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Primates – ‘A crucial and critical point’: TLC 10.13.03 October 13, 2003

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Living Church, New Hampshire, Primates Meeting 2003, The Episcopal Church.
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First printed in The Living Church magazine.

Following two days of highly anticipated and lengthy sessions at Lambeth Palace in London, the primates of the Anglican Communion emerged from the tightly secured venue to announce that the Episcopal Church will not face immediate discipline for its controversial General Convention votes on human sexuality last summer. That possibility remains, according to a final unanimous statement released after the meeting which indicated that if the consecration of a non-celibate homosexual person as Bishop of New Hampshire proceeded as scheduled Nov. 2 “we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy.”

Cloistered behind the medieval battlements of Lambeth Palace, the primates met Oct. 15-16 in the most important pan-Anglican gathering since the first Lambeth Conference of 1867. And like that first Lambeth Conference, called by the Archbishop of Canterbury in response to a crisis of faith and order occasioned by a bishop, John Colenso of Natal, South Africa, the Primates came to London to decide what to do about a bishop whose election has unleashed theological and doctrinal divisions that may destroy the Anglican Communion.

The affirmation of the election of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire by the 74th General Convention on Aug. 5 and the formal acknowledgement that same-sex blessings are occurring, without disciplinary consequences, in some dioceses has brought the Anglican Communion to the brink of collapse. Prior to the meeting a majority of primates, comprised of most of the Southern Hemisphere, appeared to favor a firm line against the Episcopal Church, with some calling for discipline and even expulsion. Other primates, particularly among those from industrialized countries, have stressed the importance of respecting geographical boundaries and questioned whether the Communion is empowered with disciplinary authority.

The meeting reportedly did not begin well for the Global South coalition when the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested opening with the Holy Eucharist. The Most Rev. Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria and the primatial spokesperson for the Global South coalition, said he and the others were not in communion with the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, and would not participate if the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church did. Archbishop Williams suggested that if all did not take part in the Eucharist, there would be no meeting. The Eucharist proceeded. Weaknesses in the coalition became further evident when the meeting opened officially and each primate was separately given about 10 minutes to expound on the theological and practical reasons why communion had been jeopardized between the Episcopal Church and his province.

When the expositions were mostly completed, the Primate of Ireland, the Most Rev. Robert Robin Eames, was made available around 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon for a brief, unplanned press conference at which he announced that there was unanimous consensus that the Communion was worth preserving and that he had never attended or been involved in a meeting at which “such openness, frankness and honesty” had been expressed. The primates continued to meet while Archbishop Eames conducted the press conference and the meeting on Wednesday did not conclude until after 9 p.m. The meeting ran longer than anticipated the following day as well.

If the theological argument in favor of discipline was weakened by participation in the Eucharist and the individual testimonies, the legal argument that the Anglican Communion was organizationally capable of administering discipline to an errant province was terminated by the Archbishop of Canterbury before it got started when he said he lacked the canonical and ecclesiastical tools to apply discipline at present.

That issue will be addressed thoughtfully based on the primates’ final statement which unanimously called on Archbishop Williams to establish a commission “to consider his [the Archbishop of Canterbury’s] own role in maintaining communion within and between provinces when grave difficulties arise.” The statement goes on to specify that the commission include “urgent and deep theological and legal reflection on the way in which the dangers we have identified at this meeting will have to be addressed.” That part of the commission’s work is requested within 12 months.

“It is clear that recent controversies have opened debates within the life of our Communion which will not be resolved until there has been a lengthy process of prayer, reflection and substantial work in and alongside the commission which we have recommended.”

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh was “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome of the meeting prior to its start and expressed gratitude for the primates’ work at the conclusion. Bishop Duncan, along with Bishops John W. Howe of Central Florida, Jack Iker of Fort Worth, and Daniel Herzog of Albany presented the case for intervention by the primates in the “pastoral emergency” in the American Church to a group of primates, led by Archbishop Akinola, at a private meeting held at St. Paul’s Church, Robert Adam Street, London, on Oct. 14. The Rev. David Roseberry, rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and host of the AAC-sponsored conference in Dallas the previous week, delivered to the gathering of 17 primates the signed declarations from the “A Place to Stand” conference.

Hastily moved to St. Paul’s from All Souls’, Langham Place, after The Times revealed the location of the meeting the previous day, the American delegation of four bishops, and AAC president, the Rev. Canon David Anderson, board member the Rev. Canon Martyn Minns, rector of Truro parish, Fairfax, Va., and advisor Professor Christopher Seitz of St Andrew’s University, Scotland, along with representatives of the Anglican Mainstream, a group of English evangelicals formed during the Jeffrey John affair, discussed the consequences of inaction by the primates. Should the primates fail to admonish or discipline the American Church, the AAC said, traditionalist dioceses and parishes would see tremendous losses in membership and financial support as people abandoned the Episcopal Church over the “apostasy” and “heresy” espoused by General Convention.

The primates gathered at St Paul’s told the AAC that they supported the call for reform and renewal of the Episcopal Church. The Archbishop of the West Indies, the Most Rev. Drexel Gomez, the AAC was told, had met privately with Archbishop Williams that morning, and had shared with him the five-point plan prepared at a meeting of primates Sept. 26 in Nairobi. Archbishop Gomez reported, in the words of one of the participants, that Archbishop Williams “has given signals that he is on our side.” A second participant in the meeting told The Living Church that Archbishop Williams had agreed to at least “75 percent of what we wanted, and there may be a further 20 percent that is do-able.”

‘Godly Admonition’ Sought

Based upon two studies, “To Mend the Net” and “True Union,” the five-point plan would first call for the affirmation of the 1998 Lambeth Conference statement on human sexuality. It would also seek a formal declaration that the Episcopal Church and the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster had violated Church teaching as summarized in the Lambeth declaration. The primates would issue a “godly admonition” coupled with a call to repentance given to the American Church and Bishop Michael Ingham of New Westminster. If they did not recant their errors and persisted in following a course of conduct and teaching contrary to the mind of the wider Church, disciplinary measures would be taken. The American Church and New Westminster would be expelled from the Anglican Communion and a new reformed ecclesial body would be reconstituted in North America in communion with Canterbury and the Anglican Communion.

Following the meeting, Bishop Herzog said the primates unequivocally supported four of their five points, with the fifth — discipline — still a possibility in the future.

The Rev. Michael Hopkins, rector of St. George’s, Glenn Dale, Md., and past president of Integrity, said the primates’ final statement was one with which gay and lesbian Episcopalians could live, particularly given some of the statements prior to its start.