September 17, 2015

Anglican Communion II?

The big news yesterday in Anglican circles was that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has scheduled a meeting of Anglican primates to discuss the future of the Anglican Communion. The “special Primates’ gathering” is scheduled to take place in Canterbury January 11–16, 2016, according to a press release from Lambeth Palace.

These are the salient points made in the press release:
  • The 37 other primates of the Communion have been invited.
  • The purpose of the gathering is “to reflect and pray together concerning the future of the Communion.”
  • Specifically, the “structures of the Anglican Communion” are on the table, as well as the “approach to the next Lambeth Conference.”
  • Primates, rather than Lambeth Palace, are requested to set the agenda (though religiously-motivated violence, the protection of children and vulnerable adults, the environment and human sexuality” are suggested topics).
  • The primates must “consider recent developments,” reconsider the workings of the Communion, and pay “proper attention to developments in the past.”
  • Specifically, the way forward “must respect the decisions of Lambeth 1998” and of various meetings of the ACC and primates’ meetings.
  • Churches must proclaim the gospel, but they do so in very different environments.
  • Because we are called to unity but tempted to divide, there must be space for disagreement.
  • “Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted.”
  • Welby hopes the primates will find a way to “focus on serving and loving each other” and proclaiming the good news.
  • The meeting is proposed for January 11–16, 2016.
  • Archbishop Foley Beach, of the Anglican Church of North America, or his representative, will be invited “to be present” for part of the meeting.
The announcement from Lambeth has begotten a good deal of commentary. Responses have also been to news reports such as Andrew Brown’s story from The Guardian. Brown, relying on Lambeth Palace sources, asserts that Welby believes a dysfunctional Anglican Communion needs to be restructured as a looser confederation, in which churches are in communion with Canterbury, though not necessarily with one another. Brown characterized Welby’s vision of a possible Anglican Communion future this way:
Asked whether this represented, if not a divorce, a legal separation, a Lambeth source said: “It’s more like sleeping in separate bedrooms.”
What are we to make of this announcement?

To begin with, it is clear that Welby, the acclaimed reconciler, has abandoned any hope of making the Communion into one big happy family, the hopeless task that consumed the time, enthusiasm, and stamina of his predecessor. The modern project of overlaying a common theology and morality onto a diverse group of churches united mostly by historical connections in the distant past has, as was inevitable, failed. In particular, now seems as good a time as any to declare that the Anglican Covenant, that agreement in which Rowan Williams invested so much hope and prestige, is, for all time, dead. That some churches have adopted the Covenant and are therefore in a quasi-legal relationship with one another is a bit of a problem, and this is one that should be considered in January.

My initial reaction to the announcement from Lambeth was negative. Certainly, from the perspective of The Episcopal Church, the meetings of the primates, which became frequent after the artificial “crisis” occasioned by the 2003 selection of Gene Robinson to become Bishop of New Hampshire, had become a source of great mischief. Welby, who had dismissed the possibility of holding a Lambeth Conference in 2018 and had talked with the primates without ever calling them together, had seemed content to let sleeping dogs lie. But, according to Brown, Welby did not want to leave a contentious and rudderless Communion to his eventual successor.

Clearly, the Communion is dysfunctional, and a determined effort to rescue from its wreckage some useful organizational entity might have a positive outcome. Is there really much likelihood, after all, that things can get any worse? “Lambeth sources” rate the probability of a “catastrophic failure” next January at 25%. No doubt, the probability of more prosaic simple failure is much higher. But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If Welby is truly interested in a thorough restructuring of the Communion, he shouldn’t be suggesting that the primates take on other topics such as those mentioned in the press release. These can only be distractions from any attempt to fix the Communion at its deepest level. Discussing topics that don’t lead directly to knock-down-drag-out fights may feel like a welcome change, but they will leave institutional problems unresolved.

Anglican Communion II Compass Rose
Although rethinking the Communion is an attractive idea, even after further consideration, I am not sanguine about prospects for the meeting. Although, reading The Guardian, one might eagerly be anticipating Anglican Communion II, it hardly seems that Welby intends to rebuild the Anglican Communion from first principles.  Most worrisome is his apparent commitment to the 1998 Lambeth Conference and to decisions of the AAC and Primates’ Meeting. Why did Welby not mention earlier Lambeth Conferences? Clearly, he is alluding to the notorious Resolution I.10 condemning homosexuality and to recent events at Communion meetings at which ultraconservative Third-World churches conducted a vendetta against Western churches, particularly The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. How can we possibly re-imagine the Anglican Communion as a less contentious fellowship of churches if the Archbishop of Canterbury insists that we respect the very actions that have brought us to the brink of organizational suicide? Moreover, if a total restructuring of the Communion is contemplated, why is Welby even talking about the next Lambeth Conference?

The antepenultimate paragraph of the Lambeth statement gives more cause to worry about where Welby wants to take the Communion. He is quoted as saying, “Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted.” As I have often protested, the Anglican Communion is not “our church,” not a church at all, in fact. There is no Anglican Church, only Anglican churches. Justin Welby’s church is the Church of England. He has no other church and no actual authority to make anyone outside the Church of England do anything. Why do Archbishops of Canterbury continue to talk about the “Anglican Church” ? (Not only does Andrew Brown not consider the Communion a church; he describes it as a fantasy! Crusty Old Dean, Tom Ferguson, has offered a similar view.)

Others have registered strong objection to the notion that church authority “is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted,” thereby seeming to ignore tradition and reason, those other foundations of Anglicanism. I’m not sure whether I should share this concern. “Properly interpreted” might be a nod to reason (or not), but church tradition—unless one means by that the Communion tradition of the last 40 years—was surely left out of the Lambeth statement. Welby seems to be referring to the unfortunate formulation of Resolution 11 of the 1888 Lambeth Conference (“The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as ‘containing all things necessary to salvation,’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” [emphasis added]) which has found its way into various Anglican documents, most notably, the Anglican Covenant.

Then there is the matter of inviting Foley Beach to the upcoming meeting. He is clearly not going to be a full participant and may even be relegated to being an occasional observer. To this Episcopalian, however, the invitation to Beach feels a bit like inviting your rapist to your wedding. It is unclear whether the invitation suggests a reduced will to keep the Anglican Church of North America out of the Communion or whether Beach’s invitation is bait intended to convince GAFCON primates to attend. (It is worth reading what Foley Beach himself had to say about his invitation.)

Brown, based on his inside sources, believes that Welby is looking to a Communion in which churches are in communion with Canterbury, but not necessarily with one another. The various churches can coöperate on projects by mutual consent, but there would be no expectation that Anglican churches share a common view on controversial issues. Welby apparently thinks that such an arrangement could keep the militantly conservative churches within the Communion.

This view is delusional. GAFCON/FOCA is rapidly becoming a separate communion, whose leaders are increasingly absent from major Anglican gatherings. Moreover, the Welby plan assumes that the Church of England remains a sort of neutral corner at which both liberal and conservative churches can feel comfortable. But the existence of the Anglican Mission in England and the increasing conservative distress with the Church of England’s embrace of women and likely change in its policy regarding gay marriage will make that church as much a pariah to the GAFCON crowd as are the churches of the U.S. and Canada.

Although I have not had much time to consider a possible Anglican Communion II in light of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s announcement, here are some brief suggestions as to what it should look like:

  • Let the GAFCON crowd go its own way as an alternative communion. This will strengthen the Anglican Communion and decrease conflict. If the Communion consists only of churches in industrialized Western nations, so be it. (Actually, it won’t be.)
  • Pare down the Communion bureaucracy. Let individual churches (including the Church of England) coördinate whatever activities need coördinating. The central bureaucracy should involve itself mainly with communication.
  • Let the titular head of the Communion rotate among the primates of the Communion churches.
  • Devise a fair scheme for financing Communion activities, and sanction any church that fails to pay its fair share.
  • Eliminate the Primates’ Meeting, AAC, Lambeth Conference, and Standing Committee. Focused meetings can be held to deal with particular common interests.
  • Institute periodic meetings dealing with common concerns—perhaps mostly regional meetings—that involve both clergy and laypeople. Any meeting involving bishops should also include lay representatives.
  • Declare that the Communion has no authority over individual churches, and no actions of Anglican Communion I have any authority.
  • Disallow overlapping Anglican jurisdictions, except by mutual agreement. If ACNA becomes part of the GAFCON Communion, so be it. It should never be allow into Anglican Communion II.
  • Declare the Anglican Covenant null and void among the churches remaining in the Communion.
I will be shocked if any of this happens, but I can dream. In fact, I will be quite surprised if anything of substance comes of the January meeting. Stay tuned.

Update, 9/28/2015. I made a few corrections to my essay. Some were to correct obvious typos; others involved substitution of one preposition for another. I made no substantive changes.

Update, 1/10/2016. I corrected the date of Gene Robinson’s election, which was 2003, not 2002, as originally stated. I also corrected a minor formatting error in the list of suggestions for Anglican Communion II.

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