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Can the Communion stay together?

01 April 2016

The real issue is not sexuality, but the interpretation of scripture, says Brian Castle

canterbury cathedral

“Perplexing outcomes”: the Primates meeting in Canterbury in January

“Perplexing outcomes”: the Primates meeting in Canterbury in January

WILL the Anglican Communion survive? We need to ask how the views and actions emanating from a part of the Communion, which are regarded as heretical by others, have an impact on the life of the Communion as a whole.

These were questions hovering over the Primates’ Meeting in January (News, Comment, 22 January), as it struggled with radically different views about sexuality: these are issues around the agenda of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) which is meeting in Lusaka from next Friday. They were also the questions which prompted the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.

The Anglican Communion brings many blessings to the world, as well as to the Church, but it needs to rediscover its vocation of being a family of self-governing yet interdependent provinces in communion with the see of Canterbury. As such, members need to be trusted to discern the activity of the Spirit in their own contexts, if the family is to remain united.

I would argue that sexuality, significant as it is, is a presenting issue, behind which lies something more contentious. But first, there are some clues to the future that can be found in the past.

In 1865, it was, in retrospect ironically, the bishops in Canada who expressed concern to the Archbishop of Canterbury about the views of a bishop in Africa. John Colenso, Bishop of Natal, was promoting an understanding of scripture that many bishops found unacceptable: he argued that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. Such an idea rocked the fledgling Communion. The fierceness of the debate provoked the writing of the hymn “The Church’s one foundation”, where the Church is described as “sore opprest” and “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distrest”.

A closer look at Colenso’s ministry reveals a deep commitment to his people, and a radical attempt to indigenise the gospel, which did not rest easily with many bishops. Colenso’s views emerged from his study of the Hebrew scriptures, in the light of his struggle to reconcile gospel and culture. These events of 150 years ago came at a time when, as now, the Communion needed to be clearer about its identity.


THE Primates’ Meeting in January achieved a remarkable amount. Amid talk of mass walk-outs and schism, the Primates showed the world that it is possible for people from a wide spectrum of cultures and opposing views to be in the same family: their oneness in Christ and desire to live as a Christian family transcended deep differences.

There were also some perplexing outcomes, however. The purpose of the Primates’ Meeting is to provide space for “leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation”, and, regardless of where one stands on same-sex marriage, the action taken against the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) of banning its representation at various Anglican gatherings indicates that the Primates strayed from consultation into legislative mode.

In the build-up to the ACC meeting this month, the consensus that looked so promising in January is dissipating. Storm clouds are gathering. Primates from Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria have said that their representatives will not attend: contrary to the Primates’ Meeting’s urging, representatives from ECUSA will be attending.

The ACC’s theme, “Intentional discipleship in a world of differences”, could move it forwards in a creative way, provided the differences within the Communion, as well as in the world, are explored, and (where appropriate) questioned.


THERE is much talk about “living with difference”, but the different views about sexuality were too much of a difference to live with for the Primates. Different parts of the Communion have compelling reasons for taking opposing views. They each claim that their view is justified biblically and theologically.

Similar struggles have taken place throughout Christian history. More recently, it has happened at the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, and it happened 1500 years ago, when the Church sought agreement on the person of Christ.

Some argued that Christ could not be fully human because he was God; others, that Christ could not be fully God because he was a human being. This was not a sterile theological argument, but, like the current dispute around sexuality, it was fed by political and cultural differences. In the end, the Church was just about able to hold together what appeared to be untenable: that Jesus was fully God and fully human; and Christians have asserted this in the creed ever since.

An agreed position had seemed impossible, but, although painful and complicated, the Church found a way of living with difference, locating it within the horizon of God’s reconciliation of the world. What a stunning and prophetic statement would be made to our divided world if the Anglican Communion could do this.

The biggest challenge, however, is tackling the issue that underlies the disagreement about sexuality. This same issue prompted the calling of the first Lambeth Conference — interpreting the Bible. The Bible is read differently within Churches, and its interpretation is determined by a variety of factors, including the culture, politics, and world-view of the readers. We need biblical scholars to help us all, local congregations and international gatherings alike, to read the Bible from an intercultural perspective.

This means searching out, relating, and engaging with those with whom we strongly disagree, and listening respectfully to the way that God is speaking to them through the scriptures. This may not be the pathway to agreement, but, more importantly, it will lead us on a journey of reconciliation.


The Rt Revd Brian Castle is a former Bishop of Tonbridge, a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College, and the author of Reconciliation: The journey of a lifetime (SPCK, 2014).

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