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Vol II No. 5

A Deeply Torn Communion

by
ARCHBISHOP EMERITUS MOUNEER ANIS

There should be no doubt that the Anglican Communion is deeply divided and being torn apart. Yet, there are those who claim that the Communion is still united, in spite of the major theological differences between its Provinces. This claim of unity is deceitful and far from the truth. Provinces are not all in communion with each other, so it is simply wrong to use the term Communion of global Anglicanism or even the weaker language of a Federation. 

It is very sad to see a Communion of churches that was once united become seriously fractured. Many may ask: Why has this happened? Are there ways to heal and restore this fractured Communion? In this article, I will review some of the reasons that led to the fragmentation of the Communion. In a following article, I will suggest ideas that may help to heal our torn Communion.

I. THE REASONS THAT TORE THE FABRIC OF THE COMMUNION

Departure From The Faith Once Received:

The most fundamental factor was the departure of several Provinces, mainly in the global north, from the orthodox Christian faith as Anglicans have received it. This biblical faith was to be found expressed in the Creeds, the early Councils of the undivided church, the Book of Common Prayer, along with the Thirty-Nine Articles and the two Books of Homilies, as well as the later Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral.

Unfortunately, it became clear over recent decades that some Anglicans have felt that they could not accept these beliefs and should disregard the authority of scripture that underlies them. The divinity and uniqueness of Christ, the virgin birth and even his actual crucifixion and resurrection have been variously put in doubt. This led to the acceptance by some Provinces of ever greater levels of theological “diversity” and ever less clarity as to what (if any) beliefs were essential for Anglican Christians. 

Failure to uphold these essentials by the Anglican Communion as a whole, ultimately left neither a clear theological framework to define, nor a mechanism through which to act, when differences between individual Provinces of the Communion had passed beyond acceptable limits. This led in the end to several Provinces simply proceeding unilaterally in breaking from the mind of the Communion as a whole and by affirming innovations incompatible with biblical Anglican teaching, while doing this, they asserted not only administrative but also doctrinal autonomy, which could only undermine the very sense of the term Communion itself.

One area where innovations that departed from historic and biblical teaching attracted particular attention was that of human sexuality. Here, the actions with the most devastatingly divisive effects concerned the ordination of clergy and the consecration of bishops in same-sex partnerships, together with the later and wider blessing of same-sex unions and marriages. The consecration of Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the Episcopal Church of America (TEC) on 2nd November 2003, after he had first abandoned his previous marriage1A circumstance that for a heterosexual would have entailed his being defrocked, as Bishop Lee of Virginia was reported to have pointed out to a meeting in his own Diocese, though he voted in favor of Robinson’s consecration in any case. wife and two daughters, and then secondly, entered into a new partnership with another man,2His partnership with Mark Andrew was only legally recognized in 2008 and only after that, by a religious ceremony. The civil partnership itself was ended through a legal divorce in 2014. was the single most damaging example. This proved an historic turning point in accelerating the fracture in the Communion that has expanded ever since,3The inability of the Episcopal Church in America and its bishops to uphold the classical doctrines contained in the Prayer Book or even “core doctrines” is one with a long and sad history going back to Bishop Pike all the way through to the Righter trial. an outcome which the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams himself quite clearly foresaw when he commented in a Press Release on 6th August that year, that it would, “inevitably have a significant impact on the Anglican Communion throughout the world”.

The outcome of these unilateral departures from Anglican orthodoxy, when made with the claims of theological autonomy, was indeed to shatter the prior unity in faith and order that had previously existed between Provinces of the Communion. The sense of interdependence between them was completely lost. The more that a right to innovate has been asserted, on the basis that each Province is autonomous, the harder it has become to believe that there still is an Anglican Communion. 

An ever larger theological gap between the Provinces of the global south and some in the global north has thus formed which is becoming ever more public and visible. But it is important to note here that innovations in human sexuality were not the only reason for the Communion’s crisis, they were in fact only the superficial symptom of a much deeper illness of Communion.

II. A STORY OF SYSTEMIC INSTITUTIONAL FAILURE

The painful reality of growing separation that we see unfolding in the Communion is itself the result of many layers of prior failure, all of which cannot be set out here.4Though I hope to do this more fully in a more extended work upon which I am currently engaged. This will chart both the history and rise of the Global South movement as well as the wider crisis in the Communion since the Lambeth Conference of 1998. Nonetheless, it is sadly evident that the “Instruments of Communion” have failed to address the crisis and limit or even undo the damage. While only an outline sketch of some of these failures can be set out here, it may still be of value to set out the background to the practical collapse of the Communion we now see unfolding.

A Recurring Failure to Follow Through on Recommendations:

The consecration of Gene Robinson was, as noted above, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in the sense that it precipitated the clear repudiation by a majority of the world’s Anglicans and Provinces of such unilateral innovations by a few in one province without regard to the whole.

Subsequently, Archbishop Rowan Williams, as Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates of the Anglican Communion had many meetings to find ways forward out of the crisis this event caused. Several commissions and committees were convened. These made recommendations and presented reports to the different Instruments of Communion, of which a number merit close attention. These include The Windsor Report which recommended a Communion Wide Covenant, as well as moratoria on further unilateral actions. There was also a proposal for “walking apart” and a call for “gracious restraint.” Then there came the 2007 Primates Recommendations from Dar-es-Salam and the Windsor Continuation Group Report (WCG) in 2008.

Yet in the end, none of these recommendations was followed. What this made plain was the dysfunctional working of the Instruments of Communion, as the WCG report itself stated.

Sad to say, one of the factors driving this dysfunction was financial pressure and even threats to withdraw aid, made by the rich global north provinces. This was something I knew of personally and it did indeed at times have the desired effect of inducing a reluctance to take disciplinary and decisive actions on the part of the Primates, a number of whom were thus intimidated, as they privately admitted.

The Canterbury Primacy Itself In Crisis:

Choosing to be for the Church of England rather than the global Communion

Now in 2023, it is evident that, once again, a defining moment in the further unravelling of the Anglican Communion has arrived. This is in consequence of the actions of the Church of England Synod last February and the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury therein.

Archbishop Welby made it clear, by his role in the English Synod, that his being Primate of England takes precedence over being Head of the Anglican Communion. Both he and the See of Canterbury will now have to face the momentous consequences of that choice.

The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) issued a response, the Ash Wednesday Statement.i This bluntly declared that, in the light of the Archbishop’s role in the General Synod and its decision in break from the mind of the Communion, “the Global South Fellowship can 

no longer recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as the head of the Anglican Communion”. 

In response to this, Archbishop Welby, announced that the Instruments of Communion will be responsible for a restructuring the Communion. This overlooks the fact that the Instruments have already been declared dysfunctional in an official report of the Communion, a finding that renders them incapable of discerning the remedy needed. To speak as a medical doctor, this is no more likely to work than asking one sick patient to cure another!

The Fundamental Failure Of The Archbishop Of Canterbury To Be A Focus Of Unity:

Two of the most important duties of every bishop are to uphold the faith and be a focus of unity. For the Archbishop of Canterbury, this means in addition being able to serve as the focus of unity for the entire Anglican Communion worldwide. This duty is fulfilled when the Archbishop works collegially with his fellow Primates to uphold the faith that binds the Provinces together. 

While it has become a commonplace to say that Archbishops of Canterbury do not have jurisdictional powers, such as those to which the Roman Papacy has often aspired, they can nonetheless exert enormous influence. They may not choose often to denounce, but they can disapprove, and they have had every reason to condemn unilateral decisions that disrupt the unity of the Communion. Yet this is exactly what the Church of England itself has now done, under Welby, with the very large consequences that will now follow.

Some background here is helpful. It is important to recognize and contrast the example of Archbishop Rowan Williams. He carefully laid aside his personal views, in deference to the mind of the Communion as a whole. It was in this spirit that he made strenuous efforts to fulfill his duty of oversight and pastoral care. This meant more than pastoral letters and personal engagement. It also meant taking decisions with sharp and sometimes personally costly effects.5 Archbishop Rowan thus felt he could not invite Gene Robinson to the Lambeth Conference of 2008. It also led him to support the Covenant proposal, which involved upholding the Essentials of Faith and the Lambeth resolution 1:10 as the mind of the Communion. This was all very commendable. But sadly, it proved not to be enough, for this work was not sufficiently heeded to keep the unity he sought.

When Justin Welby became the Archbishop, hopes were raised again because of his seeming fresh resolve to address the conflict. He stated his wish to listen to the Global South Primates the very next day, after his enthronement. He also heard from every Primate as part of his inaugural program of visiting all the Provinces of the Communion. As a result, almost all the Primates came to 2016 Primates Meeting with a sense of real anticipation. During that meeting, in deference to the strong feelings of the Global South Primates who had felt greatly offended by American unilateralism, it was decided that TEC representatives would not be invited to participate in doctrinal and ecumenical commissions. Nonetheless, it soon became clear that Archbishop Welby wanted in fact to forge a new status quo: one of living with disunity, rather than one of striving to overcome it and restore unity. This was illustrated by his introducing the theme of “Walking Together.” Sadly, therefore, while hopes had been high that he would use the good relations he had initially established with the Primates, along with his prior experience in conflict resolutions, to put an end to the Communion Crisis, ultimately, the opportunity was wasted.

Hopes were further ruined when Archbishop Welby broke with the precedent carefully established by Archbishop Williams in not inviting to the Lambeth Conference bishops who had shown themselves to be a focus of disunity rather than unity. Instead, Welby decided to invite the highly divisive bishops in same-sex partnerships, along with their partners, to attend the Lambeth Conference of 2022. This was despite their manifest failure to meet the required “focus of unity” standard. His decision implied to the wider Communion that homosexual partnerships, despite being in breach of the mind of the Communion, as expressed in Resolution 1,10 of Lambeth 1998, were now within the acceptable norms of the Church. What was even more significant, was the way in which he made this decision, which was unilaterally on his own. This was therefore a decision that lacked any official basis within the Communion by which it could be justified, as no decision had been made by any appropriate body calling for him to do this. Moreover, it cast aside the precedent carefully set out by Archbishop Williams.

It was against this background that the Primates of the Global South saw it as a final mistake, that Archbishop Welby personally led the house of Bishops and the General Synod of the Church of England in making a resolution to bless same-sex unions. This took place in spite of many warnings and opposing voices from around the Communion, including those of my successor as Archbishop and Primate of the Anglican Province of Alexandria, Dr. Samy Fawzi, who addressed the General Synod in person, along with the Coptic Archbishop in London Archbishop Angaelos.

It is interesting that after the resolution was accepted by the Synod, Archbishop Welby said that:

“as Archbishop of Canterbury, who is supposed to be ‘an instrument of communion and a focus of unity’ I have a pastoral responsibility for the whole Communion. So, while joyfully celebrating these new resources, I will not personally use them, in order not to compromise that pastoral care.”

This statement speaks volumes about the inconsistency at the heart of Justin Welby’s ministry as Archbishop and his failure as a focus of unity. It made clear the structural problem he has in seeking to be both Primate of England and Primus for the whole Anglican Communion. His role in the Synod demonstrated that he is first and foremost Archbishop of the English Church and he manifestly felt unable therefore to fulfill his obligations to the Communion when a choice had to be made. This follows from the fact that he led the Synod in breaking with the mind of Communion as a whole. Expressing joy at the outcome, but then adding that he would not avail himself of the rites now approved, does not get him out of the consequences of his choices.

It would also seem entirely reasonable that such important matters as the understanding of marriage should not be altered except by the whole Communion and in consultation with our ecumenical partners. Instead, Archbishop Welby has, with the Synod of the Church of England (which acted unliterally) tried simultaneously to uphold the traditional teaching (in this case on marriage) while also accepting innovations in practice (same-sex blessings) which are at odds with it. Seeking to be seen as inclusive of views incompatible with historic teaching and unaccepted by the majority of the world’s Christians and Anglicans could only entail a crisis for the office and place of Canterbury within the Anglican Communion. How could Archbishop Welby have supposed he could remain Primus inter pares of a global Communion he has so lightly disregarded?

The Primates’ Meetings

The Primates’ Meeting is supposed to be a very important council that ensures the mutual interdependence of the different Anglican Provinces. The Lambeth Conference 1998 passed this Resolution III.6 stating that:

This Conference, noting the need to strengthen mutual accountability and interdependence among the Provinces of the Anglican Communion, a. reaffirms Resolution 18.2(a) of Lambeth 1988 which “urges that encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates’ Meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that the Primates’ Meeting is able to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters”;

The wisdom behind this resolution is that the Primates are all bishops who, as such, make a vow to guard the faith of the church and the unity of the churches they preside over, which is also why the Lambeth Conference is so important. In fact, however, the recommendations of the Primates’ Meetings are often undermined, resisted and ignored by the more revisionary Provinces of the global Communion.

Sometimes it is suggested that such rejection is warranted because the Primates’ Meeting does not have representation from clergy and laity, and thus fails somehow to speak on behalf of the whole church. This seeks to ignore the fact that Anglicanism is episcopal and sees this as fundamental, as indeed the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral states. It is clear that the bishops of the church have a special role and responsibility — as their special vow attests. Sadly, however, the negative attitude towards the Primates’ Meetings and their recommendations has led to the reluctance of some Primates to participate. Accordingly, at this point, the Primates’ Meeting has not been allowed to succeed as an effective Instrument of Communion and unity.

The Lambeth Conference

The Lambeth Conference is not merely one of the Instruments of the Communion but rather joins three Instruments together since the Primates’ Meeting is involved and the Archbishop of Canterbury convenes it. Because of this fact, Lambeth resolutions might be expected to carry the highest moral authority in the Communion. I would even say, that logically, by virtue of being a Communion and not merely a federation, Lambeth Resolutions should be viewed as binding for all member Provinces. The Lambeth Conference of 1998 was unfortunately the last to enjoy full participation by all the bishops of the Communion and therefore the last to embody this vision in actual operation. The Global South bishops proved to be a strong voice there and the wider worldview of the Communion as a whole did come to expression. One example of this was Resolution 1:10. But far from seeing the Lambeth Conference of 1998 as therefore a success, the administrators in the Anglican Communion Office, who are much influenced by the more revisionary provinces, decided it was instead, a model to be avoided. Because of this, every effort was made at the Lambeth Conference of 2008 to avoid plenary sessions and the making of resolutions. This was decided in order to have a more peaceful less “divisive” conference, but this further eroded its purpose. Moreover, because revisionary provinces had ignored Resolution 1;10 from the 1998 Conference, many global south bishops saw little point in attending.

I would be tempted to say of the 2008 Conference and its outcome, as a medical doctor that, “the operation succeeded, but the patient died”. The Lambeth Conference has never been fully attended again, since 1998. This fact hugely reduces the “convening power” of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Lambeth Conference of 2022 was similar to that of 2008 in having limited attendance and no resolutions, with only non-binding “calls” instead. The goal seemed to be to keep a superficial peace by avoiding serious discussion of the burning issues. This attitude yet further diminished the trust of many bishops who are eager to see a cure for the Communion’s problems. As a result of this distrust, about 300 bishops refused to attend the conference, leaving the Communion yet more deeply torn. Once again, an opportunity was lost for serious thought and work to tackle the problems of the Communion.

The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)

The ACC is supposed, as its name suggests, to be merely consultative. It was itself created by action of the Lambeth Conference. However, in recent years it has seemed to view itself as more like some kind of higher synod, and its recommendation as more important than those of other Instruments of Communion.

From personal experience, I can confirm that the agendas of the ACC meetings are carefully crafted in order to avoid discussing important issues. The language used in the meetings is English and the rules of procedure are highly technical. This makes it difficult for participants from the global south to express their views, unlike those who are native English speakers who can articulate well their opinions within a complex procedural environment. It has also a major unrepresentative aspect in that, unlike the Lambeth Conference, there is little relation between the number of members in a given province and the number of representatives who can attend on behalf of that Province. Thus Wales, with a few tens of thousands of Anglicans, has the same weight as the Province of Nigeria with a membership not far short of 20 m. This means that the ACC actually lacks any “democratic” legitimacy. Accordingly, for all these reasons, the ACC has become in fact the guardian of the Communion. It is a largely ineffective, though very expensive, social event that gives the Anglican Communion bureaucracy that controls it some kind of unreal direction.

All of this does reveal the sad fact that the instruments, supposedly created to facilitate the life of the Anglican Communion, are inadequate to the task. As the Windsor Continuation Group report put it, with marked understatement, “There is currently a lack of clarity about the role of each of the instruments and their relation to one another.”

Neocolonialism And Manipulation Through Economic Dependence

Looking back now over the last twenty or more years during which I participated in so many global meetings and gatherings of the Primates, I can sadly share that neocolonialism is playing a manipulating role within the Communion.

During one of the Primates meetings, a global south Primate whispered to me saying: “I fully agree with you, but I can’t speak up because we are financially dependent on The Episcopal Church of America (TEC).” This happened during a discussion about the consequences of TEC’s progressive and unilateral decisions regarding same-sex unions, as well as consecrating practicing gay and lesbian bishops. It is nothing less than a form of neo-colonialism when rich Provinces give donations with strings attached.

It is nothing less than a form of neo-colonialism when rich Provinces give donations with strings attached. These grants readily create a sense of dependence and thus deprive global south churches of their right to express freely their views.

These grants readily create a sense of dependence and thus deprive global south churches of their right to express freely their views. 

I know of at least three Primates and a number of bishops who felt unable to share their views because of such financial pressure from the westren provinces. This kind of neo-colonialism interferes with open and frank discussions of the Communion’s problems and this leads to unresolved conflicts and divisions.

In concluding this first part of my article, it has to be said that these are sad days for the Anglican Communion. As has been seen, it is deeply torn apart. Indeed, it was sad that the Bishops have been unable to celebrate Communion together as Our Lord commanded.

Now the time has come to ask hard questions. How can the Anglican Communion be called a Communion when it has lost the sense of mutual interdependence to such a degree that it was described as a church suffering from “ecclesial Parkinson’s.”

The challenge now, for Anglicans worldwide, is how to develop a new conciliar structure that heals the ecclesial deficit mentioned in the Windsor Continuation Group Report. A structure is needed that is able to protect the faith we Anglicans received from our forefathers. 

In my next article, I will explore how best to consider the structure of a future more interdependent Communion, that is better able to affirm and maintain its historic and uniquely Anglican identity.

Footnotes

  • 1
    A circumstance that for a heterosexual would have entailed his being defrocked, as Bishop Lee of Virginia was reported to have pointed out to a meeting in his own Diocese, though he voted in favor of Robinson’s consecration in any case.
  • 2
    His partnership with Mark Andrew was only legally recognized in 2008 and only after that, by a religious ceremony. The civil partnership itself was ended through a legal divorce in 2014.
  • 3
    The inability of the Episcopal Church in America and its bishops to uphold the classical doctrines contained in the Prayer Book or even “core doctrines” is one with a long and sad history going back to Bishop Pike all the way through to the Righter trial.
  • 4
    Though I hope to do this more fully in a more extended work upon which I am currently engaged. This will chart both the history and rise of the Global South movement as well as the wider crisis in the Communion since the Lambeth Conference of 1998.
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