Primates’ summit provided space to work through differences: Dr Freier

“We all had a strong sense of being supported in prayer...”

Dr Freier washes the feet of another Primate in Canterbury Cathedral.

By Mark Brolly

February 10 2016Australia’s Anglican Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne, said the meeting of the world’s Primates in Canterbury, England, last month was “respectful and courteous”, despite the tensions in the Church, and had provided some space for the Anglican Communion to work through its differences.

Archbishop Freier said the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) in Lusaka, Zambia, from 8-20 April this year would be an important next step in this journey. The ACC is regarded as the most representative of Anglicanism’s four Instruments of Communion – the others being the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference of the world’s bishops usually held every 10 years and the Primates’ meeting – given it has representatives of laypeople, clergy and religious, as well as bishops.

A communiqué issued by the Primates after their meeting, held from 11-15 January at the invitation of Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, said the decision of The Episcopal Church (TEC) to change its Canon on marriage to include same-sex couples represented a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by most of the Church’s provinces on the doctrine of marriage and was considered by many Primates as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Communion.

“Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us,” the communiqué said. “This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.

“It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years TEC no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision-making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

The Primates asked Archbishop Welby to appoint a task group “to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences...”.

Archbishop Freier – who was one of five Primates elected to their Standing Committee, in which capacity he will attend the ACC meeting in April – said his prayer going into the Primates’ meeting was that he and his fellow leaders would have wisdom, love, patience and courage. The first morning had been given over to prayer and fasting in Canterbury Cathedral itself, Dr Freier said, “a powerful experience and reminder of what was at stake during our week-long meeting”.

“We all had a strong sense of the time that we were together being supported in prayer by so many people throughout the world.

“The first business session was committed to prioritising the agenda. Unsurprisingly the decision of the Episcopal Church to change the canon on marriage was set as the first matter to discuss.

“The discussion on this matter took many hours and despite it being the presenting issue behind much of the tension in the Communion was respectful and courteous. It ended up with us remaining together and with the outcome reported in the final communiqué, a condemnation of homophobia and some space for the Communion to continue to work through its differences. The meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Lusaka, Zambia during April this year will be an important next step in this journey.

“There was a strong desire for us to address other important issues in our meeting. Religiously motivated violence, Mission and Evangelism, climate change, as well as the protection of children and vulnerable adults were all discussed in depth.”

The meeting condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service, irrespective of sexual orientation. It also reaffirmed the Primates’ rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex-attracted people.

“The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt,” the communiqué said. “Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.”

The former Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, said God had answered the prayers of supporters of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which has upheld traditional biblical teaching about marriage, “in surprising ways”. While GAFCON Primates had maintained their integrity by not taking Holy Communion with those with whom they were out of communion, he said they had taken the opportunity to show that GAFCON was not a divisive movement but one of renewal within the Anglican Communion through the preaching of and obedience to the Bible.

Dr Jensen, the General Secretary of GAFCON, said the resolution of the meeting was “not very adequate”, but it had achieved something in the rebuke given to TEC and in saying that Christian marriage was between a man and a woman for life.

In a press conference after the meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury repeatedly rejected suggestions TEC had been “punished” or “sanctioned” for its support for same-sex marriage, but said it must accept the “consequences” of unilateral action. “We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so,” Archbishop Welby said. “We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion.”

Bishop Michael Curry, the new Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (and the first African-American to hold the post), said the decision would bring “real pain” to many, and “for fellow disciples of Jesus in our Church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain”.

“Our commitment to be an inclusive Church is not based on a social theory, or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all,” Bishop Curry said. “While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the Church today: ‘All who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.’”

Bishop Curry, asked whether he would contest the “consequences” for the US Church at the ACC in Lusaka, replied: “The ACC is the only formal constitutional body of the Anglican Communion and it will decide what it will do. Our representatives from the Episcopal Church look forward to being there.”

The 38 Primates were joined by Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church of North America, which split from TEC over sexuality and is not part of the Anglican Communion. Despite speculation that many Primates would walk out if the Episcopalians were not punished, only one did, after two days – the Primate of Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, in accordance with a resolution of his Province.

Archbishop Ntagali said he had moved a resolution that asked TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada to voluntarily withdraw from the meeting and other  Communion activities until they repented of their decisions, but they would not do so, “nor did it appear that the Archbishop of Canterbury and his facilitators would ensure that this matter be substantively addressed in a timely manner”.

“I have left the meeting in Canterbury, but I want to make it clear that we are not leaving the Anglican Communion. Together with our fellow GAFCON Provinces and others in the Global South, we are the Anglican Communion; the future is bright.”

A former Melbourne Anglican scholar, the Revd Dr Andrew McGowan, said the US Episcopal Church has not been suspended from the Anglican Communion.

Dr McGowan, who since 2014 has been Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at one of America’s most historic universities, Yale, said the Primates’ decision did not make Episcopalians “second-class Anglicans” and should have little impact on how members of TEC see themselves as part of a wider Communion. Dr McGowan, who was Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne from 2007-14, wrote on his blog, Saint Ronan Street Diary: “The curious and powerful gift of Communion is God’s, not the Primates, to give.”

One of the Global South Primates, Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt, who is Primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, wrote that the overwhelming majority of Primates, 30, “voted for some form of consequence of varying severity” against TEC, while only six voted for no consequence and a simple rebuke.

“The turning point of the discussions came when Archbishop Winston Halapua of Polynesia asked the question, ‘How can we bless each other even if we walk in different directions?’ In response to this question, I asked the presiding bishop of TEC and the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada to sit together with me for lunch. The Archbishop of York joined as well as the Archbishop of Uganda.

“We had a frank and gracious discussion about how each of us felt and how the issue at hand had affected our respective provinces.

“I appeal to everyone to spend this coming three years in a more constructive contemplation on how to restore our impaired Communion… Let us not think in terms of triumph and defeat, instead we have to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and the perfecter of our faith.

“Once we decided on the consequences for the actions of TEC, we started to discuss other issues. The spirit in the room had changed 180 degrees. It was amazing and tremendously encouraging to hear the passionate discussion about mission and evangelism, the challenge of refugees, religiously motivated violence, and environmental issues... I felt that this is the Anglican Communion I love.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said there was much darkness to lament that came out of the meeting. But there also were rays of pure, joyful hope.

“The meeting reached a point on Wednesday where we chose quite simply to decide on this point – do we walk together at a distance, or walk apart? And what happened next went beyond everyone’s expectations. It was Spirit-led. It was a ‘God moment’.

“If Christ’s flock can more or less stay together, it’s hope for a world that tears itself apart – a sign of what can happen with the love and mercy of God through Jesus Christ.”

  • Melbourne couple Jonathan and Rachael Lopez were involved in the Primates’ gathering as part of the Lambeth Palace-based Community of St Anselm established by Archbishop Welby.

Ms Lopez reported that each member of the Community accompanied a Primate from Heathrow Airport to Canterbury (she escorted Archbishop Jacob Chimeledya of Tanzania). But their priority was to pray, with the Primates during worship in Canterbury Cathedral and apart from them as they met in the Cathedral crypt.

“Throughout the week each member of the Community of St Anselm prayed for two Primates each, and we were a continual praying presence in the St Anselm Chapel within the Cathedral,” she said. “While we each hold various theologies and denominations (Anglican/Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal) we weren’t to be praying a specific agenda, but rather for the will of God to be discerned by all the Primates, and for the unity of the Church, like Jesus prayed in John 17.

“We continued in prayer... eventually hearing the news that the Primates decided to walk together rather than apart. We knew that this was a miracle.

“One of the highlights for the week was on Friday morning when Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche (communities where people with intellectual disabilities and those with none share daily life together), spent an hour with the Community of St Anselm. While his purpose in coming to Canterbury was to speak to the Primates, he made time for our community. One powerful thing he shared with us was ‘We can’t always share the Eucharist at the one table but we can always wash one another’s feet’. And later that day, the Primates washed each other’s feet in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.”                 [with Church Times]