July 30, 2010

The Communion and the Archbishop

Increasingly, Arms of the See of Canterburythe structure of the Anglican Communion has become a topic of concern, sometimes overshadowing the Communion’s theological conflicts. The Archbishop of Canterbury has become more influential in Communion affairs, as has the Primates’ Meeting. The Anglican Consultative Council is operating under new rules. Its Articles of Association and the potential adoption of an Anglican covenant have made the status of the Standing Committee both confused and controversial. Ironically, the enemies of theological innovation have promoted organizational innovation to allow the Communion to deal with conflicts involving doctrine and practice.

Where We’re Headed

In the short term, the Anglican Communion is in danger of degenerating into a chaotic muddle in which discussion of organizational issues threatens to overwhelm any conversation about Christian mission. The best way forward, I think, is not a more authoritarian leadership that will make the trains run on time, but a return to a more collegial Communion that fosters coöperation and sharing without demanding lockstep uniformity. That this actually might be possible does not seem to be a widely held view, but the goal should be kept in mind.

We can quibble about when the Communion began its transformation from an instrument of mutual mission to the quarrelsome, meddlesome, dysfunctional leviathan it is fast becoming. Certainly, the transformation accelerated in 2003 when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams agreed to calling an emergency meeting of the primates in the wake of the consent to consecrate Gene Robinson. Earlier in the year, the newly enthroned archbishop had proved that he could be intimidated when the protests of English Evangelicals led him to demand that Jeffrey John decline his appointment as Bishop of Reading. When the 2003 General Convention voted to allow the New Hampshire consecration to go forward, Bishop Robert Duncan and his band of conservative malcontents knew how to pull Rowan’s chain. The October 2003 meeting of the primates set in motion what has become known as The Windsor Process, a malevolent movement with zombie-like staying power pushing the Communion inexorably toward a more authoritarian polity.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

When I attended Confirmation class nearly 30 years ago, I was taught that The Episcopal Church belonged to the Anglican Communion, described as a voluntary fellowship of autonomous churches that sponsored a gathering of bishops once every decade—I think the phrase “garden party” was used—and whose “spiritual head” was the Archbishop of Canterbury. The headship of the Church of England archbishop was easy to accept, since he had no actual power except insofar as he acted as social secretary for the Lambeth Conference.

Thirty years later, however, the Anglican Communion possesses increasingly powerful—certainly power-seeking, at any rate—“Instruments of Unity,” each one headed by the same Archbishop of Canterbury who regularly speaks of the (actually nonexistent) “Anglican Church.” That archbishop favors some churches over others, suppresses his own beliefs in an attempt to achieve “unity,” creates confusion and uncertainty in his public pronouncements, selectively ignores the misbehavior of Communion churches, and encourages minorities in The Episcopal Church who are unable to achieve power by constitutional means to arrogate powers they do not legitimately possess.

Not only is it time for Rowan Williams to resign as Archbishop of Canterbury, but it is also time to make the “First Among Equals” into an “Equal Among Equals.”

I don’t even bother trying to make a case for the resignation of Archbishop Rowan Williams. From a traditional Anglican perspective, his tenure has been a disaster. Many who disagree with me on important Anglican matters would, no doubt, agree with me on this point, though they would have a different interpretation of the evidence. I suspect that even a significant number of Church of England members also find the stewardship of Rowan deficient.

Instead of focusing on the Cantuar incumbent, I want to look at the office in relation to the Anglican Communion abstractly. If the Archbishop of Canterbury is to have a special place in Communion polity, we have to ask by what right is this special status conferred. The archbishop is selected by a single Communion church, the Church of England, by means of an opaque process run by church elite. Moreover, the appointment is enmeshed with the politics of the United Kingdom. That selection process is undemocratic even within the Church of England, and no other member church of the Communion has influence over it at all. Even if the Archbishop of Canterbury had no duties other than to invite bishops to the Lambeth Conference, we have seen that the privilege to invite implies the privilege not to invite. By what right does the Archbishop of Canterbury not invite Bishop Robinson to the 2008 Lambeth Conference?

That the Archbishop of Canterbury is a member of all the “Instruments of Unity” gives him unique opportunities to influence discussion and events within the Anglican Communion. There is no good reason—neither tradition nor history provide adequate rationale—that an English bishop should be so privileged.

That special position of the Archbishop of Canterbury allows him, whether legitimately or not, to speak on behalf of the Anglican Communion. Nothing constrains what he says, and almost never does he actually speak for the Communion in a formally authorized voice. Surely Rowan has been known to make some strange pronouncements. God only knows what he has said to the Pope! We should not allow the world to think that the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks for the Communion as a whole. I leave it to others to decide if he even does a good job of speaking for the Church of England. Since he has made it clear that he does not always speak his own deeply held opinions, it is difficult to know for whom Rowan does speak. In his defense, the role (or roles) is inherently problematic. In any case, I don’t want Rowan or any other archbishop to be seen as speaking for The Episcopal Church.

Even if we want to do so, how do we dethrone the Archbishop of Canterbury? We can start by rejecting the proposed Anglican covenant. The covenant institutionalizes the “Instruments of Unity” as never before and centralizes power within the Communion. The fight to separate the Archbishop of Canterbury from his special privileges will be long and difficult, however. I hope that our own Presiding Bishop, in her travels to other Anglican churches, is beginning to build a coalition to oppose those who would transform the Communion into a worldwide church on the Roman model. More churches have to learn to just say no.

And who will lead the Anglican Communion if not the Archbishop of Canterbury? I don’t know. Does the Communion even need a formal leader? To the degree that the Communion needs any centralized administration, a competent bureaucrat should suffice in the role. If we must have a figurehead, that person should be kept on a short leash, not be required to be a primate (or even ordained), and should be elected by the provinces of the Communion—one province, one vote, determined as each province chooses.

No Anglican Covenant

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  1. This is simply wrong.

    The process that appointed Rowan Williams to be Archbishop of Canterbury was dominated by extensive Anglican Communion wide consultations - where his name was almost always first.

    The man chosen was not even a member of the Church of England but led another autonomous church within the Anglican family - so what is this nonsense!

    Those English bishops who were passed over led a vicious campaign against him and Nazir Ali recently resigned rather than go on serving under him when he also failed to get York.

    It seems to me that Rowan Williams has been doing all he can to SHARE the power that has become his. It has been a disastrous journey with first the Primates being openly nobbled and a fresh source of division and now the ACC/Standing committee fiasco.

    The location of power has always been the real problem - the fact that it was held by the English Lambeth crowd and the American owned ACO in the past has not been popular elsewhere - so I guess we have to read what you write in the light of this struggle as TEC's influence wanes.

  2. No more money to England. Not one thin dime.

    Josh Thomas


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