Church of England

Welby breathes new life into the crumbling Anglican Communion


Anglicanism: the final frontier. These are the 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.. least since the Reformation.

It has long been evident to those who have a jot of spiritual discernment or a tittle of ecclesial wit that the Worldwide Anglican Communion isn’t quite working. It is no longer so much a united worldwide communion as a parochial assembly of divided communities – disparate and factional; disjunctive and factious. The episcopal discontent is pervasive, and the theo-political disputes are legion. There’s no point pretending that we can go on like this: if Anglicans are to be honest and honourable in their fellowship, something needs to be said quite candidly. We should not play fast and loose with the Body of Christ for the sake of outward unity: either we are all transformed inwardly and strive to be one – as God is in Christ and Christ is in God – or we remodel our communion to reflect outwardly what we are inwardly: variegated, several and divergent.

That doesn’t, by the way, mean that we stop loving one another or hurl “Heretic!” at those with whom we disagree. It is perfectly possible to dissent with fondness, friendship and humble appreciation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope: he has no infallible levers to pull and no magisterial buttons he can press. In Anglican ecclesiology, he is the Primate of All England and Diocesan of the Diocese of Canterbury: he has absolutely no authority whatsoever over the other 37 provinces or the six extra provincials, which are autonomous. Within the Worldwide Anglican Communion, Justin Welby is primus inter pares; an instrument of communion; the focus of unity. So, when that unity becomes little more than a charade, it is potentially his integrity which is dragged through the mud, and his spirituality which is tarnished – at least in the worldly soundbites of tabloid profanity. Of course, he isn’t personally or directly to blame: the churches in Africa and the United States of America are free to apply their understandings of Anglican theology in accordance with the mores and traditions of their cultural contexts. Archbishop Justin can weep, counsel and pray, but he cannot excommunicate: the Archbishops, Presiding Bishops and Chief Pastors of the various Provinces are all equal in the Communion.

But this Archbishop of Canterbury isn’t one for sweeping lost causes under the carpet of quasi-communion. He seeks a solution to the impasse and has therefore sent a letter to all the Primates. He is inviting them all to an extraordinary gathering at Lambeth Palace between 11th-16th January 2016. That’s going to be around 35-38 archbishops and presiding bishops all gathered for frank, face-to-face, full-frontal truth-telling. In love, of course, because ++Justin will be presiding, and he won’t tolerate un-Christian incivility.

They’ll be discussing what unites them and what divides them; whether the Communion ought to continue as it is presently modelled, and whether the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury needs to change. There will be no ‘Continuing Indaba‘ for the pursuit of “cultural models of consensus”, and no meditation on the mission of “mutual creative action”. The days of fudge, patch and hedge are over – unless, of course, all the gathered Archbishops, Presiding Bishops and Chief Pastors determine to ignore the pleas and prayers of the Primus inter Pares.

But (and it’s a very, very interesting ‘but’), Justin Welby has not only invited the 37 recognised primates of the Wordwide Anglican Communion: according to Lambeth Palace (..and here’s the Guardian headline..) he has also written a letter to Foley Beach. That isn’t a cruise-ship resort in sunny Florida: The Most Rev’d Dr Foley Beach is Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which split from The Episcopal Church (TEC) when The Most Rev’d Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori set her face against social conservatism and theological orthodoxy on matters relating to gender and sexuality. The letter of invitation to Archbishop Foley is significant because ACNA is not a recognised member of the Worldwide Anglican Communion (according to the traditional instruments of communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury).

Yet what credible discussions may take place if he is snubbed, since ACNA is affirmed and recognised by other Anglican provinces, in particular those belonging to GAFCON?

There are clearly provincial fractures and parallel churches already operating throughout the Communion. What hath Nigeria to do with New York? We can carry on pretending while the media focuses on continuing divisions, or we can agree to differ over women’s ordination/episcopacy and homosexuality, and restructure accordingly, leaving provinces autonomous to the extent of adapting Anglican identity, and other provinces free to reject such adaption altogether in favour of a more robust approach to biblical truth. It would be the Orthodox model of ecumenism, which consists of a communion of 14 autocephalous regional churches, bound by a common ecclesial heritage, which extends even to those of irregular or unresolved canonical status.

The Archbishop of Canterbury will doubtless take counsel from his episcopal peers so that the Worldwide Anglican Communion can flourish and fulfil its vocation to preach Christ and him crucified. In a world beset by burning, beheading, rape, torture and torment, with Christians being slaughtered and systematically cleansed from the Middle East, there are clearly more urgent tasks facing the Church than that of sustaining an ecclesial structure which is no longer fit for purpose.

The age of the Imperial Church is over: neither the evangelisation of the world nor the re-evangelisation of the West will be achieved while Christians are captive to their constitutional formulations more than the Word of God. We need to decide where the Anglican Communion is going, and we need to agree that it’s got to go somewhere that it isn’t presently going. This is about humble hearts and discerning minds and witnessing to the gospel; not pussyfooting around with primate protestations about who’s in and who’s out and whether the canons should henceforth be gender neutral. If the Worldwide Anglican Communion cannot come together to fulfil the Great Commission, it is time to acknowledge that the season has turned, and that the Worldwide Anglican Communion might become the Worldwide Anglican Communities – each an autocephalous service of prayer for the contextual work of mission.

This is a bold, prayerful initiative by Justin Welby, based securely on the ecclesial principle of subsidiarity, bound entirely by the collective spiritual authority of the Worldwide Anglican Archbishops, Presiding Bishops and Chief Pastors. You may portray this as reformation, abolition or dissolution. It may lead to bemusement, dismay or confusion. But the misinterpretation or disinformation ought not to deflect from the reality that families sometimes grow apart. Justin Welby has no power or authority to reform anything: he is breathing new life into an ailing, infirm and perhaps incurable body. It’s worth a prayer.