Church of England

Primates' Meeting 2016: separating the Eloi from the Morlocks


Primates’ Meeting, Canterbury: stardate 2016. These are the continuing prophetic voyages of Justin Welby. His continuing mission: to explore strange new reconciliations; to seek out new wine and new creations; to boldly go where no archbishop has gone before..

..if the other senior bishops of the Worldwide Anglican Communion will let him.

But they are divided. You see, there are two kinds of bishop at the Primates’ Meeting: the episcopal Eloi and episcopal Morlocks. And whichever side of the theo-political-sexuality divide you happen to fall determines which primates you believe eat grapes and listen to harps in the Garden of Eden, and which ugly suckers live underground and sweat night and day to maintain the ancient machinery of a bygone civilisation.

The Eloi live in the light; the Morlocks dwell in darkness. And yet the two species are symbiotic. The Eloi get togas and grapes from the Morlocks, but the Morlocks don’t eat grapes; they eat Eloi. And then (just to complicate things) there are Über-Morlocks, who look a bit like angels of light, with telepathic and telekinetic powers for mind control and world domination. In their respective traditions and muddled existences, each finds goodness and right action. Morlocks are essentially providers, and Eloi are very tasty.

Much of the media commentary on this Primates’ Meeting focuses on this Manichæan division. To the liberal progressives who yearn for equality and justice, the traditionalists are Morlocks. If you seek to uphold biblical doctrine, church tradition and moral orthodoxy, you are an Eloi only in the Catholic Herald, and only then when it’s in heightened ecumenical mode. In the binary world of good vs evil, the Eloi are those who preach wisdom, love and the virtues of same-sex marriage. The Morlocks demand that Justin Welby uphold the Word of God without compromise. If he doesn’t make a stand for conviction and truth, they’ll eat him.

And so the world perceives the Anglican Communion, and not one morsel of it is remotely tasty. All the dedicated hours and days of thought and prayer about sacred mission and the deep contemplation of the things of God are subsumed to a BBC/Guardian report of gay Eloi trying on purple togas; or a Telegraph/Mail account of which Morlock got to eat which Eloi and whether it tasted of chicken or goat burger. But this Primates’ Meeting is make or break; even the promised end. We’ve heard of African and Asian bishops threatening to demand repentance from their North American brethren for ordaining active-homosexual bishops and seeing fit to join two men or two women in Holy Matrimony. And if there isn’t immediate repentance, they warn of boycott, schism and Anglican Apocalypse. If the Inclusive/Accepting/Changing-Attitude-minded recidivists refuse to turn from the sin of sanctifying Sodom and the pansexuality of the West, the GAFCON biblicists will walk straight out of Justin Welby’s Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury and hold their own authoritative council in Jaywick.

Advanced crosier-rattling, perhaps. How would such importunate penance be manifest? Flagellation? Reciting the XXXIX Articles? Saying five ‘Hail Cranmers’? God knows what Jesus would say. Imagine the followers of Apollos and the followers of Cephas gathered in the Canterbury crypt with the Son of God, but before anything could be uttered of the Great Commission, feeding the poor or healing the sick, the followers of Apollos demand that the followers of Cephas repent, for they are clearly in the wrong (cf Gal 2:1). ‘He that is without the need for repentance among you, let him first demand repentance’?

The Archbishop of Canterbury is not an Anglican pope (despite the best efforts of Rowan Williams to make him one, kind of). He has no powers to impose doctrinal orthodoxy, excommunicate dissenters or expel entire provinces. Nor does he have the authority to command another bishop from another province to believe or propagate any particular moral teaching, and it is religiously illiterate of the media (and certain Christians) to convey his ‘inaction’ as character weakness or ecclesial incompetence. Equally, the British Crown does not and cannot stamp its supreme-governance ecclesial authority on any church in the Worldwide Anglican Communion except that of England. All the other regions have developed their owns expressions of Anglicanism over two or three centuries, and they are reconciled in fellowship through humility, mutual respect and commitment to a common mission. It is an ecumenical body only because Henry VIII declared England an empire, and Britain went on to establish one. The Anglican Communion is just a loose federation of contextual ecclesiologies; a trans-national mechanism by which Anglicans may fellowship with one another across borders; a consultative spiritual authority without any legal authority at all.

That is the historic, legal and political reality. If there are inter or intra-continental disagreements over biblical interpretation, the bishops either sit down and talk about them like grown-ups, or they stomp out and slam the door like cantankerous teenagers. No one has any power to slap anyone else: the Archbishop of Canterbury is merely primus inter pares; a symbol of global communion. The Mother Church might glower and hiss at the rebels: “Wait ’til your father gets home.” But she is impotent to admonish and, ultimately, daddy never comes home. The Worldwide Anglican Communion is a no-parent family.

But family it is, in all its Protestant/Liberal-Evangelical, Conservative/Liberal-Anglo-Catholic diversity. These factions may squabble, scream and hurl the TV remote control at one another in anger. That’s what families do. They may lie as they vie for supremacy in the household; they may misrepresent, conceal the truth, poke the hamster or kick the cat. That’s what families do. It’s messy. We fall out, but we’re still family. We can storm out and hide, but we’re still family. We can move out altogether and set up a new home, but the ties of blood are stronger than a change of postcode. And in the obdurate ‘non-speaking’ phase between determined orthodox righteousness and dogged progressive rigidity, we may sit in our separate rooms of self-satisfaction and purity, but our thoughts inevitably drift towards each other, and so might our prayers, because we’re family, and you can’t ‘un-family’ yourself: it’s in the blood.

The media caricature of episcopal Eloi and Morlocks suits this ‘orthodox’ vs ‘progressive’ spat: it’s either homophobes vs reformists, or traditionalists vs heretics. Theological nuance and ecclesial viae mediae get lost in the fray. If you’re looking for prayerful reflection and profound consultation on the Apostolic Faith, you won’t find it on the BBC or in the pages of the Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail or Independent.. because that is not the drama the media want the Primates’ Meeting to be, not least because it is no drama at all. Stories of good disagreement just don’t sell copy.

If a bishop or group of bishops do walk out of this Primates’ Meeting, they are doing nothing but walking out of a meeting. It doesn’t mean they are walking out of the Worldwide Anglican Communion or abandoning the Anglican Consultative Council, because it isn’t at all clear on what legal basis they may do so, not least because the Communion and Council have no structural-theological foundation and no one is under any obligation to do anything except consult. The Christian family are all those who are washed by the blood and share in the baptism of Christ. Walking out of a meeting neither un-washes nor de-baptises; we remain eternally Christian and provisionally Anglican, awaiting the consummation of Christ, the great reconciler. We are one family whatever the magnitude of rightness or wrongness of any doctrinal issue, regardless of whoever throws the biggest hissy fit or mounts the most militant media campaign.

It is tediously boring and disappointingly undramatic to say so, but the most likely outcome of the Primates’ Meeting 2016 will be that the differences which obtained at the outset will remain at the end. There will be no agreed statement and no authoritative declaration on marriage and sexuality, principally because Justin Welby did not convene this gathering to formulate such, but instead to work through the question of how the Anglican family might live together through profound disagreement. In reality, of course, the Communion has been impaired since the 1990s, but it is still the Communion and all provinces are in communion with it. Some consider themselves to be in full communion with each other; others in partial communion. In some cases, the bilateral bonds of communion are broken entirely, but they remain in communion with the Communion, despite that Communion being broken by uncommunicative communicants.

If we are united, it is only in our shortcomings, failings and brokenness. And yet, despite this, there are many cohesive bonds between us which nudge us toward the edge of heaven. We should seek to hold, foster and strengthen such bonds wherever we can, and, in good conscience, do so. There is no pleasurable expository end to the exploration and exegesis of koinonia.