Primates and Politics

Primates at the 2016 Meeting

So last week, the Primates, the bosses of the individual sections of the Anglican Church, have got together for their semi-regular meet-up, the Anglican Communion Primates’ Meeting. Initially started by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1978 as “an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation”. While that sounds like a lovely weekend with trips between the spa and the bar for many, it has developed into a meeting where the diverse elements of the church can all come together and have a good chin-wag and hammer out a vague course for the next little while.

These meetings take place as frequently or infrequently as the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Primates as a group, feel is necessary and invites are sent months in advance to ensure that individual Primates can get their PAs to set aside the time in their calendars, but also, to sort out the requisite visas and flights in time to make the trip. Yes, that has been used by some as reasons for not getting there. You’d think getting into Dublin would be reasonably easy when you get the news months in advance, but not if you’re the Archbishop of the Congo.

Regardless, on top of those more regular meetings however, there have also been cases of extraordinary meetings called in reaction to specific events. For example in 2003, an extraordinary meeting was called in October, only 5 months after the previously scheduled conference. This was to discuss the ordination of an openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, by the Episcopal Church — the Anglican church in the USA — in June that year. Then in 2005, 2007 and 2011, where deep discussions were had about the US and Canadian churches and their views on sexuality.

To concentrate on the US Episcopal Church for a moment, it holds a rather more liberal course than many within the Anglican Communion. Over the years the Episcopal Church have campaigned strongly for US Civil Rights movement and for full legal equality of gay and lesbians, they ruled to allow blessings of same-sex partnerships prior to the legal marriage of same-sex couples and they elected Gene Robinson as bishop over a decade ago. They have also elected the only female Primate in modern apostolic Christian history, so far. Good for them! The Anglican Church of Canada isn’t too far behind them in being a bit too loose and liberal for the rest of the gang by deciding to move towards a greater inclusion of women and homosexuals towards the end of the 20th century and by devolving the decision on the blessings of same-sex unions to take place starting in 2003. While not universal, this is practised within 11 dioceses. Still no gay/lesbian bishops, but there is a deacon who is civilly married to a person of the same sex, so they’re definitely heading in that direction.

But anyway, back to 2016. There was a Primate Meeting going from 11–16 January. Don’t worry, they scheduled this one back in September so were able to get almost the entire gang to the church on time. While there is normally a statement released at a press conference at the end to affirm how chummy they all are and how they all agree they “would walk together in the grace and love of Christ” etc., this time there was apparently a leak of what they were going to say, and so they had to rush to release the statement a day early. It’s beautifully phrased, as perhaps you’d expect, but it has a fairly important indictment in it:

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

It appears the US Episcopal Church, for being disgracefully liberal, has been sin-binned for the next three years. It’s lost its ability to take part in any decision-making or stand on any committee and can’t represent the Anglican Communion as a whole on any intra-Christian or interfaith bodies. Basically it’s been sent to go stand in the corner and think about all of the naughty things it’s done. On top of that, the full Communiqué was released a few days later, with Addendum A containing much of what was agreed previously.

Now, by sin-binning the Episcopalians for three years without their ability to impact on decision-making with the greater group, this shifts the balance way back towards the conservatives within the Anglican Communion and really puts a clear line in the sand under any thoughts of other churches around the world tip-toeing towards a more liberal stance on gender and sexuality topics within the church. And while a trip deeper into the ethereal and spiritual might be exactly what they’re looking for, it feels like a depressingly political move. As someone who was in the Anglican Church for years, I think it’s a massive shame and a large step backwards and it moves the Anglican Church in the Western world further and further away from the real and modern world. Their loss.

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