Primates’ Meetings under Rowan Williams (2003-2011)

Next week (January 11th-16th, 2016) the Primates of the Anglican Communion gather for their first meeting in almost five years and the first since Justin Welby became Archbishop of Canterbury in February 2013. It follows the fulfilment of his remarkable commitment to meet during his first two years in office with all the Primates in their provinces so as to listen to their concerns. The meeting occurs three months before the Anglican Consultative Council meets in Lusaka, Zambia at ACC-16 and is also the first meeting being organised by Josiah Idowu-Fearon, a former Archbishop in Nigeria, appointed Secretary General of the Anglican Communion last summer in succession to Kenneth Kearon.

As background to the meeting it is helpful to review the six Primates’ Meetings under Rowan Williams (especially as Archbishop Justin, in calling the meeting, was clear that “Our way forward must respect the decisions of Lambeth 1998, and of the various Anglican Consultative Council and Primates' meetings since then”), to note some of the other key developments related to those meetings, and to recall some of Fulcrum’s own commentaries on events as they happened.

2003 – Brazil and Lambeth

As Archbishop of Wales Rowan had attended a number of Primates’ Meetings (Justin Welby helped organise the last Primates’ Meeting but has never attended as a Primate) and shortly after his enthronement in Canterbury in February 2003 he presided at a meeting in Brazil in May 2003, just over a year after the previous meeting in Canterbury.

This meeting, in the context of growing controversy over the blessing of same-sex relationships, addressed in some detail the subject which would dominate all the meetings under Rowan Williams. It did this with the help of True Union in the Body?, commissioned by the Primate of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez. The communique referred to this document and stated that “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. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites”. It gave more attention, however, to the extreme situations facing many Anglicans, theological education, HIV/AIDS and how to nurture communion.

As the meeting concluded, the appointment was announced of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, shortly afterwards the first authorised same-sex blessing occurred in New Westminster diocese and the following month Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. Following confirmation of his election in August, Rowan Williams called an emergency Primates’ Meeting in October at Lambeth Palace to address the crisis. With many predicting the end of the Communion, its statement warned that recent actions “threaten the unity of our own Communion as well as our relationships with other parts of Christ's Church, our mission and witness, and our relations with other faiths” and that proceeding with the consecration “will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level”. To address the crisis it established the Lambeth Commission on Communion.

In advance, Fulcrum, which had recently launched, issued a statement and followed it with a further statement after the meeting and the publication of an article by Graham Kings.

2005 – Dromantine

The third meeting under Rowan took place in Dromantine in February 2005 and was focussed on The Windsor Report published in October 2004 by the Lambeth Commission (and about which the Archbishop wrote in his 2004 Advent Letter to Primates). As with the forthcoming meeting, speculation was rife of walkouts and splits but the Primates kept talking (though for the first time not all shared in communion) and agreed a communique. This was stark in its assessment – “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” – and included taking action against both the American and Canadian churches by asking them to become observers within Communion structures while they responded to the Windsor request for moratoria. After reaching these conclusions, the meeting continued to address HIV/AIDS (and also malaria and TB) and theological education.

Fulcrum in its subsequent statement welcomed their decisions as “long term solutions, rather than precipitous dissolution, for the Anglican Communion”. Archbishop Rowan later wrote a 2005 Advent Letter to the Primates and then a March 2006 Letter to them on the Lambeth Conference.

2007 – Dar Es Salaam

The next Primates’ Meeting, with fourteen new Primates, was two years later in February 2007 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (there had been a meeting of ACC-13 in Nottingham in 2005 shortly after Dromantine). It focussed on the responses to The Windsor Report at the 2006 General Convention to which Rowan Williams had himself responded in his important statement, The Challenge and Hope of Being An Anglican Today (on both these see Fulcrum’s response here). Non-Primates from the USA were invited to meet with the Primates prior to their formal meeting, reflecting the division among Anglicans and providing a precedent for inviting Archbishop Foley to a gathering prior to this 2016 meeting.

At the end of a very difficult meeting, the Primates, after summing up their discussions on the Millennium Development Goals, theological education and the hermeneutics project, set out their proposed way forward to address the divisions in North America. This spoke of a remaining “lack of clarity” about the stance of The Episcopal Church which meant that “the response of The Episcopal Church to the requests made at Dromantine has not persuaded this meeting that we are yet in a position to recognise that The Episcopal Church has mended its broken relationships” and so the “fabric of our common life together has been torn”. The primates highlighted three urgent needs relating to the problem of interventions in TEC and to the fact that “those of us who have lost trust in The Episcopal Church need to be re-assured that there is a genuine readiness in The Episcopal Church to embrace fully the recommendations of the Windsor Report”. Two elements of the Primates’ response - support for The Listening Process and the Anglican Covenant (the first draft of which they discussed) – continued to bear fruit but the proposed Pastoral Council and Scheme were rejected by the American church and never followed through. This led to great unhappiness among their supporters and a number of crucial subsequent developments: the decision to convene GAFCON, the withdrawal of many from Lambeth, and the formation of ACNA despite the Primates’ statement that “We believe that it would be a tragedy if The Episcopal Church was to fracture, and we are committed to doing what we can to preserve and uphold its life”. The Archbishop subsequently wrote to all the Primates in March calling for generosity and patience.

Fulcrum offered a response to the official assessment of TEC’s response to Windsor (which provides much detail of the issues at the time) and a very positive response to the Primates’ statement (helpfully summarising its key components). We also provided an analysis and a statement following the American bishops’ response to the Primates and a statement on the important Advent Letter of December 2007 to Primates from Archbishop Rowan.

2009 – Alexandria

The February 2009 meeting in Alexandria, Egypt was, despite GAFCON and the boycott of Lambeth in 2008 and many predictions of this being repeated, attended by all but 3 of the Primates. It was much less dominated by the crisis in the Communion than the previous meeting and its letter (“Deeper Communion; Gracious Restraint”) was supplemented by statements relating to Zimbabwe, Sudan and Gaza. Beginning with a focus on mission challenges in various provinces, the meeting was marked by “a discernible mood of graciousness”, “a common desire to speak honestly about our situation” and “a spirit of open and respectful dialogue” with “honest exchange and mutual challenge”. Conversations covered the role of primates and the Primates’ Meeting and the work of the Windsor Continuation Group, leading to a recognition of the “complexity of the situation” and an affirmation that “If a way forward is to be found and mutual trust to be re-established, it is imperative that further aggravation and acts which cause offence, misunderstanding or hostility cease”. Faced with what would become ACNA, it was acknowledged that “there is no consensus among us about how this new entity should be regarded” but support was given to the call for mediated conversations and to the ongoing work on the covenant, the Listening Process and the “Bible in the Church” project. Theological education was again discussed as was global warming. the financial crisis and the launch of the Anglican Relief and Development Alliance. As will happen in 2016, this meeting was followed shortly afterwards by a meeting of the ACC (ACC-14 in Jamaica in May 2009).

2011 - Dublin

By January 2011, when the Primates gathered in Dublin, the crisis in the Communion had reached a new stage due to four significant developments. First, the formal launch of the new North American province ACNA supported by many Communion provinces (in June 2009). Second, the ambiguity in TEC’s 2006 responses to Windsor was removed by decisions of the 2009 General Convention (on which see Fulcrum press statement, response and article by Graham Kings) and then the election (Dec 2009), confirmation (March 2010) and consecration as bishop (May 2010) of Mary Glasspool who was in a same-sex partnership (to which Fulcrum responded in a short statement and longer article). Third, Archbishop Rowan wrote an important letter in Pentecost 2010 taking action within Communion structures in response to this (though elements of this were later rescinded). Fourth, there had also been the publication (in December 2010) of the final text of the Anglican Communion Covenant after a difficult May meeting of the ACC in Jamaica.

In Dublin 15 primates were absent from the meeting with debates about how many absences were due to personal circumstances and how many were a principled refusal to attend by those opposed to the continuing actions of The Episcopal Church and the presence of its Presiding Bishop. The meeting spent comparatively little time on the crisis in the Communion according to the 5 briefings on their discussions (1, 23, 4 and 5). It issued a number of statements covering climate change, Zimbabwe, Haiti, the murder of Ugandan gay rights campaigner David Kato and gender based violence. They also produced a document on the Primates’ Standing Committee and a working document entitled “Towards an Understanding of the Purpose and Scope of the Primates’ Meeting” which set out a shared understanding of the role of Primates individually and corporately and how they sought to work, ending with a commitment that “in our common life in Christ we are passionately committed to journeying together in honest conversation. In faith, hope, and love we seek to build our Communion and further the reign of God”.

Fulcrum did not comment on the meeting although I offered an analysis of the state of the Communion just prior to it which highlighted a number of factors many of which are still in play five years later.

Following that meeting, Archbishop Rowan wrote to the Primates at Lent 2011 (reflecting in part on the meeting) and Advent 2011 and, in his final letter, at Advent 2012, following both ACC-15 in Auckland and the Church of England dioceses’ rejection of the Anglican Communion covenant.

Conclusion - 2016

Since Dublin in 2011, although many Primates met together informally with Archbishop Justin at the time of his enthronement in March 2013 and he has met each of them personally in situ, there has been no formal gathering of the Primates of the Communion and, unlike Rowan, he has not written public letters to the Primates. This is by far the longest gap between meetings since they started in 1979. Just before that 2011 meeting I wrote that “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”. The miracle has happened and no primate has been excluded or is staying away on principle. Our prayer must therefore be that there are more miracles so that, as in 2003 and 2005, predictions of walkouts will prove false, as in 2007 a way forward may be agreed which will (unlike then) be implemented, as in 2009 the conversations will be marked by charitable listening and honest speaking, and as in 2011 the Primates develop a common vision of how they will work together in the future. In short, that God will be at work by his Spirit and a way forward will somehow be found that means Archbishop Justin will be able to have many future meetings with the Primates and they will not be as fraught and painful as those of his predecessor in the See of Canterbury.

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