The important announcement this last week by Archbishop Justin that he is inviting Anglican Communion Primates to attend a meeting in Canterbury next January (and, controversially, also the ACNA Primate for at least part of the meeting) has led to an enormous amount of speculation and agitation (see, for example, comments on Thinking Anglicans or the Episcopal New Service). One widespread belief, pushed particularly by Andrew Brown at the Guardian, is that the plan is for the “breakup” (later softened to “loosening of ties”) of the Communion. Many seem to want a move to a more “federation” approach and even to think this is the likely outcome, perhaps even favoured by the Archbishop. So Ruth Gledhill writes, “The move towards a more federal model, an Anglican Federation along the lines of Europe's Lutheran Federation, is a much better model for the Church in today's world” and from New Zealand Peter Carrell, writes on ABC Changes Communion to Federation.
While at the moment much is unclear - and that is in part because in order to get as many as possible to the meeting, there cannot be a pre-determined agenda, let alone outcome – the statement itself and the background to it give little evidence to support such claims of a radical paradigm shift.
Most important here is that the Archbishop states
Our way forward must respect the decisions of Lambeth 1998, and of the various Anglican Consultative Council and Primates’ meetings since then.
This has been seen as a reference to the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 on sexuality and it clearly does include that (and presumably the consequent moratoria) but the scope of it is much wider and more significant. Throughout that period the Instruments have also clearly developed and supported a vision of life in communion where autonomous provinces recognise their interdependence and the importance of their common counsel. In the period referred to in the statement this would include the Virginia Report, the Windsor Report, the work of the various post-Windsor groups, most notably that working on an Anglican Communion Covenant, and the work of the IATDC and IASCUFO, all of which have been welcomed in decisions by the Instruments. It is very hard to see how a paradigm shift to a “looser” or “federation” model in any way shows “respect” for decades of theological and ecclesiological thought about what it means to be “a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” identified in part by being “bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” (a definition going back to Resolution 49 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference).
It is also far from clear that such a shift would either get much support (outside some of the liberal Northern primates) or offer a practical solution. Not just GAFCON but many primates from the wider Global South remain of the view that the solution to the continuing crisis (based around a Primates’ Council and Pastoral Scheme for traditionalists in North America) was put forward at the Dar Primates Meeting in 2007 but never implemented, in large part leading to GAFCON forming. The Archbishop has refused to accept their view that this must be the starting point of any new gathering – that meeting will be nearly a decade old once the Primates meet, much has happened, and very few current Primates attended that meeting despite it being one which had a very high number of newly installed Primates. Justin Welby has rightly insisted, following extensive visits and conversations, that the meeting must find its own way forward face-to-face. But in talking of respecting the decisions of previous Primates’ meetings he has shown he is aware how many Primates still think that the proposal put forward there continues to provide a model for how best to proceed.
The sad reality is that support for something like the Dar approach has increased following the decisions earlier this year by General Convention (and to a lesser degree the Scottish Episcopal Church). These demonstrated that some provinces are now seeking to repeat the pattern of taking provincial action which disregards the mind of the Communion but in relation to the even more important question of Christian teaching on marriage. Some Global South provinces who were becoming more amenable to moving on from the painful history since 2003 and starting afresh (particularly with a new Presiding Bishop) are now clear that the fundamental problem of TEC unilateralism remains a serious one. That is one reason they have sought and secured a place for Archbishop Foley of ACNA during the meeting.
The way forward after January is unlikely to be simply a reversion to an earlier attempted solution, whether the Dar Primates’ model or the Anglican Communion Covenant in its present form. It is, however, even less likely to be an agreement from the Primates that they need to embrace a “federation” model of global Anglicanism. This effectively abandons any claim to respect provincial interdependence (not to mention any doctrinal or ethical basis for unity which is clearly so important for many of the provinces whether in terms of the Jerusalem Declaration or the broader wording in Section One of the Covenant). Instead it gives unfettered freedom to provincial autonomy on the basis that we must all simply “agree to disagree”, thereby put the past divisions behind us, and then, it is argued, still continue to meet together when gathered by Canterbury and maintain the bonds which have held us together and are so vital for many provinces in their difficult contexts. That may be what some hope for or even expect from this initiative but it would be to reconstitute global Anglicanism as a body which not just tolerated but was shaped by a vision of what it means to be the church of Christ (not just to be Anglican) that the Communion has consistently rejected.