So, it happened. A bit like the last General Election, the outcome of the gathering of the Primates of the Anglican Communion ended as no-one thought it would—together, with a statement, an affirmation of ‘traditional’ understandings of marriage, and a rebuke of sorts for the Episcopal Church of the USA (TEC). I am not sure anyone (this side of heaven) saw it coming.
I include here the statement itself, some commentary and reflection on it, and some thoughts about the implications of what has happened.
1. We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.
This is a very interesting opening statement. It acknowledges the fact that there are differences of understanding, but immediately puts the question of relationships with one another, ‘our unity’, front and centre. This reflects comments made by Justin Welby in his address on the Monday on the importance of unity.
2. Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.
It is interesting that in the first mention of the fundamental problem, the issue is not expressed in terms of right and wrong, but as a description of what has happened. In that sense, the statement represents common ground, and as a description it would be hard to disagree with.
3. All of us acknowledge that these developments have caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.
Again, who could dissent from this? The one thing everyone agrees on is that there is a really difficult problem here arising from differences of view, and this is causing pain in every direction.
4. The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.
What is really crucial here is that the Primates had not gathered to debate or discussion the doctrine of marriage, as they had on previous occasions. The agenda this week was quite specifically, given we currently have different views, how do we continue in love together and how do we resolve our differences and come to a common mind? Those who were seeking a statement on sexuality and human rights had, I think, misunderstood this; there could be no such statement since the Primates view on sexuality was not the subject of discussion.
5. In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.
The focus here continues to be, not sexuality itself, but the question of how and whether one part of the Communion may or may not depart from something that the majority view as important doctrine.
6. Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.
The language here is key, and is continued into the first sentence of the next paragraph. The commitment of the primates is to continue in relationship with one another, even though that relationships has been harmed by unilateral action and trust is at low ebb. But how can the issue of sexuality be properly discussed without mutual trust and respect? And how can that trust and respect be rebuilt unless we continue in relationship with one another?
7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However, given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.
The three-year period takes TEC up to their next General Convention in 2018. It will then be up to TEC itself, knowing the Communion’s majority view, and in clear sight of the consequences of unilateral decisions, to decide what it wants to do. In that sense, it is on probation within the Communion. But it is important to note that this is not what the conservatives, GAFCON, wanted, as it falls short of full discipline and is less clear than they would like it to be on the doctrinal question of marriage.
8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.
Here we have an explicit commitment to continue conversation into the future. The subject of sexuality is not mentioned here explicitly, but it cannot be avoided. It puts things in the correct order: rebuilding relationships of trust first; tackling the issue of disagreement second.
How has this remarkable settlement come about, when everyone expected failure? It is impossible to discount the importance of prayer. Prayer was Justin Welby’s first commitment as he took up office, and the young people spending a year at Lambeth spent the week in Canterbury praying for the process. Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town, make this comment:
In our time together here, I have witnessed the power of prayer and movements of the Holy Spirit. We have wrestled with love and discerned together, digging deep into our spiritual wells and consciences, as well as seeking conversion as we made tough calls.
But the process has also reflected Justin Welby’s commitment to reconciliation and the importance of remaining in relationship with those with whom we disagree. It is worth revisiting his words in Monday’s opening address:
All of us here need a body that is mutually supportive, that loves one another, that stoops to lift the fallen and kneels to bind the wounds of the injured. Without each other we are deeply weakened, because we have a mission that is only sustainable when we conform to the image of Christ, which is first to love one another. The idea is often put forward that truth and unity are in conflict, or in tension. That is not true. Disunity presents to the world an untrue image of Jesus Christ. Lack of truth corrodes and destroys unity. They are bound together, but the binding is love. In a world of war, of rapid communications, of instant hearing and misunderstanding where the response is only hatred and separation, the Holy Spirit whose creative and sustaining gifting of the church is done in diversity, demands that diversity of history, culture, gift, vision be expressed in a unity of love. That is what a Spirit filled church looks like.
These are challenging words, particularly to evangelicals. When push comes to shove, evangelicals have often claimed that truth is more important than unity. Welby is responding to that, not by saying that, when push comes to shove, unity is more important than truth, but by rejecting the pushing and shoving. John Bingham offers a fair assessment of the statement in his early report. But by suggesting that this represents ‘a partial victory for traditionalists’, he is still operating with the assumption that there are two opposite views, and compromise sits somewhere on a straight line between them. Welby wanted to move the discussion away from that line to a different place altogether.
There is no doubt that this will have an impact on discussions in the Church of England. Here, too, traditionalists will be uncomfortable with such a strong commitment to remaining in relationship, especially when such relationships involve paying ‘parish share’ into diocesan funds which resource ministry that takes a different view. But ‘revisionists’ will also be uncomfortable with a reality the Primates confront us with: unity of relationship cannot take place in a vacuum. The Church currently does have a formal view on sexuality and marriage, and remaining in relationship means acknowledging that as the starting point. As I have said many times before, it is not possible to agree to disagree on this issue in the way the Church has on other issues.
What will happen now? It is hard to see TEC changing its position in the light of this when 2018 comes, not least because national autonomy is so deeply ingrained within its culture. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says plainly, many in TEC will find this a bitter pill to swallow, since inclusion of lesbian and gay Christians is such a cornerstone of their outlook. But if it decides to walk apart, it will be quite different from the process of being ‘expelled’ as discipline (even if that were possible). And only then will the Communion be able to consider whether is recognises ACNA as the member church of the Communion in the USA. If the Anglican Church of Canada and the Scottish Episcopal Church decide to recognise same-sex marriage, then they will be clear about the consequences. Many traditionalists have already left in Canada, but in Scotland those that have remained might feel their hand has been strengthened.
I suspect that there will be a sense of growing respect for Justin Welby. He has managed, in three short years, to address effectively the two major issues which dogged the primacy of his predecessor, Rowan Williams—the move to accept women bishops in the Church of England and the divisions in the Communion on sexuality. As one or two lone voices suggested, the next result could well be new life and vigour breathed into this global church.
In his chapter on ‘Sexuality and the Communion’, Andrew Goddard offers an astute summary:
The media obsession with homosexuality gives the impression of an Anglican death wish on sexuality and texts in Leviticus. This not only fails to do justice to the complexities of the contemporary debates but forgets that the English Reformation was itself bound up with debates over texts in the same two chapters of Leviticus (Leviticus 18 and 20) but concerning marriage to a deceased brother’s wife. Like the English Reformation, today’s debates involve a range of political and cultural factors but like then they also reflect deeper disagreements over authority in the church and especially the authority of Scripture. Only by addressing these as Anglicans can we hope to resolve the current crisis.
As Justin Welby has demonstrated this week, this kind can only be addressed by prayer and reconciliation.