Open letters, unsolicited advice: The Primates’ Meeting 2016

The meeting of the Anglican Primates has started in Canterbury. Since it was announced, I have struggled over whether and how much this blog (or I) ought to speak directly to the issues facing the Primates this week. Like others, I thought it was remarkable that Justin Welby met personally with all the Primates in the first eighteen months of his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, and even more remarkable that he persuaded them to gather in Canterbury this week. I found myself impressed also that he has steadily called the Anglican Communion to prayer over this issue; from the beginning, it seems to me that prayer has continued to be the most adequate response we can offer to this meeting, rather than a series of empty words or recommendations.

But, of course, like any other high-level Communion meeting of the past two decades, this week’s meeting has already been surrounded in manufactured controversy. We are all aware of the great issues facing the Primates, but some have felt the need to raise the stakes.

On “the left,” for example, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Rev. Professor Martin Percy, issued two open letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Modern Church. They contained surprisingly personal attacks on Justin Welby’s background and ministry, both unnecessary and uncharitable, and Percy’s actual recommendations of action and claims — that Justin should simply adhere to a liberal line on sexuality, that an established church must “cater to the palate” of the nation, that conservative positions on sexuality prevent effective evangelism — were characterized (rightly) by Ian Paul as “insipid” and “ideologically driven” rather than wise or in touch with reality.

On “the right,” some GAFCON Primates, such as Archbishop Stanley Ngatali of Uganda, have said they will withdraw from the meeting if “discipline and godly order is not restored” to the Communion.

Not to be outdone, the British press has issued its customary series of misguided or factually incorrect statements about the meeting, its significance, and its likely conclusion. Some of them seem more like exercises in declaring personal hopes rather than analyses of events, such as Andrew Brown’s piece in The Guardian, “The Anglican schism over sexuality marks the end of a global church.”

I am in agreement with Michael Cover’s piece “Against blogging,” published also today at Covenant. We sometimes have the idea that we must speak up about everything, as soon as possible, with little time for reflection. The era of blogging has exacerbated a tendency to offer showy, unsolicited advice.

Perhaps for this reason, we should not be surprised by another development, an open letter sent on January 7th (but which appeared online late Saturday night), now signed by over 100 “senior figures” of the Church of England, addressed to Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu, which urges them to call the other Primates to repentance over the Church’s treatment of LGBTI folks, commending an end to the vilification of “LGBTI members of Christ around the world” and acknowledging a failure “in our duty of care.” Although the letter describes its own stance as “prophetic” and will be welcomed by some, the letter’s chief feature is its sheer blandness combined with political cunning.

The Church undoubtedly needs to repent of homophobia, extend appropriate pastoral care, and avoid unjust discrimination. This, however, has been a consistent position of the Anglican Communion for many years; it appears in the famous resolution 1.10 of Lambeth 1998 and has been repeated in nearly every official Communion document related to homosexuality since that time. Continued, serious-minded wrestling with the theological and pastoral issues around gender and sexuality is not treating LGBTI Christians as “a problem to be solved.” It is our pastoral responsibility; it is part of “our duty of care.”

In issuing such a statement, the signatories have engaged in that most characteristic action of British public figures: saying something relatively uncontroversial, carefully toeing a line that will not get them sacked, labelling their own actions as “bold” and “courageous,” and releasing a statement at an opportune time: on a Saturday night, so it can make the Sunday papers. It is a move designed for maximum press reaction and minimal exposure; no one wants to lose their position, but they do want to be seen making a difference. It will win them plaudits from the media and positive attention from liberal members of the church. It has given the press the go ahead to increase media attention on the issue. But this letter is not prophetic. It might have been bold in the 1970s or ’80s to write such a letter, but it is a baseline in 2016 and has been for some time. It is something that could almost be taken for granted, given Archbishop Justin’s statement that:

Our way forward must respect the decisions of Lambeth 1998, and of the various Anglican Consultative Council and Primates’ meetings since then. It must also be a way forward, guided by the absolute imperative for the church to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, to make disciples and to worship and live in holiness, and recognising that the way in which proclamation happens and the pressures on us vary greatly between Provinces. We each live in a different context.

So what is the appropriate response? Further grandstanding and ecclesiastical brinksmanship? Ought we to continue to hurl opinions at Justin Welby and at the Primates’ Meeting as the week goes on, in order to magnify our own position and perhaps sway the results? I think not. I think, from the beginning, the best response has been humble prayer, joining each other on bended knee and joining in our Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). This is the sort of prayer that our Lord loves to hear, a prayer offered in accordance with his will. And, as the litany written for the Primates’ meeting states, “From media manipulation, misinformation, and the abuse of privilege: Good Lord, deliver us.”

This is not the resolution of our problems, but it is the only way to begin to resolve them. As Andrew Goddard has written at Fulcrum, it is hard to know what good to hope for from this meeting. A handful of outcomes seem possible or likely, but what would be the best result? When we do not know even what to hope for, we must pray for the Spirit’s help in our intercession. And we must do so in confidence and trust.

Perhaps these few verses of Psalm 46 may focus our prayer today.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

This article was published on Covenant and we are grateful for permission to reproduce it here on Fulcrum.

1 thought on “Open letters, unsolicited advice: The Primates’ Meeting 2016”

  1. Just read the Martin Percy. Had to read this bit 3 times: ‘Those needing protection and care are still lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians… Conservatives are not oppressed or criminalised for their opposition to lesbian, gay and bisexual people – ever, anywhere.‘ For one thing, such conservatives are constantly vilified. Maybe that doesn’t count as oppression in Percy’s book. For another thing, why does no one ever speak of the huge risk to Christians in countries where extreme religionists will see liberal views on this as yet another reason to sideline, attack, maim or kill Christians? It’s inevitable that Christians are branded as linked with “the West”, but for them to be seen as automatically holding the views of one element of Christianity in the West is unfair, because they generally don’t (on this issue) and increasingly dangerous because misunderstood by the majority.

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