this idea appears to be based on the suggestion from one Primate and province that (as stated in the summary of responses to the Archbishop) ‘a representative group comprising the leadership from the four Instruments of Communion convenes to explore ways and means of resolving the present difficulties associated with full Windsor compliance across the Communion’. The wisdom and language (‘full Windsor compliance’) of such a suggestion suggest that it originates with an orthodox, Global South province and primate. It would therefore be interesting to know if AM sought the advice of their Primatial Advisor as to whether criticism of this proposal was wise.
Anglican Mainstream’s response helpfully highlights five areas where they “respectfully seek to differ from the Archbishop”. The five short statements, however, offer some serious misreadings of the letter and its proposals for finding a way forward, misrepresent aspects of the Windsor process and ignore the wider context of the covenant. In addition, AM’s critique takes certain definite theological stances concerning life together in a divided church which need much more unpacking and defence and which many who are naturally sympathetic with AM’s aims currently find difficult to accept. Perhaps more disconcerting still is that AM’s critique may be saying – or at least be understood to be saying – that they are working from the assumptions the Archbishop strongly rejects at the end of his letter
A great deal of the language that is around in the Communion at present seems to presuppose that any change from our current deadlock is impossible, that division is unavoidable and that any such division represents so radical a difference in fundamental faith that no recognition and future co-operation can be imagined. I cannot accept these assumptions, and I do not believe that as Christians we should see them as beyond challenge, least of all as we think and pray our way through Advent.
The challenge in the months leading up to GAFCON and Lambeth is whether those who share AM’s concerns about the Advent letter will accept and act on the basis of these assumptions or whether there is room for serious discussion about the important issues AM raises and a common discernment together as to the way forward for the Communion as a whole.
The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is editor of Anvil, and a member of the Fulcrum leadership team
Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).