January 25, 2016

Additional Thoughts on the Meeting of the Primates

My friend Tobias Haller has written one of the more insightful descriptions of what happened in the Anglican Communion recently. Permit me to quote extensively and shamelessly from his essay “The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politicks” (Episcopalians should get Tobias’s reference):
Compass rose from Haller blog
So what have we? On the one hand we have a body, founded in 1789 and in continuous existence since, with duly elected members called and assembled, which by its constitutional authority and in keeping with its governing law has adopted a policy which concerns no entity other than itself.

On the other hand we have a group, first assembled in 1978, meeting sporadically since, this time ’round in an irregularly convened ad hoc session; with at least one voting member improperly credentialed; having no constitutional authority whatsoever; described as recently as 2004 in The Windsor Report (¶ 104) as having until then “refused to acknowledge anything more than a consultative and advisory authority” for itself—now presuming an enhanced capacity to deem the imposition of consequences upon the aforementioned body over whom they have no authority, because of their policy change.

This must be what some people mean by “Godly order.” Seems relatively ungodly to me, and far from orderly. If this were the political realm, I’d call the latter a junta and their action an attempted coup.
(If almost none of the foregoing makes any sense to you, dear reader, you are likely not an Anglican and have no reason to continue reading.)

The Primates and the Covenant

Everything Tobias says is true; the primates had no authority to discipline The Episcopal Church. What happened in Canterbury was even more insidious than he suggests, however.

The Anglican Covenant, which has been adopted by only a few of the less prominent churches of the Anglican Communion and is widely viewed as a failed project, has been criticized mostly for its fourth section, “Our Covenanted Life Together.” Section 4.2, “The Maintenance of the Covenant and Dispute Resolution” sets out how churches can raise questions about the meaning of the Covenant  or “about the compatibility of an action by a covenanting Church with the Covenant.” The document specifies quasi-judicial procedures for resolving such issues. The diagrams below, taken from my 2010 post “Section 4 Decoded,” show the relationships and procedures specified in the Covenant for resolving questions or disputes. (Click on either diagram for a larger image.)

Issue Handling Specified by Section 4 of Anglican Covenant

Readers may also want to review my post “If it looks like a duck…” for additional analysis of the disciplinary procedures set out in the Covenant.

I do not mean for readers to study the above diagrams. What is important to note is that (1) the Standing Committee, in consultation with other bodies, is responsible for evaluating allegations by one church against another and for suggesting “relational consequences,” (2) the Primates’ Meeting (or the primates, meeting) have no such authority, and (3) the Covenant suggests that adjudicating disputes is a careful, deliberative process, not the product of the sort of ad hoc kangaroo court that began two weeks ago.

In other words, although most Anglican churches have not adopted the Covenant, including The Episcopal Church and its accusers, the absence of the pact has led to the use of a procedure even less fair than was called for in Section 4 of the Covenant, a procedure completely lacking in formal authority, justice, or transparency.

A number of churches whose primates attended the meeting in Canterbury have adopted the Covenant—see list here. Admittedly, the church against which charges were being leveled had not adopted the Covenant, but why did none of the primates of covenanted churches suggest that procedures more like those set out in the Covenant be used in deciding what was to be done with complaints against The Episcopal Church?

Nothing was legitimate about the recent meeting. The ACNA archbishop, Foley Beach, was invited by Justin Welby as an inducement to get some of the more radical primates to attend. Beach is not and Anglican primate and may never be one, but he was even allowed to vote at the meeting—on the agenda, at any rate. (See Foley statement here.) His invitation was only the first indication that Welby was willing to do anything for some illusory “unity” within the Communion. Welby’s willingness to let the primates set the agenda—an agenda certain to be dominated by the desire to punish The Episcopal Church—was another concession. Welby was even amenable to describing the meeting as other than an instance of the Primates’ Meeting in order to allow certain primates to save face, even though, logically, that suggested that the meeting had no legitimacy at all. Welby’s introductory message made it clear that the American church was in for a rough ride.

The most distressing outcome of the meeting of the primates is that it is self-validating. If the primates can do what they did with the aid and comfort of the Archbishop of Canterbury, it must have been a valid action, one that can be a template for dealing with conflict in the future. (Just wait until the Church of England finally allows same-sex marriage!) Interestingly, Welby refused to describe the actions against The Episcopal Church “sanctions.” Instead, they are “consequences,” a term used in the Covenant.

African primates have often complained that actions of The Episcopal Church reflect poorly on their churches in the eyes of homophobic Islamists. This problem is of their own making. They always had the option of claiming plausible deniability, that they had no control over the what other Anglican churches do. They have now lost that option by exercising—or asserting to be exercising—control over The Episcopal Church. They can now be blamed for the fact that The Episcopal Church will not recant, but will only continue on the path it has followed for decades.

Yes to Communion; No to Covenant


  1. Excellent analysis which deserves to be widely distributed. Copies should be put in the hands of all of the bishops of the Episcopal Church, our Presiding Bishop, members of the ECUSA board of directors, as well as the primates of other Anglican churches.
    The foregoing analysis is completely silent on the question of the appropriate response, which I assume is intentional. I do not recall when the next General Convention will be held, as I am not sure what I am doing tomorrow. At a minimum, the Convention should issue a statement rejecting the legitimacy of the "consequences", and reaffirming that the Episcopal Church will not alter its theology. If the next General Convention will not be held soon, then the ECUSA board should issue a statement now. In the most simplistic terms, the EC should not just deny the allegation that its beliefs are wrong, but rather should also speak out even more firmly against bigotry.
    My view, as I have previously articulated in comments, is that the ECUSA should not be meek in proclaiming its faith and beliefs, and should not be shy about using all of the tools at its disposal to refrain from propping up those other primates who meekly accept homophobia in their own churches.
    At one time, some bishops and clergy of the Episcopal Church preached that slavery was justified by the Bible. Personally, I have little respect for any of the gutless bishops and clergy today who refrain from speaking out against homophobia or refrain from conducting gay marriages, in all likelihood because they are afraid that they might offend potential donors. Yes, I am that cynical.

    1. The General Convention doesn’t meet until 2018. Lots could happen between now and then, so it’s difficult to say now what the Convention should do then. The Executive Council meets in a few weeks, however, and it could make some sort of response.

  2. Sorry, what GARY said. Thanks, again. Len


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