Meeting Task: Holding Anglican Communion Together
- Meeting of Anglican Primates Facing Task in Holding Anglican Communion
by Pat Griffith
[Episcopal News Service] Many Episcopal churches are circling the
dates of October 15-16 in red this year. That is the time set aside
by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for an emergency meeting
of the 38 primates, or archbishops/presiding bishops, of the Anglican
Communion at Lambeth Palace in London.
Williams is calling the primates together for prayer and private
discussion about issues of human sexuality and Anglican teaching that
have been raised since the General Convention of the Episcopal Church
in August. In two controversial decisions, majorities of bishops,
clergy and lay deputies confirmed the election of an openly
homosexual bishop in New Hampshire and left the issue of blessing
same-gender unions to the discretion of individual bishops in their
Reactions across the broad landscape of the Episcopal Church have run
the gamut from enthusiastic support to quiet agreement to bewilderment
and personal anguish. At least some of the nation's 2.3 million
Episcopalians are walking out the door to join other denominations.
Others are focused on forming a new "orthodox" Anglican Church in the
United States that they envision as separate from the Episcopal Church
but still part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Some of the harshest criticism has come from abroad. Archbishop
Bernard Malango, primate of the Province of Central Africa, was
quoted by Episcopal News Service as saying that the decision of the
General Convention "has shattered the Anglican Communion. Deep pain
has been inflicted upon us all. We are now experiencing an
overwhelming sense of loss of direction of the Anglican Communion."
In a separate statement, Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo of
the Church of Uganda chided Episcopalians for "separating themselves
from the Anglican Communion family . . . leading your people astray
into satanic ways."
In a letter to his fellow primates after the General Convention,
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said, "My own sense is that one of
our Anglican gifts is to contain different theological perspectives
within a context of common prayer." He said his mission is to help the
church move forward in unity while "honoring the deeply held divergent
points of view among us."
In calling the primates to London for consultation, Williams expressed
the hope that "we will find that there are ways forward in this
situation which can preserve our respect for one another and for the
bonds that unite us."
Clearly that will be no small task, especially when vastly different
expectations are being applied to the meeting. Will primates issue a
consensus statement "agreeing to disagree" on homosexuality, and leave
it at that? Will they chastise the Episcopal Church--or conclude the
church has the will and ability to continue to live with internal
differences and move on? What would it mean if a majority of primates
were to favor the establishment of a new Anglican province within the
United States? What would that entail and is it even possible?
The constitution of the Episcopal Church, adopted in Philadelphia in
1789, declares the church is "in communion with the See of
Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as
set forth in the Book of Common Prayer." It recognizes the General
Convention -- not the Archbishop of Canterbury or the collective
voice of primates around the world--as its highest governing
The Archbishop of Canterbury's traditional authority within the
Anglican Communion is, most simply, that of invitation. He alone
can "invite" churches to be in communion with the See of Canterbury.
He could withdraw that invitation but beyond that he has no
additional authority, except his considerable stature as the primate
of All England and bishopin the Diocese of Canterbury, to affect
decisions of churches in the Anglican Communion.
Advisory and consultative
Traditionally, the Archbishop of Canterbury has called Anglican
primates together "to take counsel together, to pray together and to
look at their common concerns," the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of
Mission and World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained in a telephone interview. In the
past, they met every three years. More recently they have been
meeting annually in various provinces, including Jerusalem, Portugal,
Scotland, the United States and Brazil.
Because the primates are not a legislative body, Douglas said, their
gatherings typically have had the ambience of private, "relaxed
retreats," at which the emphasis is on fellowship, Bible study, and
issuing reports on topics of general interest. Their meetings
usually conclude with the issuance of a pastoral letter, perhaps
containing a call to action on a pressing concern, such as the AIDS
epidemic or Third World debt and poverty.
What happens next is up to each province and its own governing body.
"Strictly speaking," Douglas said, "no church has authority over
another church in communion. Unless the Episcopal Church takes action
to deliberately ascribe to something coming out of a primates'
meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury has no power over us.
"Any inter-Anglican meeting is at best advisory and consultative." he
continued. "We can't tell Kenya what to do, and Kenya can't tell us
what to do. And neither of us can tell England or Australia."
Yet this is not a routine meeting of primates. They have been
summoned on short notice to discuss sexuality, the actions of the
General Convention, and the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada in
blessing same-sex unions, and their impact on the unity of the
Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. They will meet against
a backdrop of controversy not experienced since 1976, when the
General Convention approved the ordination of women and a revised
Book of Common Prayer.
A week before the primates gather, the conservative American Anglican
Council (AAC) is inviting "faithful orthodox" bishops, priests and lay
Episcopalians to a meeting in Dallas on October 7-9. All who want to
attend have been asked to sign a statement of faith and scriptural
belief to assure that only "like-minded Anglicans" participate in
In an advance statement, the conference leaders have announced they
intend to ask Anglican Church primates "to intervene in this pastoral
emergency" while they work "to prepare our congregations and
ministries for possible realignment to insure an orthodox and vital
Anglican/Episcopal presence in the United States."
In a statement titled, "What is About to Happen," leaders of a related
online "communion parishes" movement hypothesize that conservative
primates might first try to strip the Episcopal Church of its vote and
voice at Lambeth conferences and on Anglican commissions, and then
attempt to persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish some
form of "oversight" of the Episcopal Church to ensure its adherence
to "the views of the majority."
Finally, they suggest, if the Episcopal Church "persisted in its
defiance of the views of the majority, it could be expelled from the
Anglican Communion and a new jurisdiction would then be recognized as
a representative part of the Anglican Communion."
However, the Rev. Canon J. Patrick Mauney, executive director of the
Office of Anglican and Global Relations at the Episcopal Church Center
in New York, emphasizes that "the primates, as such, have no
authority" over decisions taken by the General Convention of the
Primates' Meetings "are not exclusively and never have been an
exercise in democracy," Douglas said. It is the Archbishop of
Canterbury who decides whether a bishop or group is in communion with
the See of Canterbury. Therefore, he said, conservatives opposed to
the actions of the General Convention could theoretically claim to
have the "votes" of every primate to "expel" the Episcopal Church
from the Anglican Communion, and that alone would not be decisive.
There's no "vote," Douglas said, "unless the Archbishop cedes his
authority and says he's going to abide by the views of a majority."
The drive to increase the authority of prelates in the Anglican
Communion and give them the tools to discipline individual provinces
is coming from conservative members who believe the Episcopal Church
has moved beyond the bounds of "acceptable" Anglican teaching.
"I think that's going to be well neigh impossible," said the Rt. Rev.
Catherine Roskam, suffragan bishop of the Diocese of New York, who
serves on the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). "No body of the
Anglican community has that kind of power, and canonically it would
be a legal nightmare to centralize authority. It would undermine, if
not destroy, the essential character of our identity as Anglicans--a
worshiping church gathered together in communion, not a doctrinal
church under a magisterial authority."
The procedure for forming a new province within the Anglican Communion
is centered in the Anglican Consultative Council, made up of 100-plus
lay and clergy members drawn from the present 38 provinces. Every
province has at least one person sitting on the council, and,
depending upon size, may have up to three representatives. As a large
province, the Episcopal Church is entitled to three members-a bishop,
a priest and a lay person-who are elected by the Executive Council.
Forming a new province
The Rev. Bob Sessum, rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in
Lexington, Kentucky, sits on the ACC, along with Roskam and Judith
Conley, lay member from Goodyear, Arizona.. For this article Sessum
described the time-consuming process that would be necessary before a
second province could be recognized in the United States. Since the
geographic United States is already a province, it would have to be
split in some manner for another province to be formed. This has
never before happened for doctrinal reasons.
The ACC requires the presiding officer or primate of the original
province to request it to begin the process leading to division. That
could be the first formidable hurdle for a theoretical new Anglican
province in the United States. "I don't envision the presiding bishop
of the Episcopal Church requesting such a division," Sessum said.
Conservatives suggest a potential new "North American Anglican
province" could incorporate scattered pockets taken from dioceses
throughout the country, and possibly a handful of entire dioceses.
Were this to come about, one might envision the geographic Episcopal
Church looking like a piece of Swiss cheese, with the "holes"
belonging to a totally separate Anglican province. This would be
something dramatically new: one province overlaid on another, with
the two not in communion with each other, yet both part of the
"The general polity has been that dioceses shouldn't overlap,"Mauney
said, though there are a few special exceptions. The Church of New
Zealand has three bishops serving distinct population groups, but they
are part of the same province. Episcopal expatriate churches in
Europe operate in close concert, while the Church of England
permits "flying bishops" to serve churches that refuse to accept the
ordination of women. However, these flying bishops are connected to
the Church of England and don't have independent geographic
It is a near certainty that Bishop Griswold would seek approval from
the General Convention before making any proposal to the ACC. In an
interview with the Associated Press on Sept. 29, he noted that
authorizing a separate Anglican province "would involve our own
decision-making processes, our own constitution. So most likely it
would require action by the General Convention." The next General
Convention is scheduled to meet in 2006.
When the Secretary General of the ACC receives a request to establish
a new province, the matter is turned over to a subcommittee to be
sure all rules and regulations are followed. They have to consider
all the financial arrangements, including clergy pension plans, how
dioceses would be established in the new province, and the
availability of clergy and bishops. A split of the Episcopal Church
would involve negotiations, and quite possibly lawsuits, within
scores of dioceses over the division of property and liquid assets.
When the subcommittee is satisfied all is in order, it sends a
recommendation for approval to the eight-person standing committee of
the ACC, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury. If the standing
committee gives the green light, their recommendation moves on to the
38 primates for approval. And finally, when that is accomplished, the
Archbishop of Canterbury declares the formation of a new province and
invites it into the Anglican Communion.
Sessum said the ACC process takes anywhere from 18 months to three
years or even longer, and the next ACC meeting isn't scheduled until
2005. Establishing a new province is "not done at the snap of a
finger," he said, "and it's just not going to be resolved one way or
the other at the Primates' Meeting. . . . There's not anything the
Archbishop of Canterbury or the primates can do (about forming a new
province) right now."
Scary and unknown reality
As the global debate over human sexuality continues, Douglas said the
true nature of the Anglican Communion turns out to be "a lot messier
than the people on either the right or left want to believe. We've
really grown as a somewhat haphazard communion of churches, where none
of us can say we have no need of each other, and yet there is no one
form to follow."
He points out that there are four churches within the Anglican
Communion that are not exclusively Anglican, but a blend
of "different stripes of Protestantism." These are the churches of
Pakistan, Bangladesh, North India and South India.
"There has been an incredible growth in the Anglican Communion from
its beginnings as basically a North Atlantic communion of English-
speaking people. We're moving into a scary and unknown new
reality . . . and the challenge for all of us is how we move from a
mono-cultural communion to the radical plurality of peoples and
cultures. "Some have the idea we can 'neaten it up.' That's never
been our history."
-- This article originally appeared in the parish paper of St.
Margaret's Episcopal Church in Belfast, Maine