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?

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The Tengatenga-ing of Josiah Idowu-Fearon

ImageGenIn the last number of years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time traveling in the world church meeting, talking, and praying with Anglicans from a wide variety of backgrounds. Part of the impetus for this travel was to help other Anglicans understand how the American Episcopal church in which I was raised had reached decisions that seemed to them nonsensical, controversial, and unBiblical.

If there was one theme I kept returning to in so many of my conversations it was this: there is more to one’s Christian faith than one’s position on sex and sexuality. It may sound surprising that this has to be said. But for some African Anglicans I encountered, the only things they knew about the American Episcopal church was that it had a bishop (later two) who was openly gay and was making decisions that would allow weddings between two people of the same sex to take place in church. This information—and only this information—had been used by more than a few African Anglican leaders to loudly condemn the American church.

I understood that part of my role in these conversations was to show that, in fact, there was a lot more going on in the Episcopal Church than these decisions about sexuality (important as they may be) and that these decisions about sexuality came from a full and whole understanding of the Christian Gospel. My conversation partners didn’t always agree with what I said but I was usually pretty confident that we parted ways agreeing that there was more to the Christian faith than one’s beliefs on sexuality.

But now I wonder if I made a mistake.

It has been striking how in recent years there is an increasing willingness among all parties in the church to evaluate other Christians entirely on their views about a handful of topics related to sexuality. Two years ago, the fine and able Malawian bishop, James Tengatenga, was appointed to a position at Dartmouth University. Within days, attention was drawn to comments he had made regarding sexuality, offense was taken, and demands were immediately made that the appointment be rescinded. As later conversation would reveal, the comments were made in a particular context. Divorced from that context, they made little sense. But it was too late. Tengatenga lost the position. The only qualification that mattered was his views on sexuality. When they—apparently—failed to measure up, his history of accomplishments became meaningless.

This week, it happened again. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, bishop of Kaduna in Nigeria, was appointed Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. I have never met Bishop Josiah but when I traveled in Nigeria a few years back, I heard much of him. I heard that he is a man of deep accomplishment who has endured significant setbacks and opprobrium within his church because he has consistently argued against divisive steps taken by leaders of the Nigerian church. I also knew his diocese has a long-standing relationship with a congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

Almost immediately, however, the Tengatenga-ing of Bishop Josiah got underway. Some comments of Idowu-Fearon’s about sexuality were found on a Nigerian news site. All of a sudden, the only thing that mattered about Idowu-Fearon was what he had said on one occasion. The loudest voices making these arguments appear to be those who had never met Bishop Josiah. Those who had met him were making significantly more nuanced and positive comments but were quickly drowned out.

There seemed to be little effort to understand the context of the remarks, a lesson I had hoped we had learned in the wake of Bishop Tengatenga’s situation. (The context of talk about sexuality in Nigeria is complex and maybe I’ll write a separate post about that when we’re not in the middle of the holiest days of the Christian year.) Nor was there any effort to think about how else Bishop Josiah has walked the Christian way in his life and how that might influence his performance as Secretary General.

Not only is it wrong to criminalize homosexuality (though we should understand the impetus for some of this), the church should be a place that welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation into the transforming love of God. These are precisely the arguments I have made in these many conversations with Anglicans around the world.

Yet I also think that the depth of God’s love for the world cannot be summarized simply by talking about sex all day long. It is right that we should inquire about Bishop Josiah’s position on contentious issues before the Communion. (A similar inquiry took place when the previous Secretary General was appointed ten years ago, leading to upset among some Nigerian and other African Anglicans. But that was before Twitter was invented.) But it is also right that being in the church means we are called to encounter the whole person whom God has created and ask how we are to relate to them. In the end, we may conclude that the person is not fit for the role in question. But we would at least have a full sense of someone.

I’ve written in the past that the mission of the church can be understood, in part, to be helping the world deal with complexity. But in order to do that, we need to react to situations less along tribal lines and more along the lines of the baptismal relationships which undergird our life together. If we’re serious about reconciliation, it would be a useful place to begin.

UPDATE: Over the weekend, there was some more information released. Bishop Idowu-Fearon released a statement clarifying his views and James Tengatenga, in his capacity as chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, released a statement explaining some of the background to the appointment.

Thinking Outside the Box on the See of Canterbury

What if the next Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t British? Who would it be?

I recommend Thabo Makgoba, archbishop of Cape Town and primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. He’s educated, outspoken on important issues, young(ish), and has been called “the Denzel Washington of the Anglican Communion.”

Filling Rowan Williams’ shoes was never going to be easy—any successor will have to stack up to one of the greatest theological minds of the generation. Going for an outside-the-box appointment—first Archbishop of Canterbury from outside England since Augustine?—lays to rest those possible comparisons and frees the successor to be fully himself (or herself, but that won’t happen—yet—to the see of Canterbury).

The Archbishop of Canterbury fills at least three roles simultaneously—(nominal) diocesan of Canterbury, primate of All England, and a figure of unity for the Anglican Communion. As a non-English Anglican, I, naturally, put the most emphasis on that last role, which is why I’d love to see the position filled by someone who represents the part of world where Anglicanism is growing fastest. The Crown Appointments Commission, I think, probably has that second role chiefly in mind, along with the ceremonial functions that go with being head of an Established church.

If not Archbishop Thabo, how about Josiah Idowu-Fearon, bishop of Kaduna in Nigeria? He’s super-educated, an expert on Islam, and has shown his independence from the Nigerian church hierarchy by, inter alia, calling for primates not boycott a Primates Council meeting. Not sure how old he is, though. (Wikipedia says he’s about 63.)

Other thoughts for outside-the-British-Isles picks for the next occupant of St. Augustine’s throne?