The Primates’ Meeting was established in 1978 to provide space for the Primates to have ‘leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.’ Establishing a gathering for this purpose was brave and prophetic, recognising that time needed to be set aside for Primates to grow together in deeper ways that a surfeit of words will inhibit. Like all Church bodies, when it becomes primarily agenda-driven and legislative, it quickly loses its credibility and its way. It sounds as though January’s gathering fulfilled its original purpose quite well. With the input from Jean Vanier, time set aside for prayer and worship and the prayer support of the recently formed Community of St. Anselm, the meeting clearly provided an environment rich in spiritual potential. However, regardless of where one stands on the issue of same-sex marriage, the action taken against TEC suggests that the gathering strayed from consultation into legislative mode.
It may be that this was the cost of keeping the Communion together: if this is the case, then the Primate of TEC, relatively new in post, will be paying a heavy price in order that the Communion remains intact. He deserves our thanks and our prayers. Paradoxically, it appears that the actions of TEC, frequently accused of threatening to destroy the Anglican Communion by its actions, which saved it from disintegrating at the Primates’ meeting.
Secondly, only time (and the Task Group) will tell whether the outcome will provide a long-term solution or a short-term fix. The Anglican Church in Canada and the Episcopal Church of Scotland, through their national legislative bodies, will decide in the not-too-distant future whether they should be changing their canons to allow marriage to take place between people of the same gender. If they walk along the same path as TEC, will they face similar censure? The probability is that other Anglican Churches whose national governments have permitted or will be permitting same sex marriage will be struggling with the same issue. Again, regardless of where one stands on the issue, is censure an appropriate tool to promote the best interests of the Kingdom of God?
Thirdly, the Anglican Communion has been struggling with issues of human sexuality for many years and it could be the topic that breaks the Communion. For some it is a betrayal of the Gospel not to welcome same-sex marriage into the Church’s canons, for others it is a betrayal of the Gospel to do so. It came to a head in the 1998 Lambeth Conference and in 2004 the ‘Lambeth Commission on Communion’, chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames, produced the Windsor Report which studied the state of unity in the light of developments in North America and Canada. However, while the report and its recommendations were accepted by some parts of the Communion, they were rejected by others. Although working parties were commissioned as a result of its thinking, much of their work has not gained public prominence. The debate and outcome of the 2016 Primates Meeting have picked up some of the Windsor Report’s recommendations.
The Church’s concerns around issues of human sexuality will not go away and need to be taken seriously. The topic of sexuality is emotionally charged and its mysterious nature drills deep into the human psyche and so it is not surprising that sexuality has always been viewed with a mixture of awe and fear. But I suspect that one of the reasons it has shaped Anglican debate for so long is that it has become the stage on which so many other, less tangible issues, have been played out. Neo-colonialism, western domination of theological expression and inequalities of resources and power have all fed the debate. But perhaps the most significant factor of all is the understanding and interpretation of scripture. This is an enormous topic to which we can only allude here, but in addition to the facilitators and experts in reconciliation who were present at the Primates’ Meeting, I hope there were also Biblical and theological scholars. While the facilitators help with the process of discussion, the scholars help with the context in which the topic was discussed and out of which emerged.
Fourthly, there is much talk about ‘living with difference’ but the different views around human sexuality were too much of a difference to live with for the primates. There are compelling reasons why different parts of the Communion take opposing views and each claim that their view is justified biblically and theologically. Each claims that God is on their side. Struggles like this have taken place throughout Christian history. More recently it has happened at the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate and in the early church it happened when the church wanted to agree on the person of Christ. There were some who argued that he could not be fully human because he was God. Others argued that Christ could not be fully God because he was a human being. This was not a sterile theological argument but, like the current dispute around sexuality, it was fed by political and cultural differences. In the end, the Church was just about able to hold together what appeared to be untenable, namely, that Jesus was fully God and fully human and today Christians assert this in the creed. It was a hard, traumatic and, at times, bitter struggle to come to an agreed position on this, but, in a messy, painful and complicated way, the Church did so, locating their differences within the horizon of God’s reconciliation of the world. What a stunning and prophetic statement would be made to our divided world if the Anglican Communion could do this with the present debate. Yes, the Communion may need to be ordered differently, just as any family has to re-order itself when a member needs greater independence, but to remain together with such diversity would teach the world something very profound about reconciliation.
Finally, much will rest on the shoulders of the Task Group. I make the following suggestions solely on the basis of what has been reported, recognising that much of this may already have taken place The Primates have done a good job of establishing relationships among themselves. Building on this, the Task Group needs to place the underlying issues on the table. It is very important that there is work on reading and interpreting the Bible together in different cultural groups or, to use a more technical term, intercultural biblical hermeneutics. For reasons already highlighted, the Bible, shared by all Christians, is read and interpreted differently across the globe – and frequently across the road. This latter suggestion is an enormous task but absolutely vital if the Communion is not to be held captive by particular issues as it has been over recent years.
I attended the 2008 Lambeth Conference where, again, issues around sexuality were never far from the surface. One of the most striking comments was made by a Sudanese bishop; the comment highlighted the significance of the Anglican Communion and that different cultures manage disagreement in different ways. The bishop said to me that, notwithstanding the great gulfs of understanding at the Conference, he would want us to continue walking together as a Communion. However, he continued, conference members should not be asked to vote on these divisive issues as this may well force him and many others to walk in a different direction from those with whom their hearts wish to be in step.
This is the second part of a reflection on the Anglican Primates Meeting 2016. The first part can be found here.