Kenya, Chelmsford and Communion: What are the issues?

The response of the Primate of Kenya to the Bishop of Chelmsford has raised a number of questions about the nature of communion, its impairment and the consequences of such impairment for the wider church when it occurs between bishops.

What has happened?

At present, even after the recent press release and press conference from the Bishop of Chelmsford on his return from Kenya, it is not totally clear what has happened. However, it would appear that the Primate of Kenya informed the Bishop of Chelmsford that he could not proceed with his programme of visits within the Kenyan Church. This was because of his decision to become a patron of Changing Attitude, a decision the meaning and significance of which also remains unclear given Bishop John Gladwin's statement at the press conference that 'I was not asked to endorse the views of Changing Attitude when I became a patron' even though Changing Attitude states on its website that 'the patrons of Changing Attitude support our aims and objectives and are committed to a church which is fully inclusive'. Those who traveled with the bishop were apparently also there as representatives of Chelmsford diocese and yet they were able to continue with their work and the Chelmsford diocesan link to the Kenyan dioceses currently remains in place.

A number of points follow from this:

  • It is an action of a Primate in relation to the activities of a foreign diocesan bishop within the province where as Primate he has jurisdiction.
  • It is a response to an action of that bishop in his personal capacity and not on behalf of his diocese as a whole and so is directed at the bishop personally
  • It is an action of the Primate and not of the Church of Kenya as a whole (or dioceses within Kenya) through representative episcopal or synodical bodies

In short, it appears to have been an emergency measure by the Primate to safeguard his integrity and that of his province when presented with evidence that caused him grave concerns about the visiting bishop's personal conduct and beliefs.

In each of these cases we are a long way from the situation that exists between parts of the Global South and ECUSA. It is therefore simply not true to say that 'The Church in England is rapidly being faced with the dilemmas facing ECUSA and Canada' (John Richardson on Fulcrum Forum). While, therefore, further developments may make the situation more serious, at present it is not evidently the case that 'the Diocese of Chelmsford, and everyone in it, is currently out of ecclesial fellowship with the dioceses in Kenya' (John Richardson) even if one takes a high view of the representative nature of the bishop.

Is more fundamental impairment of communion justified?

In determining how to respond if this is what has happened, the next question has to be whether or not any more formal declared impairment of communion between Kenya and the diocese of Chelmsford would be justified. Although a small number of clergy within Chelmsford had already declared themselves in a measure of impaired communion with their diocesan long before the visit, there has been no widespread sense that such action is justified and no formal statement of such impairment from Kenya. Ultimately that decision must be made by the Kenyan church.

Would wider declarations of impaired or broken communion be justified at present, either within Chelmsford or from other provinces in the Communion?

A number of factors point to such declarations being a disproportionate reaction:

  • The bishop's similar actions in the past - most notably accepting an invitation to preach at LGCM anniversary service in Southwark - were not considered so serious as to justify impairment even though they led to protests. More recently, it was the bishop deciding to sign a letter to the Times affirming he remained in full communion with ECUSA that led some in his diocese to declare themselves in impaired communion but neither Kenya nor any other Global South province took such action, in fact Kenya continued to welcome the bishop for his visit.
  • The bishop has not been shown to have rejected Lambeth I.10 in episcopal acts
  • The CofE and the Communion have survived without such declarations being necessary in relation to much worse statements and actions by individual bishops in the past.
  • In relation to existing declarations of impaired/broken communion with ECUSA and New Westminster (and potentially - though never actually - with Oxford during the Reading crisis) the strongest justification is that this was not an action of the orthodox. Rather it was simply a statement by the orthodox that those violating Communion teaching and ignoring the requests of the Instruments of Communion had, by their own actions, impaired or broken communion. A bishop becoming a patron of a pressure group (which is committed to the listening process but with a clear campaigning agenda opposed to current Communion teaching) is, even if unwise, not able to be categorized in those terms.

The basis for any such declarations of broken or impaired communion therefore appears to be the two-fold belief that:

  1. the bishop does not personally believe I.10 is true and
  2. the bishop is supporting the 'listening process' in such a way that he seeks to persuade the wider church that I.10 is not true.

If that is the basis then it needs to be clearly stated as such and a rationale given as to why declaring communion to be impaired or broken is a proportionate response to this situation. Clearly such a view extends the grounds for impairment way beyond that which has arisen in ECUSA and New Westminster and would, if applied, inevitably result in much more widespread problems in both the Communion and the Church of England.

What should Anglicans in Chelmsford diocese do now?

Any further action at this stage is clearly precipitate. It is necessary to wait for it to become clear exactly the nature of any impairment between Kenya and Chelmsford. For example, is it limited to personal communion between the Primate and the diocesan bishop or is it a more corporate impairment between the diocese as a whole and the entire province thus bringing the link diocese relationship with four Kenyan dioceses to an end?

If it becomes clear that indeed the Kenyan church believes its communion with Chelmsford diocese is seriously impaired or broken due to its bishop then those in the diocese will need to discern if such a judgment is right. Here there must be a presumption against justification due to the fact that it is the personal actions of the bishop in agreeing to become a patron of Changing Attitude which are the cause of the problem and not the action of the bishop-in-Synod (as, for example, in New Westminster) or the actions of the bishop in the fulfillment of his episcopal duties.

What might the options look like should the Kenyan church make a judgment that their communion with Chelmsford is broken or seriously impaired (such that, for example, they end the link and will not receive any more support from the diocese)?

If Anglicans in Chelmsford believe that Kenya declaring a state of broken or impaired communion with their bishop and diocese is right they will have to

  • consider their own relationship to the diocese (for example, if Kenya will not accept financial benefits from Chelmsford diocese, should they continue to live in houses provided by the diocese etc)
  • explain the rationale for this to those who, though sharing their convictions on sexuality, believe this to be a disproportionate reaction
  • work out how to re-establish bonds of communion with Kenya apart from the diocesan structures.

If, however, Anglicans in Chelmsford conclude any declaration of impaired or broken communion is disproportionate and wrong at the present time then amongst other consequences there would be the need to

  • consider how they can continue to provide support for Kenyan Anglicans through alternative means given their refusal to work with the diocesan structures
  • remain fully part of the diocese of Chelmsford and continue to participate in its structures, bearing witness to biblical truths in relation to both sexuality and church unity
  • find ways in which to persuade the Kenyan church - and any in Chelmsford who follow their lead - that they have misunderstood and/or over-reacted to the situation and in so doing unnecessarily damaged the bonds of communion that have so clearly been built up over recent decades.

Sadly, there appear to be those who at present welcome the prospect of an African province declaring broken communion with an English diocese and ending a long-standing and concrete expression of that communion in the link between that diocese and four Kenyan dioceses. Thankfully we are not yet at that stage and it is vital that, in the words of Tim Wambunya's Fulcrum article, The Chelmsford Diocese/Mt Kenya link must not be allowed to die. While we await further developments and deliberations within Kenya, the need is for a period of calm reflection in order to pray, to consider more fundamental issues concerning the nature of communion and its impairment, and to discern what is an appropriate response to the decision of the Bishop of Chelmsford to become a patron of Changing Attitude.

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