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The extraordinary meeting of world Anglican leaders, organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has ended after five days of prayer and deliberation. The meeting’s outcome, articulated in a statement released Friday, has surprised many. When Archbishop Welby called for the meeting of Anglican Primates last September—the Primates are mostly archbishops who head their respective churches—the press billed the gathering as a “last ditch effort to save the Anglican Communion.” Others, claiming inside knowledge of the goings on in Welby’s circle, ominously reported that he was ready to “dismantle” the Communion altogether, in view of intractable divisions among its members. And it is true: Welby presented the Primates with a series of possible ways forward for Anglicanism, that included a radical loosening of relationships.

As it has turned out, however, the Primates decided (“unanimously”) to stay the course of the Communion’s established order, indeed to strengthen that ordering and to maintain the ecclesial commitments that lie behind it. They have affirmed the resumption of their formal meetings, as well as a new Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops in 2020. Echoing the scriptural language of the 2004 Windsor Report that first sought to deal with rifts over sexuality, the Primates forcefully affirmed their commitment to “walk together.” They also took up previous decisions they had made in more formal meetings in the past, and laid out (apparently with a two-thirds majority voting in favor) a general way they might deal with one of the major sources of theses rifts, the Episcopal Church of the United States. The Episcopal Church’s advocacy for homosexual affirmation culminated this past summer in a change in its canons to permit same-sex marriage. Without throwing the American Church out of the Communion, the Primates explicitly asked that representatives of the Episcopal Church no longer actively serve in decision-making bodies of the Communion that deal with doctrine and polity, or represent the Communion in ecumenical and interfaith discussions. The language here was also from the past (i.e. Rowan Williams), focusing on the negative effects of “distance” among members, but also on the protective benefits of “distancing” among conflicted members. How this will be sorted out was left to Canterbury and a taskforce that will be put in place.

In one way all this is a grand symbolic gesture, and nothing else. Member churches of the Anglican Communion, mostly organized on national or regional lines, are ecclesiastically autonomous bodies governed by their own internal canons and decision-making processes. A meeting of the Primates has no legislative authority over individual churches, even though, of course, each Primate exercises considerable authority within their own church. What has held the Communion together over the years has been a set of dynamics that have often puzzled observers, and more recently, Anglicans themselves. In the past few decades the image that has often been used to describe this ecclesial glue has been that of “family”: Anglicans are related by blood ties, shared history and formation, rooted commitments, fundamental mutual responsibilities, and sometimes the push and pull of savage passions.

These are elements that terms like “federation” simply cannot engage. And although political categories like federation imply far more systematic organization than those who have deployed them realize (e.g. federations almost always have constitutions and articulated covenants), they cannot provide the thick texture of dynamic relational bonds that “family” can. It is not the case, furthermore, that “family” has no legal structure, although that can obviously vary: common dwellings, shared property, guardianships, demanded toil, trust funds and powers of attorney. Yet the source of a family’s life cannot be reduced to these things.

The Primates obviously had no interest in debating new “structures” that threatened just such a reduction. Instead, they have continued to embrace the category of “communion”, the relationship they see Anglican churches as called to embody. The bodily image is important here: scripturally, communion refers to just this common joining of bodies, and carries with it both the biological and matrimonial nuances that derive from it, as well as, finally, the sacrificial resonance of the Eucharistic gift. As as a peculiarly Anglican category, communion tended to refer, since the sixteenth century, to common worship, doctrine, and recognized ministry among this or that group of Christians. By the mid-nineteenth-century, however, the term had expanded its reach to a certain kind of international ecclesial relationship, one that the “Anglican Communion” itself now constituted. By the twentieth century, finally, Anglicans began to see this particular instance of communion to be a wider ecumenical service: communion in the Body of Christ constitutes the Christian identity at its core, and the Anglican Communion is but one providential means by which to unveil this truth more fully and to serve its life for the sake of other Christians.

To reaffirm communion as vigorously as the Primates did, simply by clearly articulating their ongoing commitments to its Anglican form, is therefore not a “mere” symbolic gesture. It is an act of generative hope.

What will come of it is another matter. The Episcopal Church’s leaders have already made statements that thumb their nose at the whole idea that communion involves basic commonality in “fundamental” truth. Their commitment to the justice of gay inclusion stands opposed to the notion, stated by the Primates, that “the traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union”, and that the American church’s “change in their Canon on marriage represent[s] a fundamental departure from the faith”. It is hard to see how these two views will ever be reconciled. The initial term of the Episcopal Church’s demotion is for three years, presumably to allow the Americans’ General Convention a chance to respond. But that response is unlikely to narrow the gap in commitments. Meanwhile, Canadian and Scottish Anglicans, who have already moved in the direction of the Americans in permitting local same-sex blessings and marriages, will be pressed to make some difficult decisions. It is unlikely that they will fare any better than their US cousins in their opposition to the majority views of the Communion.

Furthermore, it is unclear just how the ordering of the Primates’ decision to demote will be implemented. Most Anglican meetings and commissions are by “invitation” (usually Canterbury’s or some other independent group), including the Lambeth Conference, so there is no legal impediment to constraining the Americans’ (or anybody else’s) participation in these cases. One key group, however—the Anglican Consultative Council – has its own (UK-based) constitution, and runs its meetings according to a formal schedule of membership. American leaders have already stated that they will ignore the Primates’ decision when it comes to this gathering, and simply crash the party. There are obviously ways to engage this impasse—the ways, in fact, that families have always pursued—but they are not always without conflict.

It should be said, however, that the majority of the Primates seem finally to be discounting American bravado. The Episcopal Church, after all, is but a shadow of its former self, in terms of numbers, influence, and energy. It has lost about 20 percent of its membership in just fifteen years, as well as a full range of its vital evangelistic leaders who have left for other churches, and its seminaries have imploded while its theological leadership has shriveled. Even its still considerable financial resources are no longer compelling to many non-Western leaders. Alternative North American Anglicanisms, like the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) whose head was present at the Primates’ gathering, are still relatively small. They have many vital, but also many struggling, congregations, and face the same challenges as other independent Protestant churches in a rapidly secularizing United States. Perhaps America is simply less important to world Anglicanism than it was fifteen years ago. Families lose track of some members over the years, for better or worse; but there is always some hope that they or their children will resurface at another time. Concerns about opposition to the Primates’ decisions has probably shifted more fully to the UK itself, where Archbishop Welby must now navigate the sexuality divide of his own national church.

The non-formal manner in which Anglicans operate in all of this, however, raises the deeper question: does the current leadership of the Communion itself, in the form of its officers, bishops, and finally Canterbury, have the focus and energy to engage the Primates’ reaffirmation of communion? More conservative Primates, like those who are members of the group known as Gafcon (Global Anglican Future Conference) are already asking this question. There are positive signs on this front. Justin Welby thinks more concretely than many of his predecessors, and seems willing to follow up on decisions. The Anglican Communion Office, which is located in London and tends to organize most of the international events and meetings of the Communion, has been at odds in the past with Canterbury, and failed to press forward decisions made by gatherings like the Primates’. But it now has a new head, the Nigerian bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, whose moderated views and personal friendship with Welby has brought a new coherence to the operation, as well as gained some measure of connection to previously estranged groups around the Communion. Still, the track record of implementation has not been good over the past few decades, and there is reason to be cautious about any improvement on that score.

These concerns are inevitable, given Anglicanism’s self-conscious embeddedness in historical continuities: we cannot escape what Time wraps us in and also throws at our feet. Communion, in its historical form, refers to this act of collection and what it gathers up “in Christ.” Historical communion is not simply a woven fabric, but something that brings together over time, ensnares, binds, and of course sometimes breaks and is repaired. The formal statement coming out of the Primates’ gathering is but a brief sketch that should not be subject to careful parsing. Rather, the statement marks the re-casting, after a time of mending on the beach, of a long-used and far-reaching net. It is a wonderful gesture indeed. And the Primates, like the rest of us, will have to pay attention to the Lord when he will one day ask, “Children, have you any fish?” (Jn. 21:5).

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

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