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Communion a gift of God, not the Primates, says former Melbourne Anglican scholar

The Revd Dr Andrew McGowan says Episcopal Church has not been suspended from the Anglican Communion, despite media reports.

The Revd Dr Andrew McGowan

By Mark Brolly

January 22 2016A former Melbourne Anglican scholar, the Revd Dr Andrew McGowan, says the US Episcopal Church has not been suspended from the Anglican Communion, despite some media reports misinterpreting the communiqué issued after meeting of Anglican Primates in Canterbury this month.

Dr McGowan, who since 2014 has been Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at one of America’s most historic universities, Yale, and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School, said communion was “a curious and powerful gift” of God’s, not of the world’s 38 Anglican Primates.

He was Warden and Joan Munro Professor of Theology at Trinity College, at the University of Melbourne, from 2007-14 and edits the Journal of Anglican Studies, published by Cambridge University Press.

“The fact that the Primates’ approach is problematic regarding issues of human sexuality is another matter,” Dr McGowan wrote on his blog, Saint Ronan Street Diary. “But let us not imagine that these events make TEC ‘second-class Anglicans’, let alone that they remove TEC (The Episcopal Church) members from the Communion in any way. They should have little impact on how members of TEC see themselves as part of a wider Communion, a community of Churches with a common history and with an extraordinary scope and richness.

“As far as Communion itself goes, the main message TEC members should take from Canterbury this week is that Communion is what we ourselves will make it. While the Primates may be judged by many to have stumbled in their difficult work of fostering communion,  at least in their declaration about TEC, they are an instrument of Communion and not the thing itself. We should redouble our own efforts to have strong relationships with other national Churches and their members, and be thankful for the opportunities we have to engage with Anglicans of other cultures and traditions. The curious and powerful gift of Communion is God's, not the Primates, to give.”

Archbishop Justin Welby invited the other 37 Primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion, including Australia’s Archbishop Philip Freier, to a meeting in Canterbury from 11-15 January to discuss ways through the impasse between Anglicans in North America, who have supported same-sex marriage, and those from other parts of the Communion, particularly parts of Africa, who oppose it. The meeting also discussed issues such as child protection, climate change, religiously motivated violence, poverty, war and evangelism.

The Primates expressed their “unanimous desire to walk together” but a majority said the Episcopal Church should no longer represent them 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, it should take no part in decision-making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

They supported the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal to call a Lambeth Conference of all the world’s Anglican bishops in 2020.

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 give GAFCON’s message by showing that their movement was not a divisive one but a movement 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 the Episcopal Church and in saying that the Christian view of marriage was that it was between a man and a woman for life.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a reflection published by the Anglican Communion News Service, wrote that there was much darkness to lament out of the meeting and to recommit to challenging. But there also were rays of pure, joyful hope as well.

“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’. As leaders of our Anglican Communion, and more importantly as Christians, we looked at each other across our deep and complex differences – and we recognised those we saw as those with whom we are called to journey in hope towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ. It was our unanimous decision to walk together and to take responsibility for making that work.”

Archbishop Welby noted that the Provinces of the Anglican Communion were both autonomous (they made up their own minds) and interdependent (they were linked as family to one another) and that it was no secret that before the meeting, the signs were not good. “It really was possible that we would reach a decision to walk apart – in effect, to split the Anglican Communion”.

He wrote that the unity that was so remarkably shown by the Primates in Canterbury is always costly, always painful and felt very fragile.

“We are a global family of churches in 165 countries, speaking over a thousand languages and living in hundreds of different cultures – how could we not wound each other as we seek to hold together amidst great diversity?

“There will be wounds for each other, but we must repent of wounding others who are especially vulnerable, whether they are LGBTI people or those menaced by religiously-motivated violence, terrorism and exile. Some, of course, will fall in many categories.

“But that unity is also joyful and astonishing, renewing and nourishing – because it is unity in love for Jesus Christ, whose single family we are, often argumentative, sometimes cruel (which is deeply wrong) but created by God and belonging to each other irrevocably.”

Archbishop Welby wrote that the week was “completely rooted in prayer”, with the Community of St Anselm – the international young Christian community based at Lambeth Palace (which includes Melbourne couple Rachael and Jonathan Lopez) – taking up residence in Canterbury Cathedral and praying all day every day for the Primates as they talked. The Primates joined with all who gathered for Morning Prayer, Eucharist and Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral each day. And thousands – perhaps millions – of Anglicans and other Christians around the world prayed in churches and posted prayers on social media.

“I want to thank everyone who prayed last week. We felt it and we appreciated it deeply.

“There will be plenty more to say on this in the coming weeks and months – certainly not just by me, but also by everyone who cares passionately about the Anglican Communion. For now, I wanted to share these initial reflections with you, and ask for you to keep praying for our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ. 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.”