04 February 2011

Primatial Tea Leaves

About a week and a half ago the Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Dublin. Well, most of them met. But some were unable to be there because of health reasons or visa problems or because they had to deal with urgent matters at home. Fair enough. And a few decided to stay away to make a point about how upset they are with the Anglican Communion and certain of its members.

On the latter, the Church Times, in its leader, said that:
the Global South absentees had wished to signal by their absence the insignificance of the Primates’ Meeting, as long as it proved unable or unwilling to enforce earlier disciplinary measures against the Episcopal Church in the United States concerning gay bishops and same-sex unions.
Point taken. But the Primates who attended issued, among several documents, a Working Document which described what they understood to be the purpose of the Primates’ Meeting. It’s worth a read. The Working Document is not perfect, but then it doesn’t claim to be perfect. There are a few questions I would like to raise about it, but that will have to wait for another time. For today, I would like to suggest that this is in general a useful step.

It seems to me that what has happened with the Primates' Working Document is a bit of a reset of the Meeting, back to the original purpose. The accumulation of power in the Meeting since Dromantine, with the conservatives egged on by their "advisors," has been unhelpful, divisive and increasingly fractious. The boycott and the dismissive criticism of the Meeting by certain Primates this time was probably inevitable. The reason the Primates haven't "enforce[d] earlier disciplinary measures" is because they never had the authority to do so in the first place. Their purpose was never discipline, and the attempt to hijack the Meeting and turn it into a disciplinary body with coercive power was doomed ultimately to fail, even if it seemed to be working for a while.

In Dromantine, the Primates’ Meeting stopped acting as an Instrument of Unity, and became an Instrument of Disunity.

What happened in Dublin was that the Primates stopped being bullied. From my vantage point across the Atlantic it looks to me rather like the dynamic at the most recent meeting of the Canadian General Synod. The previous few meetings had been characterized by well-organized and well-funded efforts to push the General Synod in a direction it really didn't want to go, using a combination of threats, warnings, strategic tactics and propaganda to impose a conservative agenda on the Synod. But by last year's meeting in Halifax, the most strident and angry voices had left to pursue what they saw as their mission in other climes.

With the loud, angry people out of the room, we found that there was the possibility of a calm, rational, respectful set of conversations about sexuality. There was the opportunity to address the divide between the progressive and the conservative positions without the threats and attempts to hijack the meeting that had gone on before. There didn't seem to be a conservative war-room strategizing into the wee hours of the morning as there had been before. And the result was a document that said, in effect, that we are in disagreement about how the Church should respond to the presence of gays and lesbians, but we are in this together, and we're prepared to work at it together, and try to find a way to live with each other.

I think a similar thing happened in Dublin. I think the Primates sat around those candles signifying the absence of the advisors as much as the people who stayed away and asked themselves what their purpose was, and whether they really wanted to be the kind of group they were becoming since the last time they met in Ireland. And from the document they produced, for all its imperfections, it looks like the answer was "no".

Now as a Communion we need to do a similar thing. We need to ask ourselves whether we really want to be the kind of family of Churches that imposes a central authority on itself with a vague, arbitrary and demonstrably unjust process for imposing "relational consequences" on Churches that cross some ill-defined line in the sand. Or do we want to be the kind of family of Churches that takes seriously a commitment to each other and to each others' contexts, to worship and work and speak with each other respectfully, finding unity in diversity, rather than the illusion of unity promised but never fulfilled by the imposition of uniformity. Do we want to be what we can be at our best, or do we want to continue to go down the road of becoming our worst?

Do we want to be the kind of Communion where people refuse to come to the table unless they can use the opportunity to expel others from the table, or do we want to be the kind of Communion where people gather with all our differences and imperfections to continue to try to find ways of bringing light into the world together?

I think Lambeth 2008 and now the Dublin Primates' Meeting have given us a start. There is a way that we can build the future together as a Communion, and that way will take commitment to meet rather than refusals to attend meetings. It will take time to discuss matters respectfully rather than engage in ad hominem attacks and threats and strategizing. It will take humility rather than arrogance. It will mean, in short, a willingness to live out the Gospel in diversity.

The next step will be to rid ourselves of this troublesome Covenant.


  1. Whenever references are made to the Windsor Report as authoritative in any way, I get a little queasy, but other than that, I have no great quarrel with the Working Document. I agree that what came out of the meeting in Dublin was a change in direction back to the original purpose of the Primates' Meeting.

    Do we want to be the kind of Communion where people refuse to come to the table unless they can use the opportunity to expel others from the table...?

    I don't. I hope that many of the members of the Communion come to see the question in those simple terms and just say no.

  2. In the Canadian situation as you put it "by last year's meeting in Halifax, the most strident and angry voices had left to pursue what they saw as their mission in other climes."

    In the Communion situation, some people were not present in the room, but they have not left the Communion.

    That is a difference between Canad and the Communion.

    Now it is very easy to achieve a agreement when one side leaves.
    So do you want the Gafcon and GS primates back?

  3. You are quite rights, John. A couple of quick responses...

    First, although the angriest people had left the Canadian Church, that is not to say that there are no conservatives left. A small number of conservatives made good on their threats to leave, but a large number have stayed. So there was a real conversation in Halifax, not simply a liberal love-fest.

    Second, I take no pleasure in reporting that anyone has left the Canadian Church. But it is a fact, and the upshot as I saw it in Halifax is as I have reported.

    Third, you are quite correct that the Primates who chose not to attend the Meeting have not left the Communion. I hope that they see that there is still a place for them and their Churches. But it seems that those who came and did the work of thinking through the role of the Primates' Meeting have established the basis for moving ahead: the Primates' Meeting will step back from the attempt to make it a disciplinary body.

    I hope the Primates who stayed away from Dublin, or their successors, will return to the Table. I hope similarly that the bishops who stayed away from Lambeth, or their successors, will return in 2018. I do not want to see the break-up of the Communion. But if the price of retaining the Communion is to be the adoption of a hard-line curial system of government, and the end of Provincial autonomy, then I would suggest that price is too high.

  4. Those not at the Primates meeting and those who were there have agreed on one thing: it is a place for lots of talk, and not much action.
    There will be those who think that is a good thing, and perhaps you are one of them. But it has left the Global South Primates frustrated. At the 1978 Lambeth conference after the chairperson persistently refused to allow him to speak said "One day you will hear me speak".
    You might not agree with the Global South perspective on how the Anglican Communion should be run but perhaps you can see how they feel ignored: when ever they get a motion passed it is ignored or circumvented whether at Lambeth in 1998, or The Primates at Dar. In addition some complicated parliamentary manouvering was used at New Orleans ACC which I doubt you would wish to defend.
    The Global South Primates have come to the point of view that there's no point of coming to communion meetings. Nothing will happen. If the meeting happens at any stage to agree with their point of view, the Northern powers will find a way to nullify it.
    Can I suggest that saying "We have done very well without you there, and in fact the meeting ran better without you" is a poor way of inviting someone back.

  5. Hi John,

    The question is why some Primates want to change the Primates' Meeting into a venue for "action" rather than talk. Its initial stated purpose was to provide a venue for "leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation." What in that involves "forcing certain Churches to be dictated to as to their decisions" or "expelling certain churches from the Communion?"

    Yes, some Global South Primates have wanted to seize the agenda of the Primates' Meeting and to transform it into a quasi-curial body. But the most recent Meeting has apparently decided that that is not its purpose. To suggest that the Global South has been "ignored" is contrary to the facts. The Global South has received a great deal of attention in the past several meetings of the Primates. Even in the Dublin meeting which they decided to boycott, they still received attention. Lighting candles to represent those who were absent, including those whose absence was deliberate and designed to make a point, is not ignoring them.

    Surely you are not suggesting that the meeting should have been cancelled in light of the boycott?

    I certainly hope that the primates who chose not to attend the meeting Dublin will attend the next Primates' Meeting. I am sure that they will be made to feel welcome. But they must understand that the Meeting is not intended as a forum for expelling other Provinces, or compelling them to act in a certain way. It never was. And the most recent meeting has affirmed that this is the case.

    The key question is whether the GS Primates and their Provinces are prepared to meet with the rest of the Communion without the ability to expel others as a precondition. I hope so.

  6. The history of the primates meeting is a little more complicated than you suggest with the Lambeth Conference suggesting it should have increased responsibilities. But both sides would now agree that for better or for worse that has been a path not taken.
    The Gafcon primates appear to be seeking to set up new structures eithin the Communion believing that the old structures are ineffective (see their Oxford statement). They agree with you that the Covenant is not needed.


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