It is fairly common in discussion about church relations to cite Jesus’ so-called ‘high priestly’ prayer (John 17) and his concern ‘that they should be one’—not least because Jesus himself connects the unity of his followers with the oneness of God himself, and in both Christian and Jewish contexts this is a fundamental truth about the nature of God. What is less common is to cite the causes behind either unity or disunity, and Jesus also makes those unequivocally clear when he prays that the Father will ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’ (17.17)—and this sanctification in truth is what leads to unity. And John, in writing his gospel as a true testimony to Jesus’ teaching, claims a particular role when he records Jesus including ‘those who will believe in me through their message’ (17.20). We can only be tough on disunity if we are tough on the causes of disunity.
That has been the consistent position of the Anglican Communion for the last 15 years or so. When the Episcopal Church in the US confirmed the appointment of Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, this was seen as a major threat to the unity of the Anglican Communion and it provoked an emergency meeting of the Anglican Primates at Lambeth Palace. They produced a lengthy statement, but they were clear on where the problem lay:
We must make clear that recent actions in New Westminster and in the Episcopal Church (USA) do not express the mind of our Communion as a whole, and these decisions jeopardise our sacramental fellowship with each other…This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA)…Similar considerations apply to the situation pertaining in the Diocese of New Westminster.
(New Westminster in Canada has authorised a rite for the blessing same-sex unions in 2002). The disunity was evident in the subsequent establishment of break-away parts of the Episcopal Church, and the intervention of bishops from other areas of the Communion—but the Primates were clear what was the cause of disunity.
The meeting led to the establishment of a Commission which, in 2004, produced the Windsor Report that set out a way to resolve the tensions and disagreements. The Report failed to gain the confidence of dioceses in the Church of England (for various complex reasons) but was received by the Primates in 2005 who expressed their views in what is known as the Dromantine Communique.
12. We as a body continue to address the situations which have arisen in North America with the utmost seriousness. Whilst there remains a very real question about whether the North American churches are willing to accept the same teaching on matters of sexual morality as is generally accepted elsewhere in the Communion, the underlying reality of our communion in God the Holy Trinity is obscured, and the effectiveness of our common mission severely hindered.
So the position continued to be: the Anglican Communion has a shared, historic position; some churches are breaking from that; this is the cause of disunity; and it impairs our life as a church and our mission. In fact, looking back over the life of the Anglican Communion, this has been the consistent position; during Rowan Williams’ tenure as Archbishop, he reiterated this position whenever there were new developments within the Communion which presented this kind of threat to the unity and teaching of the church.
As recently as January 2016, when the Primates met in Canterbury, the same line was reiterated. Alongside the important condemnation of homophobia and criminal sanctions against people in same-sex relationships around the world, the final statement included a three-year sanction for the Episcopal Church in the US.
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.
This is strong and clear language, and is from the Primates as a whole. And they are clear that this is a cause of disunity.
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.
Although there was a commitment to continue to ‘walk together’, such walking would necessarily be ‘at a distance’.
Given that that has been the consistent position of the leaders of the Communion, how strange then to read the one-sided response by Archbishop Justin to what has happened in the Scottish Episcopal Church in voting to recognise and celebrate same-sex marriage in the church. The Archbishop issued a rebuke to those who are initiating ‘cross-border’ episcopal interventions—but there has been no mention of what has provoked this, and no reaffirmation of the consistent position of the Communion. If the action in the US was a ‘fundamental departure’ and ‘unilateral action’ which ‘impair our Communion’, why wasn’t the action in SEC? No wonder some are asking ‘What was the Archbishop thinking?‘ His letter included this comment:
I would also like to remind you of the 1988 Lambeth Conference resolution number 72 on episcopal responsibilities and diocesan boundaries. It also affirms that it is deemed inappropriate behaviour for any bishop or priest of this Communion to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry within another diocese without first obtaining the permission and invitation of the ecclesial authority thereof.
Which, I think quite naturally, provoked this response.
Surely it isn’t being suggested that the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference of 1988 are somehow binding or authoritative but those of 1998 are not? Why would the Primates need to be “reminded” of their “episcopal responsibilities” by way of something which is not a “key” element of the Communion?
In the course of six months Justin Welby has not just attempted to ride two horses in relation to the significance of Lambeth 1988, he has been riding two entirely different animals in opposite directions. The only explanation for this must be not that he thought no one would notice but that it simply does not matter to him whether his arguments are consistent or not.
Lee Gatiss, of Church Society, articulates the concern of those at the more conservative end:
In his letter, Archbishop Welby sadly seems far more concerned about “cross-border interventions” than with the schismatic and heretical teaching which has infiltrated the Episcopal Church in Scotland (and elsewhere) and emptied churches in the process.
The interesting thing here is not so much whether Lee’s position is right—but that he is pointing out that Archbishop Justin’s focus on cross-border issues, and the lack of any comment on the substantive issue, is completely out of step with the agreed approach of the Anglican Communion over a long time.
I was interviewed on Radio 4’s Sunday programme a couple of weeks ago in relation to the ‘consecration’ of Jonathan Pryke in Jesmond, and in the course of it was asked where my ‘red line’ would be. ‘That is easy’, was my response; ‘the teaching of the Church of England is expressed in its liturgy, so the red line for me is quite simply the point at which the Church decides to change its liturgy and the canons that go with it.’ Without giving too much away, I can say that The Powers That Be responded warmly to my clear articulation of the issue. But that is precisely the red line that has been crossed in Scotland; it is the red line that was crossed by TEC in the US; and it has always been the red line that has been seen to cause a fracture in the Communion and signalled the departure from the consistent teaching of the Church.
Archbishop Justin was notable in taking the initiative to establish good relations around the Communion—I understand that he visited every province in his first year. But I wonder now how those view what appears to be a step change from the previous position. What is worse here is the complete lack of provision for those who uphold historic Anglican teaching in SEC. They won’t be forced to officiate at same-sex marriages, but from a historic Anglican point of view, all that means is ‘We won’t force you to commit sin, but you will have to put up with us sinning’.
Failing to address the causes of disunity is itself an act promoting disunity, and without any further comment this situation can only accelerate the end of the Communion as a whole.