On beyond Primates

A few years ago, I found myself in a small village in southeastern Nigeria. I was traveling with the Anglican priest responsible for the parishes in the region and he had taken me to the village to introduce me to a congregation.

Stories about Nigerian Anglicanism often emphasize its size and growth, as well as the anti-gay pronouncements of some of its leaders. I found none of that in this village. For a variety of historical reasons, this particular community had large Methodist and Catholic churches. The Anglican congregation, by contrast, was tiny. It met in a rented room on the side of a house with a few benches and a small altar. On this Thursday afternoon, four people—two-thirds of the average Sunday attendance—came to talk with me.

We sat there for some time, reading the Bible together, talking about what it means to us to be Anglican, and how we read the Bible. At points in our conversation, we found moments of difference; at others, moments of convergence. Just as we were getting ready to say a concluding prayer, an older man who had not said much stood up. “Sometimes, we are ashamed to be Anglicans in this village,” he said. “Other churches are much bigger and we only have this little room.” He paused, leaning on his cane and looking directly at me. “But today you have come here. It is evangelism for you to come here. People in our village will be talking, ‘That man came all the way from America to go to that little Anglican church!’”

The only thing I could think to say in response was that we were both members of the worldwide body of Christ in the Anglican Communion. There are tens of millions more like us around the world, I told him, and we are united with them as well. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that.

That man has been on my mind in recent days as a meeting of senior Anglican bishops approaches next week in Canterbury. The so-called Primates Meeting will gather together the senior bishop in each province of the Anglican Communion for a meeting that has been billed as a “make or break” moment for Anglicans in their ongoing struggles over power, sexuality, and Biblical interpretation. Prognosticators are not positive. There are reports of threats to walk out before the meeting even gets underway.

It’s the first Primates Meeting in five years. In that time, most of the main players walking into this meeting have been confirmed in their views. Those we call liberals — in favour of a robust welcome of gay people in the church — look to the rapid advance of LGBTQ rights in parts of the world in recent years and see a confirmation of a prophetic position they took years ago. Those we call conservatives look at the continued shrinking of attendance figures in many churches in the Euro-Atlantic world and conclude that they were right all along in asserting that theological innovation would fatally undermine the church.

In the middle of all the posturing, it is easy to miss that this meeting may not be as significant as it is made out to be. Primates Meetings are a relatively recent innovation in the Anglican Communion and were never intended to have decision-making authority. The first one, in 1979, was called to offer an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” That makes sense: each of the senior bishops occupies a different role in his church, some with a great deal of authority and others with very little. They are also entirely men. In 2016, it seems rather retrograde to gather together three dozen men to make decisions about a worldwide Communion comprised mostly of women.

I often wonder what would happen if our thinking about the future of the Anglican Communion could be more genuinely informed by voices from all levels of the church, such as those congregants in the small village in Nigeria I met that one afternoon. In travels around the world church in recent years, I have time and again encountered a complexity that defies easy categorization into liberal and conservative. In places like Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan, and many others, I have met Anglicans who see a way to relatedness in the midst of disagreement. I’ve learned that for most Anglicans the pressing questions they encounter are not about same-sex marriage—ostensibly the dividing issue—but about political violence, education, inter-faith relations, and much else. Most of all, I’ve found lay people, priests, and bishops who are willing to engage in robust conversation about contentious matters, air differences — and at the end of day come together for prayer, Bible study, and worship.

If reports are to be believed, next week’s meeting may end before it even begins. Acrimony would not, perhaps, be a surprise. In the history of the Christian church, calling together a group of bishops has rarely been a good way of resolving conflict. Primates Meetings are not structured to bear the immense weight our collective expectations have placed on this one.

Yet no matter who anathematizes whom or what vitriol surges forth, I will continue to believe in the reality of the Anglican Communion because of that man in that village in rural Nigeria. He and I share a bond based not on agreement on contentious issues or a common cultural background but on a common baptism and a shared willingness to live a life shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ. It is these relationships that are foundational to and flourishing in the Anglican Communion. They will endure long after next week’s meeting has come and gone.

The Rev. Jesse Zink is the director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and author of Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity.