Canterbury Primates meeting: ‘good disagreement’ and a potential future.
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Opinion by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
- The meeting will not cause division.
News headlines are saying that this Canterbury meeting will be ‘make or break’; that one or other side might walk out, causing a split in the worldwide Anglican Communion. But any failure of agreement will simply confirm what is already the case. The fact is that as global culture, dominated by Western secularism and the rise of militant Islam, has changed, so differences of opinion have widened in Anglicanism as in all mainline denominations. And Anglicans worldwide have been in impaired communion ever since the 1990’s when a sizeable minority of US and Canadian Bishops, clergy and laity could not in conscience follow the revisionist direction of their leaders, and called for help and alternative oversight from overseas Provinces. Gene Robinson and the formation of ACNA confirmed existing divisions – they did not cause them. The same formal separations have not yet happened in the Church of England, although divisions over the same issues have existed for some time.
- Not so much “schism” as torn net.
The last 20 years have seen the emergence of a dynamic new form of evangelical (but not necessarily ‘low church’), multi-cultural global Anglicanism, which asserted itself for the first time at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and has established the related movements of ‘Global South’ and ‘Gafcon’. These see authentic Anglicanism based not on shared liturgy, or commitment to the historic mother church and its leaders, nor on the idea of subservient and “nice” chaplaincy to society, but to shared faith in the apostolic Gospel of Christ based on a common understanding of the Scriptures. There are many in the C of E who have sympathies with this.
But even though the existence of these movements is a sign of tensions and disagreements, relationships continue between churches of global West and South, or even between orthodox and liberal churches in the same Deanery – a form of fellowship can exist based on common humanity, mutual respect and some shared language of faith. So what has emerged is not a clear-cut ‘split’ or ‘divorce’ in the church, with two opposing tribes, but rather the rupturing of many of the ties that hold us together while others remain intact or partially damaged. If Anglicanism is like a part of the great net of the Kingdom which Jesus taught us God uses to gather in his people, then many of the filaments are damaged or broken; it looks messy and its usefulness and spiritual effectiveness is compromised. For some, the solution to this is simply to call for unity and build better relationships, but this always involves asking people to put aside commitments to truth or to count them of secondary importance.
- What are the causes?
Again, the media likes to keep it simple – this is a split over attitudes to homosexuality. Yes there are differences over sexual ethics, which can sometimes spill over into unwarranted accusations, for example that conservative Christians don’t like gay people. But underlying what we think about homosexual relationships can be seen very different understandings about the nature of the church and its relationship to society, what it means to be a human being, the meaning and authority of Scripture, and ultimately how we view salvation and God himself. And accusations of ‘hating’ are either based on misunderstanding, or deliberate attempts to silence those with a different view. Serious disagreement with my neighbour’s ideas and actions is not incompatible with love and concern for him or her.
But inevitably history and ethnicity play a part in the tensions and divisions as well. Leaders from African and Asian countries have perceived the traditional ‘corridors of power’ of global Anglicanism, based in London and funded from America, to be impenetrable, controlled by an Anglo-Saxon liberal elite, and patronizing in a way that has not quite shaken off the sense of imperial superiority. This is despite the outreach and reconciliation efforts of recent Archbishops not personally tainted by racist attitudes.
- What are the potential outcomes?
An article on the GAFCON website calls for “action by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a majority of the Primates to ensure that participation in the Anglican Communion is governed by robust commitments to biblical teaching and morality.” Could this happen? Humanly speaking, it would be more likely if Archbishop Welby felt he had a clear mandate from the Church of England leadership to pursue a clear orthodox path, and reject revisionism – which he does not. So the Canterbury meeting will see Primates with fundamental differences of opinion, hardening over the past decade, coming together in a format facilitated by David Porter, using techniques for encouraging listening and reconciliation.
If they are unable to remain in the same room beyond the introductions, not much will change immediately, but there will be consequences for the Church of England. Some of its orthodox senior figures will be embarrassed at being aligned with the declining liberal churches of the secular West and increasingly cut off from the regions of greatest spiritual vibrancy amid poverty and persecution. Meanwhile major decisions by Synods of the British Provinces in a revisionist direction over the next couple of years, cheered on by the secular media and government, could cause a wider coalition of orthodox Anglicans to look to GAFCON for support and even oversight.
It’s possible that theological differences could be put to one side, graciousness and common humanity enables some form of conversation, and a way of continuing to work together is brokered, based on shared commitment to helping the poor, but this will be resisted by GAFCON-aligned Provinces wary of compromising the Gospel for financial aid. What many hope for is the beginning of a managed separation, whereby different forms of Anglicanism are recognized by Canterbury even if they are not in fellowship with each other. This would not be the compromise that Peter Jensen warns about in his Gafcon blog whereby “two conclusions are held in tension in a denomination with mutual respect” (this is more like the current situation) – rather it would be two separate denominations, with different bases of faith, using the same brand name.
Many in the C of E establishment will not approve of this, as it will give the green light for conservative Anglicans in England to officially exist outside of local Diocesan control. But given the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lack of papal-style authority to enforce a Communion-wide commitment to orthodoxy even if he wanted to, could such a federal system be the best way of working out a ‘good disagreement’? The challenge would then be for a wide coalition of orthodox Anglicans in Britain to unite around primary faith commitments, and to set up and/or develop new ecclesial jurisdictions, in partnership with global fellowships.