ALEXANDRIA PRIMATES MEETING
By Ted Lewis
March 25, 2009
The meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion held in Alexandria, Egypt from February 1 to 5 was not lacking in significance. But its significance was perhaps less in its pronouncements than in what was not said. It seemed to mark the acceptance, finally, of the unbridgeability of the Communion's divide over sexuality and biblical authority, while leaving the implications this conclusion still to be worked out.
The Primates are the heads of the 38 provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion. Chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, they have been meeting every two years, lastly in Dar es Salaam in February 2007. As for the recent background of their current meeting, to which in some fashion they were responding, there were two major Anglican Communion events in the summer of 2008. One was Gafcon (Global Anglican Future Conference), held in Jerusalem at the end of June. It represented orthodox provinces and entities, mainly from the Global South, and its concern was to assert an orthodox voice within the Communion, given the current divide over sexuality and biblical authority.
The other was the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of the Communion's bishops in Canterbury, in early August. Its concern seemed to be with the portrayal of the Communion's unity. Since then there have been further developments: the secession of three more dioceses (Pittsburgh, Quincy, and Fort Worth, in addition to San Joaquin) from The Episcopal Church (TEC), the deposition (and post-secession reinstatement) of Bob Duncan as Bishop of Pittsburgh, and the unveiling of a constitution and canons for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) as a separate province of the Communion. The ACNA is the intended successor to the Anglican Communion Network and other bodies, now joined as the Common Cause Partnership.
The Alexandria Primates' meeting is not readily characterized. Its complexities can be approached, however, through its communiqué, seen against the backdrop of their Dar es Salaam meeting. Alexandria's (full text available www.aco.org/acns/news.cfm/2009/2/5/ACNS4574) concerned in considerable part such matters as Zimbabwe, the Sudan, theological education, global warming, the financial crisis. Already in the first paragraph, however, was the significant sentence, "There was a common desire to speak honestly about our situation."
Such speaking evidently did take place. The communiqué went on, "We were reminded powerfully of the sense of alienation and pain felt in many parts of the Communion, as many are tested by difficult theological tensions." Moreover, "One of the chief matters addressed was the continuing deep differences and disrupted relationships in the Anglican Communion. We acknowledge the difficult nature of these tensions, which evoke deep feelings and responses... " Further, "The soul of our Communion has been stretched and threatened by the continuation of our damaged and fractured relationships."
Finally, "There are continuing deep differences especially over the issues of the election of bishops in same-gender unions, Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions, and on cross-border interventions. The moratoria requested by the Windsor Report and reaffirmed by the majority of bishops in the Lambeth Conference were much discussed. If a way forward is to be found and mutual trust to be re-established, it is imperative that further aggravation and acts which cause offence, misunderstanding or hostility cease.... " And it set a parameter for such discussions: "[T]he position of the Communion defined by the Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10 [on sexuality] in its entirety remains... " There is an apparent reference as well to the ACNA: "We earnestly desire reconciliation with these dear sisters and brothers for whom we understand membership of the Anglican Communion is profoundly important."
By themselves these statements might sufficiently reassure the orthodox. In every instance, however, they are followed by a balancing, which takes away some of the force. As one example, the "pain and alienation" of the first one cited above is followed by an assurance that "there was a discernable mood of graciousness among us in our engagements, a mood which assisted and sustained our conversation."
Moreover, the communiqué lacks any mention of the 57 of so lawsuits which TEC, along with some liberal dioceses, has brought against congregations and dioceses undertaking to leave it-for the targets of these suits the sorest point of all. To be sure, it endorses the Lambeth Conference's call for a pastoral council and provincial visitors to deal with such matters. But not only have such devices proved ineffective in the past, they fall far short of what the Dar es Salaam communiqué specified. This was, inter alia, clarification by TEC of its position on same-sex moratoria by a date certain, and suspension of all lawsuits against departing congregations and dioceses.
Despite these considerations, Global South archbishops who were leaders in Gafcon expressed considerable satisfaction with the meeting. The Living Church quoted Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone as saying, " Archbishop Peter Akinola [of Nigeria] is pleased, I'm pleased, Henry [Orombi of Uganda] is pleased" with the outcome of the meeting.
Further, according to The Living Church, Archbishop Orombi lauded the leadership of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, saying he "chaired the meeting very wisely" and was "very sensitive." So we are confronted here with the question of how to account for these statements Has Archbishop Rowan's strategy of Indaba, of smoothing over differences through unlimited conversations so evident at Lambeth, in the end prevailed? Have these orthodox archbishops succumbed to his personal charm? Or have they given up on retrieving the American orthodox in favor of getting on with their own affairs?
That none of the above is really the case was evident from the grounds that Orombi and Venables gave for their satisfaction. This was that the conversation at the meeting, while mutually respectful, had made clear the unbridgeability of the Communion's divide. Such a conclusion is furthered by the open letter that Archbishop Akinola addressed to Archbishop Rowan subsequent to the meeting. He began by acknowledging Rowan's gracious and sensitive conduct of the meeting. But then he spoke of the report which the American Anglican Council had prepared at his request and which he was attaching.
It catalogues the pronouncements and actions of TEC in recent years and their deviation from basic Anglican norms. (A similar report was prepared on the Canadian church.) Although he had shared it with his Global South colleagues, he had not released it earlier, in hopes that the leadership of TEC might yet heed the repeated calls to them for "gracious restraint." This had not proved to be the case, however, and so he was now releasing the report---a 42-page indictment of TEC (available on the AAC web site, www.americananglican.org).
So, evidently, the Gafcon primates have neither given up the fight nor cast off their American brothers and sisters. A major question remains, however: what happens next? They have not indicated any further action of their own. To be sure, significant events are in the offing. The Anglican Consultative Council is to meet in May; TEC's next General convention comes in July; and some time this summer the ACNA, its constitution and canons having been ratified by its member entities, will hold its constituent assembly.
And having now established Gafcon, these primates now have a platform of their own from which to respond. Their reticence in the meantime may seem to leave TEC, the ACNA, and thus also those located somewhere between, up in the air. But perhaps it reflects their recognition that in the end the Anglican Communion will be redeemed not by any human effort but by the Lord. And perhaps we need to recognize this too.
---The Rev. Ted Lewis is resident theologian at All Saints' Church, Chevy Chase, MD
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