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Which Primates will meet in Rome?

“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.”

Giotto, Italian renaissance painter and architect (c.1267-1337)

With less than a week to go before the 2024 Primates Meeting is hosted by the Anglican Centre in Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury is bound to be feeling a little nervous. 

This is the first meeting of the leaders of the 42 provinces of the Anglican Communion since the Lambeth Conference and the well documented divisions within the Communion have only deepened over the intervening years. So, despite the concerted efforts of the Anglican Communion Office and the promise of “a meeting with Pope Francis and a conversation with Cardinal Grech”, it seems that there may be more than a few empty chairs in the Eternal City.

In an interview this week with Rev Dominic Steele, host of ‘The Pastor’s Heart’, Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, suggested that some, and maybe the majority, of GSFA Primates would absent themselves from the meeting – following the example of the Primates of Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria, who are known to have boycotted the last meeting.

“We have heard about the meeting,” he said, “We have received the invitation to go to Rome.  But in accordance with the Ash Wednesday Statement that we issued some of us may not be able to be part of that meeting in Rome.”

The Ash Wednesday Statement, to which he refers, was issued by the GSFA soon after the General Synod of the Church of England voted to introduce prayers of blessing for same-sex couples in February 2023.  It declared that the Church of England had “departed from the historic faith” and that the GSFA “were no longer able to recognise” Justin Welby as the leader of the global Anglican Communion.

The Primate of South Sudan told The Pastor’s Heart that, “All kinds of tricks are being done to influence people to attend the meeting.”  Rumours are circulating that some Primates are being persuaded to come on the basis that, what would be a historic move, the Archbishop of Canterbury might not actually 'chair' the Meeting, and that others are being offered “resources” in an attempt to lure them to Rome.

But the Archbishop of South Sudan is not fooled, “Our concern is not about who chairs the meeting.  Our concern is about those who have intentionally violated the orthodox biblical teaching – we cannot sit and discuss with them.”

All this just echoes the shenanigans that have surrounded previous Primates’ Meetings and the Lambeth Conference itself.  As Rt Revd Paul Donison, the General Secretary of Gafcon, described earlier in the same episode,

“You saw after Lambeth 22 the shock and the sadness felt by so many good, Bible-believing bishops, who showed up in good faith, in earnest, after listening to the official stance that came out of Canterbury, out of the Communion Office, saying, ‘Come, let's have an honest conversation.’

And when they arrived, they realized that it was a highly curated, carefully put together monologue – really - it wasn't really a conversation at all - there was already a predetermined outcome and you saw the great sadness and offense.” 

The Archbishop of Canterbury will want a good turn out in Rome, even if those present find they cannot agree about anything of doctrinal significance.  The officials may claim that these meetings, “provide the primates an opportunity to speak words of encouragement, challenge, and direction to their own churches and to the Communion,” but the Communique from the 2022 Primates Meeting, would suggest controversial topics were avoided. If it wasn’t for the gratitude extended, “to Archbishop and Mrs Welby for their warm welcome into their home,” one might have thought it was a summary of an episode of the Today Programme - concern about covid; concern about the lasting damage of conflicts around the world; concern about refugees created by terrorism and climate change; concern about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the impact of the Grand Ethiopian dam; concern about ‘fake news’ and the rising price of food. 

Those who follow the comings and goings of the Anglican Communion will, however, have noticed that doctrinal agreement is not a matter which concerns Archbishop Justin Welby - for him it is the illusion of institutional unity that matters most.  Despite having to admit, in the end, that, notwithstanding the banners, those gathered at Lambeth were not “Walking Together”, Welby doesn't give up. He changes the verb and keeps on going.  Gafcon and the GSFA may have been clear that they were not “walking together" with those who reject biblical truth – but surely, they can come and “be together”?

Archbishop Justin Badi Arama remains unconvinced:

“Those who understand what the truth is, may not be part of that meeting because as the Global South, we did say we cannot sit together with those who have intentionally violated the biblical truth that we received from our forefathers.  We cannot go and share anything with them, unless they repent - but we are seeing there is no sign of repentance. What we are hearing is just, “Let's be together - continue to be together in unity - as we continue sin”.  But we are saying, “No, we cannot continue in sin and being together”.

He is, however, a realist and knows that some of his orthodox colleagues will attend, “Those who take it lightly may go,” he said, “but most of us in the Global South may not be part of that meeting.”

Next week, there is sure to be a “family photo” of those Primates that do go to Rome, taken against some suitably imposing backdrop, like this one in 2022:

This time they may have to spread out a little more, to fill the gaps, and the photo might have to be taken early on in the proceedings - just in case someone leaves early. But whatever the technical difficulties - the impression will be given that all is hunky-dory in the Anglican Communion.  

But it’s just an illusion.

The majority of the Anglican Communion are unimpressed by the attempts to impose post-modern ideas of plural truth on them.  They are convinced by the undiluted, unpolluted message of Jesus Christ and they know that it is that singular truth that the world needs and yearns for.

It is thus unsurprising that the leaders of Gafcon and GSFA, overlapping groups representing the majority of the Anglican Communion, are far more interested in their plans for a reset - to support, equip, encourage, and mobilise faithful Anglicans throughout the world.

Their eyes aren’t on Rome – that’s a mere sideshow – they will not "waste their time talking". They are focused on Cairo - where in just six weeks the First Assembly of the newly constituted GSFA Assembly, will take place in the Province of Alexandria. Under a their covenantal structure, 150 delegates will form a concilliar body, who will elect the leadership of this new, "ecclesial locus of unity, common life and mission for orthodox Anglicans world-wide."

As Archbishop Justin Badi, wrote in his Easter letter:

"That is the key objective of the 1st Assembly: to gather in order that we may be sent out afresh by the Holy Spirit to proclaim this glorious Gospel. Yes, we will continue to vigorously defend the “good deposit of the Gospel” (2 Tim.1:14) against the tide of revisionism and false teaching. But the Lord is calling us to go beyond and to also mobilise the faithful Church to take the Gospel out to the world. More than ever, a self-destroying world needs the transforming power and solid hope that the Gospel brings."

Rome may well prove to be a city of echoes and illusions – for those who make an appearance - but for those yearning for the authentic gospel it seems that Cairo is the place to go - the place where the real work will be done.

With thanks to Andrey Omelyanchuk from Unsplash for the picture of the Trevi Fountain and Tom Wren / SWNS / Anglican Communion for "the family photo".


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