Archbishop’s visit is a show of good faith

Published March 1, 2007

The recent announcement came as a surprise to many, that the Canadian House of Bishops would be joined at their meeting in April by their international leader, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The news was unexpected, since it had appeared for all the world that North America, as far as the archbishop was concerned, had been “sent to Coventry.”

No, not that Coventry – the other one. The term is used in the United Kingdom and Ireland to describe a state of exile, ostracism. A more apt term for Canadians might be “sent to the penalty box.”

The first strong indication that this was the case occurred in 2005, when the archbishop declined an invitation to attend a joint meeting of the Canadian House of Bishops and some of their American counterparts in Windsor, Ont.

The invitation was issued well in advance and was made in good faith. The Anglican Communion was then, much as it is now, mired in discontent, vituperation and miscommunications. The Canadian primate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, and his U.S. counterpart, Bishop Frank Griswold, had already been snubbed by some of their fellow primates (senior bishops) in Dromantine, Northern Ireland. At the Dromantine meeting, a dozen primates refused to attend eucharist because of Archbishop Hutchison and Bishop Griswold’s presence there. It was also at that meeting that the primates asked the Canadian and American churches to “withdraw voluntarily” from the Anglican Consultative Council for at least three years.

So, many in the two churches were understandably feeling wounded – regardless of how they felt about the issues that led to the primates’ request: namely, sexuality and the authority of Scripture. A visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury would have demonstrated a willingness to offer pastoral care to all groups who eat from the same table.

But he declined and the decision was widely considered to be a snub.

Fast forward two years and the answer is now “Yes.”

Good for him. Good for the Canadian church.

At least it shows some motivation to meet the Canadians half way in trying to understand the breadth and depth of the church here.

The announcement is all the more surprising because many had believed Archbishop Williams to be taking great pains to appease the church in the Global South and some of the more combative conservatives in Canada and the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Any appearance of an olive branch being extended to the North Americans could be seen by some of the more militant agitators as a betrayal – not only of themselves but of the authority of Scripture. With each threat from that camp, he seemed to capitulate. When some primates left the Dromantine meeting to have a dinner party with some conservative U.S. Episcopalians, Archbishop Williams is reported to have done nothing. Recently, some of the same primates suggested that they would not sit at the same table as Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the U.S. church, at the February meeting of primates in Tanzania. They cite her support for same-sex blessings and for the election of a gay bishop in New Hampshire (though, some observers would argue, that her gender is also problematic for many of her detractors). In response, Archbishop Williams invited three other U.S. bishops to accompany her to the meeting. Those three bishops were to help “explain” the situation in their province and they include Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, who is the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network and is a leader of disaffected Episcopalians in the U.S. (He has put himself forward to lead American Episcopalians if the established church is cut out of the Anglican Communion.)

“The Episcopal Church is not in any way a monochrome body,” Archbishop Williams wrote in a letter to the 38 primates explaining why he invited other U.S. bishops, “and we need to be aware of the full range of conviction within it.”

He said in the letter that he “decided not to withhold an invitation” to Bishop Schori as the elected Primate of the Episcopal Church because he believed “it is important that she be given a chance both to hear and to speak and to discuss face to face the problems we are confronting together.” (This comment led observers on Thinking Anglicans, a moderate Web site based in the United Kingdom, to debate whether it mattered if an invitation was extended or withheld. “Has anyone bothered to inform these ‘senior conservative leaders’ that primates are not invited to this meeting? It’s a meeting of primates … if you’re a primate or presiding bishop of a church within the Anglican Communion, you have every right to be there,” argued one contributor.)

Archbishop Williams makes a valid point – the primates should have a comprehensive understanding of the U.S. situation, as they should of the other 37 provinces that make up the Anglican Communion. But it is insulting and demeaning to imply that Bishop Jefferts Schori is not capable of explaining her church’s situation to her colleagues. And his invitation to Bishop Duncan might give some the impression – or the hope – that he is considered an equal of the primates.

So, it is a good thing that Archbishop Williams is coming to Canada, to speak to the church’s leaders and, hopefully, to listen and hear first hand about our experience and our realities. As he prepares to draw up the list of bishops whom he will invite to next year’s Lambeth Conference (a decennial gathering of all bishops in the Anglican Communion), he will at least be making an informed decision when he considers invitations to his Canadian brothers and sisters. Let us hope that the decision will be his and his alone.


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