What was the Archbishop of Canterbury thinking? A layman responds

Jun 14, 2017 by

By Daniel Leafe, Anglican Mainstream.

There has already been much helpful comment on the ecclesiastical politics and the approaches to church polity contained in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter to the Primates of the Communion of 1st June 2017. The volume of comment is an accurate assessment of the import of this extraordinary missive with regard to those matters.

Personally, however, I now tend to consider the letters (and indeed speeches) of the Archbishop through a rather different lens. Given that unlike the majority of his predecessors, ++Justin has not historically written much for popular consumption and essentially nothing for academics, his letters like this (and speeches) are the closest we get to understanding his theology and praxis. In particular, in recent times I have concerned myself with what we can learn about Archbishop Welby’s understanding of truth from what the limited (but thereby all the more valuable) sources of his letters and speeches. (By “truth” I essentially mean the existence of objective propositions, equally true at all times and all places and which can be known usefully as such by human beings).

The most important thing to say about this letter is that, in my view, it is the clearest statement yet made that in the Church of England orthodoxy is only permissible via the explicit acceptance of heterodoxy[1]. Put simply- to be orthodox requires one first to be heterodox. And where the Church of England leads Justin Welby would very much like the Communion to follow- there can be no other reason for his regular endorsement of his favourite Primate and like-minded revisionist ++Michael Curry.

My claim that orthodoxy is now subordinated to heterodoxy is a serious one to make but I would like to venture that it is more than justified by further analysis of the letter and what it tells us about the Archbishop’s approach to truth.

We might begin with the point that has been so astutely made that ++Rowan (together with The Windsor Report) used to draw a false equivalence between moral revisionism and border-crossing but that, by way of contrast, ++Welby, doesn’t even mention the former (let alone censure the SEC for what they were about to do). The Archbishop here displays no concern for truth, whether be that “truth” good, bad or indifferent, only for institutional unity.

Furthermore, ++Justin makes a clear statement that to be “effective” the forthcoming “Teaching Document” will need to be the product of every opinion, without discrimination. That is a succinct and accurate summary of ++Justin’s theology of revelation- he absolutely believes that truth is only revealed in the process of the equal participation of all the baptised[2].

Next, while to say that there have been, “…no changes in the liturgy…or in the rules regarding human sexuality in the Church of England”, may be just about sustainable to also say that there has been no change in “the situation” is manifestly not. For domestic consumption he has been trumpeting that everything has changed irrevocably[3]. This is yet another instance of one “truth” for the Communion and one “truth” for England.

Moving on, it goes without saying that ++Welby’s letter is internally contradictory- either important border-crossing has occurred or it is of no consequence in the Church of England. Likewise, either what is to happen is an action of a member of the Communion or it isn’t. Of course, ++Justin knows what he has written is contradictory but that is why it is so notable. The ABC seems to be entirely unconcerned about so obviously contradicting himself and that is entirely consistent with his overall approach- it now matters not to him if he is in fact doing “good disagreement” with himself, within his own head and between his own statements, or in fact whether anything is true at all. Tragically, a man who was once a reasonably orthodox evangelical has now become the embodiment of plural truth. He is not only his own theoria, he is his own poiesis (in crafting his own truth) and his own praxis.

If the letter is internally contradictory it also externally contradictory in that it conflicts with what has been said elsewhere. In particular, the letter needs to be considered alongside the Archbishop’s last epistle to the Primates. In January 2017, adopting the words of General Secretary of Archbishop’s Council, William Nye, he stated that,

“Lambeth Conference Resolutions do not provide a binding discipline on member Provinces of the Communion”. 

“[Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10] is not legally binding on all Provinces of the Communion.” 

“Lambeth 1.10…has no binding legal force.” 

“The Resolution…does not have the force of Scripture, nor is it part of the deposit of the faith. The key elements for the Communion are those within the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral”. 

Thus Resolutions of the Lambeth Conference are not “binding” and must not be afforded too much weight. Yet in this most recent letter there is to be found this,

“I would also like to remind you of the 1988 Lambeth Conference resolution number 72 on episcopal responsibilities and diocesan boundaries. It also affirms that it is deemed inappropriate behaviour for any bishop or priest of this Communion to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry within another diocese without first obtaining the permission and invitation of the ecclesial authority thereof.”

Surely it isn’t being suggested that the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference of 1988 are somehow binding or authoritative but those of 1998 are not? Why would the Primates need to be “reminded” of their “episcopal responsibilities” by way of something which is not a “key” element of the Communion?

In the course of six months Justin Welby has not just attempted to ride two horses in relation to the significance of Lambeth 1988, he has been riding two entirely different animals in opposite directions. The only explanation for this must be not that he thought no one would notice but that it simply does not matter to him whether his arguments are consistent or not.

Other than the Lambeth Resolutions, the Archbishop’s main attempt to support his, otherwise merely somewhat intemperate outburst, is to appeal to the Canons of the First Council of Nicea, when he must know that they have no relevance to the matter at hand and he must be aware that the Primates would also know that. And yet he does it anyway! Once again, the truthfulness or otherwise of an assertion appears to be immaterial.

Furthermore, the wider context cannot be ignored. The Average Weekly Attendance in the Church of England is something of the order of 1 million – just 2% of the population. How many of those are hearing the Good News of the Lord Jesus faithfully taught is anyone’s guess but it is not encouraging that, as the Revd Paul Perkin said at GAFCON 2013, almost half of Church of England clergy surveyed in 2002 did not believe in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Many of those clergy are still in post and it would be a brave man who suggested that the quality of ordination candidates had improved in the last 15 years. Into this crisis the GAFCON Primates are willing to send a fine man as a missionary to secure gospel witness. Surely, the only possible reaction for faithful Christians here is to celebrate the fact and ask how many more such missionaries might be sent and how soon? But no! Instead we get a response utterly deaf to the need to propagate the truth of the gospel and which appears to say that because of the existence of the “Thy Kingdom Come” campaign everything is just fine and dandy in England when that is patently untrue.

It is difficult to imagine how any Christian leader, in any situation let alone the dire one in England could do anything other than welcome a missionary with open arms and the fatted calf, were such a leader to have the remotest concern for truth. If ++Justin had some objection to Canon Lines’ character or suitability for episcopal leadership that would be a different matter but the sad reality is that the Archbishop would rather maintain a failed monopoly on Anglicanism in England than welcome an Anglican missionary, “valiant for truth” from overseas. Such complacency about the gospel and such hubris from the leader of the Church of England in a nation who sent missionaries around the globe with impunity is quite extraordinary.

The other aspect of the wider context is that the Archbishop’s letter repeats the invitation to the Primates to return to Canterbury in October this year. Preparatory to that meeting ++Justin says that he will be telephoning each of the Primates to discuss the potential agenda with them. Amidst all that is going on in the Communion (As +Justin refers too), why would anyone think it a valuable use of a week to spend it discussing church politics with a primus inter pares who does not “do” truth…unless of course…that is the whole point- to assemble the Primates for a process that in word and deed excludes the possibility of truth being objective and knowable. Many who took place in the “Shared Conversations” in dioceses and Synod in England will recognise that tactic- discussion taking place in a process which assumes nothing about the outcome other than that the parties won’t agree. The process thus determines the outcome and the outcome is – plural truth.

There was a striking example of how in such contexts even clear statements are robbed of their truth content after the last Primates Meeting in 2016 where “truth” survived only as far as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s press conference at the conclusion of the meeting. The Primates’ Communique was clear – their churches would continue to “walk together” but at a “significant distance” which would entail “consequences” for revisionists[4]. However, in the Press Conference and thereafter Justin Welby reported the “walking together” but not the rest. He thus gave an impression that the Primates’ words were a statement of unity in plural truth when in fact they were drafted to emphasise precisely that there was not agreement. Plural truth is not a narrative to which challenge is permitted.

Three further insights into ++Justin’s approach to truth emerge from this letter. The first is found in his suggestion that the answer to the needs of the orthodox is to seek the episcopal ministry the Bishop of Maidstone, Rod Thomas. However, what is so striking is that in the letter +Rod is regarded primarily not as an example of the preservation of orthodoxy but as key component apart of the extension of heterodoxy – he is important not for orthodoxy but rather for the mutual flourishing of different views. This is the repetition of where we started – the sole purpose of orthodoxy is now to commend and extend heterodoxy.

The second insight is to note that Archbishop Welby is at least consistent. It matters not which document he is citing, be it Holy Scripture (as quoted in this letter), his own writings, Lambeth Resolutions, Primates’ Communiqués or Nicea, his hermeneutic is the same – words, perhaps quoted selectively and/or distorted as necessary, exist merely as the multiple servants of the causes he espouses, not as a single master to direct him.

Finally, we may ask, “if the Archbishop does not believe in truth then what does he believe in?” Again the answer is to be found in the text of this letter. He believes in “concepts”- “a shout of victory”, “a prophetic voice”, “empowering”, inclusion/”exclusion”, “flourishing”, “mutual respect” and, of course, above all “unity”. No one would dislike that litany of attractive words but all this is rather like listening to Tony Blair’s “verbless sentences”- superficially uplifting but without enduring meaning or value.

I am a mere layman, without theological pretensions and without an academic expertise in the affairs of the Communion but I am very far from alone among lay people in being able to identify the fallacious thinking of Justin Welby. Yesterday one such commented to his incumbent, “I find myself almost as dispirited by the dismal quality of ++Justin’s argument as I do by his recommended solution.” My fellow lay-people and I may not be ecclesiastical sophisticates but nor are we stupid. We are not deceived.

Francis Bacon said of jesting Pontius Pilate that having asked “What is truth” Pilate “…would not stay for an answer”. To me Archbishop Welby seems to not even be interested in posing the question- because he has already deemed that there is no answer. Many of the laity respectfully but comprehensively disagree with him.

Which all leads to this, if there were any residual doubts about the wisdom of the Primates’ decision to ordain Canon Andy Lines as a missionary bishop to Europe, such doubts are removed by this reaction from Canterbury. The 1st June letter, in all its elements and in particular in the Archbishop’s expectation for his clergy to be explicitly heterodox before being permitted to be in any way orthodox, is powerful confirmation that the Primates’ Spirit-led analysis and judgement was spot on. It is tragic irony that the manner of the rejection of the Primates’ action contains all the justification that could be needed for that action.

Canon Lines’ consecration as an orthodox bishop who neither has to minister within heterodoxy nor who can be used as a symbol of the success of heterodoxy but instead whose existence as well as ministry, exposes the lie that all things, save for institutional unity, are adiaphora is timely and now essential. Personally, I long for the ministry of such a bishop (yes- lay people have bishops too!).

We say morning by morning, “We have come together as the family of God in our Father’s presence to hear and receive God’s Holy Word and to bring to him the needs of the world…” Is it not a marvellous thing that our prayer for our needs in these islands is in fact being answered by the rest of the world?

All I wish to say, in all humility, to the Primates with regard to their courageous action is what was said of Philemon, “You brother(s) have refreshed the hearts of the saints”. Indeed they have. Indeed they have.


[1] “I believe that the example of how we addressed he separate issue of the ordination of women to the episcopacy illustrates this; the Right Reverend Rod Thomas’ consecration as Bishop of Maidstone served to provide episcopal oversight for those who disagreed with the ordination of women to the episcopate. This clearly demonstrates how those with differing views still have their place within the Church of England, and are important in enabling the flourishing of the Church”.

[2] Address at General Synod in November 2015

That means we are called to work together with all those, in this country and around the world – all those – who are fellow members of the Church, baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity.  Loving one another and working together is not a choice we are free to make or not to make. It is an obligation we are given…… Building together requires us to listen to discern the mind of Christ. Pope Francis went on: “A synodal Church is a listening church, aware that “listening” is more than “hearing”. It means listening to each other when both have something to learn.

[3] This is from the letter of Archbishops of Canterbury and York sent to General Synod members immediately after Synod on 16th February 2017.

“To deal with that disagreement and to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

“We need to work together – not just the bishops but the whole Church, not excluding anyone – to move forward with confidence.

“The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.”


[4] Communiqué 15th January 2017 http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi62cnuiL3UAhXDtRoKHao7BF4QFggiMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.primates2016.org%2Farticles%2F2016%2F01%2F15%2Fcommunique-primates%2F&usg=AFQjCNFtCMXgZScbrE0lZq1ohuozGa8HZA


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