George Carey shares debate on Anglicanism at Chicago

Society for the Study in Anglicanism.

Chicago. November 17th 2012.

I am delighted to be with you today and especially to share in a friendly debate with my former Primatial colleague and friend, Frank Griswold. Frank and I have shared in the mission of the church for many years and even though we differ on some things there is much we are agreed about. And it is on agreement that I wish to start. It is understandable that when Christians sharply disagree the issues often seem to be church dividing. But this conclusion should be questioned. When Christians are united theologically in a Trinitarian faith, in a Christocentric vision of God and in the doctrinal creeds inherited from the past, how can we be enemies? The theological unity we already share is surely secure enough to hold us together. The common desire that Frank and I share is for a strong Anglican Communion, living the faith and sharing it with all.

The reality is however uncomfortable for Anglicans. At the institutional level we have never been as divided as we are today. We look across the world and the evidence of fragmentation is for all to see. We see it in this great land of America with the proliferation of Anglican congregations; we see it internationally with the GAFCON churches and the sharp divisions between the strong provinces of Africa and the structures of the ACC; we see it in England the uneasy stand off between Reformed and traditional catholic congregations and the institutional church. In recent days we have had news that the diocese of South Carolina is ‘disaffiliating’ from The Episcopal Church over moves to depose its Bishop, Mark Lawrence.

Now, we should state upfront that both Frank Griswold as the former Presiding bishop and myself as the former Archbishop of Canterbury have had key roles that have partly led us to the present predicament. For myself, there has been much criticism in TEC and elsewhere that the Lambeth Conference of 1998 witnessed the overwhelming consensus of bishops in affirming the traditional view of sexuality. For Frank, five years later the Province of the Episcopal Church of the United States affirmed the legitimacy of same sex relationships in the ministry of the Church. Both events have been questioned severely. Lambeth 98 has been censured for creating the crisis and the events leading up to the ordination of bishop Gene Robinson has also come under severe criticism- particularly why TEC went ahead against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates Meeting Both events have been discussed ‘ad nauseum’ and there is no point in going over old ground.

Nevertheless, there are two fundamental questions that have not been satisfactorily dealt with. The first concerns the role of the scriptures in the Church. Where there is deep disagreement concerning interpretation of scripture not only within Provinces but especially between Provinces how does a Communion handle differences that affect our relationships? Where there is no Magisterium to referee disputes, and where our much vaunted Instruments of unity seem unequal to the task, how do the Primates exercise their leadership on behalf of the Communion? To put it more bluntly: where to so many people in the Communion the bible’s teaching on homosexual is so univocal, what justification is there for rejecting it? Indeed, we have to recognize that for many Anglicans around the world what they see as the rejection of scripture by some western churches does indeed separate Christians.

The other question is about distinguishing the marks of the Holy Spirit when Christians disagree. As someone who has taken a consistent line on the issue of practicing homosexuals in the ordained ministry, I am not unaware of the problems this throws up. I recall meeting a young homosexual priest in LA some years ago when I made an official visit. This man, whom I cannot name was doing the most amazing work among Mexicans. That his work was blessed by God was something that I could not and would not want to deny. Could I reject that young man and yet accept the ‘grace’ of his ministry? That was unthinkable in that situation and others like it. Sadly, too much attention was paid to Resolution 1.10A at Lambeth 98 that ‘homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture’, that the accompanying sentences committing all to ‘listen to the experience of homosexual people ‘.. and that they are ‘full members of the Body of Christ’ were and have been ignored.

If then there is no future in reviewing the past in terms of blaming and shaming, how can we overcome the hurts and conflict and hope for a more fruitful engagement in days to come?

Does the Anglican Communion Covenant offer a way forward? From the beginning I have been a supporter of the Covenant and the Chief Rabbi’s fine words at the 2008 Lambeth Conference summed it up well for me: ‘A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. Or to put it slightly differently: a contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. It is about you and me coming together to form an ‘us’. That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform’. This so obvious and compelling of statements has not won universal acceptance and there can be only one blunt reason and that is ‘lack of trust’. Statements of faith are all very well but if there is questioning about the motives behind them, suspicion is bound to arise.

So it is with the Anglican Communion Covenant. On the one hand, we can all agree that anything that strengthens Anglican identity is to be supported. This will not only have repercussions for internal unity but has immense consequences for ecumenical dialogue. A senior Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church told me a few months ago that the view in Rome is that dialogue with Anglicans is no longer a serious matter. Though relationships remain warm, especially between Canterbury and the Vatican, dialogue with the Anglican Communion has stalled. We should all be sad about that. This must be a matter of personal grief for Frank Griswold having co-chaired the ARCIC Dialogue in such a distinguished way for many years.

Sadly, it now seems that this document which began its life in 2004 with much acclaim is now sadly considered by some as dead in the water. At first sight this seems extraordinary. Surely something that aims to strengthen unity and to avoid collision in the future is to be welcomed? But not everyone has seen it in that light; what some see as strengthening, others see as controlling. For the first group, the Covenant is a document that binds us together, for the second group the binding smacks of limiting freedom and the work of the Spirit.

Of course, a lot now rests on the leadership of the new Archbishop of Canterbury. If he enters upon his new office with a desire to use the Anglican Covenant as a tool to re-unite the Communion anything possible may be achieved. That all belongs to the future, until then I have to conclude that if the Covenant’s future is uncertain and if there is no other coherent, theological vision to draw us closer, we must explore other ways to grow together.  

I was struck by a few sentences that Frank Griswold offered in an email a week or so ago. He asked: What is the future shape of Anglican unity? Is communion ours to create or a divine gift which is ours to inhabit?’

Failure to embrace a Covenant means that it will be in practical action that deeper unity will be found. This is not a bad thing because there has always been something essential pragmatic about Anglican unity.  The title of chapter 7 of Mark Chapman’s excellent book ‘Anglican Theology’ is “Latitudinarianism and the Invention of Anglicanism” As I understand Dr.Chapman’s argument, the word ‘invention’ describes the way Anglicanism emerged from the theological disputes of the 17th – 19th centuries to become a comprehensive Church, established by law in England, and rooted in many countries of the world. There was nothing planned about the growth: it emerged from contingent events of history,  and from such an identity resulted.  Our present circumstances demand from us all fresh endeavours to reach across theological and cultural divides to recreate the Communion.  It is time to build on this legacy of faith in action and start re-inventing Anglican unity. Let me give an illustration: A visit that I made recently to the Church of the Province of Myanmar revealed the desire of the Primate and his clergy to have closer links with Western churches. It is not for us to interfere in the structures of such churches,  but we can support by what the Covenant calls ‘the web of mutuality’. Division is often overcome by cooperation in common mission and service.  Nevertheless, as part of this process, some provinces may need to distance themselves for missionary reasons from the actions of western churches. We must understand this need, and act with forbearance and patience. There is no alternative to this for Provinces  like TEC which believe they are blazing a trail for justice. If they are right, there will one day be reconciliation.

Second, I make no apology for suggesting that we must seek to be as generous as we possibly can in Provincial and diocesan affairs. If there is one lesson we can take from the slow history of Anglicanism it is that to be a truly comprehensive body national churches have to strive to accommodate different points of views and seek creative, tolerant rather than legalistic solutions. I have to say with sadness that the great Episcopal Church of the United States is not showing the kind of liberality that I see in many of its members. The fast erosion of traditional churches is not a sign of hope but of disintegration. I regard the steps being taken to depose Mark Lawrence and the subsequent secession of the diocese of South Carolina as a shocking and needless separation from the Province. I do not believe that it is too late to heal the division and in generous, understanding acts of grace to create a new future in relationships even if, for a time, such relationships may have to allow a degree of ‘distance’ to heal the hurts caused. After all, what is Pentecost for if it is not God’s outrageous act of self giving for the purpose of changing attitudes and people?

Thirdly, societies such as this body have an important – nay, crucial- role to perform in strengthening and perfecting the theological vision of our churches. 
Theologians are servants of the church, their ministries include teaching, to be sure; at other times their work may be prophetic in calling the church to fresh visions of God and his calling today. But there surely is a role for theologians to share in church rebuilding and through love of the church to help to reconcile and heal.

To us all as theologians and teachers, St.Hilary’s words are apposite: ‘We are compelled to attempt what is unattainable; to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter. Instead of the bare adoration of faith we are compelled to entrust the deep things of religion to the perils of human experience’.

But it is in experience that we find confirmation of our role as those who seek to explore the way of faith in a world that could do with the best of Anglicanism- not its worst.

© George Carey 2012


“The theological unity we already share is surely secure enough to hold us together. The common desire that Frank and I share is for a strong Anglican Communion, living the faith and sharing it with all.”

This report on an address made by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in a debate with the former Presiding Bishop of TEC, Frank Griswold, has been criticised by certain members of The Episcopal Church – notably, as reported on the conservative  website ‘Stand Firm’ in North America – as failing to condemn Bishop Griswold for what ‘Stand Firm’ sees as his leading role in the break-down of fellowship in the world-wide Anglican Communion.

In hindsight, for Archbishop Carey, his failure to ‘blame’ Bishop Griswold for the initial deterioration in relationships  may be because of his own role in that process, having chaired the 1998 Lambeth Conference which allowed a process of accelerated prejudice against homosexuals in the Church. There can be little doubt that Lord Carey’s prejudice against homosexuals played a major role in the break-up of relationships of conservative elements in the Communion with the Episcopal Church in North America.

Wherever the blame might lie, it is refreshing that George Carey can, at least, admit that the deeper relationship between members of the Anglican Communion is based on a basic common understanding of the thrust of the inclusivity of the Gospel – something far more important than contested issues of gender and sexuality – which is the adiaphoral base for the  differences currently dividing the Communion.

At least the former ABC is now willing to admit that there is more that unites the various Provinces of the Anglican Communion than can ever divide us. For that, much thanks!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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