January 10, 2016

Showdown at Theological Gap

All things being equal, tomorrow, January 11, 2016, the 38 primates of the Anglican Communion will meet at Lambeth Palace to consider various matters of concern. A variety of issues may be discussed, but the only one likely to figure in future histories of Anglicanism is the nature of the Communion itself and the relationships among its member churches.

I have already written about the upcoming meeting—see “Anglican Communion II?,” “Justin Welby on the Hot Seat,” “Parallel Anglican Universes?,” and “A Letter to Michael Curry”—and I see no reason to retract anything I have already put into print. There have been too many statements and commentaries appearing since my last post, however, to try either to summarize, reply to, or even cite, but I do want to offer a few last-minute thoughts.

 When I first heard the announcement of the meeting, I thought it odd. Why would Justin Welby risk his reputation on such a high-risk enterprise? There may be a certain bit of hubris involved, but I think that the Archbishop of Canterbury, having personally visited all the churches of the Communion, concluded that his chances of bringing any semblance of peace to the Anglican world were not going to get any better in the future. Perhaps it was time to go all in. That may have been a rational decision, but Welby appears to be rather more sanguine than he has any right to be.

A number of GAFCON primates are threatening to walk out of the meeting—perhaps even out of the Communion itself—if they get no satisfaction of their demands that The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada be either disciplined or ejected from the Communion for their departures from “biblical orthodoxy.” That, of course, is not going to happen. The primates of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada will offer no substantive apology for their churches’ actions regarding women, homosexuals, or the transgendered. They neither will nor can undo what their churches have done. Michael Curry and Fred Hiltz can do little more than say “we’re sorry you feel that way.”

Tomorrow’s meeting is really a showdown at Theological Gap. In all too many cases, the theological differences between Western and Global South churches are simply too great to bridge. If Anglican unity requires that that gap be eliminated—I believe it should not—then the Communion will fall apart.

This showdown, though long in coming, was inevitable. It became so at the 1998 Lambeth Conference when, under the leadership of George Carey (or the lack thereof), Resolution I.10 was passed, thereby giving militant traditionalists a potent weapon to use against what had been mainstream Anglicanism. The forces of reaction have promoted I.10 as the unassailable “teaching” of the Communion. The resolution became an explicit assumption of the Windsor Report and of the ill-considered Anglican Covenant that followed. Those angry reactionaries are now moving in for the kill, but they have overplayed their hand, if only because the Primates’ Meeting has no real power to do anything. If Western Anglicans are not to be abandoned by their leaders, it is time for Western primates to declare that Resolution I.10 was a mistake in 1998 and is doubly damnable in 2016.

If the GAFCON crew fails to get its way, as indeed it cannot, how can the most militant of the Global South primates not leave the meeting? It is difficult to see how they can possibly save face if they stay to the bitter end, and it is even more difficult to imagine a compromise that would not be interpreted as a defeat at the Armageddon they have arranged.

It is not clear what plans Justin Welby has for the meeting. He has not tipped his hand, and we know that he is holding at least one wild card, namely, the status of the Anglican Church in North America. Inviting the ACNA’s Archbishop Foley Beach to the meeting, even under ambiguous circumstances, was clearly a move intended to induce attendance of skeptical primates. A promise to integrate the upstart North American church into the Communion would clearly be a partial victory for the reactionaries and, alas, would probably not prompt Curry or Hiltz to threaten the departure of their churches from the Communion. Playing that card might, however tenuously, hold the Communion together in the very short run, though perhaps at a high price. If the centuries-old rule of non-overlapping jurisdictions is to be abandoned by the Communion, interesting possibilities will become available. Surely an Episcopal Church in England would be welcomed by same-sex couples seeking a church wedding!

I really have no idea how this meeting will end, though I doubt it can possibly end well. The best possible outcome may well be a formal split of the Communion into two disjoint groupings.

If you have nothing better to do, pray for a miracle.


  1. My general impression is that the current Pittsburgh Episcopal Church has continued to do nothing, to recover assets stolen by the departing Anglicans. If the ACNA is accepted into the Communion then the question is whether it will have any impact on the fiduciary obligations of the Bishop and his Council to complete the recovery of stolen assets. The PPG last month contained comments indicating that the current Pittsburgh Bishop is getting along famously with ACNA Primates and has been seduced into letting them keep what they stole.

  2. You raise a very interesting issue. It is impossible to know at this point what the implications of ACNA’s being allowed into the Anglican Communion might be.

    As for the state of property litigation in Pittsburgh, I can tell you that the Episcopal diocese has not written off properties it considers its own. Negotiations have been going on in secret for years, and the parties are unwilling to talk about it until agreements are reached.


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