What started out as a “last throw of the dice” to save the Anglican Communion has succeeded–at least for now. One would think there would be some thanksgiving, but instead there is lots of frustration and outrage. I can understand and respect the frustration that those present at the meeting might have felt as they left–reconciliation when parties are at an impasse usually leaves all sides a little worn and tired, and often, a little bit frustrated–in the sense of not getting what they would want in a “perfect world” of their own design. Reconciled, at least initially, may not mean “happy,” though one would hope it might mean the twinkling of a deeper, growing, joy.

But, I suppose upon reflection, frustration with the discipline leveled at The Episcopal Church is understandable and predictable, both from Episcopalians who do not like the idea of being disciplined at all, or perhaps at being singled out1, as well as from those observers–conservative Episcopalians or members of any number of extramural Anglican bodies in the US, or Anglican provinces around the world–who hoped for the more radical discipline of expelling The Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion (though lots of folks are incorrectly reporting–or at least headlines are leading people to believe–that this was the result).

So what were the results of the meeting?

First, I think it’s important to note that, despite our tendency to think about ourselves first, the Primates talked about more than The Episcopal Church and sexuality. With that being said, I will talk about other aspects of the Communique at the end of this post. The Primates were forced to release the portion of the communique dealing with the Episcopal Church early, on Thursday evening, separate from the final communique, because of fears it would be leaked and would be subject to spin from whatever media outlet or blog managed to get ahold of it. This despite the fact that the media blackout at this meeting was much better than in the past.

The vote to expel the Episcopal Church failed. So headlines that say The Episcopal Church has been suspended or expelled from the Anglican Communion are simply false. If you read that claim in the body of an article, I might suggest you just put it away and read something else, since it’s likely they’ve gotten a lot of other details incorrect as well.

The way I summarized the portion dealing with the Episcopal Church was this:

We won’t be called on by the teacher, and we’ve been told to stand in the corner, but we haven’t been expelled from the school.

Functionally, what this means is that the Episcopal Church has been (or the Primates have asked that the Episcopal Church be) suspended from full participation in certain committees of the Anglican Communion. The limits spelled out actually continue and put a time frame on an already existing indefinite limit that prevented Episcopalians from being involved in international conversations representing the Anglican Communion to, say, the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. Indeed, at St. Joseph’s and in the Diocese of Tennessee, we are familiar with one priest that this earlier suspension in 2010 directly affected, The Rev. Carola Von Wrangel, who was the interim for a time at the Church of the Advent in Nashville, and who visited St. Joseph’s in her ministry capacity with Food for the Poor.

This earlier suspension was possible because these are appointed positions and being “suspended” effectively means that the person doing the appointing–usually the Archbishop of Canterbury–simply doesn’t appoint certain people to those bodies.

The new limits are more involved, being related as their are to a body called The Anglican Consultative Council. It will be up to this group to determine how or whether to adhere to the Primates statement.  The exclusion specifically relates to the ability of Episcopalians on certain international commissions within the Communion itself, and asks that Episcopalians not vote on any doctrinal or polity (structural) decisions. As one of my friends, and former professors, who has a very different take on this meeting than me (believing that the primates have overstepped their authority) put it, “in a purely consultative body, there is no distinction between voice and vote.” He brings up an interesting point. Related to it is simply that there have traditionally been very few actual votes taken at these bodies. They’re more tasked with dealing with specific issues, or crafting consensus statements than they are taking up or down votes, especially on doctrine or polity.

Finally, The Rev. Winnie Varghese, a progressive priest from the Diocese of New York with whom many at General Convention became familiar with through the mellifluous tones with which she announced “The vote is open… the vote is closing…. the vote is closed…” made the comment that “Only in the Anglican Communion is not serving on committees for a time considered a real punishment.” I don’t really want to make light of some peoples’ frustration but… OK… yes I do. This needs to be placed in context. There are a lot of people who would enjoy being excluded from committees. Let’s be honest.

All of that said, I think these actions were significant. They are unheard of. And while people may get frustrated with the Primates–fundamentally a teaching body and not an executive or judicial structure–taking such action, I think, absent some sort of spelled out mechanism for dealing with disagreement, these sorts of things are going to remain ad hoc. I think the decisions were hardly surprising, except insofar as they were able to actually come to an agreement at all. I sort of hope that our Presiding Bishop, when he said this was not the result we expected, actually meant this was not the result we hoped for because, honestly, I don’t know how we could’ve expected anything less, short of the meeting simply breaking down, given the last decade of statements etc… from the Communion on these matters, and the previous actions taken to remove Episcopalians from dialogues. Indeed, on Tuesday of the week of the Primates meeting, when a friend asked for my thoughts about the meeting, and what I thought was likely, I indicated that, at the very least, the earlier limits would remain in place, and that there might be some other mechanisms the Primates would have to limit the involvement of The Episcopal Church on some committees etc. I don’t consider myself prescient, so I tend to think it was a predictable response.

What does this actually mean?

My conviction right now though, given the factors in play ahead of time, is that this is a tremendously good outcome that says much about Justin Welby’s gifts in the area of reconciliation, and speaks volumes for his leadership abilities–including the ability to surround himself with good people.  

I say this because of the fact that even having another Primates Meeting, or ever having another Lambeth Conference (the decennial global meeting of Anglican bishops), was in question prior to this meeting. Welby spent the first 18 months of his Archiepiscopate visiting the provinces of the Communion and talking with their primates. The fact he was able to get them all to the same table again was a huge victory. The fact that they remained there until the end, with one exception (the Primate of Uganda), and even that Primate affirmed the desire that all the churches of the communion remain together, stands in stark contrast to the predictions of boycott or walkout that plagued the meeting beforehand and during. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of some particular retirements either. There has been significant turnover among the primates, and, as anyone who has dealt with organizational dynamics knows, sometimes it’s better to deal with a contentious issue after certain personalities have left the stage, especially when they had toxic relationships with one another that would blow up efforts at consensus building.

I think the results–at the very least, the willingness to stay together in a Communion–however parts of the Primate’s statement chafe–are a witness to the power of prayer, and I commend those who planned the meeting. There were a number of steps that struck me as establishing a fruitful atmosphere for such discussion.

First, having the Community of St. Anselm praying for the meeting throughout the deliberations. This is a new monastic community established by Archbishop Welby at Lambeth Palace a few years ago. The prior is Anders Litzell, who grew up in the Swedish Pentecostal church, and came into Anglicanism through St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn Il. while a student at Wheaton College (I think this may have been when Bishop Matthew Gunter was rector there). He was later ordained in the Church of England. His ecclesial journey is in some ways emblematic of the community, which has, as part of its core identity and purpose, the coming together of Christians of various denominations and backgrounds:

In addition to the presence of the Community of St. Anselm, there were consistent calls for prayer from members of the Communion (through a better use of the internet and social media than we have seen in the past, I might add. There were even prayer resources posted). Added to the foundational presence of prayer, were items–relics if you will–to inspire holy remembrance. Reflection on where the Anglican Communion came from, on the faith of those who have taken the gospel to all corners of the world in all times. These two items included the top of Pope St. Gregory the Great’s crozier, thanks to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, alongside the book of the gospels given by St. Gregory to St. Augustine. All of this strikes me as very thoughtful and organized.

To top it off, given that one of the main thrusts of the meeting had to be reconciliation, having Jean Vanier, one of the founders of the L’Arche community, be one of the presenters, was a great way to get folks thinking about the hard work of community and communion.

Prior to and during the meeting, people were predicting a walkout by as many as fifteen of the thirty-eight primates. During the meeting there were stories written about frustration and supposed machinations in the structure of the meeting intended to “keep conservatives apart,” so they couldn’t communicate with one another or stage a protest. Those reports have subsequently been revealed as false, rejected even by some of the most conservative people present, such as Archbishop Foley Beach, of The Anglican Church in North America (a church that some hope, will one day either replace the Episcopal Church as the legitimate representative of Anglicanism in the United States or at least, be recognized alongside the Episcopal Church).

Without some sort of discipline coming out of the meeting, I believe the Communion would likely have fragmented–or at the very least, would’ve remained frozen in conflict. If the Communion had broken up, North Americans wouldn’t suffer appreciably physically–though I think The Episcopal Church would be spiritually impoverished without our Communion connections–but in other parts of the communion there would be real physical consequence to those broken relationships. I don’t think standing in the corner (especially when part of those limits have already been in place for years) is too high a price to pay to prevent that. Doing so also provides for continued engagement on precisely the topics folks are most concerned about. Break relationship completely, and there’s no means to gain a hearing.

The most important decision

I believe the most important decision of the gathering, and the one upon which all else hinges, is the unanimous decision the Primates made “to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ,” as well as their efforts to look “at what that meant in practical terms.” This was the most important decision, and in some ways the most surprising in its unanimity. While it’s true that there’s a three year window during which, following the next General Convention, many primates are probably hoping the Episcopal Church will walk back its decision on marriage (which I don’t think is going to happen) and that other provinces, such as Canada, Scotland, and Aotearoa and New Zealand, will decide not to follow suit (which they probably will anyway), that three years also gives us time. It gives us time, I pray, to find what Archbishop Welby talked about–a means of “disagreeing well,” and moving ahead together.

I do want to note some appreciation for our Presiding Bishop. I disagree with Bishop Curry on a number of issues, but, despite not being in 100% agreement with him, I think we should be thankful that he represented us at the meeting. No offense meant against our previous Presiding Bishop, but I believe Bishop Curry’s manner of expressing his faith is one that could more fruitfully engage with the other primates. I also think that he was able to express the positive reasons behind the actions The Episcopal Church has taken as a body, not in terms of capitulation to culture, but, in the best cases, as part of what many within our body have discerned to be faithfulness to Christ. I think this is a reality that those of us who aren’t completely on board with the changes have to deal with respectfully and thoughtfully. Just as when the people asking for recognition of their relationships are not seen as part of a plot to destroy western civilization, but rather as brothers and sisters in Christ, it changes our perspective, so too does it change the dynamic of a conversation when we recognize that a brother or sister who disagrees with us claims they’re holding their position out of loyalty to Jesus. That’s the place where I believe good conversation and debate amongst Christians has to begin.

Episcopal News Service released an article that contained a portion of Bishop Curry’s remarks prior to the vote:

Before the Jan. 14 vote, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry told the primates gathering Jan. 11-15 in Canterbury, England, that the statement calling for the sanctions would be painful for many in the Episcopal Church to receive.

“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome,” Curry said in remarks he later made available to Episcopal News Service. “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he added. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”

Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” {Read the whole article}

 

How have people been reacting?

With anger, frustration, and hurt, or with exasperation that more wasn’t done. Others have been more temperate. Below are a collection of responses from people in significant positions, or whose response I thought was just well written:

The Rev. Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church (the person who chairs the larger of the two deliberative bodies that make up General Convention), wrote a response in which she reiterated the limits of the Primates authority, the commitment that General Convention would not go back on the decisions that have been made, and that she would attend the Anglican Consultative Council as planned, and intends to “participate fully.” She expressed her appreciation for the Primate’s condemnation of homophobia, and of the criminalization of homosexuality, but shared her concerns for LGBTI community, particularly in Africa. {Read it all}

Bishop Matt Gunter of Fon du Lac, someone who supports the actions of General Convention in regard to marriage, but who would otherwise not generally be called a “progressive,” wrote shared his response on his blog, writing in part “It is important to note that this is not about whether or not the Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion. We are. That has not changed. Rather, this is a recognition of the deep disagreement with the decisions we have made. I have argued more or less in support of the position taken by the Episcopal Church. I still believe we are on a faithful path. But, I take seriously the strains this has put on our Communion. It is possible to believe that one is right while accepting that acting on that conviction might come with consequences. And then to accept the consequences.” {Read it all}

Bishop Daniel Martins, of Springfield, (Bishop Dan preached at St. Joseph’s a few years ago when the House of Bishops met in Nashville), writes “The Anglican Communion is absolutely vital to our identity as Episcopalians. It calls us out of ourselves and our time-bound and place-bound needs and perceptions. It resources our life of worship and devotion as we drink from the font of accumulated centuries of Christian experience long before the gospel even reached these shores. Our communion with the ancient See of Canterbury is the primary means by which we connect to the great Catholic tradition, the historic episcopate by which we remain faithful to the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (language from our Baptismal Covenant). Without the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church would be just one more obscure boutique American sect. It’s not an optional extra, but is of the essence of who we are.” {Read it all}

Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, my own bishop, writes the following:

“The Primates of the Anglican Communion concluded their meeting today with the issuing of a Communique dealing with a wide range of issues, including climate change, the rise of religiously motivated violence in many places of the world, and the need for child protection measures in all the churches of the Communion. They committed themselves and the churches of the Communion to the evangelical proclamation throughout the world of “the person and work of Jesus Christ.”

But there is no doubt that matters of human sexuality, in particular the 2015 action of the Episcopal Church in changing its marriage canons to make possible the marriage in the church of same-sex couples, dominated the discussions of the Primates. Members of the Diocese of Tennessee should be cautious in reading the headlines in the media. “Addendum A” of the Communique outlines the actual steps to be taken as a result of the Episcopal Church’s action at the General Convention this summer. Members of our church will no longer be appointed to represent the Anglican Communion in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues. They should no longer be appointed or elected to standing committees of the Communion, and in internal bodies of the Communion our representatives will not take part in decisions about matters of doctrine or polity.

Some members of our church will be surprised at these developments, or wonder at their sense or logic, yet they were foreseeable in terms of previous developments and outcomes over the past decade and a half.” {Read it all}

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s brief response is shared in the video below, but I encourage you to watch the longer video in which he reflects on some of the background and context as well, which is included later in the post:

In the media and on the internet, responses have run the gamut. Theologian, The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner has written about the meeting in First Things, saying:

The extraordinary meeting of world Anglican leaders, organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has ended after five days of prayer and deliberation. The meeting’s outcome, articulated in a statement released Friday, has surprised many. When Archbishop Welby called for the meeting of Anglican Primates last September—the Primates are mostly archbishops who head their respective churches—the press billed the gathering as a “last ditch effort to save the Anglican Communion.” Others, claiming inside knowledge of the goings on in Welby’s circle, ominously reported that he was ready to “dismantle” the Communion altogether, in view of intractable divisions among its members. And it is true: Welby presented the Primates with a series of possible ways forward for Anglicanism, that included a radical loosening of relationships.

As it has turned out, however, the Primates decided (“unanimously”) to stay the course of the Communion’s established order, indeed to strengthen that ordering and to maintain the ecclesial commitments that lie behind it. {Read it all}

Some have argued that the results of the meeting, and the consequences announced in the Primates Communique is nothing less than sheer hypocrisy (see Jonathan Merritt’s piece in the Atlantic: The Hypocrisy of Anglican Church’s Suspension of the Episcopal Branch ). I deal with some of Merritt’s critique below in my annotations on the Primates statement itself.

Others have pointed out some of the problematic tones taken by criticism of the Primates:

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently, uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame — implicitly and explicitly — “Asian” culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism. {Read it all}

Others, have called out the rancor that seems to be infecting many responses. The Rev. Canon Robert Hendrickson, of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, writes:

“The Episcopal Church – this supposedly high-minded and elevated form of rational Christianity – has succumbed to the nastiest abusiveness of fellow Christians.  Whether it is the veiled racism of referring to “the Africans” or the copious use of various forms of the word “bigot” or casting the acts of the Primates as devious and underhanded – we are reacting in ways entirely out of proportion to the sanction that we have received.” (Read it all)

Hendrickson’s closing is perhaps the best word I’ve yet seen on the matter: “So let’s take a breath and heed Psalm 37, ‘Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.'”

I would encourage folks to watch the video of the post meeting press conference, as well as Bishop Curry’s more in depth response, and then read the Communique in full below.

 

A longer interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry following the Primates meeting:

The Primates Communique, with my comments bracketed and in bold italics:

Continue reading


  1. People have rightly pointed out that the Windsor Report, which in some ways laid the foundation for much of what has transpired since, even though it has not been adhered to completely, condemns the crossing of church boundaries by bishops from one province into another, such as that which happened with the establishment of The Anglican Mission in America (Originally Rwanda, now… well, it’s complicated), The Convocation of Anglicans in North America (Nigeria), as well as various parishes sponsored by Kenyan, Ugandan, and various South American provinces, which have mostly now joined together into the Anglican Church in North America. I suppose the argument of the border crossing bishops would be that they are not now actively crossing borders, the division now being maintained wholly by the choice of Americans. There is a bit more meat to the charge of hypocrisy related to the criminalization of homosexuality in some African countries, with the support of some Anglicans. But the situation is not exactly the same, because, on the one hand the Communion is dealing with official legislative actions by The Episcopal Church, while on the other it is dealing with opinions and political positions taken by individual Anglicans, which, while including some clergy, it still pretty far out of the scope of something one would discipline a province for. The one charge of hypocrisy that does, in some ways, ring true, has to do with the Anglican Church of Canada, which is not so far removed from the Episcopal Church. The answer to why The US has been disciplined and the Canadians have not, to my mind, is related to the same issues that lead some folks to say that you should claim to be Canadian and not American when you travel abroad. People have a chip on their shoulder about what they perceive–whether rightly or wrongly in any particular situation, as American arrogance. []