The Canterbury tale

by
22 January 2016

ACO

The GAFCON agenda

AS HAD been promised, there was no pre-arranged agenda. On too many occasions before, conservatives had felt manoeuvred away from confrontation by organisers. Thus, when the first day was spent thrashing out the agenda, and every Primate was allowed to nominate topics, the most popular was the Episcopal Church in the United States and its recent decision to support same-sex marriage. Second came a question on polity, and how to cope structurally with disagreement. Third was the official recognition of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). These were the issues that the GAFCON representatives had wanted.

 

The walk-out that did happen

Despite the vigilance of the handful of waiting reporters, the walk-out by the Archbishop of Uganda, the Most Revd Stanley Ntagali, was discovered only when he wrote about it on his Church’s website late on Wednesday. The Archbishop of Canterbury said at the Friday press conference that he did not know why the Primate had left; but Archbishop Ntagali had made it clear on his website that he was complying with his Province’s ruling not to be in meetings with US Episcopalian representatives unless they repented.

 

The repentance realisation

One revelation was that the call for repentance was genuinely felt, and not just a ploy. At one point, the US Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, was called over to explain the depth of his Church’s commitment to sexual equality. His hearer appeared to grasp this for the first time.

 

The walk-out that didn’t happen

The threat of a walk-out meant that much of the week was spent attempting to keep conservatives in the meeting. But GAFCON did not arrive with the rest of the Global South in its pocket. Respect for Archbishop Welby, an open facilitating process that involved no manipulation, and what appeared to be a growing liking for Bishop Curry kept everyone in the discussions.

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At a distance but in the same direction

The narrative of walking together, but at a distance from some, developed early, and much time was expanded on how far that distance should be. Every summit meeting must have its late-night drafting session, and this was no exception, as the facilitators attempted to sum up what was said and formulate it into a statement that could be argued over and agreed upon.

 

The show of hands

Mid-morning Wednesday was when the Primates were asked about their commitment to the Anglican Communion, having spent the previous night reflecting upon it. Despite the unresolved arguments of the previous day, all the Primates voted to stay.

 

The rearguard action

As soon as the Primates had all declared their commitment to remaining part of the Communion, an attempt was made to suspend the US Episcopal Church. This was the motion that the Archbishop of Uganda had been unable to present during his brief time in Canterbury. The motion calling for repentance and suspension was defeated by 20 votes to 15. At this point, it was clear that the GAFCON group had not won the Primates over.

 

How ACNA stayed

It had been announced beforehand that the ACNA Primate, Dr Foley Beach, was to attend just the first part of the gathering (a condition of GAFCON’s involvement). But there was never a clear moment when the gathering turned into a formal Primates’ Meeting, apart from the occasion of the votes on the US Episcopal Church and the communiqué, and so he stayed. He said afterwards that he could have voted on the US Episcopalian motion; the organisers said that he could not have. In all events, he did not.

 

The ‘consequences’

One point accepted early on was that unilateral actions had the consequence of loosening the Communion’s ties. This was the basis of the conditions imposed on the US Episcopal Church, and why the Primates, with few exceptions, agreed to live with them.

 

The leak

The source of the leak of selected sections of the final communiqué has not been identified, but the leaks first appeared on conservative websites. The consequence was that the meeting immediately put out a shortened version of the communiqué. Crucially, this lacked the condemnation of homophobia and sexual violence, which coloured initial reactions.

 

The moral high ground

When Bishop Curry spoke after the meeting, his insistence that his Church’s support for same-sex equality was not culturally conditioned, his warm defence of the Communion, and his repeated mention of Jesus, gained him much respect.

 

Consequences, not sanctions

At the press conference, there were knowing smiles when the Archbishop of Canterbury kept insisting that the US Episcopal Church had not been sanctioned or suspended. The measures were simply consequences of the Church’s unilateral action in supporting same-sex marriage. The Primates together — including most of the more liberal ones — accepted that certain actions that deviated from customary understandings of doctrine and order resulted in a distancing and lack of trust from others in the Communion. Because of a breakdown of trust, it follows (the argument goes) that US Episcopalians cannot effectively represent their fellows in unity talks with others or take part in key government bodies or decisions. This approach can be applied again soon to other Provinces, and not just those considering same-sex marriage, such as Canada and Scotland. It might apply to Uganda or Nigeria, say, if they supported laws that criminalised homosexuality.

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