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Spectre of walkout by Primates haunts Canterbury talks

08 January 2016


Venue: Canterbury Cathedral

Venue: Canterbury Cathedral

REPORTS that GAFCON Primates may walk out of next week’s gathering in Canterbury have prompted the Archbishop of Canada, the Most Revd Fred Hiltz, to call for a cessation to “the language of warfare” and for a commitment to healing the “bruised” Communion.

The GAFCON website confirms that the Primates will attend the meeting, which begins on Monday in Canterbury, but warns that “their continued presence will depend upon action by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a majority of the Primates to ensure that participation in the Anglican Communion is governed by robust commitments to biblical teaching and morality”.

A report in the Mail on Sunday last week suggested that the Archbishops of Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda had been on the brink of snubbing the meeting, and may still walk out. On Friday, The Guardian reported that six Primates were likely to walk out "within a day or two" of the start of the meeting. These were listed as the Primates of Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Congo, and the Archbishop of South Sudan and Sudan. A "senior C of E source" had said that it was "90 per cent likely that the six will walk out". 

Thirteen Primates were absent from the last Primates' Meeting in Dublin, four years ago (News, 2 February, 2011). Communications from GAFCON in recent weeks underscore that their attendance on Monday does not indicate any softening in its stance towards those it accuses of preaching a “false gospel”.

“A basic church-defining principle will be at stake,” wrote the chairman of the GAFCON Primates’ Council and Primate of Kenya, Dr Eliud Wabukala, in a letter sent to members last month. “Will Christ rule our life and witness through His word, or will our life and witness be conformed to the global ambitions of a secular culture?”

“Truth matters even more than institutional unity,” GAFCON’s general secretary, Dr Peter Jensen, wrote in a blog published on New Year’s Day.

In a pastoral letter issued on Wednesday the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda, the Most Revd Stanley Ntagali, stressed that the Church was not in communion with the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) or the Anglican Church of Canada, and that its Provincial Assembly had "resolved to not participate in any official meetings of the Anglican Communion until godly order is restored". The invitation he had accepted from the Archbishop of Canterbury was, he said, to a "gathering" rather than a Primates Meeting. Archbishop Welby "understands that the first topic of conversation . . .  is the restoration of godly order in the Anglican Communion". He called for "discipline" to be administered to TEC, in the light of the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire, the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, who was in a committed same-sex relationship. "If such discipline and godly order is not restored, then I will uphold the Provincial Assembly’s resolution and withdraw from the meeting," he wrote. 

Archbishop Hiltz said on Tuesday that, although it was a “hopeful sign” that no Primate had refused to attend the meeting, he was expecting some “very tense moments”.

“I am always saddened when I hear church leaders say publicly the time for dialogue is over,” he said. “I think that is a sad commentary on the state of our relationships. I think the gospel calls us to remain in conversation as long as we can.”

He went on: “If people feel that the way things are moving is not in accord with their desires or prayers and they walk out, I think that would be very, very unfortunate.” He recalled St Paul’s image of the body of Christ and the parts’ mutual need.

“The Communion still needs all the Churches . . . even through some difficult times,” he said. “We are, as the body, bruised. There has been some tearing of the limbs, and there is a need for healing and reconciliation. I, as a Primate, am much more interested and committed to that kind of language in terms of our life together, than the language of warfare — that ‘we have to settle something now.’”

A good outcome would be that, “as difficult as it may be, we will have all stayed together,” he said. He hoped, too, for an “initial conversation” with both the Presiding Bishop of Episcopal Church in the United States, the Most Revd Michael Curry, and the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), Dr Foley Beach, “that could set us toward a path whereby we would explore what would reconciliation possibly look like”. The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada will vote this year on changing canon law to allow same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, Bishop Curry said that he was looking forward to the meeting in Canterbury and invited Episcopalians to pray "that God will be fully present with us and that we may follow our Lord Jesus in the ways of his love and in so doing be part of God’s blessing to the world".

The decision by Archbishop Welby to invite Dr Beach — to be present for “part of the time” — is a controversial one. ACNA is already recognised by some provinces and dioceses, and it is understood that it would like to secure more at the meeting. Its leaders also believe that the Episcopal Church in the US and the Anglican Church of Canada should voluntarily withdraw from the instruments of the Communion. In a pastoral letter issued on Thursday, Dr Beach said that the provinces that recognise ACNA "represent the vast majority of the Anglicans in the world". He was attending the meeting in Canterbury, he said, "in good faith".

He wrote: "To not attempt to bring godly order and unity to the Church would be a sin against the Lord and His bride." At stake was "the reputation of Jesus Christ. It is the souls of millions of people who are being taught a false Gospel and are being led into spiritual and sexual bondage under the pretense of the Christian faith. It is about the third largest expression of the Christian faith being able to unite and bring Christian hope and godliness in the face of violent opposition all around the globe."

Archbishop Hiltz expressed a hope on Tuesday that the meeting would not be “consumed” by the issue of sexuality. It is understood that the Primates have requested that the agenda include the issues of climate change, the refugee crisis, and religious extremism, and that Archbishop Welby is keen to accommodate this.

The Archbishop of Brazil, the Most Revd Francisco de Assis da Silva, said on Tuesday that he hoped that the gathering would be “a meeting between pastors and not a chess game”, and called on the Primates to “reaffirm our humble ministry as the Lord’s servants and not owners of the people of God. In Christ, every person and every culture is welcomed . . . and exclusion of those who are liberals or conservatives is not a good start.”

He went on: “No one is the owner of God’s will. Everyone needs to change their mind and spirit to become truly servants, and ready to address adequately those issues that our times challenges us with: the absence of love and absence of justice.”

Among those who did not attend the last meeting but will be present next week is the Archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean, the Most Revd Ian Ernest. On Tuesday, he said that he was praying that “we are able to give new perspectives to the Anglican Communion, but as you know it is important that we are always grounded in the word of God and at the same time grounded in the love of God.”

Proposals for a looser Communion in which Provinces are in communion with Canterbury but not, necessarily, with one another, have been given short shrift by GAFCON, and have dismayed others (News, 25 September).

“The unity of the Communion does not depend upon the Archbishop of Canterbury,” the GAFCON website says. “Rather, it depends upon the various provinces being able to recognize each other, with all their differences of culture . . . Tragically, that recognition has now broken down, and affection for Canterbury is no substitute.”

GAFCON has issued a collect that asks that the Primates may be instilled with "holy fear that they may love Thee and Thy Word more than the approval of men".

Another potential source of dispute is the status of the gathering itself. Archbishop Hiltz emphasised on Tuesday that decision-making power lies with the Anglican Consultative Council. In an interview with the Church of Ireland Gazette published this week, the Primate of All Ireland, Dr Richard Clarke, said that the meeting must not "claim more authority than it has. It is not a magisterium for Anglicanism." GAFCON’s communications indicate, however, a desire for something much more substantive than a commitment to further dialogue.

Among the priorities Dr Clarke identified for the meeting was "getting a structure right that has some meaning in terms of unity and cohesion, but is not hegemonic or monolithic". The sexuality issue was a "presenting issue for much larger and deeper issues," he suggested. "How do we relate Church, society and culture to one another? How do we read the Scriptures? Just how much uniformity do we need as individual provinces . . . ?" He added: "On the reading of the Scriptures, I think we have to recognise that we are close to an impasse."

The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, spoke on Wednesday of his hopes for the meeting. “I believe that what is most important is that we should be able to recognise one another as disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said. “When we lose that, we lose the basis for our relating.”

It was important to discuss the divisive issue of human sexuality, he said, and to understand “the very different ways in which we exercise leadership and the — often hidden — legacy of colonialism which affects the way in which we relate to one another”. There was a need for “more engagement with one another and not less”.

The Australian Primate, Dr Philip Freier, said on Wednesday that he was looking forward to the meeting, "with hope that there will be warm Christian friendship, patient discussion and discernment of the Holy Spirit's leading in our time together". 

A website, www.primates2016.org, launched this week, describes the Communion as “one family united by the love of Jesus Christ”. It includes stories of partnership across provinces, and a video of Archbishop Welby asking people to pray that “the love of Christ . . . will so overwhelm us that we are able to love each other as we should, and wisdom that we may know the call and purpose of God”.


Video: Watch Archbishop Welby call for prayer ahead of the meeting


Question of the week: Should the Primates do whatever it takes to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion? 


Try deep consultation, not rushed decisions - The Primates' Meeting next week needs to resist the lure of quick action: history suggests it could backfire, argues Mark Chapman

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