The Archbishop of Canterbury today addressed General Synod, reporting on his travels in the last 18 months to visit with every primate (senior bishop) of the Anglican Communion.
It is a good address and he highlights several central issues to the future of the Communion: the opportunity and threat of instantaneous communication, the suffering of the church, the important day-to-day work of the church, and, simply, that Anglican churches around the world are flourishing. It is impossible to contest any of these points.
Readers of my book Backpacking through the Anglican Communion will not be surprised that I particularly liked this section:
The future of the Communion requires sacrifice. The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours. Groups of like-minded individuals meeting to support and encourage each other may be necessary, indeed often are very necessary, but they are never sufficient. Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree. What may be necessary in the way of party politics, is not sufficient in what might be called the polity of the Church.
Talking with people we disagree is an important spiritual discipline—Jesus did it all the time—and like all such disciplines it self-evidently involves sacrifice.
But there were two areas of the address where I wanted to hear more.
The first is the archbishop’s continued emphasis on episcopal—and particularly archiepiscopal—leadership. This is not surprising, given that he himself is an archbishop, that he is reporting on visits with other archbishops, and that the structures of governance in the Anglican Communion, such as they are, are dominated by bishops.
Given the last decade(s) of life in the Anglican Communion, might it not be time to ask how we might credibly lift up the voices of other Anglicans in conversations about our future together? The archbishop makes no mention of the flourishing work of many of the Anglican Communion’s networks or of the serious work done in diocese-to-diocese relationships and the Continuing Indaba program. Nor does he mention a recent call by some bishops and primates for another Anglican Congress, an event expressly designed to move beyond simply hearing bishops’ voices. It is precisely in these areas that we see the kind of flourishing and sacrifice that the archbishop rightly highlights.
Again, none of this is a surprise, given his position and his interlocutors. But surely there is a more exciting way to frame a future agenda than in terms of a potential Primates’ Meeting and a Lambeth Conference, two meetings which will be dominated by men and (of course) bishops.
The second concern is related to the first. In addition to highlighting the flourishing of the church, he repeatedly discusses the divisions in the church. I want to be very clear that I understand that there are divisions within the church, not only over sexuality but (as the archbishop rightly notes) over a host of other issues as well. I have experienced these divisions in many, personal ways, as have many Anglicans around the world.
But I also think we need to be clear that there is a great spirit in the Communion of relatedness and connection in spite of (and often because of) these apparent divisions. This is not often a message we hear from our purple-clad leadership but it is my experience—and I know that I am also not alone in this—that when we move past outspoken bishops, we find not agreement on divisive issues but a real effort at reconciliation. Part of the reason I wrote Backpacking was to highlight these very voices, those that don’t agree with me on every last issue but with whom I nonetheless found deep relationship based on our common baptism and commitment to the good news of Jesus Christ.
I think Justin Welby has lots of good things to say about the Anglican Communion. I think he places great value on this aspect of his role. But his position—as all positions do—places confines and constraints on him. I hope he can continue to see beyond them and lead us all into seeing beyond our own shortcomings.