What is the Primates’ Meeting all about?

In case you missed it, I repost here my article from last September about the Anglican Communion and the Primates’ Meeting.


What has happened?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has made a significant announcement about the future of the Anglican Communion. He has issued an invitation to 37 Primates of the Anglican Communion (archbishops who lead the different provinces) to a meeting in Lambeth Palace in January, at which they can ‘look afresh at our ways of working as a Communion and especially as Primates, paying proper attention to developments in the past.’ In other words, the current way of working isn’t working, and something needs to change.

What isn’t working?

One of the traditional habits of the Anglican Communion is for the bishops from all the provinces to meet once every ten years as the Lambeth Conference. The last significant meeting was in 1998, and in response to shifts in some of the (culturally) Western churches, it passed resolution 1.10, which both affirmed the ‘traditional’ position on same-sex sexual activity, whilst encouraging a listening process.

The resolution did not resolve difference—in fact, it only made things worse. The Episcopal Church in the US resented being told what to do, and continued in its moves to affirm same-sex relations. In 2003 it appointed Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire.

What happened next?

A process was set in motion in the Anglican Communion which Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, hoped might maintain unity and provide space for discussion. The Windsor Report recommended a moratorium on further approval of same-sex relations, but did not propose any discipline for provinces which had not adhered to Lambeth 1.10. It proposed an Anglican Covenant which would, in effect, provide a new vehicle for unity in the Communion, but this has not been widely accepted.

In the meantime, a number of primates from the global south met as the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in 2008, calling for the church to resist secularisation and return to biblical orthodoxy. This happened a month before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and 200 bishops declined to attend Lambeth. GAFCON also called for the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) as an alternative, ‘orthodox’ Episcopal church in the US and Canada, and this went ahead in 2009.

Why has this been so difficult?

The underlying problem is that the Anglican Communion lacks the structures that you might expect of a global denomination. This is partly to do with history and partly to do with theology. Historically, the Communion developed almost by accident, in a patchwork of arrangements as the ministry of the Church of England was devolved to locally-led Anglican churches. The relationships with other denominations, with local culture and with the Church of England varied from place to place. With no formal shared structure, the network developed four ‘instruments of unity’:

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the ‘focus of unity’ but has no actual authority over provinces;
  • The 10-yearly Lambeth Conference, which can formulate resolutions but cannot do anything if provinces don’t abide by those resolutions;
  • The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) which, as its name suggests, is ‘consultative’;
  • The Primates’ Meetings, first convened by Donald Coggan in 1979 as a place for ‘leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.’

Theologically, the different churches have been on different journeys in relation to their origins. The Church of England still officially abides by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and the 39 Articles of Religion. Any new liturgy has been strictly ‘alternative’ to this and does not replace it. In other parts of the Communion, some churches still actively use the BCP whilst others have replaced it with modernised or indigenised prayer books. So, in effect, just about the only thing that the churches in the Communion have in common is a liturgical approach to worship and leadership by bishops. As Justin Welby comments: ‘We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted.’

What has Justin Welby done?

Rowan Williams was criticised (fairly or not) for allowing the processes to drift without offering any decisive leadership. He only visited provinces when invited, and was not pro-active in building relationships. By contrast, Justin Welby made visiting all provinces in the Communion a priority. He appointed a moderate conservative, Josiah Idowu-Fearon from Nigeria, as secretary to the ACC, and Graham Kings as Mission Theologian to the Anglican Communion.

But this latest move appears to signal Welby’s belief that the previous work at maintaining or creating unity through structures is a waste of time and effort. A Lambeth Palace source said the Archbishop felt the disputes meant the Church was “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere”.

Why is this controversial?

For several reasons. For one thing, some see this as the end of the Anglican Communion, and therefore an abandoning of a significant exercise in Christian unity. Others, however, take a very different view, and see this as an astute move which will allow new energy to be put into relationships within the Communion. You only have to look at the range of headlines to see the different interpretations, from ‘Welby breathes new life into the Communion’ to ‘Welby abandons the idea of global consensus.’

But there are other points of controversy. Welby has invited Foley Beach, archbishop of ACNA, to attend as well. This has been interpreted as an approval of conservatives in the US who are nor formally ‘in communion’ with the Church of England. And Welby’s language about Scripture has been seized on by some as being ‘unAnglican’, as it does not explicitly mention tradition and reason.

Some early commentators are also trying to interpret what is going on in terms of the balance of power in Anglican relations. Is Welby making an attempt to retain power and influence, by abandoning previous mechanisms for the Communion’s work?

I have an alternative suggestion: let’s actually take his words at face value.

‘It must also be a way forward, guided by the absolute imperative for the church to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, to make disciples and to worship and live in holiness, and recognising that the way in which proclamation happens and the pressures on us vary greatly between Provinces. We each live in a different context.’

I think Justin is recognising the reality of the situation we are in; he does not want to put any more effort into meetings and proposals which are not actually going to deal with the controversial issues at hand; and he wants to focus on the more important issues of missional engagement and discipleship.

What will be the impact for the Church of England?

Andrew Brown in the Guardian slightly mischievously suggests that, if different parts of the Anglican Communion drift apart, different parts of the Church of England will follow suit, looking to various different directions globally as they do so. But this overestimates the importance of global Anglicanism on the domestic church. The C of E has previously been perfectly capable of making up its own mind on important issues, and it will continue to do so.

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16 thoughts on “What is the Primates’ Meeting all about?”

  1. I think it is worthwhile reading the whole of Lambeth 1.10


    Im not suggesting Ian doesn’t know and love it but many of his readers may not.

    It is clear from this that not only TEC but the churches of Nigeria and Uganda are outside this resolution along with large parts of the rest of the communion inc parts of the Church of England i.e. It should not be seen as TEC causing problems (although they have the most vocal opponents) but rather that there is a big disagreement on what to do about those pesky gay people *and* the GAFCON churches see this as such a serious issue that they don’t want to be in communion with anyone who disagrees with them.

  2. The Media are already using the term “African bishop(s)” to dismiss views that come from Scripture and let the reader wrongly assume that “African bishop(s)” are backward. The action of the media is thoroughly racist. Most African bishops have more degrees, typically from British universities on the subjects than the so-called intelligent westerners. I unfortunately expect the media to continue to display such subtle but clear, deep racism.

    The idea that upholding a Scriptural view that take in a comprehensive examination of Scripture is either homophobic, or hateful, or any other variant, is totally ridiculous. The word may accept us where we are BUT it calls us to CHANGE, not stand still and carry on. We are all unworthy like St Paul and we all constantly make mistakes just like St Paul (Romans 7: 14-25).

    • And it is mainly just the archbishops from Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya who are opposed to communion with TEC. And, maybe this is wishful thinking from me, but S.Africa seem to be heading towards full equality of LGBT people.

      It is also worth noting that the Secretary General of the communion, who is himself an African bishop, said that any bishop who vilified gay people or promoted criminalisation did not “know their job” and was not in line with the communions current teaching on the matter.

  3. On this, I agree with Clive: it’s neither fair nor helpful to accuse everyone who holds the traditional position of being homophobic; and yes, much of the reporting does have racist undertones. Sydney Anglicans are just as conservative on sexuality as Kenyan, Nigerian or Ugandan Anglicans.

    Beyond that, the media’s theological illiteracy’s infuriating. The press portray this split as being about sex, when in reality, it’s about authority and revelation, and sexuality is just the presenting issue.

    • As a gay Christian to me it seems there are (at least) five perspectives.

      1) that I am a dangerous sexual predator who should be imprisoned or killed and this is a priority for the church

      2) the same as 1, but not a priority for the church

      3) confusion – saying one thing and doing another.

      4) want to fully accept me, and maybe even allow me to marry and have a relationship, but not quite there with the theology

      5) fully accept me (or at least in dioceses where the bishop is in agreement) allow me to have a relationship, no problems with the theology.

        • The current teaching doesn’t seem to be held by any of the churches!

          1-2 treat gay people too badly to be within Lambeth 1.10, 5 treats gay people too well and 4 intends to treat gay people too well. 3 features views from the other 4 and is therefore simultaneously treating gay people too badly and too well.

  4. I never can understand why devout Christians get upset about same sex love. Haven’t they noticed that Our Lord and St John were lovers? (By the way, I am heterosxual.)

    • They haven’t noticed, because he wasn’t. That was just one part of Dan Brown’s ludicrous and implausible speculation (though, like the rest of his books) hardly original to him.

    • I don’t think it is ludicrous but nor do I think it is true. I do think they experienced a level of intimacy that many modern western christians would consider distasteful or even sinful between too men. The bible is an incredible set of documents that are very challenging to the views of any christian.

    • I think that the word used is agape….which is a looking after, caring love not a sexual love and I have an idea that there is a tradition that Jesus and St John were cousins or similar. I have sometimes wondered if St John was fairly young when he joined the disciples in which case his mother could easily have asked Jesus to keep a special eye on him….hence the comment about the “disciple Jesus loved”. ….Just my own speculation of course.

      • My understanding of “the disciple who Jesus loved” is partly a device so that after you’ve read the incredible story you find out it is a mostly eye witness account. It is ofc also the Jesus loved John, but he loved the other disciples as well, it is just that John can witness that Jesus loved him.


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