January 14, 2016

Abuse of Anglican Power: Where Do We Go from Here?

Primates 2016 logo
One day before the official end of the current meeting of the Anglican primates at Canterbury, the result of the primates’ deliberations has been leaked. Under the circumstances, the Communion has chosen to release the primates’ statement officially. It can be found here, but it is also reproduced below. At the end of the statement, I will offer my immediate thoughts on this development.

Statement from Primates 2016

14 Jan 2016

Today the Primates agreed how they would walk together in the grace and love of Christ. This agreement acknowledges the significant distance that remains but confirms their unanimous commitment to walk together.

The Primates regret that it appears that this document has been leaked in advance of their communiqué tomorrow. In order to avoid speculation the document is being released in full. This agreement demonstrates the commitment of all the Primates to continue the life of the Communion with neither victor nor vanquished.

Questions and further comments will be responded to at a press conference tomorrow at 1500. Full details are available here.

The full text is as follows:

  1. We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.

  2. Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.

  3. All of us acknowledge that these developments have caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.

  4. The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.

  5. In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.

  6. Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.

  7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

  8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.

A Look at the Details

Let me begin by taking the individual points at face value.

Point 1 is merely a statement of fact. It acknowledges, fairly, “ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.” What is immediately interesting, however, is that complaints about gay bishops have been dropped. Furthermore, as is apparent as one reads on, the Anglican Church of Canada, in which rites were approved for blessing same-sex unions even before Gene Robinson was elected Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire, has also disappeared from the primatial radar.

Point 2 is more specific as to what is upsetting some of the primates, namely the Episcopal Church’s changes regarding same-sex marriage. Again, it is fair to say that these developments “represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage.” On can quibble about the adjective “fundamental,” I suppose, but the assertion is essentially true. Notice that the statement does not assert that this development is wrong.

In the next sentence, we see what the militant traditionalist primates are especially worried about: “Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.” In particular, the Anglican Church of Canada will consider same-sex marriage in its General Synod this July. Other churches may follow the lead of the American church, but Canada could well be the next Anglican domino to fall. The conservatives have held out to the Anglican Church of Canada both a carrot and a stick, letting bygones be bygones, while implying that, if Canada does follow The Episcopal Church, it, too, will suffer the wrath of the Anglican reactionaries.

Point 3 is again objective, and not a statement to which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry had a pressing need to object. (Anglican have been pained, but one might quibble about our causing it. They chose to be upset, but I’ll let that pass.)

Point 4 makes explicit the traditional teaching referenced in paragraph 2. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of “[t]he majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”

Likewise, I assume that point 5 is also true. It does not represent the understanding of The Episcopal Church, but probably does capture the thinking of “many of us.” It is interesting that not even a majority view is claimed here.

Beginning with point 6, things get a bit dicier, moving toward accusations, rather than simple statements of fact. It is surely true that the more conservative churches cannot trust The Episcopal Church to act as they would have the church act. On the other hand, I would argue that developments in The Episcopal Church over the last 40 years or so have moved slowly but inexorably in one particular direction. The last thing The Episcopal Church has been is surprising. Over the years, our church has been tolerant of outrageous behavior of other Anglican Churches, but we have not been accorded the same respect.

The real problem here is that there are diametrically opposed visions of the Anglican Communion among its leaders. The conservative African churches particularly want to see a doctrinally homogeneous grouping of provinces with a theology and morality consistent with their own. Ironically, they are lashing out against their heritage of colonialism by embracing the very defective theology imposed on them by their colonial masters! Also ironically, it is America, not Great Britain, that is the target of their ire.

The Episcopal Church (and its less vocal sister Western churches), despite its grave misgivings regarding the theology and morality, to say nothing of the political actions, of conservative Anglican churches, has been content to see a diverse Anglican Communion that is sometimes useful, even though those times are becoming less frequent.

Unfortunately, the statement from the primates shows no evidence of explicit agreement on the desired nature of the Anglican Communion. Conflict will continue and will likely become more intense in future years. One wonders if the general nature of the Communion was considered at all. I had thought this was the principle purpose of the meeting, but the meeting was obviously hijacked by the militants.

Point 7 gets to the real heart of this statement. We are being told that it is the “unanimous desire” of the primates “to walk together,” but this is belied by what follows. Specifically, for a period of three years—presumably so that the 2018 General Convention can come to see things as the reactionary Africans do—the primates require that:
  1. The Episcopal Church not represent “us”—I assume that what is meant here is the Anglican Communion—in ecumenical and interfaith bodies.
  2. The Episcopal Church—presumably what is meant here is representatives of The Episcopal Church—not be appointed or elected to Anglican Communion bodies.
  3. Episcopalians—this is again an inference, as the grammar is defective—not take part in decision-making on matters of doctrine or polity when participating in Anglican bodies.
I will defer further comment on this to the next section.

Finally, in point 8, the primates note that they have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury “to appoint a Task Group” that is somehow supposed to make everything better. I have no idea how this is intended to work. Especially, I have no idea if the body will contain any Episcopalians.

Notice, in any case, that the primates have made demands of The Episcopal Church but have only make a request of the Archbishop of Canterbury.


I must begin by observing that no one has given the primates the power to make the demands they have made. The Primates’ Meeting was first established for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” Whereas the meeting has been asked “to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters” (Resolution 18 from the 1988 Lambeth Conference), it was given no actual power. Moreover, traditionally, Lambeth Conference resolutions are likewise only advisory, so the bishops gathered at Lambeth had no power to bestow.

The action of the primates in 2016 is nothing more than a power grab, an abuse of the primates’ respective offices. We might have expected Justin Welby to be the adult in the room, but it quickly became apparent from his obsequious and pandering opening message that the notion of a “looser” grouping of Communion churches was being jettisoned in favor of keeping the conservatives happy and dumping on the long-suffering Episcopalians. (I have often claimed that Anglicans suffer from pathological niceness. Clearly, some Anglicans have conquered that fault.)

I believe that all the demands of the primates are illegitimate, as they are beyond their remit (as the British would say). Putting that aside for the moment, I will say a few things about those demands.

Keeping Episcopalians off ecumenical and interfaith groups has a certain logic to it, as The Episcopal Church is, in a sense, not representative of the Anglican Communion. At least, this makes sense from the world view of the militant traditionalists. From an Episcopal Church perspective, the Anglican Communion is (or should be) a diverse body, and representing it to the outside world as one embracing a single body of doctrine and practice is a misrepresentation.

There is some ambiguity in point 7. On first reading, it seems that Episcopalians are not to be added to the various Communion bodies, but Episcopalians already on such bodies are not to be cashiered. On the other hand, they cannot participate in discussion of doctrine or (presumably, Anglican Communion) polity. Does this mean that an Episcopalian whose term on an Anglican body has expired cannot be replaced? It probably does, so the voice of Episcopalians will gradually be diminished over the three-year sentence the primates intend to impose.

The insincerity here is monumental. The primates want to “walk together,” but, since their minds are made up—after all, they know the will of God, who, seemingly, forgot to explain it to Episcopalians—they really don’t want to hear anything from The Episcopal Church. I suspect that the GAFCON primates would just as soon have ejected The Episcopal Church from the Communion. No doubt, cooler heads (and readers of the Anglican Communion balance sheet) prevailed.

I have no hope for the proposed Task Group. There is no indication that the conservative primates are going to change their minds about same-sex marriage in the next three years, and neither are the Presiding Bishop or the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. Serving on the Task Group is a fool’s errand. The project is doomed, as perhaps is the Anglican Communion.

I am eagerly awaiting the final communiqué from the meeting, assuming that there is one. I had hoped that Michael Curry would not lend his name in any form to an action penalizing his church. If he does not repudiate the statement currently before the world, however, it appears that he has and that he has failed his first major test as a champion of The Episcopal Church.

Episcopal News Service has published a story in which the presiding bishop expresses the pain that the sanctions of the primates will cause Episcopalians. This is all well and good, but what is needed is his repudiation of the actions of the primates as abusive and unnecessary. According to ENS, “Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs.” Actually, I suspect that Episcopalians have felt considerably more pain from the actions of the Anglican Communion and the American allies of the Africans who have stolen property and souls from the church than the ordinary Nigerian or Ugandan or Rwandan Anglican. Pittsburghers could say a lot about their pain.

What Do We Do Now?

As I said, I am eagerly awaiting the concluding scenes of the revolting drama being played out in Canterbury. I reserve the right to change my mind, but I will offer a few thoughts. (I’m giving up, at least for the moment, trying to read all the commentary and news reports from Canterbury.)

I believe that The Episcopal Church should make it clear that we believe the primates had no right to do what they have done. Executive Council should make a statement to this effect. Moreover, it should reconsider funds set aside to support the infrastructure of the Anglican Communion. Executive Council should reconsider our relationships to churches of primates who voted to sanction The Episcopal Church.

Although we cannot compel the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint Episcopalians, Episcopalians on Anglican bodies should continue to serve (or attempt to continue to serve). They should insist on participating in all discussions and decision-making. We should appoint successors to Episcopalians whose tenure on Anglican bodies is expiring.

No doubt, many will advise that we meekly accept the punishment meted out by the primates, arguing that it would be the Christ-like thing to do. I strongly disagree. If we truly believe that our LGBT brothers and sisters are equally children of God and deserve to be full members of Christ’s body, we should avoid selling them down the river yet again. Our actions can not only affect our own church, but also the Canadian and other churches that have not yet fully embraced all people, no mater what their sexual and gender identities.

I have little hope for an Anglican Communion led as it is by an archbishop who takes pride in his church’s success in, for example, preserving its permission to discriminate against gay couples. In three years, the Anglican Communion is likely to be pretty much where it is now, and the hostility of the militant traditionalists will continue. (See the statement from GAFCON on the meeting.)

Justin Welby’s intention to reduce tensions by building a looser Communion has been abandoned for lockstep orthodoxy. I believe the future of authentic Anglicanism will lie with an American Anglican Communion. The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans will be free to make its own way in the world.

A Final Note

There was good news and bad news from Canterbury concerning the Anglican Church in North America. The good news is that there was no move to integrate ACNA—other, that is, than as a puppet master of third-world Anglican churches—into the Anglican Communion. The bad news is that Archbishop Foley Beach fully participated in the meeting, possibly except in the voting. It seems only a matter of time before ACNA becomes part of the Communion. If and when that happens, I believe we cannot continue to be members of Justin Welby’s happy band.


  1. It was not even set up as Primates Meeting (ala Lambeth) but a "gathering" -- at their request. So to change the rules midstream and make rules -- well - typical IMO.

  2. I am very grateful Lionel for this thoughtful 'point by point' analysis. I am even more heartened as the Integrity USA Province 2 Program Coordinator for your insistence and calling for the TEC to refuse to accept this reprimand and instead stand firm and true in our conviction that ALL baptized are children of God and deserves the respect, sacraments and love that Christ came to earth to impart.

  3. I fully concur with Tod. I would go further. My sense is that it is time for the leadership of the Episcopal Church to firmly and forthrightly speak out to attack bigotry against the LGBT community and should make its own demands of other provinces/national churches. The Episcopal Church should demand the cessation of the physical violence against LGBT people which is being promoted in Africa. The Episcopal Church must firmly reject the results of the meeting as a power grab and a violation of spirit and sense of Anglicanism. The Episcopal Church needs to stand up loud and proud about its acceptance of all people as a response to this ridiculous communique.
    There is no question that the Episcopal Church should withdraw all financial support of the Communion, its administration and all national churches and provinces which accept, promote and enforce bigotry. The restoration of financial support should be conditioned on full acceptance of the legitimacy of the principles of the Episcopal Church, and the adoption of principles designed to stop the violence against gay people.
    Welby has been bullied by the right wing extremists. I recognize that the report is probably a compromise designed to satisfy the right wingers who want to throw the Episcopal Church out of the Communion, and Welby probably thinks he has achieved a victory by maintaining the Communion at any cost. The Episcopal Church should demand in response that any province or church which supports bigotry should be thrown out of the Communion. I do not like the tenor of Curry's reply and I am deeply concerned about the notion that the Episcopal Church should accept punishment when it has done nothing wrong, but rather has only confronted a tradition of bigotry. If Jesus had been meek, then he would have quietly worked at the carpenter shop and never had anything public to say. The Communion at large needs to be told that in the next three years of this probation or suspension, that the position of the Episcopal Church is not going to change.
    The only way to resolve this problem is for each faction within the church to be willing to accept that good faith differences will remain. My sense is that the pro-bigotry extremists are intransigent and want nothing less than capitulation and enforcement of their views. The Episcopal Church must refuse to be bullied by a bunch of bigots. I realize that this comment is tough, but sometimes the only thing that a bully, and a power grabber, respects is a figurative punch in the mouth. We should wash our hands of the actions of this Sanhedrin, confident in the knowledge that history will not be kind to the theology of bigotry.
    Sorry if this comment is repetitive, but I am deeply offended by the chutzpah of the Primates and their diktat.

  4. "No doubt, many will advise that we meekly accept the punishment meted out by the primates, arguing that it would be the Christ-like thing to do. I strongly disagree. If we truly believe that our LGBT brothers and sisters are equally children of God and deserve to be full members of Christ’s body, we should avoid selling them down the river yet again."

    Well stated. No, perfectly stated.

    Bob Button

  5. I think the statement as written is a surface argument. I think the real situation afoot is that the ACNA et al are chafed that they aren't considered officially as anything other than a questionable extension of whatever African diocese they are associated. Their bishop was there with "voice but no vote". They're intensely focused on having that standing with a goal of being either 1. the only "sanctioned" anglican body in the US or 2. one of 2 sanctioned bodies. This is all an effort to create a divide and undermine TEC so that they and their GAFCON allies can press for them to be recognized as an official church in communion with Canterbury and then ostensibly the orthodox Anglican voice, discrediting TEC.

  6. To my knowledge, at this time, we have no gay, married or unmarried, couples in our church. When the Priest made the announcement of the decision by the Primates to suspend TEC, I saw some shrugging of shoulders and some raising of eyebrows but no vocal comments. At the coffee hour following the service I heard no discussion of the suspension.
    My guess is that this will be the universal reaction by those in the pews in Episcopal parishes.
    It has no effect on their Christian lives. They will continue to make all people welcome in their church no matter their situation. Amen to that!


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