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What is the big secret in Rome?

Updated: May 4

It is a very simple question - "Who is attending the 2024 Primates Meeting in Rome?"

Traditionally, the primates, or senior archbishops of each province of the Anglican Communion meet every couple of years as one of the four 'Instruments of Communion'. The meeting in Rome is, therefore, one of the key 'governance' meetings of one of the largest Christian churches in the world.

And so this is not just a primatial jolly - serious conversations are on the agenda, including as they "consider a draft paper of IASCUFO concerning questions of structure and decision-making in the Anglican Communion". Although it is said that a decision will be made merely about whether to send the proposal to the next Anglican Consultative Council (AAC) meeting in 2026, doubtless the AAC will rely on the primates' approval if they wish to push forward with it.

Given that an "Instrument of Communion" is a meeting for such discussions it might be assumed that it would be easy to know who is in attendance at the august and influential Rome gathering. 

But it is in truth, far from easy, because, as has become their habit, the Anglican Communion Office (ACO), who run the communications, refuse to publish a list of the names of those who have turned up*.

What they have done (again as is the habit) is to publish a photo of the meeting. It shows 34 unidentified people in purple robes (well, to be entirely accurate 33 in purple robes and one in white). That, of course, gives the general impression to the casual observer that a good crowd of important prelates have, as expected, made their way to Rome to pilgrimage together.

Not all observers, however, are of the casual type, which has led a few (unusual) people to do the important work of searching their memories and trawling through grainy photographs, some more than ten years old, to identify the faces of the 32 men and 2 women in the publicity shot. Some have resorted to swapping information on X, Facebook and other social media channels in order to confirm their research.

When asked why a list of the primates in attendance could not simply be published, or the photo captioned, a spokesperson from the Anglican Communion Office (ACO) said that the ACO, "does not share Primate Meeting attendee information". In addition, though, the spokesperson did want to give an public assurance that, "there is good representation of Provinces from around the Communion" but that some primates are unable to attend, "due to personal circumstances" and others, "due to responsibilities in the Provinces". All that is, in truth, a rather defensive tacit acknowledgement that many primates are absent, which is indeed the case.

Of the 34 people in the photograph published by the ACO, six are not the primate of any province; one is assumed to be a representative of the Archbishop Michael Curry from TEC, who is unwell; three others are representatives of each of the ACO, the Anglican Centre in Rome and the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO); one is the Archbishop of York; and the sixth is as yet unidentified!

That leaves 28 primates present- and two of those come from the same province - that of New Zealand, Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia

Accordingly, only 27 out of the 42 provinces appear to be represented in Rome - a third have stayed away.

It is widely agreed that the 15 provinces whose primates are not in the photograph are (in alphabetical order) Alexandria, Chile, Congo, Hong Kong, Indian Ocean, Myanmar, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, South India, South Sudan, Sudan, TEC, Uganda, West Africa.

While it may well be true that a few have personal reasons or important engagements that keep them from travelling to Rome, ten of the fifteen missing primates have been very clear that it is neither personal circumstances nor prior commitments that have kept them away.

What is not acknowledged by the ACO is that some primates have been very clear that they are not attending because:

  1. they no longer recognise the Archbishop of Canterbury as the leader of the Anglican Communion;

  2. they will not discuss the future governance of the Communion with those who, "have departed from the historic faith and taken the path of false teaching"; and

  3. they believe "the Instruments of Communion have failed to maintain true communion based on the Word of God and shared faith in Christ.”

In fact, the Provinces of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda, who between them make up nearly 50% of the world's Anglicans, have not attended such meetings since the fiasco of 2016. So, there has been plenty of time to practise how to manage their absence for media purposes.

Likewise, Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, leader of the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA), told 'The Pastor's Heart' last week that the majority of GSFA Primates would not be attending because, "Our concern is about those who have intentionally violated the orthodox biblical teaching – we cannot sit and discuss with them.”

Archbishop Samy Shehata, from the Anglican Province of Alexandria, is one of GSFA Primates who has chosen not to attend the meeting in Rome. Some readers may remember that it was he who warned the Feb 23 General Synod of the Church of England that if they voted in favour of blessing same-sex couples it would lead to impaired and broken communion and that the CofE would, "surrender" its "unique position as the mother Church of the Anglican Communion."

Others from the GSFA who have joined Archbishop Justin Badi and Archbishop Samy Shehata's boycott of this meeting include the primates of the aforementioned provinces of Chile, Congo, the Indian Ocean, Myanmar, and Sudan.

There would therefore appear to be an obvious explanation for why the ACO is so unwilling to publish the list of those present. 

The reality is that half the 28 provinces represented in Rome would struggle to gather half a million people combined on any given Sunday. It may just be that the ACO don't want to make it too obvious that the majority of those who have come to the Primates Meeting, those engaged in taking counsel together about the supposed future of the Anglican Communion, are from the dying, largely "western" parts of the Church.

And so when the ACO reported that, "Some [absentees] sent letters to be read to the Primates", perhaps it was to give the impression that absentees were nonetheless engaging constructively rather than, more likely, expressing their ongoing dissent.

The ACO will have spent a lot of money trying to make it look like something of representative import ance is happening in Rome, but surely the real work of re-setting the Anglican Communion will be done, on a far smaller budget, when representatives of the majority of global Anglicans meet next month in Cairo - for the 1st Assembly of the GSFA.

But it serves no interest of the ACO for the world to know that - hence the 'big secret' has to be kept.

Errartum - in an early version of this blog it was wrongly stated that SE Asia was missing - Archbishop Titus Chung can be clearly seen in the bottom left of the photograph.

*Having said that the list would not be published and in a break from recent norms, the ACO published a list of attendees, after the Press Conference and after everyone had gone home - the mystery man turned out to be a 'stand-in' for the Primate of Hong Kong.

Thanks to Neil Turner at the ACO for photo


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