The primates’ meeting has come to be seen as an instrument uniting Anglicans internationally – but does it serve a purpose?
More than a third of those invited to a recent Anglican primates’ meeting were unable or unwilling to attend. There has been much debate about whose fault this was. But there are more basic questions. How useful are such meetings (which aim to bring together the most senior bishops from each province) and how much power should be given to bishops and archbishops?
There are 38 Anglican provinces throughout the world. These have traditionally been free to make their own decisions. However, international gatherings such as the Lambeth Conference of bishops, held every 10 years, allow issues to be discussed and offer advice.
The primates’ meeting is now regarded as one of the instruments of communion uniting Anglicans internationally. Yet it is relatively new – when I was a child, there was no such thing. That was a time when ordinary people’s views were valued in church and society. The 1968 Lambeth Conference recommended “that no major issue in the life of the church should be decided without the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision“. In other churches, too, it was recognised that not only bishops but also ordinary churchgoers and parish priests trying to live out God’s love in their neighbourhoods, as well as scholars and scientists, might have valuable insights.
Primates began to meet in 1978 “for leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation”, in the words of the then archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile, against a background of rapid change in church and society, some people yearned for greater certainty and authoritative leadership. There was also a backlash against moves in certain provinces towards greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people and acceptance of same-sex partnerships. Some believed that a more centralised system with senior clergy at the top could help avoid such disputes.
There have been attempts to shift more international authority to primates, including a bid to increase their numbers on a standing committee that will have a key role in wielding discipline if a covenant is agreed. The Anglican Communion could become more like the Roman Catholic church, but with the equivalent of a college of cardinals rather than a pope in charge, and rather more influence for dioceses and parishes.
Archbishop Mouneer Anis of Jerusalem and the Middle East was one of those who stayed away because the leader of the most inclusive province was not banned. He called for “another Reformation within the Anglican Communion”, which “needs to give the Lambeth Conference and the primates’ meeting a conciliar authority in matters of faith and order, including the area of interpretation of the scriptures”. Anis does admirable work in difficult circumstances. But should he, and others who think like him, have power to block developments in Boston, Birmingham and Brasilia?
Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream and the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies has argued that the primates who refused to attend represented the global poor:
“Here is the contradiction at the heart of the policies of the leadership of the Anglican Communion. On the one hand there is an attempt to address poverty and powerlessness … On the other hand, there is continued insistence on including those who deliberately flout Anglican teaching and practice in favour of the ‘diversity’ of a ‘neutral’ interchangeability of sexual relationships. This insistence undermines two of the foundations for addressing poverty: first, respect for the identity, aspirations, initiatives and elected leaders of the poor and their communities, and secondly strengthening commitment to marriage between a man and a woman as the basis for family life and society. This contradiction undermines the claimed desire to listen to the voice and concerns of the Global South.”
Yet, worldwide, primates often mix with the wealthy and powerful (sometimes for charitable and other worthy causes), and may fail to listen even to fellow bishops. According to Archbishop Fred Hiltz of Canada, who did attend, in recent years “the primates were assuming an authority [that] as a group was never intended … Within the communion … there are some who really speak for themselves and they don’t consult or speak for their bishops or their provinces … Some bishops are feeling that their perspective is not represented by what their primate says.”
The primates together “seek continuity and coherence in faith, order, and ethics” and “provide guidance for the communion”, declared the meeting’s final statement, while “acknowledging diversity and giving space for difference”. How this will work remains uncertain.
This article, by the Guardian’s Religious correspondent Savitri Henseman, bids us reflect on the situation in the world-wide Anglican Communion of increasing power devolving upon the Primates – the Provincial Heads of Communion Churches.
Part of the reason for this is the continuing split between what might be called the ‘Orthodox’ (a name they claim for themselves) Primates – mostly from what they have been pleased to call ‘The Global South’ (although both Australia and New Zealand happen to be part of the geographical Global South, we have not been disposed to join these mostly African and Asian Provinces), whose objection to the liberalising theology of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada on the ordination of Gays and Same-Sex Blessings) has led to a stand-off between them and more liberal Provinces.
Father Ron Smith， Christchurch