A Communion on the verge

Published November 1, 2005

Some significant events have taken place in the Anglican Communion during the past year. The primates have asked two member provinces to withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). The ACC has changed its membership. And the Archbishop of Canterbury has set up a body to deal directly with parishes and dioceses anywhere in the world.

These events signal some profound changes taking place in the Anglican Communion.

The concept of an Anglican Communion had its roots in the 1963 Anglican Congress, which brought together Anglican provinces from around the world.

From that transforming experience arose the idea of an international gathering that would be more representative of the church than the Lambeth Conference of bishops.

At Lambeth 1968, it was proposed that, subject to the approval of all provinces, a council comprising clergy, laity and bishops would be established to meet every three years. By 1970, all the provinces had concurred.

Some 35 years later, the ACC holds a unique position as the communion’s only constitutional body. It is also widely regarded as the most important because, unlike other structures, half of its members are laity.

Now, that seems about to change. In June, responding to a recommendation in the 2004 Windsor Report, the ACC voted to invite the 38 primates, or heads of national churches, to join its 78 members. (According to the ACC constitution, this change must be approved by the provinces.)

The proposal had previously been recommended by the 1988 Lambeth Conference and voted down by two subsequent meetings of the ACC. The one occasion when the two bodies did meet together, in 1992, was judged not to be a success by the ACC members, who felt the agenda had been the primates’ rather than the council’s.

While supporters say inclusion of the primates will strengthen the ACC’s hand, others say it will inhibit debate, pointing out that in some provinces clergy and laity are not able to speak in opposition to their primate. It also skews the gender imbalance further in the Communion’s body with the best representation of men and women, since it constitutes an addition of 38 men (all the primates are male) to the ACC. The last Lambeth Conference in 1998, for instance, had just 11 women bishops; some have since retired.

Canadian Pamela Bird, formerly an administrative secretary with the Anglican Communion, was present at the formation of the ACC and during its early meetings.

She recalls that by the 1978 Lambeth Conference, “The bishops were seemingly afraid for their authority” – possibly because during the decade since they last met, the ordination of women had moved from discussion by the ACC to action in some provinces.

At that meeting, the primates decided to gather regularly for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation” about provincial issues.

Initially meeting every two or three years, after Lambeth 1998 they agreed to gather annually.

Canon John Peterson, who served as secretary general of the Anglican Communion from 1995 until 2004, said this decision greatly enhanced the primates’ role.

“When you meet every year,” he says, “you take on more responsibility, in contrast to the ACC which meets only once every three years. The role the primates are exercising today is more primatial.”

That role has manifested itself in several unprecedented actions having an impact on the whole communion.

In 2003, confronted by North American actions on homosexuality, the primates asked Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to establish a commission to advise on ways forward. That commission produced the Windsor Report.

This year, the primates took a further unprecedented step, asking the North American churches to voluntarily withdraw from the ACC until 2008.

This controversial action raised many questions about the authority and power of the primates meeting.

“The primates are not a legally constituted body in the Anglican Communion,” says Canon Peterson. “They get together simply at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

The primates also asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish a panel of reference to assist with parishes unable to accept the oversight of their bishop and with dioceses in dispute with their provincial authorities.

The disaffected parishes and dioceses are invited to approach the archbishop directly, bypassing their own primate. The archbishop refers them to the panel, which then makes recommendations to the relevant national primate, dioceses and authorities.

“The role the (national) primate would have would be at the discretion of the Archbishop of Canterbury,” says Canon Peterson.

Not only does the panel sideline the autonomy of national primates, it heralds a change in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role. Rather than primus inter pares – first among equals – he has become, according to some observers, the policeman of the Anglican Communion.

Taken together, the activities of the ACC, the primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury are evidence of two opposing views of what the Anglican Communion should be.

To some, it should be what it currently is: a federation of churches in which the provincial structure is supreme, and authority rests within the provinces.

To others, as described in the Windsor Report, it should become a centralized authority in which members swear to a covenant and can be expelled for disregarding it.

The Anglican Communion appears to be on the verge of a transformation that will affect every national Anglican church. The changes we have witnessed this year are just the beginning. A former editor of the Anglican Journal, Carolyn Purden is a communications consultant in Toronto.


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