Preparing for the Primates

Leaders of Anglican churches around the world will be gathering in Canterbury next week. It’s a so-called “primates meeting,” named because each is the chief bishop in his—and they are all men—church. The last of these meetings was held in January 2016. Here are some of the things I’ll want to learn as this meeting unfolds.

Primates in Canterbury, 2016

Follow through from the last meeting: At its last meeting, the primates noted that they “discussed tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and patronage networks, and the deep evil of corruption. They reflected that these issues become inextricably connected to war and violence, and derive from poverty.” This may be one of the most fundamental issues shaping the future of the church. If you spend even a little time in churches around the Communion, you will quickly learn how church relations are often marked and marred in ways that take them a long way off from the kind of relationships God calls us to. Corruption in elections for bishops and other church offices, bishops who are created for certain ethnic groups, and divisive church politics that are rooted in underlying ethnic differences have devastated churches around the world. Here is one little example of that, but there are many others.

Happily, the last primates meeting also asked the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, to “commission a study for the next Primates’ meeting” on precisely these subjects. Given the importance of these issues, we can only hope that this report will be made public, that it is the result of extensive consultation, and that it makes concrete recommendations for future action. Separately, the Secretary General has called for a debate about the “moral weight” of resolutions produced by Anglican bodies. Anglican leaders can ensure their decisions have moral weight by grounding them in study and research and ensuring they are followed through from one meeting to the next.

The agenda for the current meeting: we are told that topics on the list include “mission and evangelism; reconciliation and peace-building; climate change and environment; and migration and human trafficking.” These are all worthy and important issues and if the Anglican Communion is to have any moral suasion in the world, it must be able to speak to precisely these issues, clearly, passionately, and with conviction. The agenda for the last primates’ meeting was composed of suggestions from the bishops themselves (as is often the case for Anglican meetings). It will be interesting to see what merits the most time of these topics.

“Relational consequences”: The communique issued after the 2016 meeting was overshadowed by its Addendum A, which set out a series of consequences for the Episcopal Church, which had recently changed its canons on marriage. American Episcopalians were asked to not represent Anglicans on ecumenical or interfaith bodies, not be appointed to an internal Anglican committee, and not participate in decisions related to “doctrine or polity.” At the time, I noted that this met one definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Others noted that what had once been called “relational consequences” in a proposed Anglican covenant were now being resurrected in a different guise.

The follow-through on Addendum A was, to say the least, confused and confusing. Episcopalians did stand down from ecumenical bodies and many chose not to participate in internal Anglican committees. But these consequences were the subject of a contentious bit of resolution-politiking at the 2016 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Zambia when Archbishop Justin Welby sought to have the ACC ratify the consequences, Episcopalian representatives (rightly) noted that the primates could not decide who could and could not vote at ACC meetings, and various resolutions were put forth, withdrawn, amended, until one was finally passed that essentially said nothing at all but led to a debate about the meaning of the word “receive.” Later, different parties sought to put different interpretations on the same resolution and claim victory. I could expand on this story but it quickly gets tedious.

More significantly—and one might say more ominously—the consequences in Addendum A began to broaden in their applicability. Addendum A is clear that the consequences apply only to the American Episcopal Church, but as time passed it seemed that these consequences were applied to a growing list of Anglican churches. The primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church, for instance, reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury told him he would be forced to step down from his chairmanship of an international Anglican ecumenical dialogue if the Scottish church changed its understanding of marriage. Similar noises were made around the time the Anglican Church of Canada took similar steps on marriage. What’s worrisome about all this is that it is not clear on what authority these decisions are being made: who is making the decision—and by what right—to extend the consequences from the 2016 meeting more broadly than they were first presented? It will be interesting to know what, if anything, primates have to say about how their 2016 Addendum A has been, in Anglican parlance, “received” by the Communion.

Looking to Lambeth: There is often a complex relationship between the so-called Instruments of Communion, especially primates’ meetings, Lambeth conferences, and the Anglican Consultative Council. As preparations begin for the next Lambeth Conference scheduled for 2020, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, primates might do that would influence the shape, content, and direction of that conference. Will they suggest themes, agenda items, or actions that might be central to that conference? Or will they let the planning committee and archbishop of Canterbury take a lead?

No doubt lots will happen during next week’s meeting. These are just a few things that might be interesting to pay attention to. What are you looking for?

3 things you might have missed at #ACCLusaka

The 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council comes to a close in Lusaka, Zambia today. Many worthy topics have been discussed and there has been good coverage from a handful of Episcopal/Anglican news organizations. But it’s easy to let meetings like this slide by. I wasn’t there but here are a few things I noticed from afar that are worth highlighting.

You might have missed that the meeting happened at all. In stark contrast to the gathering in January of senior Anglican bishops, the ACC meeting has received almost no coverage in secular global press. It’s probably a safe bet that you won’t hear a report on the ACC on NPR or see it on the front page of the Guardian, as you could after the January meeting. No news editor will ever run the article, “Anglicans meet, read Bible, celebrate Eucharist, and discuss climate change, discipleship, and transitivity in Anglican-Lutheran agreements.” Plus, Lusaka is a lot harder for international media to get to than Canterbury.

This is a recurring problem in the Anglican Communion: our perceptions are formed by media coverage that is decidedly selective. Yet meetings such as the one in Lusaka have as a great a claim to represent the mind of the Communion as anything else does.

You might have missed the discussion of finances. In the past, there has been a curious divide in discussions about how the Anglican Communion Office is funded. On the one hand, conservative Anglicans claim it is funded by the Episcopal Church to spread its liberal influence around the world. But some Episcopalians say their church should not give any money so long as the Anglican Communion is unresolved on questions related to sexuality. This issue occasionally crops up at Episcopal General Conventions with proposals to cut back on the amount given to the ACO. Then there was the curious announcement a year or two back (with great fanfare) that the Episcopal church would give more—but still less than was being asked (there was less fanfare for that).

But in the middle of this, it’s never quite been clear just what the ACO is asking for from provinces. This year’s ACC had an open conversation about precisely this subject. It raised some good questions about reasonable expectations for contributions from churches. Above all, it raised the issue directly. That’s a good thing.

(Amidst all these debates in recent years, the staff of the ACO have continued to do important and innovative work that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the Communion. But that’s a post for another day.)

You might have missed the steps taken on an Anglican archive. In a passing reference, we read of how the Standing Committee (meeting before the actual ACC meeting) “adopted objectives for the management of the Anglican Communion Office Archives.” Why does this matter? In the Anglican Communion, we lack a good historical narrative. Events, actions, and reports from even just a few years ago are forgotten, even as we talk through the same set of issues. Having consulted these archives myself in the past, I can attest that they are a valuable resource for the Communion if they could be made more widely available.

To take one example: there was considerable debate in the run-up to this ACC meeting whether the American church should even be present after actions taken in January at the Primates meeting. The debate turned on interpreting a sentence or two in the statement from that meeting. But few people in the debate looked to past precedent. In 2005, at a similar Primates meeting, the Primates requested that American (and Canadian) representatives withdraw from a forthcoming ACC—and they did. In 2016, it seems that if the Primates had wanted the Americans to stay away from the ACC in particular, they would have directly said so as they have in the past. History can help give some context and specificity to our conversations.

And another thing you might have missed: the guy who is taking a selfie during the group shot at the top of this post. Can you find him?

“The authority of God’s word written over all contexts”?

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my travels a year ago to visit with Anglicans in Nigeria. Readers of this blog might remember I encountered a curious practice. At major church events, there was the practice of “appreciation”: members of the congregation stood up, donated money to the church, and said exactly how much they were giving. (You can read my description of that event here.)

As I witnessed this, I thought about Jesus’ instruction on giving in the Sermon on the Mount:  “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4, NRSV) I mentioned this verse to several people I encountered at this service. They readily admitted the practice did not conform to the teaching but shrugged and said, “It’s our culture.”

We can debate the merits of public giving in another post. For the record, in a culture that has a huge problem with corruption, I’m open to the idea that disregarding Christ’s teaching on this count might be a reasonable accommodation to make to Nigerian culture.

I just wish Nigerian church leaders would cut the rest of us some slack. The Nigerian and Kenyan delegates to the recently-concluded Anglican Consultative Council meeting in New Zealand have released a reflection document titled “What really happened in Auckland NZ at ACC-15.” I think there are some important points in here but I was disappointed to see the strong emphasis on the apparent un-Biblicism of many Anglicans. To wit:

While there were many reports and resolutions at ACC-15, we wish to highlight our concerns over the report and the resolution on “The Bible in the Life of the Church” project…. However, we are seriously concerned that the context in which people interpret the Bible is considered as important as what the Bible actually says.

The Bible stands over context, not the context over the Bible. God’s Word changes us—we do not change God’s Word….

We call upon all Anglicans to pray that our beloved Communion will stand firm in honouring the unique and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ as the Son Of God, and the authority of God’s Word written over all contexts, and in every matter of faith and practice.

I have no doubt of the sincerity behind this statement and the strong belief in the supremacy of the Bible. I just think that a more productive place from which to begin conversations about the life of the Bible in the Anglican Communion is to acknowledge that all of us—whatever our cultural background or context—fall short in allowing ourselves to be transformed by the revelation of Jesus Christ as entrusted to us in the Bible. Surely from that point of common ground, we can begin to make progress in our inter-Anglican conversations?