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Primates: a verdict

22 January 2016

SEVERAL narratives have emerged about what happened in Canterbury last week. The most prominent is that, although there has been a stay of execution, the Episcopal Church in the United States is being eased out of the Communion in a reassertion of heterosexual orthodoxy. Running some way behind this is the view that the conservative GAFCON group has been outmanoeuvred yet again, tricked into imposing a punishment on the Episcopal Church that is far less severe than the expulsion it felt the American liberals deserved.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity demands that the Primates’ gathering is seen in a different light. From this angle, there was one pivotal moment at the meeting, when the Prim­ates were asked, in effect: “Will you stay in the Communion — even though you know you will not get your way?” This was a challenge to all present: liberals, conservatives, and those in between (admittedly few in number). The US Episcopalians would not be kicked out. Same-sex marriage would not be welcomed. The breakaway Anglican Church in North America would not be recognised. (Gay priests and bishops, tellingly, would not be mentioned.) At this moment, despite the recent history of impaired communion, each Primate raised his hand.

A commitment to unity does not imply sentimentality or naïvety, however. It has long been a GAFCON tactic to stay in the Communion in the hope of taking control of its governing bodies. Similarly, the possibility that the US General Conven­tion, when it meets again in 2018, is going to reverse its decision to permit same-sex marriage is almost non-existent.

A further problem is the nature of last week’s meeting. Whereas many African provinces invest their Primates with the authority to direct their Churches’ policy, provinces elsewhere take less kindly to the idea that their fate can be decided by 40-odd men meeting behind closed doors. The next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, where bishops, priests, and lay people are represented, will be instructive.

None the less, the Canterbury meeting was characterised by a new honesty. The Primates were able to focus on the issues that have separated them with a directness that, far from dividing them, drew them closer together. For the Archbishop of Uganda, the Most Revd Stanley Ntagali, this was too much, and, in accordance with instructions from his provincial synod, he withdrew on the second day. He thus provided an illustration of how the Communion might look this week had the different sides stuck to their guns.

The Primates’ commitment, however tentative, however hopeful of a different outcome in future, deserves to be honoured. There is still an Anglican Communion. It would be more convenient if there were not. The sexual morality in one province is still going to be judged against the standards of another. It would certainly be easier if it were not. It is messy, and fragile; but this is what real unity looks like. It is not a simple thing. The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church writes here that the Primates listened to each other about the missional cost of staying together. What do you do when your unity with one person damages your unity with another? For that is what last week’s agreement appears to have done.

The task for the Primates now is to prove to others that their decision to walk together in Canterbury will take them further than the steps in the Cathedral used for the photocall. There has to be a pulling back from the rancorous exchanges of the past, so that the incendiary bloggers are starved of fuel. A way has to be found to examine how attitudes to sexuality are shaped by culture as well as theology, in conservative countries as well as more liberal ones. The task group that will act as midwife to this new Communion deserves our prayers.

There are several flashpoints in the next three years when the delicate agreement of last week might well crumble. Canada goes into its discussions on same-sex marriage knowing that the consequences will be the same as for its southern neigh­bour. Scotland will follow next year. The true test of the new accord, however, will be if a conservative province faces the same fate for, say, colluding with the criminalisation of homo­sexuality, or introducing lay presidency. There are those who doubt that the Communion will pass this test.

It is worth saying again: there is still an Anglican Com­munion. But, for this grouping of Christians to have any purpose, it must tell the story of our common humanity, model mutual respect and mature judgement, and reflect Christ’s love for the world. If this can be done, and last week will be deemed a success.

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