NOT that long ago, meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meant something.
In 1971, at its first meeting, delegates to the Council narrowly passed a resolution that broadly approved of the ordination of women to the priesthood. That resolution gave important momentum to canonical change permitting precisely such ordinations in several Provinces, including Canada.
At a meeting in 1984, a committee of the ACC drafted the basis of what became known as the Five Marks of Mission: a definition of mission which many Anglicans have used in recent years to think about how Christians are to engage with the world. In 2005, in the midst of a fraught moment in the life of the Anglican Communion, the ACC was the body to which Americans and Canadians made genuine and searching presentations about how they understood the actions of their Churches in blessing same-sex unions and consecrating an openly partnered gay man, Gene Robinson, as bishop.
It makes sense that the ACC would be the locus for such work. It is one of four “Instruments of Communion” which help to bring order to the common life of Anglicans around the world. It is the only one of those Instruments — the others are the Primates’ Meeting, the Lambeth Conference, and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself — that includes Anglicans who are not bishops. In general, each Anglican Province sends a bishop, priest, and lay person to the ACC.
NOW, however, the ACC is the disappearing instrument of communion. Its next meeting kicks off in late April in Hong Kong. It will be shorter than past meetings: eight days versus 11 days in 2016 and 2012, and 13 in 2009. Based on the modest amount of information published so far, it will have an agenda dedicated to receiving worthy reports and visiting the local Church.
This is a meeting of one of the main Instruments of Communion — and yet it is receiving almost no attention. Instead, the focus of Anglican media has shifted ahead to a meeting of the Primates called for early 2020, and the Lambeth Conference later on next year (News, 30 November, 22 February). Pre-Lambeth events, such as regional Primates’ meetings and Bible-study sessions, have been under way for some time. This is important work; but it appears to be coming at the expense of the ACC.
One by-product of the past two decades of dispute in the Communion has been that greater authority has been given to bishops, and especially Primates. Successive Lambeth Conferences in 1988 and 1998 called on the Primates’ Meeting to take more responsibility for leading the life of the Communion. In 2003, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams called an emergency Primates’ Meeting — not, for instance, an emergency ACC meeting.
There were good practical reasons for this. The Primates are a smaller group of people who have less trouble getting visas to England than ACC members have. But it put Anglicans further down a path towards what one might call the “Primatisation” of the Communion.
Since 2003, this process has only continued, reaching a new level under the current Archbishop of Canterbury. Primates’ Meetings chaired by Archbishop Welby have imposed “consequences” on the American and Scottish Churches for permitting same-sex marriages in churches (News, 22 January 2016, 4 October 2017). The Primates did so in spite of the disapproval which met the proposed “relational consequences” in the Anglican Communion Covenant about a decade ago, and in spite of having little authority — except what they have declared for themselves — to do so.
At the last ACC meeting in 2016, in Zambia, an excruciating dispute took place between Archbishop Welby and the ACC over the nature and extent of the consequences which had been imposed on the US Episcopal Church (News, 15 April 2016). That 2016 meeting in Zambia declared that the coming decade should be a “Season of Intentional Discipleship” in the Anglican Communion — but almost no one seems to have noticed.
The 2016 ACC meeting also took the discomfiting step of electing a Primate — the Most Revd Paul Kwong, of Hong Kong — as its chairman, elevating an Archbishop to the only leadership position to which priests and lay people have access in the counsels of the Communion.
THERE is nothing wrong with meetings of bishops. The trouble is that, in the Anglican Communion, bishops tend largely to be male, speak English, and be able to travel easily around the world. The average Anglican, by contrast, tends to be female, speak a language other than English, and have difficulty travelling widely.
The ACC is not perfect. But it is the one place where women, lay people, and many others who are usually excluded from the counsels of the Communion can find a voice.
It may be worth taking a break from preparations for Lambeth 2020 to pay a little attention to the ACC. It has changed the direction of the Anglican Communion in the past; there is no reason that it cannot do so again.
The Revd Dr Jesse Zink is Principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College and the author, most recently, of Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan (Baylor University Press, 2018).