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Primates meeting opens in a fog of confusion: CEN 2.02.09 February 2, 2009

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Primates Meeting 2009.
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First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

The 2009 Primates Meeting in Alexandria has opened in a fog of confusion with little expectation the five day meeting will resolve the Anglican crisis.

In their fourth meeting since the 2003 emergency session called by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams to respond to the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, the primates appear exhausted and frustrated, unsure of their authority within the Anglican Communion and the purpose of the meeting.

The viability of the Primates Meeting as one of the communion’s four “instruments of unity” is also under question. Archbishop Peter Akinola has urged primates to be consistent and not abandon the undertakings and pledges made at past gatherings. Others have voiced frustration with the communion’s current ecclesial structures, suggesting that Alexandria and the May meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Jamaica may be the last pan-Anglican global gatherings.

The primates have come at the invitation of Dr. Williams to Alexandria, the Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council, Canon Kenneth Kearon said, to review the work of the Lambeth Conference, explore issues of common interest, and prepare for the gathering of the ACC in Jamaica in May.

Australian Archbishop Philip Aspinall noted the primates meeting were times of “deep conversation, prayerful conversation” that allowed the primates to “get to know one another,” and for the wider church to hear what “issues were important” in their local churches.

Created as a forum for personal conversation by the primates by Archbishop Donald Coggan in 1979, the role of the Primates Meeting has expanded in response to the divisions over doctrine and discipline within the Anglican Communion. In 1988 the Lambeth Conference adopted resolution 18.2(a) encouraging a collegial role for the Primates meeting to enable it “to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters.”

The 1998 Lambeth Conference further enhanced the role of the Primates Meeting asking that it intervene “in cases of exceptional emergency which are incapable of internal resolution within provinces, and giving of guidelines on the limits of Anglican diversity in submission to the sovereign authority of Holy Scripture and in loyalty to our Anglican tradition and formularies.”

A return now to the “talking-shop” model of the early 1980′s would not work, one African archbishop told The Church of England Newspaper, while Archbishop Peter Akinola told some of his colleagues on Feb 1 that the primates must be consistent in their actions and not walk away from the undertakings made at the last three meetings.

As the primates began to arrive at the Helnan Palestine Hotel on Alexandria’s corniche, splinter groups on the left and right met to prepare strategies for the meeting. The larger conservative faction met on the afternoon of Jan 31. “Long distances” and “poor communications” in the developing world necessitated the pre-conference meeting, Presiding Bishop Maurice Sinclair, retired primate of the Southern Cone told CEN.

Bishop Sinclair, who after retirement served a term as Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo and as visiting lecturer at the Alexandria School of Theology, stated he had not been part of the strategy group for the Global South primates, but had been invited by the Bishop of Egypt, the Rt. Rev. Mouneer Anis to greet the primates on his behalf.

Not all of the Global South primates participated in the meeting, due to varying travel schedules. However, one primate said they hoped to prepare an action plan for the gathering, highlighting issues of common importance to the Global South.

The official agenda was finalized on Jan 31, changing Sunday Feb 1 to a “meet and greet” day, with the first business session pushed back to Feb 2. The meeting opened with an informal eucharist in the Palestine Hotel’s Dahabra conference room followed by prayer and conversation—-a “mini-indaba” one staffer said.

Located on the eastern edge of the city in the Montazah Palace Gardens, the 60′s vintage hotel was built on the site for King Farouk’s summer palace and played host to the Arab League summit that gave birth to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

After lunch the primates held an introductory session, with each primate introducing himself to the group, and Dr. Williams offered an overview of the meeting. No formal business was conducted, one primate told CEN, as they had merely exchanged “platitudes” all day.

The primates closed the first day of the meeting with a service at St. Mark’s Anglican Church, followed by a 4:30 service at St. Mark’s Anglican Church on Central Alexandria’s MidanTahrir (Liberation Square). The colonial era church, replete with plaques and memorials to British war dead, was re-consecrated as a pro-Cathedral of the Diocese of Egypt.

In his sermon to the ebullient congregation of Alexandrine Anglicans, Dr. Williams spoke of the city’s place in Christian history, and offered an oblique criticism to the conservative primates. Extolling the virtues of finding Christ in one’s neighbor, Dr. Williams urged quietness, stillness and respect for diversity upon his peers.

In a theme sounded at the Lambeth Conference and at past international Anglican confabs, Dr. Williams urged toleration of dissent and diversity, arguing that by excluding or denigrating those who were different, we were excluding the Christ that was within them.

Asked after the service if he took issue with Dr. Williams’ pointed words, a senior African primate smiled and declined to be drawn, saying only that he had “heard what he said.”

Following the service a group photograph was taken. At the 2007 Primates’ Meeting, a number of primates declined to receive the Eucharist with US Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and objected to appearing in a group photograph with her. Organizers of the 2009 conference finessed the issue this time round as Bishop Jefferts Schori was not scheduled to arrive in Alexandria until the second day.

Thirty-four of the Communion’s 38 provinces will be present during the course of the five-day meeting. Two primates: the Rt. Rev. Samuel Azariah, Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, and the Rt. Rev. John Gladstone, Moderator of the Church of South India, informed ACC secretary general Canon Kenneth Kearon that scheduling conflicts prevented them from attending the gathering, while the Moderator of the Church of North India, the Rt. Rev. Purley Lyndoh is understood to have a scheduling conflict.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, the Most Rev. Edward Malecdan was refused a visa by the Egyptian government and will not be able to attend, while visa difficulties have delayed the arrival of the Primate of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, the Most Rev Daniel Deng Bul Yak.

Three provinces are currently without primates and will be represented by their senior bishop: the Rt. Rev. Errol Brooks, Bishop of Northeastern Caribbean and Aruba for the Church of the Province of the West Indies, the Rt. Rev. Albert Chama, Bishop of Northern Zambia for the Church of the Province of Central Africa, and the Rt. Rev. Charles Koete, Bishop of the Central Solomon Islands for the Anglican Church of Melanesia.

The US Presiding Bishop will miss the opening day of the gathering, but will be present for the start of the business sessions on Feb 2. Departing from the Executive Council meeting in California on the evening of Jan 31, Bishop Jefferts Schori is scheduled to arrive in Egypt in the early morning hours of Feb 2.

The four primates who boycotted the Lambeth Conference: the Most Rev. Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the Most Rev. Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, the Most Rev. Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya, and the Most Rev. Henry Orombi of Uganda will be present for the gathering.

Ten new primates have been elected since the 2007 meeting, and seven will be on hand: the Rt. Rev. Paul Sishkir Sarkar of Bangladesh, the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz of Canada the Most Rev. Paul Kwong of Hong Kong, the Most Rev. Stephen Than Myint Oo of Myanmar, the Most Rev David Moxon of New Zealand, the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba of Southern Africa and Archbishop Deng of the Sudan.

Symbolic of the Anglican ennui is the absence of many outside lobbyists from Alexandria. Unlike past gatherings, few of the Communion’s advocacy groups are present, and at the start of the Conference only a handful of journalists have been accredited.

On Feb 2 the primates will hold their first full working day, with sessions devoted the Anglican Covenant, the crisis in Zimbabwe, and to presentations from several primates on the question: “What impact has the current situation had on your province’s Mission priorities.”

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