DEAR brothers in Christ, — the Primates’ Meeting is one of the four instruments of unity within our Communion. Recommendations from the meetings carry weight and have an impact on the Communion. So we always look forward to your collective wisdom as the spokespersons of your provinces, and we uphold you in our prayers, that you may be led by the Holy Spirit.
Clearly our Communion has been going along a very difficult road since the Lambeth Conference of 1998. To put it bluntly, we are a traumatised family, though I would hasten to say that the Church has had worse crises, and survived every one of them. My conviction is that the Communion will also survive this present crisis, and emerge even stronger, and better positioned to make Christ known in a world that is becoming increasingly relativistic and pluralistic.
There have been reports that some of you are thinking seriously about not attending the Primates’ Meeting in January (News, 26 November). This is a very worrying situation, and, after waiting on the Lord, I have decided to make this open appeal to you all, to urge you to seek the face of the Lord before boycotting this next meeting.
THE Primates’ Meetings remind me of the past Councils of the Christian Church, from AD 49 in Jerusalem to Vatican II in Rome in the 1960s. In particular, your next meeting is a continuation of what began in 1978, in what we believe must have been an act of the Lord, through the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Coggan, as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultations”.
History reminds us that all the 22 Councils of the Christian Church contained both those in favour and those against the subjects under discussion, and that the discussions were not always eirenic.
After the Decian decree in the year 249, which called on people to worship the Roman gods, the Church had to resolve the controversies on baptism and penance championed by St Cyprian of Carthage, who upheld the stand of his predecessor, Tertullian. All the African bishops came to a Council in Rome in 251. They stood their ground, and their position was upheld (though the solutions gave birth to Flavianism, a heretical movement).
In later Councils of the Church, on at least one occasion, the principal character who had a different understanding from the majority of the bishops present was asked to sit alone in the middle of the whole gathering. This was Bishop Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria in the fifth century. He was invited to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 with his supporters; they all participated in the debates. At the end, he was condemned for failing to apologise for his part at the Council of Ephesus, the “Robber Council” of 449, and he was deposed and exiled.
The lessons from these Councils are clear:
1. Bishops with opposing views — be they theological, doctrinal, or even political — made the effort to get their voices heard at the meetings.
2. Presence at these Councils did not imply agreement: on the contrary, the Councils were called precisely because people disagreed. Dear Primates, where would the Church be today if “orthodox” bishops had stayed away from the main Councils of the Church?
3. Importantly, these bishops had arrived at their clear theological positions in their sees, they made sure they attended the meetings, and they were able to defend what their dioceses stood for.
PERMIT me, therefore, to seize this opportunity and appeal to you, my brothers, to carry your bishops, clergy, and lay members with you to the Primates’ Meetings. An archbishop may hold a strong position on a particular theological debate, but that should not be a reason to silence those of his colleagues who hold an alternative opinion as representatives of their dioceses.
May I therefore plead with you, our Primates, not to walk away from the path of wisdom, or to give room for the Communion to break up, during the time God has given each of you the privilege to represent your various provinces. It is the path of wisdom to marshal your theological positions, and to be prepared to argue your points clearly and without resorting to name-calling or abusive language.
You missed an opportunity by not being at Lambeth 2008, which means that a gap of ten years has been created. The Primates’ Meeting, as an instrument of unity, calls for full attendance each time it is summoned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Those who do not come are increasingly being portrayed as the aggressors, and are passing the media advantage to the Episcopal Church in the United States, and others.
We all expect some healing music out of each meeting, as your contribution to the smooth running of this Communion, in spite of our present travails.
The Anglican Consultative Council did well by having all the parts of the Communion represented. Even though some of us were not satisfied with some parts of the recommendations from their meeting, all were still represented. That should be the way forward, because it is the character of the Church to have all represented, even if there are disagreements — and there will always be.
I therefore appeal to you, my brothers, to follow the path of wisdom as established in the earlier Councils of the Christian Church, and make the effort with God’s abundant grace to be in Ireland for the Primates’ Meeting, come January.
Your brother in Christ,
Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon is the Bishop of Kaduna, in the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). He served on the committee that produced the Windsor report.