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Reshaping the Communion?

To the benefit of her cricket-loving successor, Douglas Howe famously said of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's ailing Premiership that it was like a batsman walking to the crease only to discover that "their bats had been broken by their team captain".

While it is said, that a bad workman will always blame his tools, anyone labouring with inadequate or malfunctioning apparatus will rarely find it better than a profoundly frustrating experience with inevitably compromised results.

And so, in the Anglican Communion. The Communion is supposed to operate through four “Instruments”. Sometimes they are described as “Instruments of Communion” and increasingly, “Instruments of Unity”. That change may reflect the aphorism of Sir Humphrey Appleby that sometimes it’s best to "dispose with the difficult bit in the title," for the Instruments are broken and anything but unifying.

The first “Instrument” was and is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Depending on historical perspective, by dint of some quirks of history, rapacious Imperialism, or great Divine Providence, the British Empire established Anglican outposts across the globe. Initially they were branches of the Mother Church of the Mother Country. Anachronistic as it may seem, even as independence was (re-) gained such “bonds of affection” remained that the “primus inter pares” of the Communion would continue to be a man resident in the Garden of England.

It was natural and certainly proper, therefore, that the next instrument to be created would be some sort of pan-global gathering. And so, in 1867 the first “Lambeth Conference” was convened - as a meeting of "all the bishops of the world in visible communion with the United Church of England and Ireland". Nowadays that equates to all the bishops of the Anglican Communion. Such a logistical exercise is understandably, only attempted, again at least in theory, every decade.

Even though the “Lambeth” Conference no longer takes place in Lambeth, but in Canterbury, the name has remained unchanged in the way so beloved by the English of making a situation unnecessarily complicated for the outsider to understand. It does, however, always take place in England, and it is that Archbishop from Kent who calls the meeting, issues, or doesn’t issue, invitations to bishops and hosts the event.

The latter was particularly evident at the 2022 Conference where if Justin Welby was off the platform for long it was generally only to speak to journalists on behalf of the Conference or chair side-meetings.

The third Instrument to evolve was the Anglican Consultative Council, formed in an attempt to maintain at least some global consultation between meetings of bishops and to give a voice to an, albeit select, number of laity.

The fourth Instrument, the initiative of Archbishop Coggan was formed in 1978. This time called, with gratifying simplicity, the “Primates Meeting”, where, as advertised, the most senior bishop each Province worldwide, including of Canterbury meet as equals. This final instrument is a derivation of the first- for even if the meeting is abroad- it is the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury that calls the summit, his recognition that determines who is invited and he is in the chair. In recent times it is this Instrument, which, for obvious reasons has garnered particular attention.

But the Instruments no longer play the role needed by the 21st century Communion. Discordant at best, entirely dysfunctional at worst, with the inevitable outcomes.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s leadership has been roundly rejected by so many Anglicans in the world - the leader of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (Gafcon) that represents by far the majority of Anglicans worldwide has described him as in breach of his fiduciary duties. Likewise, the leader of the Global South Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFSA), a similarly large and overlapping grouping, has said that Justin Welby is not fit to continue as “first among equals” and should be replaced. But it is not all down to the present incumbent of the chair of St Augustine - he has the misfortune to find himself at the end of the line. He is the heir to several predecessor’s failures of leadership during which they have not used well their power - both hard and soft - to shepherd the Communion in wisdom and equity.

Where once deference, largely of an inappropriate sort, might have saved the first Instrument, that can no longer be the case as the growing Provinces of the globe quite properly assert themselves amidst the decline of western Christendom, which they perceive to also be the largely the product of poor episcopacy.

Having recognised Welby as only the last in line, some blame, however, can absolutely be laid at the door of Lambeth Palace. Only he is to blame for the twin habits of saying one thing to one audience and another elsewhere and his torturing of language to create ambiguity where none exists or simply change meanings. Justin Welby must also take full responsibility for his downright disrespect to Majority World Anglicans and his prioritising of blessing same-sex relationships in England over protecting them from rape, torture and murder. Similarly, his feting of Archbishop Michael Curry, including having him preach at the wedding of “Megan and Harry”, when his church has done so much harm to the Communion, seemed a blatant snub and provocation. The judgement and word of the present Archbishop of Canterbury is widely regarded as deeply suspect. It did not have to be so, and he has brought his sacred office into such disrepute that there is seemingly no way back.

So complete is the waning in influence of the Archbishop of Canterbury that churches in some countries have just dispensed with him altogether. The assertion that being “Anglican” at all is defined by relationship with the See of Canterbury has been rebutted by regions who eschew any such relationship as actively undesirable.

The Lambeth Conference has descended into something not far short of a farce. One should have been scheduled for 2018 but Justin Welby was sufficiently realistic during his early tenure to recognise that it wasn’t even worth trying. That decision came after the “Lambeth” of 2008 where, unlike previous Conferences which actually decided important issues, no meaningful business could be done because of the adoption of a process wrongly called “Indaba”. True Indaba is a means for the resolution of disputed matters by discussion in small communities with shared values. Indaba Canterbury-appropriation style dispensed with the shared values and dispute resolution and just did the discussion.

Justin Welby decided that with time to put his master of manipulation, Canon David Porter to work, and for an awful lot of environmentally unfriendly international glad-handing, he could stage a reasonable effort. Again, however, the 2022 Conference was beset by extensive boycotts from bishops representing vast numbers in Asia, Africa and South America while western “micro-dioceses” (some of just scores of people) were wildly over-represented.

Indaba there was not, but most definitely nor was there a return to making the sort of declarations that has been the Conference’s historic purpose. Lambeth 2022’s innovation was “Calls” to the Communion. Exactly what the “Call” was could change overnight, there was confusion about whether anyone was voting at all and whether silence indicated assent. The “Calls” were concluded, even it is asserted “agreed” before a process of consultation with the Communion as to what the Calls mean, which it has been announced this week will only begin at Pentecost. It was a triumph of post-modernism - Calls could have an undecided, infinitely flexible and ever-changing meaning while supposedly speaking with the authority of the Conference and thus rendering the whole exercise a “success”.

Some deeply opposed to all this did attend - but only to use the Conference as a platform to state their opposition and make clear that they were no longer willing to “walk together” with those who have embraced false teaching. In great numbers, bishops refused to partake in the eucharist at which the Archbishop presided. How those bishops so denying themselves the sacrament fit the definition of “in Communion” with Canterbury is anyone’s guess.

And then there is the sorry old Anglican Consultative Council. Probably little more needs to be said about it than that few of the 80 million or so Anglicans in the world will ever have heard of it and even fewer will care. Put simply, it is an expensive but irrelevant talking shop, comprised mainly of Communion “hacks” and “insiders” which the powers that be then use when they feel the occasional need to somehow justify something.

The ACC is a turkey that voted for Christmas. In design it could discuss anything, even if it had no real power of implementation. It has now decided, however, that it cannot debate matters of doctrine or controversy.

Its irrelevance and impotence was perhaps best underlined when The Episcopal Church of the USA (TEC) were barred for a period of three years from representing the rest of the Communion on matters relating to doctrine or polity. Such a bar had no effect on the continued full participation by TEC in the ACC, presumably because it was accepted that such involvement could not possibly influence doctrine or polity.

The original descriptive accuracy of the name “Primates’ Meeting” is now something of a misnomer. A more accurate description would be “The Meeting of Some Primates, Sometimes”. The leaders of the largest Provinces - such as Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and others, receive Justin Welby’s invitation and then decline to attend. These archbishops are not minded to spend their time discussing matters of little relevance to them with people who have walked away from the gospel priorities they hold so precious. That leaves the meetings dominated by the leaders of small Provinces, many of which are getting smaller by the week.

At the same time, that man of(?) from(?) Kent holds steadfastly to the requirement that jurisdictions must be in relationship with him to be truly Anglican. This is, of course absurdly high-handed from someone who frankly could do with all the new friends he can get, not least to fill the seats in the room of those he’s lost. Equally ridiculous is the notion that what defines whether a young black woman in sub-Saharan Africa in truly “Anglican” is her relationship, being “in Communion”, with a 67-year-old, white, male, former oilman alumnus of Eton and Trinity, who lives in one of two palaces in southeast England. If an attempt was made to find a less relevant definition for that statistically average Anglican of the world it would be a tough task. Sometimes it feels like the Instruments are so tone deaf they deserve ridicule.

To make the situation even worse the Instruments compound each other’s failings.

Thus, although Justin Welby has said that he is open to the “primus inter pares” being not the Archbishop of Canterbury but someone of the Communion’s own choosing, he has also said that such a step could only come with the agreement of the other three Instruments.

That is worth pondering on, as a summary of how the Instruments collaborate to maintain the status quo, however broken, and to thwart change. How would it work to secure the agreement of the other three Instruments to reform the first? The answer is obvious: it wouldn’t.

The Lambeth Conference meets, if at all, every ten years, and when it does, it no longer makes decisions. By the time it meets again, Justin Welby will have been retired for at least six years and already replaced for at least five, by a procedure already determined. Which would rather seem to render the whole point under discussion somewhat “moot”. Of course, his views do not bi d any successor so the whole issue can then be re-opened.

The ACC has no executive power of its own at all. It can only to seek to influence the other three Instruments which in turn supports it, and so the whole thing goes round and round in circles.

As has been seen “The Primates” don’t in fact meet, and those who do attend can only do so by way of the kind invitation of the archbishop whose potential replacement is the very subject of discussion. Unsurprisingly, those who do gather tend to be rather more supportive of the incumbent who invited them than those who don’t. And the large number from relatively numerically small Provinces like Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the USA and Canada are not overkeen on regime change that might reflect more accurately the weight of numbers in the Communion.

The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian denomination in the world and each individual member in that 80 million deserves the dignity and respect of being served by excellent ecclesial governance. The endless circle of the dysfunctional Instruments, which is in fact, nothing but a spiral of decline needs to be put out of its misery.

It is the ecclesial deficit in global Anglicanism that lends this coming week’s fourth Gafcon Conference such importance. Present in Kigali will be nearly all the most senior figures in Gafcon and the GSFA, their best theological advisors, and other key leaders in the Communion. They will hold extensive and substantive discussions that will speak into the void left by the broken Instruments.

But crucially they will not do so in either spiritual or relational isolation. They will meet in the context of the Bible teaching, prayer, fellowship and worship which is the primary purpose of this gathering. And they will meet amidst many hundreds of “ordinary” Anglicans- bishops, clergy and laity who will never have anything like their profile or power but nonetheless have come to Gafcon as their equals in the priesthood of all believers, and without whose input and feedback, nothing will be decided.

Precisely because it is so consultative Gafcon always starts with nothing on the table and nothing off it. But equally because it is unconstrained it is not to overstate matters to say that Gafcon IV may be truly instrumental in reshaping the Communion not just in this season but for generations to come.


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