IN WHAT has been described as a “high-risk” attempt to hold the Anglican Communion together, the Archbishop of Canterbury has invited all 37 Primates to a summit in Canterbury next January.
In a letter sent to the Primates on Wednesday, Archbishop Welby proposes that they “consider recent developments, but also look afresh at our ways of working as a Communion”.
One of the most contentious aspects of the meeting is the decision to invite the Rt Revd Foley Beach, head of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), for part of the time.
ACNA was formed in 2008, by a group that split from the Episcopal Church in the US and the Anglican Church of Canada, after the consecration of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, a partnered gay bishop (News, 12 December, 2008). ACNA is not officially part of the Anglican Communion; nor is it in communion with Canterbury; but it is recognised by seven Primates who represent millions in the Global South (News, 24 October).
The existence of ACNA is a example of the scale of the task Archbishop Welby faces. A source said that the Archbishop had deployed “a high-risk strategy deliberately”. The meeting was expected to be “very difficult”, with a “25-30 per cent chance” that it would go wrong. “Lots of people will be trying to stop this from happening.”
A formal Primates’ Meeting in Dromantine, Northern Ireland, in 2005 was attended by 35 out of 38 Primates (News, 1 July, 2005). At the end of the meeting, the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada were asked to withdrew their representatives on the Anglican Consultative Council. The GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem shortly before the 2008 Lambeth Conference preceded a large-scale boycott by bishops from the Global South (News, 4 July, 2008). The group has since held a second meeting, in Nairobi (News, 25 October, 2013)
Thirteen Primates were absent from the last meeting, in Dublin, four years ago (News, 2 February, 2011). An attempt by the former Archbishop, Lord Williams, to unite the Communion around the Anglican Covenant was unsuccessful (News, 30 November, 2012).
Archbishop Welby has seen little improvement in relationships, despite an extensive programme of visits during his first 18 months as Archbishop. In June, he expressed “deep concern about the stress for the Anglican Communion”, after US Bishops voted to enable its clergy to solemnise same-sex marriages (News, 10 July). But he has also spoken out against those Bishops that support the criminalisation of gay people (News, 31 January, 2014).
In an attempt to persuade Primates to attend the January meeting, which will run from 11 to 16 January, Archbishop Welby is inviting them to set the agenda. Sexuality is expected to appear, but also religiously motivated violence and the environment.
It is understood that all options for reshaping the Communion will be on the table. The Archbishop is said to have reached the conclusion that the present status quo is unsustainable. He is said to favour moving to a structure in which the Provinces could be in communion with Canterbury but not, necessarily, one another. This would give more “wriggle room” to Provinces, enabling them to be faithful to their own culture without launching salvos across the Communion at one another.
The plan was likened by one source to “moving into separate bedrooms” rather than divorcing. It is said to be part inspired by the structure of the Orthodox Church, and is understood to have been discussed with Lord Williams.
A statement from Archbishop Welby issued on Wednesday is carefully balanced. It states: "Our way forward must respect the decisions of Lambeth 1998, and of the various ACC and Primates’ meetings since then” — a nod to Lambeth 1.10, which rejects homosexual practice as “incompatible with scripture”.
But it goes on: “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.”
The statement talks about “space”: “The difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians. . . A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism, so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ, together.”
The invitation represents a desire by the Archbishop to take a tougher line on division and “start treating people like adults” and “stop messing around with internal rows”, a source said. It is understood that Archbishop Welby spoke to all of the Primates by phone during the summer, and that only three expressed doubts about attending.
One item on the agenda will be the next Lambeth Conference. It is thought to be too late to arrange something in 2018, but the Archbishop is said by a source to be determined that another will take place, perhaps in 2020 — even if those attending could only fill a telephone box.