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A response to the Primates Gathering 2016 Statement: Where do we go from here?

A response to the Primates Gathering 2016 Statement: Where do we go from here?

January 15, 2016

I am writing from Canterbury, England, where the staff of the American Anglican Council has been on site assisting Archbishop Foley Beach and the GAFCON Primates in their witness at the Primates gathering this week. There is a saying about the fog of war: when it descends, there is often confusion and disorientation in the midst of the fight. Here, it would certainly be fair to say that situations changed on a daily, if not hourly basis. In the fog of war, rarely are battles decisive. More often, they turn out to be one step among many in a long and costly road to victory.

With that perspective, I wish to point out in the Communique from the Primates, Addendum A, the response of the Primates by an overwhelming majority to the request of GAFCON and Global South Primates to discipline The Episcopal Church (TEC), found in paragraphs 7 and 8:

7. 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these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal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.

8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.

Let’s be honest. The statement is not everything we had hoped for. I have just finished listening to the Primates Press Conference, where the Archbishop of Canterbury stated multiple times “These are NOT sanctions. Rather, they are consequences for acting autonomously in an interdependent fellowship.” When asked about the Task Group in paragraph 8, and whether at the end of three years it would simply do as previous task forces had done with respect to TEC – to study, report and take no action, the Archbishop said “I don’t know.” The Primate of Hong Kong followed by saying the task force “will inquire and study.” These comments are not hopeful with regards to restoring the doctrine, discipline and order of the Communion.

It is true that the consequences spelled out in paragraph 7 remove TEC from (1) representation on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, (2) election or appointment to internal Standing Committees of the Anglican Communion, and (3) in all other “internal bodies” on which TEC may sit (like the Anglican Consultative Council) they will not take part in decision making on matters of doctrine or polity. These are more than reasonable, extremely measured limits on TEC.

In reality, the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) is in the driver’s seat and it will depend on him. He is reported as having given his personal word to the Primates gathered together that he will follow through on paragraphs 7 and 8. But since there is no Biblical call for repentance in either paragraph, it is difficult to imagine what assignment or benchmark TEC will need to demonstrate to restore its relationship to the Communion. With even less clarity and specificity than the Primates gave to TEC at Dar es Salaam (2007), what reason do we have to believe that these “consequences” will have any more effect? What objective benchmark is there for this Archbishop, much less the task force, to measure TEC’s response over the next three years? Is it simply a reversal of the Same-Sex Marriage canon (Res. A054) at General Convention 2018, while everything else remains status quo?

At a deeper level, we must also recognize that the Instruments of Communion, including the ABC, still suffer a hopeless deficit of authority to resolve the doctrinal differences that deepen the wound in our Communion. Apart from the statement upholding traditional marriage in paragraph 4, the Primates statement does nothing to address that doctrinal wound. In fact, it leaves out most of the teaching in Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) on holiness of life, celibacy for those outside marriage, and holy orders.

Since the very first Lambeth Conference of 1867, the Archbishops of Canterbury and other Anglican leaders have preferred structural solutions to doctrinal teaching. It is the default position, on the assumption that “doctrine divides.” But avoiding the doctrinal divisions through structural solutions via covenants and committees has simply perpetuated and deepened false teaching. Therefore it is time for GAFCON and others to pick up the mantle of Anglican confessional identity, and communion rightly defined on a sharing of Christian essentials, and to build on that regardless of what else happens within the “official” structures of the Anglican Communion.

President Reagan is oft quoted for saying “Trust, but verify.” The AAC has spent the last 20 years documenting and verifying, often in great detail. We will certainly continue to monitor developments, facts, statements, etc. over the next three years with regards to paragraphs 7 and 8. We will make those facts available for verification “for those who have ears to hear.” But we will be turning our efforts and resources to the development of biblically faithful leaders empowered by the Holy Spirit, for the ACNA and other Churches of the Anglican Communion. We will be coaching future leaders, existing leaders, and those who desire to finish well for Christ. We will be focusing on church revitalization and remissioning wherever we are called. We will continue to build a society of Great Commission Anglican Churches – here in North America, and around the world.

For it is peoples’ eternal destinies that are at stake.

Canon Phil Ashey is CEO of the American Anglican Council

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