Church of England

Anglican Primates pronounce, but the Holy Spirit prevails


The media bulletins are full of ‘Episcopal Church suspended from the Anglican Communion‘, with a list of prohibitions and fulminations about ‘second class Anglicans‘, with Giles Fraser reminding us (again) of how ashamed he is of his church. There’s a lot of pained sentimentalism and an awful lot more sloppy journalism, often slicing out the most superficial soundbite to satisfy the victims with what passes as theological clarity. The Episcopal Church has manifestly not been suspended from the Anglican Communion. Dig around, and you’ll find some intelligent analysis of the Primates’ Statement (or the final one), with some discerning awareness of complex ecclesial dynamics. But not a lot.

This gathering of Anglican Primates was never convened as an ecumenical council to consider whether or not gay bishops may be appointed or same-sex marriage may be supported from Scripture. Had it been so, there would have been moral theologians and doctors of divinity delivering expert lectures to the Primates on the history of marriage and the nature of sexuality, and these expositions would have been considered in the light of tradition and experience, and prayed about, anguished over, meditated upon and truths discerned.

No, the gathering was to do with catholicity; with doctrinal decisions made by the Primates in communion, then breached by one province pleading prophetic and pioneering mission to the persecuted, leaving the rest of the Communion either to ponder its corporate error and repent, or to deliberate the consequences for the recalcitrant province of its self-righteous assertion of holiness. This was about the structure of ecclesial authority, not any issue of sexual morality. And in those structures there has to be order and discipline, or there can be no unity in the administration of mercy and justice.

This does not suit the media narrative, of course. Far easier to go with winners and losers; saints and hypocrites; true religion and counterfeits; with the pain and deep sorrow of LGBT communities versus the ignorant bigoted, hateful and homophobic African bishops whose rage has now infected the whole Anglican Communion and made it an instrument of oppression. As Bishop Alan Wilson explained on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (1.50):

If you go into your local church in England, you go to a place that’s probably very much more like a church in America actually than one in Uganda or Nigeria, and the betting is you’ll find love and tolerance, acceptance, you’ll be received as an equal. So the real church, the grassroots church, is actually in a very different place.

The inference is clear: there is no love, tolerance or acceptance to be found in those backward and barbarous Ugandan and Nigerian churches. The devil lurks therein. Whether that is a cultural truth for African homosexuals or a racist slur on black churches is for you to decide. But note how the Primates are cast as “ecclesiastical politicians”; the real church agrees with the Bishop of Buckingham who patently suffers and grieves with the persecuted and outcast: he is Christ; no aloof ecclesiastical politician, he.

What you read or hear nowhere is how 38 Anglican Primates gathered together in Canterbury in a spirit of love, openness and honesty, as apostles of the Church and ambassadors of the Faith. And 21 of these 38 had never been to any such gathering in their lives: there was an acute need for induction and facilitation as well as instruction in ecumenical history and pastoral controversy. There was also a need for wariness: it is easy for proficient wolves to lure wide-eyed lambs into making naive pontifications and staging dramatic walk-outs. As anyone knows (that is, anyone with the Christian humility to submit to one another and confess sin), when people are open and honest, there is hurt, pain and anguish. No one enjoys having their deepest flaws exposed and sifted by the Spirit of Truth. Where divisions are deep, there is distrust. Only with mutual submission and honesty can rifts be healed and trust regained.

If 33 out of 38 Anglican Primates supported (as they did) the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage, the Holy Spirit is present, and bishops may discern with one voice the apprehension of doctrine in catholic reception. That is how Christian doctrine adapts to culture: the truth is unchanging, but theology has to be applied in context. If those who demur reject the mechanism for discernment and the structural expression of unity, there are consequences. When the College of Cardinals convenes a consistory to elect a new pope, there is no need for unanimity in the electoral fray, but when a pope emerges by the will of the majority, the Holy Spirit is discerned and all submit to the corporate will. If they do not, there are consequences.

No province of the Anglican Communion has been sanctioned for its teaching on sexuality or the development of any unorthodox marriage liturgy. Neither The Episcopal Church of the USA nor the Anglican Church of Canada has been expelled from the Anglican Communion. Calls for their expulsion were defeated at the outset by majority vote: the will of the Holy Spirit was that all should walk together, talk together and weep together.

TEC and ACoC are simply being confronted by the consequences of their lack of consideration for catholicity. The division within the Communion is in the apprehension of the significance of that consequence. At every moment of crisis during the Canterbury quarrels, Justin Welby, as Primus inter Pares, pleaded and prayed, as Abram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no quarrel between me and between you and between my herdsmen and between your herdsmen, for we are brethren‘ (Gen 13:8). He called the 38 to vote (or 37 after Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda had walked out), and they did so. But manipulation is in the eye of the beholder: at all times, those who wished to walk were free to walk: there was no manipulation, coercion or unholy collusion to fabricate unanimity. As each vote was called, the will to continue in fellowship with the brethren was unanimous: GAFCON voted with TEC to walk side by side, talk face to face, and weep heart to heart. No mere man called Justin could have duped the judicious herdsmen to confect any kind of deal: it was a work of the Holy Spirit.

Doctrine is a matter for each province, but the Primates gather periodically to meditate deeply upon the prophetic role of the Church in the world. If a single province pushes a point too vigorously, consensus may be fractured and communion impaired. What is interesting about the final statement from this Primates’ Meeting is that there are expectations upon both sides of the current divide, with consequences for both in the event of disregard and indiscipline: TEC and ACoC are exhorted to reflect upon the consequences of departing from the catholic understanding of marriage; and certain African churches are exhorted to reflect upon the appalling consequences for LGBT people when prelates affirm political persecution based upon sexual orientation. Consider:

The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.


The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.

Provinces which fail to heed these calls for mercy, justice, compassion and catholicity will face consequences. This may eventually mean Eucharistic separation, but speculation of what schism might occur in three years time is fruitless: Jesus taught us to let tomorrow take care of itself. For today, the Worldwide Anglican Communion is reconciled to walk and talk together as one family, as Jesus prayed: ‘That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me‘ (Jn 17:21). Unity is a work of the Holy Spirit: we may hurt one another, but we need to journey together as pilgrims, for the world hates us without any regard for the nuances of doctrinal division.

As for the Archbishop of Canterbury, he isn’t going anywhere. Justin Welby is in it for the long haul, because God called him to a mission of spiritual joy, and he isn’t a quitter. He knows the limitations of his authority and the fallibility of his humanity. His mind is clouded by desires and fears, and his language impaired by learning, custom and personal inclination. He has a temper, defects in education and imperfections in grace. As the Western world changes its apprehension of humanity, sexuality and marriage, it is his task to proclaim as best he can the doctrine of God to guide toward the light, incline toward Christ, minister to division and heal the hurt. God is love and God is kind. His love and kindness captivate the heart: we love God for His kindness in hearing (Ps 116:1), and Justin Welby’s task is to embody the symmetry of God’s smiles and frowns.

North America is in a place, and Africa is in a place. Some may advocate and hasten to advance the holiness of acrimony; others the peace of submission, humility and sweet declaration. Either way, we are called to a ministry of gospel truth, kindness and self-sacrifice; to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God (Mic 6:8). This is our joy, spiritual delight and greatest pleasure.