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The fabric holds

13 October 2017

AS MIGHT have been predicted, the communiqué from last week’s Primates’ Meeting has been scrutinised for what it does and does not say about sex. The answer is not much. This will disappoint those who hoped for a clear statement on the issue from the Primates; but there can be only a small group of people by now who expect anything of the sort to come from such a diverse (though wholly male) group. The critical response from the conservative GAFCON organisation reads as if its hierarchy were going through the motions. References in their post-meeting assessment to “torn fabric” date back at least to 2003. Their statement is peppered with phrases such as: “As we have consistently said”; “as Archbishop Ntagali, Primate of Uganda, has said”; “As was said earlier”.

The difficulty of endlessly speaking of splits and divisions while remaining within the Anglican Communion is that other Primates can choose to play the “both-and” game. Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda were unable to persuade other Global South Primates to stay away from Canterbury, and thus had to endure a communiqué from their peers that spoke of a profound “sense of common purpose underpinned by God’s love in Christ and expressed through mutual fellowship”. We are sure that will have pleased them, as would the declaration that those in the breakaway Anglican Church in North America should be “treated with love as Christians”, i.e. not as fellow Anglicans. GAFCON leaders will be pinning their hopes on the next meeting in Jerusalem in June, where efforts will be made to strengthen the sinews of those Anglicans who cannot accept same-sex relationships of any sort.

Thus, for a while at least, the Archbishop of Canterbury holds the field. He is justified in looking back on a successful week. Gathering within the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral impressed upon the Primates the historical roots of the Communion, seeded from this country in past centuries. Removing themselves from the pressures of acting as representatives of others gave them the freedom to listen openly to each other. The fig leaf of the C of E’s “major study of human sexuality” gave an air of provisionality to liberal developments in the Mother Church, if not those in her near neighbour. And who could argue with “a season of repentance and reconciliation” or “renewal”, which just happened to be mentioned in the communiqué next to the passage about unauthorised cross-border activity (i.e. GAFCON’s missionary bishop in the UK)? As a result, the three GAFCON Primates who “declined to attend citing what they believed to be a lack of good order within the Communion” will have to tug harder at the fabric of the Communion, since, for the present at least, it seems to be holding.

In the mean time, for those not engaged in global ecclesiastical politics, the most encouraging phrase in the whole communiqué is: “For most of the meeting we focused on external issues. . .”

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