Desmond Tutu once said that what holds Anglicans together is the fact that “we meet.” From 2000 to 2009, meetings among Anglicans burgeoned, as attempts were made to hold together churches divided on sexuality, the Bible, and ecclesial order. There were strategy meetings, protest meetings, advisory meetings, research meetings, along with the regularly scheduled meetings of synods, bishops, and Primates. The Anglican Consultative Council—one of the main gatherings of representative ordained and lay leaders from around the Communion—met in 2009, and ended in parliamentary chaos and recrimination. Notwithstanding Tutu’s dictum, there have been few meetings of any kind since. Whatever local energies may be at work, the last few years have been a time of drifting dissolution for the Anglican Communion as a whole.
In light of Anglicans not meeting, then, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent announcement that he was inviting all the Primates together once again in a few months has garnered public notice. But the announcement comes within what is now a changed landscape of expectation. Calling together the Primates marks a break in a recent pattern of “staying home”; but it is a break within a sea of broken expectations, and thus comes across as deeply uncertain.
The British newspaper the Guardian has run an article on the announced meeting that mirrors the reigning cynicism: Welby, it says, is prepared to gather the Primates so as to regularize the Anglican Communion’s dissipation. To be sure, Welby has said no such thing, and the Guardian’s viewpoint, based on what it calls “inside” information, has been forcefully rejected by many UK church leaders as both erroneous in its facts and pernicious in its assumptions.
But the assumptions are more deeply shared than one might think. Some Anglican conservatives have hailed the announcement, not for its promise of healed relations, but because they believe a loosening of the Communion’s structure will free Anglicans for mission and evangelism. The hope is not unworthy. Still, it is based on a default protestant acceptance of laissez faire ecclesiology, which (as some have noted) actually constitutes a rejection of the Anglican vision of catholic unity that ordered the Communion’s life for one hundred and fifty years, and the Church of England’s existence since its inception. Ecclesiological cynicism afflicts Christians of all theological stripes.
There are, to be sure, elements in Welby’s announcement that deserve positive notice.
1.Welby is a person of deep charismatic prayer, in the broad sense. He has visited around the churches, consulted widely, and prayed. It is important to note that his decision is not a pragmatic or strategic one at root. He trusts God with this gathering, and the Holy Spirit for its direction.
2.Abp. Welby has presented the meeting as as place for prayerful common decision. He is not a “pope,” as he puts it, but one who must lead within collegial bonds. The meeting is thus, in theory, open-ended in its results. Surprises are expected.
3.The announcement makes clear that the Primates, whatever openness to surprises they may have, must “respect” the decisions of Lambeth 1998 (which rejected same-sex unions of any kind) and other Anglican agreements from the “past.” The invitation defines faithfulness of outcome as submission to the truth of “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” This makes it hard to see how the U.S. and Scottish Episcopal churches (which have embraced same-sex marriages) can fully participate in, let alone guide, the meeting’s decision-making. Maybe one of the surprises will be that they will choose a federated rather than a communion status.
4.The inclusion at the meeting of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), in a formal if unspecified way, is a key element of the invitation. This marks a necessary recognition of a shift in vital Anglicanism within the United States. That recognition in itself may indicate a creative ecclesial vision within Lambeth.
These notable elements, however, come within a context that nonetheless renders the usefulness of the meeting uncertain:
1. Division within the Anglican Communion, and in North American and British Anglicanism especially, is now entrenched. Even with generational transition in leadership division tends to disappear only after long periods (centuries!), once the issues of the past are forgotten. The moment for decisive healing of the Communion was within the first few years of the splits; but that time has passed. Entrenched division simply means that younger generations take less seriously the spiritual and theological goods of unity. The openness many Anglicans on the right and left have expressed to American-style laissez faire ecclesial markets as a worthy outcome to the search for Christian “communion” is a sign that division has simply resulted in a thinning out of ecclesial consciousness altogether.
2. Abp. Welby himself has not yet provided a vigorous and concrete articulation of the church’s unity. This is in part because of his carefulness and prayerful patience; part of it is his evident humility and sense of realism with respect to his actual authority. But our moment, it seems to me, cannot afford the luxury of reticence on this score. We Anglicans have prided ourselves on our “catholic-reformed” character. Yet we have few tireless servants of catholicity, and few “protestors” on behalf of unity.
3. The bishops of the Communion, truth be told, have proven extraordinarily accommodating to the present circumstances of desultory witness. While there have been many appropriate calls for cooperation, there has been little urgency expressed for being a people where “mercy and truth meet each other, righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10), and hence, where “revival”, “salvation” and “goodness” in the Lord—that power of blessing the world—shall attend our steps.
Journalistic speculations on the significance of an event the intentions of whose potential participants is hidden and that has, in any case, not yet happened, are generally vain, my own included. The moral imperative hovering over this proposed event, however, is not obscure. As a friend has written, “I would find it perilous to say anything at this point. Still, either the Primates meet and discharge their Christian duties, or we are just back where we already are.”
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.