jQuery Slider

You are here

What really happened at the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC 17)?

What really happened at the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC 17)?

May 9, 2019

In a longer than usual post, Andrew Atherstone offers a fascinating account of the meeting in Hong Kong:

It has been a great privilege, and in many ways a joy, to attend the seventeenth meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC-17) in Hong Kong, as part of the Church of England's delegation. We spent eight days enjoying the abundant hospitality of our hosts and discovering the impressive ministry of Hong Kong Anglicanism, especially its serious investment in programmes for social transformation like schools and hospitals. In our business sessions, we were introduced to many global Anglican initiatives such as the nurturing of Anglican women leaders, the promotion of intentional discipleship (and a new suite of resources called Jesus-Shaped Life), the vital work of the Anglican Communion Safe Church Commission, the relief coordinated by the Anglican Alliance in areas of catastrophe like cyclone-hit Mozambique, and the worldwide reach of Thy Kingdom Come in praying for Christian conversions. We nodded at ecumenical agreements, were briefed on the latest plans for Lambeth 2020, and engaged with multiple Anglican networks concerning 'peace and justice', health care, church planting, liturgy, and environmentalism. In line with the Five Marks of Mission, there was something for everyone, both gospel proclamation and social justice, with a weighting towards the latter. It was an excellent week for building better cohesion in the Anglican world, and forming new friendships.

But ACC-17 also raises a number of significant questions about the future of Anglicanism and the interrelationship of the four Anglican 'instruments of communion'. This article offers some personal reflections and critique.

Facing our Disunity

One of the greatest joys of ACC is the opportunity to encounter Anglicans from so many different contexts and cultures across the globe. The number of provinces continues to rise: currently 40, with the recent addition of Sudan in July 2017 and Chile in November 2018; soon to be 42 with new provinces of Sri Lanka and North Africa. Every province may send two delegates to the ACC (one laity, one clergy), and larger provinces also send a bishop, so there are approximately 100 members, of every Anglican variety, speaking Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, English, French, Korean, Japanese, Maori, Portuguese, Samoan, Spanish, Swahili, Zulu, and other tongues. It was beautiful to hear the Scriptures being read in many different languages, and to hear the testimonies of Anglicans from the other side of the globe who share a common faith in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately our times of worship did not reflect that global diversity, and felt more like sitting in a monochrome middle-to-high English parish church. Four of the five midday Communion services were led by white Westerners -- from Canada, Mexico (an American ex-pat), Scotland, and New Zealand -- robed in Anglo-Catholic vestments. The fifth was led by a black bishop from Tanzania, in rochet and chimere, though in identical liturgical format. There was no sign of the vibrancy of worship that we might expect from an international gathering, especially one with such a large number of Africans present. No extempore prayer, no hand raised in praise, no dancing, no exposition of Scripture at any point in the week (apart from the opening and closing sermons in St John's Cathedral). The daily small group Bible studies on the Walk to Emmaus (Luke 24) limped along mournfully. The joy of the gospel was to be found in personal encounters, but not often in plenary.

Overseeing the ACC's work is the standing committee of 14 elected representatives: a chair and vice-chair, five primates elected by their fellow primates from five global regions, and seven others elected from the ACC membership. The current standing committee are spread across the five regions:

• 4 from Africa -- Kenya, Southern Africa (x 2), Tanzania
• 3 from the Americas -- Canada, Central America (x 2)
• 3 from Asia -- Hong Kong, Jerusalem and the Middle East (x 2)
• 3 from Europe -- England, Ireland, Scotland
• 1 from Oceania -- Australia

But of these 14, there are 10 men and 4 women; or 8 bishops, 1 clergy and 5 laity. So there are lots of purple shirts, and a male-dominated committee, even in what is intended as the most representative of the 'instruments of communion'.

Amongst some wonderful moments of delight in the gospel of Jesus Christ, our deep doctrinal disagreements as Anglicans also rumbled along in the background, occasionally breaking cover. One unresolved question is the impact upon the ACC of the 'consequences' imposed upon provinces which have changed their doctrine of marriage. In June 2015, The Episcopal Church (TEC) formally changed its marriage canons, so the primates meeting in January 2016 announced that, for a period of three years, members of TEC would

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. (Primates Communique, 2016)

The Scottish Episcopal Church changed its marriage canons in June 2017, so the primates meeting in October 2017 applied identical restrictions to that province for three years (i.e. until October 2020), though with the added force that 'The Archbishop of Canterbury will take steps within his authority to implement this agreement' (Primates Communique, 2017). The Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil also changed its marriage canons in June 2018, but because the primates have not met since then, they remain unrestricted. Meanwhile the restrictions on TEC timed out in January 2019. So although TEC, Scotland, and Brazil have all changed their doctrine of marriage, only Scotland is restricted. Formal doctrinal change is also expected soon in Canada, New Zealand, and Wales. This situation is farcical. When the primates next meet in Amman, Jordan, in January 2020, they need to clarify whether these restrictions apply to any and every province which has, or might henceforth, change their canons, and what precisely it means to be excluded from standing committees and decisions on doctrine or polity, so far as the ACC and the Lambeth Conference are concerned. The 'consequences' need more substance. We are facing a situation in which a growing group of progressive provinces is increasingly marked out from the rest of the Anglican Communion, and some form of clearer differentiation between us is needed or the Communion will implode.

One visible form of differentiation is to decline eucharistic fellowship. This was my approach to ACC-17. Although I attended all eight communion services, to listen to the Word of God, and to engage in prayer and praise, I did not receive communion because it would be misleading to share the sacrament of unity when our unity is so badly broken. We are all part of the Anglican Communion, but we are not all 'in communion'. If receiving communion together is a sine qua non of inter-provincial Anglican gatherings like the ACC and the Lambeth Conference, then the only option is to stay away. But by making our lack of communion explicit, space is opened up for us to come together in the same room for consultation and conference. A greater number of orthodox bishops will feel able to attend Lambeth 2020 if the organizers explicitly make provision for those who do not feel able, as a matter of theological conscience, to share communion in that setting.

Events like the ACC or the Lambeth Conference are too easily spun as a show of Anglican unity. We bury our heads in the sand, keep controversial topics off the table, and smile for the cameras, as if all is well in the Anglican world. But the best way to promote unity is to face our disunity full in the face. And when we do so, then it becomes possible to continue to meet together to discuss our differences and topics of common concern, without pretense. At the ACC, I happened to be placed on a table including delegations from Scotland and Brazil. Our spiritual unity is disrupted, and we were not able to share communion. But we were able to study the Bible together, to pray for one another, to listen and learn and laugh together. Indeed those interactions were, for me personally, one of the highlights of the ACC, as we sought to understand one another better. In preparation for attending ACC-17, I began a habit of praying the collect used by the St Anselm Community at Lambeth Palace:

Lord Jesus, who prayed that we might all be one,

we pray to you for the unity of Christians,

according to your will, according to your means.

May your Spirit enable us to experience the suffering caused by division,

to see our sin, and to hope beyond all hope.


In God's grace, the suffering caused by division has begun to strike home to me in new ways, not least in the daily pain of separation at the Lord's Table. But experiencing and acknowledging the pain of our disunity motivates us to renewed efforts towards unity, and is healthier than the popular proclamation of a false peace.

Silencing the ACC's Voice

In some ways, the ACC is remarkably informal. There are very limited standing orders, with almost total discretion given to the chair. Members are encouraged to seek consensus in conversation, perhaps in the bar late at night, rather than to clash in public. And resolutions are normally put with a broad question, 'Are you content to give your general assent to this resolution?', to which the room simply replies, 'Yes'. Votes are only taken in rare circumstances, and the proceedings are almost always good-natured. It is mercifully unlike any normal synodical process.

On the other hand, however, the ACC is very tightly controlled. It is designed to prevent the voices of ACC members being heard. Partly this is the result of a strong English-language institutional bias which disenfranchises Anglicans from other cultures. The Archbishop of Canterbury's presidential address was printed in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, but almost every other presentation or contribution from the floor was entirely in English. Likewise every resolution -- some of them complex or controversial -- was only in English. But English is a first-language only for a minority of delegates, and although those who struggle in the medium were invited to bring a translator with them, very few did. Even when discussing trivial questions in the breaks, like the weather or the food, some found it impossible to understand each other. So the likelihood of being able to build a common cause, or to converse constructively on the finer points of Anglican polity, is minimal unless much more is done to facilitate cross-cultural communication. As a result, it is easy for the executive to control the agenda, while the delegates remain as confounded as the builders of Babel.

One strategy was to keep talking at us. Although delegates were arranged around circular tables, for most of the week we might as well have been in a lecture theatre. The agenda was filled by long presentations, all in themselves excellent but allowing only a few brief questions from the floor or snatched comments at tables which were then scribbled on scraps of paper as feedback. It would have been more economic simply to send us the presentations on a DVD in the post, rather than flying us all to Hong Kong for information download.

Another strategy was to quash any discussion of sensitive subjects, with the frequent protestation that at the ACC 'we don't do doctrine' (reminiscent of New Labour's 'we don't do God'). Repeated requests that 'free time' in the programme be devoted to facilitated small group discussion were met by the executive with a brick wall. They argued that according to the ACC's constitution, its object is 'to advance the Christian religion and in particular to promote the unity and purposes of the Churches of the Anglican Communion in mission, evangelism, ecumenical relations, communication, administration and finance' (Constitution 4). This object does not mention doctrine, so it is outside our competence to discuss it. QED! For this reason, a presentation on the Church of England's 'Living in Love and Faith' project on human identity, sexuality and marriage was put in a special category all of its own. It was on the ACC's programme, but not technically part of the formal agenda, lest ACC members mistakenly assumed that such a subject might be their business.

This argument is irrational and felt to delegates like a dodge. It is clearly not the ACC's role to define Anglican doctrine. But it is perfectly within its competence to discuss the relationship between provinces, the actions of the other 'instruments of communion', and reasons behind our strained relationships. Recent meetings of the ACC have passed resolutions on subjects such as the Anglican Communion Covenant, the Continuing Indaba Process, and the primates desire to 'walk together', not to mention numerous ecumenical agreements, all of which have doctrinal dimensions. Indeed ACC-17 has just assumed authority for the reception of ecumenical texts in the Anglican Communion, a deeply doctrinal undertaking.

If the ACC is to live up to its name as a consultative council, then delegates must be allowed to consult. The fact that the agenda is too full to allow much discussion is a poor excuse. ACC-17 was five days shorter than ACC-16, but if we have saved time by undermining our consultative function, then the meeting has been pruned too much. To fly 100 Anglicans around the world, at great expense, and not allow them to engage properly, for fear of what they might say, is a travesty and a missed opportunity.

Oklahoma and Oxford

The executive strategy of silencing sensitive topics backfired spectacularly on the final afternoon. Two resolutions which touched on Anglican polity were held back until the last session, squeezed for time and without any prior discussion. The Bishop of Oklahoma brought forward a resolution which was in many ways excellent. It rightly affirmed the 'respect and dignity' due to every human being, regardless of their sexuality, and called upon the ACC standing committee to collate the results of various 'intentional listening processes' which have taken place around the Communion. The difficulty was a phrase in the preamble: 'and that they should be fully included in the life of the Anglican Communion'. The meaning of 'full inclusion' is ambiguous and hotly contested, and delegates were concerned that these words might be taken to imply the ACC's support for a new doctrine of marriage, or new canons of ordination, and thus provide ammunition for those seeking to undermine the ACC among conservative provinces and further exacerbate our Anglican divisions. It would also be spun by the press as a veiled censure of the Archbishop of Canterbury for not inviting all episcopal spouses to the Lambeth Conference, and thus be used to drive a wedge between the ACC and its president.

The contrast between English and African styles of engagement became apparent. The English method was first to express concerns to the Bishop of Oklahoma in private, and when this did not resolve the dilemma, to use synodical procedure to propose a simple last-minute amendment from the floor (brokered in a lunch-time crisis meeting). My amendment asked that "all should be fully included in the life of the Anglican Communion" be changed to "all are fully welcomed in the life of the Anglican Communion". The Bishop of Oklahoma graciously, if reluctantly, accepted the amendment, which passed by 38 votes to 20. This transatlantic entente was intended to clear the way for enthusiastic support of the Oklahoma resolution. But then, unexpectedly, the silent Africans found their voices, and stood one after another to denounce the resolution. Full-blown crisis ensued, tears flowed, delegates sat in bewilderment and shock, the meeting was suspended, bishops gathered in animated huddles, and a tense peace was only restored when the Archbishop of Canterbury focused the ACC's angst upon himself. An entirely different resolution emerged, requesting the Archbishop to initiate a widespread listening process around the Communion, and expressing concern at his invitations to the Lambeth Conference. The real nature of that concern -- whether at his inclusion of bishops in same-sex marriages, or his exclusion of their spouses -- was not explained.

Delegates were therefore emotionally exhausted by the time we reached the next resolution concerning the unity of the Anglican Communion. The absence of three African provinces had been ignored for the entire week, apart from some rude comments in the General Secretary's opening address, so I brought forward a resolution which struck a note of lament rather than of self-vindication. It gave the ACC an opportunity to acknowledge the pain of our broken Anglican family, and read as follows:

The Anglican Consultative Council, as one of the four Instruments of Communion:

1. recognises our particular responsibility to promote the unity of the Anglican Communion
2. laments the strained and broken relationships between us, as evidenced by the absence of representatives from Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda at ACC-17
3. acknowledges that these broken relationships are often the result of serious theological disagreements
4. requests the Archbishop of Canterbury to consider establishing a theological task group to clarify the core identity and boundaries of the Anglican Communion in the 21st century.

Just three minutes were given to explain the resolution, in which I emphasized the importance of articulating the grief we feel at the divisions between us, and that we still need further ecclesiological work to clarify the Anglican Communion's polity in a fast-changing context, but that this was categorically not the ghost of the Anglican Covenant revived. The Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the resolution; the Bishop of Oklahoma firmly resisted it, fearing that any exploration of Anglican boundaries might signify exclusion. After the intense stress of the previous debate, none had the heart to prolong the conversation, and the resolution fell by 35 votes to 43, with 8 abstentions. On another day we might have had opportunity to discuss the resolution carefully, but it was collateral damage of the earlier battle.

Both the Oklahoma and the Oxford resolutions were well-intentioned. The fact that both fell is a reminder of the deep sensitivities surrounding our Anglican identity, and that it is very difficult to draft simple resolutions which are not open to misinterpretation. But it is also evidence of the failure of the ACC process to foster an environment in which delegates can engage constructively together on these important questions. The ACC executive spent all week trying to keep such topics off the agenda, only for them to blow up on the last afternoon of business. The next day we dispersed to our different corners of the globe, not to meet again for another three years. There must be a better way.

ACNA and the Anglican Communion

One particularly urgent ecclesiological question is the relationship between the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and the Anglican Communion. The 2016 primates meeting observed that:

The consideration of the required application for admission to membership of the Communion of the Anglican Church of North America was recognised as properly belonging to the Anglican Consultative Council. The Primates recognise that such an application, were it to come forward, would raise significant questions of polity and jurisdiction. (Primates Communique, 2016)

In 2017 they added, more bluntly: 'It was confirmed that the Anglican Church of North America is not a Province of the Anglican Communion. We recognised that those in ACNA should be treated with love as fellow Christians' (Primates Communique, 2017). This is to consign ACNA to the category of ecumenical relations, firmly beyond the boundaries of the Anglican Communion. It is a bald assertion, with no explanation or defence. That narrative is repeated in the recent Anglican Communion Office press release about invitations to the Lambeth Conference, that ACNA is 'formed by people who left the Anglican Communion', to which Archbishop Foley Beach (primate of ACNA) responded robustly:

I have never left the Anglican Communion, and have no intention of doing so. I did transfer out of a revisionist body that had left the teaching of the Scriptures and the Anglican Communion and I became canonically resident in another province of the Anglican Communion. I have never left. For the Anglican Church in North America to be treated as mere 'observers' is an insult to both our bishops, many of whom have made costly stands for the Gospel, and the majority of Anglicans around the world who have long stood with us as a province of the Anglican Communion. (Press release, 27 April 2019)

So here's the ecclesiological question: is ACNA part of the Anglican Communion or not? And if not, what steps do they need to take to join the Anglican Communion? Who is going to take up the challenge to answer the 'significant questions of polity and jurisdiction' to which the primates allude? It will not do simply to tell ACNA (or any other province created under similar circumstances) that they are free to apply for permission to enter the Anglican Communion, and that we will begin to consider the case when they do so. On the contrary, the Anglican Communion must first take responsibility for investigating these questions, in a serious and rigorous manner, before any progress can be made. That is why my defeated ACC resolution appealed for clarity on 'the core identity and boundaries of the Anglican Communion in the 21st century'. Which side of the boundary do ACNA fall? If currently outside, then how do they transfer across the boundary? We need an answer!

The Anglican Communion, of course, has no constitution and no legal definition. There is, in that sense, no membership list. But the ACC does have a constitution, attached to which is a Schedule of member churches entitled to appointed members to the ACC. In common parlance the Schedule doubles as a membership list of the Anglican Communion, though technically it is only a list of ACC member churches. At the most prosaic level, this is probably the closest we have to a formal definition of the Anglican Communion. It is not a question about doctrine or liturgy or bishops, but simple whether or not a province is listed on the ACC Schedule. ACNA is not on the list. Provinces may be added to, or deleted from, the Schedule by the ACC standing committee, at the request of two-thirds of the primates (Constitution 7.2). No reply from the primates within four months is deemed as assent. So for ACNA to be added to the Schedule, reckoning at 42 existing provinces, 15 would need to register their opposition for this proposal to fail.

The ACC standing committee also has responsibility to scrutinize the viability of new provinces, as a matter of due diligence. According to the current guidelines, they must be satisfied that the new province is a coherent and sustainable entity, normally composed of at least four dioceses, with a provincial constitution, a strategy for theological education, and proof of financial competence (Guidelines for the Creation of New Provinces and Dioceses, 2012). The first ACC meeting in Limuru, Kenya, in 1971, adds a further stipulation: 'There must be the good will of the existing province in order not to create difficulties of disunity after division' (Resolution 21 on 'Creating and Dividing Provinces'). All current provinces have been created by the division of provinces, by multiplication within the existing boundaries. There is no precedent for adding a church from outside the Anglican Communion, or a church like ACNA which has separated from an existing province on doctrinal grounds, and therefore the ACC guidelines are not fit for purpose for the current realities facing global Anglicanism. We need a leap in our thinking.

The 'significant questions of polity and jurisdiction' which demand urgent consideration, include the following: First, what does it mean to be 'in communion with the see of Canterbury'? The 1930 Lambeth Conference famously described the Anglican Communion as 'a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional churches in communion with the see of Canterbury' (Resolution 49 on 'The Anglican Communion'). ACNA, we are told, is not part of the Anglican Communion, because they are not in communion with Canterbury. It sounds like a knock-down answer. But what does it actually mean? And how would ACNA enter communion with the see of Canterbury? What's the mechanism? It can't mean communion between ACNA and the Church of England, otherwise the Church of England would replace the Archbishop as an 'instrument of communion'. It can't mean communion between ACNA and the Anglican Communion, because that would be tautologous. Does it mean that ACNA and the Archbishop would sign an agreement of some sort? On what terms? We need an answer!

Second, can separate Anglican jurisdictions intermingle or overlap in the same geographical area? Some assert not, and therefore that it is impossible for ACNA to enter the Anglican Communion unless they supplant TEC or reintegrate with TEC. This is a zero sum game. For alternative possibilities we might look to the precedent set by continental Europe (where several separate Anglican jurisdictions intermingle) or to the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia which since the 1990s has three cultural tikanga, each with their own ecclesial jurisdiction, overlapping in the same territory. It must be possible to draw up sensible, practical, negotiated guidelines for how two provinces occupy the same space. But what would this look like? We need an answer!

Third, can two separate provinces be part of the Anglican Communion, if they are not in communion with each other? ACNA and TEC are unlikely to be reconciled doctrinally any time soon. Their relationship would be anomalous, but the Anglican Communion already has a proven capacity for bearing with anomalies. Broken relationships between provinces are already, de facto, a reality of Anglican life. We don't live in the idealistic world described by the standard textbooks on Anglican ecclesiology. In fact, that world has never existed. It is better to bring the fractured parts of global Anglicanism together as closely as possible within the 'instruments of communion', even if not in communion with each other, and live with that tension for the time being, rather than keep them at arm's length until they are fully reconciled. Of course, there may be need for mediated reconciliation on temporal questions (such as property and money), and public repentance for previous bad behaviour on all sides, but full reconciliation between provinces need not be a prerequisite to Anglican Communion membership. The textbooks need to be re-written. What should be the new terms of our relationship in the 21st century? We need an answer!

We need some urgent ecclesiological thinking at this level of detail, focused on ACNA as a worked example. And rather than throwing around brickbats in rival press releases about who is, or who is not, a member of the Anglican Communion, a more nuanced approach is required. For example, one way through the impasse is to think of ACNA as a province within the Anglican Communion (because grown from an existing province, like Sudan, or Chile, or Sri Lanka, or North Africa), but because it has jumped the gun by forming a new province without the agreement of two-thirds of the primates or the ACC standing committee, it is in an anomalous position and its relationship with the 'instruments of communion' needs to be retrospectively regularized.

At the request of the 2016 primates meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed 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' (Primates Communique, 2016). The task group is due to deliver its report to the next primates meeting in January 2020. Building on this work, what we need next is a task group with a more limited remit, commissioned specifically to hammer out the relationship between ACNA and the Anglican Communion, to face the 'significant questions of polity and jurisdiction' head-on, and to draw up a practical map for what integration might look like. The Archbishop of Canterbury could bring together a representative group of church historians, ecclesiologists, and canon lawyers, and lock them in a room until they come up with some much-needed answers to these pressing questions. For the sake of the unity of the Anglican Communion, this work is urgent, and we cannot afford to wait another three years until ACC-18 for it to be initiated.


Andrew Atherstone is Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Church of England's General Synod, The Faith and Order Commission, and the Liturgical Commission

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top