On February 15, 2016, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, used his Presidential Address to the Church of England’s General Synod to give his perspective on the Primates Meeting of January 2016. The Primates Meeting is one of the Anglican Communion’s four “instruments of communion”, the other three being the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). The primates meet periodically as heads of the Communion’s thirty-eight member churches. This meeting was called after the June 2015 decision by one member church, The Episcopal Church (TEC), to alter its definition of marriage to make it gender-neutral.
According to Welby, the atmosphere at the meeting was prayerful and respectful:
We washed each other’s feet and each prayed a blessing on the one who had washed our feet, before washing the feet of other Primates; a great contrast to what is often portrayed as the conflicts within the Communion. Many of us were moved to tears.
At some point after the foot washing, there was a vote on whether the thirty-eight member churches would walk together or separately. Before the vote was taken there was a warning, repeated twice, that voting in favour meant taking personal responsibility for making the decision work properly. While the vote was unanimously in favour of walking together, the divisions are profound. As Welby cautions: “We should not have any illusions of the fragility of the process, or of the outcome.”
A working group then sought a way of turning the vote into decision and action. An agreement was quickly drafted and adopted by an overwhelming majority. The agreement was that, since TEC was in disagreement with the Communion on a significant issue, it should not represent the Communion ecumenically, or in its principal elected standing committees, nor should it vote on matters of doctrine or polity. The decision is binding for three years, after which it will be reviewed at the next Lambeth Conference in 2020. This decision binds the primates as a group. It does not bind any single province or any other instrument of communion. Welby explains what this means:
The underlying issue is about reception. Both before, but especially since, Lambeth 1920, reception has meant the informal process by which, over time, developments are accepted or rejected in a way that leads to consensus. Thus, issues in 1920 around contraception, in Lambeth 1930 and 1948 around divorce, were at the time seen as threatening the unity of the Communion as seriously as issues of human sexuality now. Reception goes both ways. There has been a consensus against lay presidency, despite significant pressure in the past, but the reception process rejected it. It is not a legal process, but a discernment of the Spirit based in relationship.
The importance of this is very great indeed. The Anglican Communion finds its decisions through spiritual discernment in relationship, not through canons and procedures. Those operate at Provincial level. All developments must show signs of the presence of the Spirit, not only locally but across the Communion. Primates’ Meetings, Lambeth Conferences and ACCs are not a question of winning and losing, but of discerning.]
Welby was careful to stress that the meeting was not only about same-sex marriage. The primates also discussed other important matters, including: how to approach threats to the environment, ways of interacting with Islam, and methods of evangelism:
During all these discussions, those who are theologically in very different places in the Communion demonstrated their profound support for one another, and there was a great sense of collective effort, of common vision, of love for one another and for the service of the world. It is a vision which encompasses rich and poor, north and south, breaking down barriers in the cause of Christ and the kingdom of God. It is lived out not mainly in the great meetings but in Diocesan links and partnerships, in prayer, in celebration, in grieving.
Welby then warmed to a broader context: how the reception method of achieving consensus reflects the nature and purpose of the Anglican Communion itself. He mentioned the usual method of consensus: the balance of scripture, tradition and reason. He also mentioned another method: the balance of freedom, order and human flourishing. As a Communion, and as member churches within it, where authority is found in discernment and expressed in relationship, “this trio is of huge importance. It anchors us in the breaking down of barriers, in facing each other, in the beauty of human interaction in love”:
The Church in its order is meant to encourage the freedom in Christ that is promised, and human flourishing that is the vision of the kingdom of God. When the balance is wrong, and even more so when we feel threatened, like a ship with a dysfunctional crew heading for the rocks, different groups all strive to grab the wheel so that, as they see it, they may demonstrate that they and only they know the way to avoid disaster.
The reality is that none of them do know fully, and disaster is only avoided by unity which relishes and celebrates the diversity of freedom and flourishing within broad limits of order.
That is what many of the discussions in the Communion are about. What are the limits of diversity? Who is in control? British colonial history makes the laying down of edicts by white, middle-class Christians from the Global North, citizens of the former colonial power in many places, a process that is rightly deeply resented.
Yet freedom cannot be found without order, and order and freedom are necessary for human flourishing.
On the same day as Welby’s address, the Presiding Bishop of TEC, Michael Curry, responded to the Primates’ Meeting in January. This can be paraphrased in the following points.
- The primates clearly understood that TEC is committed to the Anglican Communion but equally committed to being a house of prayer for all people.
- TEC believes in full inclusion and marriage equality not as a social program but because the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are really about welcoming and embracing all of God’s children created in his image and likeness.
- TEC’s decision to welcome and embrace all creation, just like Jesus on the cross, is about doing what God’s love bids TEC to do.
- TEC loves the rest of the Anglican Communion, even the parts that disagree with it.
- There should be no expectation that TEC will change in the next three years. It will not change.
- TEC is highly aware that the primates did not “vote us off the island” although they could have. Their response was therefore moderate. They expressed displeasure but recognised that, for the time being, TEC is still part of the Anglican Communion.
Notice the difference between Welby’s perspective and Curry’s response. They reflect different understandings of what it means to be a global church. Welby’s perspective is grounded partly in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury and partly because the evolution of the Communion parallels the evolution of the Commonwealth. Curry’s perspective is grounded partly in his role as Presiding Bishop of TEC and partly because the United States believes it has a unique responsibility, as a child of the Enlightenment, to promote universal freedom.
This essay first appeared in the April edition of Quadrant
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It’s brave of the primate of one church to stand before the primates of thirty-seven other churches and claim that his church is doing God’s bidding; that’s not far from suggesting the other churches are not. It’s also unwise of Curry to state, categorically, that the issue is not about social programming, since it clearly is. TEC is being carried along by a zeitgeist. That’s not the mission of the global church. Dean Inge’s much paraphrased warning is still pertinent here: The church that marries the spirit of the age will find herself a widow in the next age.
Struggles for human rights are never uniform and their contexts always change. In the Western context, the struggles of the late twentieth century were about anti-discrimination as it related to non-whites, non-males, non-heterosexuals and other marginalised population groups. While the achievements were remarkable, and necessary, the landscape of Western human rights is not the same now, and we are foolish to think it is. There is a vast difference between fighting for civil liberties fifty years ago and taking a stand on full inclusion and marriage equality now. The churches face a paradox here, as embracing the modern liberal agenda is not the same as witnessing Christ to others. It may make us feel good but it does nothing for church growth and may even drive people away. In his essay “The Incredible Shrinking Liberal Protestantism” (Quadrant, October 2015), William D. Rubinstein places this dilemma in its starkest terms of church decline.
Beyond the United States, in many parts of the world, God’s children do not have basic human necessities and their right to life is threatened. In August 2014, the Vicar of Baghdad announced that a child he had baptised was cut in half during a Daesh attack on a Christian village. A few months earlier, Gene Robinson, TEC’s first openly gay bishop, whose consecration in 2003 derailed the Lambeth Conference in 2008, announced his divorce from his husband. These two images, a child cut in half for his faith, a gay bishop divorcing his husband, are always on my mind. The question for me, when trying to reconcile these images, is whether TEC’s zeitgeist-driven priorities can be taken seriously. Does it live in a world so secure and so privileged that there aren’t more pressing issues than marriage equality?
What does Curry mean by full inclusion? If he means welcoming all persons into the church, and treating each of them with dignity and respect, it would be a grave offence against God if this wasn’t already happening in TEC or any other church. What does he mean by marriage equality? Before that question can be answered, a distinction should be made between the legal meaning of civil marriage and the sacramental meaning of church marriages. In some jurisdictions, all legal marriages are conducted by civil authorities, after which the married couple can ask the church for sacramental recognition if they wish. In other jurisdictions, the church is licensed to conduct marriages that confer legal and sacramental recognition simultaneously. The latter might not be a good thing, as the church’s sacramental responsibility to its members is not the same as the state’s legal responsibility to its citizens. In Australia, all marriage celebrants, whether civil or religious, are registered by the Attorney-General’s Department. If the church were to withdraw from this registration process, and limit itself to sacramental recognition of civil marriages, it would be free to focus on its mission. In a nation where church and state are separate, the church should not act as an agent for the state.
In Australia, according to the Family Court’s website, the rights of de facto couples are the same for heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals. For this reason, there is a case to argue that, in Australia, marriage equality is about symbolism rather than anti-discrimination, since it adds little to the legal protections de facto couples already have. In his essay “The ‘Marriage Equality’ Error” (Quadrant, January-February 2016), Peter Kurti goes a step further, by pointing out that Australia’s legal system rests on the principle that the equal should be treated as equals and the unequal should be treated as unequals. By this logic, heterosexual couples are unequal, since males and females are different, and their difference is enshrined in the Marriage Act. By this same logic, homosexual couples are equal, since a male couple is equal, and a female couple is equal, and this equality excludes them from marriage as a difference between husband and wife. The Marriage Act is not about equality, it is about complementarity, commitment and responsibility. The question of how to recognise non-heterosexual unions, legally and symbolically, should not involve the Marriage Act. Regardless of whether one believes in evolutionary theory or intelligent design, men and women are different.
Of course, the marriage equality, de facto and common law issues vary from nation to nation. TEC has changed its definition of marriage so it can marry any gender combination it wishes. Did it do this for symbolic reasons? Will its decision confer legal protections that non-heterosexual couples in the US cannot obtain through civil marriage or by other means? These questions must be asked because the US and Australia are not comparable. There are differences between them, and between them and other parts of the world. No church can adopt a global position on same-sex marriage without reference to local contexts. Before we can assess what happened at January’s Primates Meeting, we must consider the different jurisdictions of the primates, as each represents a specific cultural context. Welby reminds us of the dangers. In the postcolonial world, there’s bound to be resentment when the Global North keeps reminding the Global South that its Christian existence is less enlightened, as that can easily come across as a colonial mindset rebranded in a postcolonial veneer.
While Curry does acknowledge that the primates’ decision was moderate, this doesn’t change things, and no one can predict what will happen in 2020. The only certainty is that TEC will not alter its position for the sake of Anglican unity.
There are different scenarios. The simplest is TEC leaving the Communion while continuing to have a symbolic relationship with the See of Canterbury. If that happens, the choice facing the Canadian church, which has until now been of the same liberal mind as TEC, is whether to remain in the Communion or align itself with TEC. If this now seems less likely to happen, it is because shortly after the Primates Meeting, the Canadian House of Bishops issued a statement to the Canadian House of the Laity saying that, if the Same-Sex Marriage canon is sent to them, it will not receive the required two-thirds majority to pass. Obviously, the Canadian bishops have suddenly realised the full consequences of the Canon, and have decided to refrain from doing anything under their watch that will jeopardise Anglican unity.
If TEC was to leave the Communion, the Communion could continue on its dialogical way. The Canadian decision effectively makes TEC’s position the only real issue, which clarifies the way forward somewhat. A Communion without TEC could have positive results. The impact of the ever-liberalising zeitgeist would be reduced, and many of the Global North versus Global South tensions of the last few decades could be healed. We cannot underestimate the destabilising and debilitating impact of those tensions, which has already torn the the Anglican churches apart in North America. The least preferred option is dissolving the Communion and replacing it with a loose structure, similar to the Orthodox churches, where each province has an individual relationship with the See of Canterbury, but not necessarily with each other.
Like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism is a global phenomenon, quite different from other Protestant churches. If Anglicans are to avoid the “Incredible Shrinking Liberal Protestantism” curse, they must reflect on that global phenomenon, so their bishops can make an informed decision at Lambeth 2020. Shining the spotlight on TEC is necessary, as it encourages Anglicans to focus on the limits of diversity. The Primates Meeting of January 2016 forces Anglicans to consider the consequences of invoking God’s will to justify everything they feel called to do.
Dr Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. He wrote “Does the Hawaiian Kingdom Still Exist?” in the January–February issue.