Difficult decisions ahead for council members

By on April 1, 2005

Members of the Council of General Synod have some critical decisions ahead of them at their regular meeting next month. This will be only their second meeting together since they were elected at last year’s triennial meeting of General Synod. They will truly be put to the test when they are called on to vote on the request from the primates of the Anglican Communion that the Canadian church “voluntarily withdraw” its members from the Anglican Consultative Council. They will also consider whether or not to continue funding the Council in the event that the Canadian church does pull out of the international body.

Make no mistake – the die was cast long before the Canadian and U.S. primates boarded their flights to Northern Ireland. Although the Canadian primate arrived with an awareness of the depth of diversity in his church’s opinions of the Windsor Report, sadly, he did not find a receptive audience for the Canadian perspective. It was noted by the head of the church in southern Africa, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, that many of his colleagues had arrived at the Northern Ireland meeting with “their minds made up” on homosexuality and the meaning of the Windsor Report; their positions “entrenched and irreconcilable.”

Many of his fellow primates from the so-called Global South – Asia, South America and in particular, the church provinces of Nigeria, the Southern Cone (based in Argentina) and Central Africa – turned up wanting blood from Canada and the U.S. and would settle for nothing less. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola – who is said to represent 17 million Anglicans in a country whose majority Muslim population reportedly objects to churches’ softening their stances on sexuality – is the one of the most vociferous opponents of the acceptance of homosexuality in the Anglican Communion. It was widely reported that wealthy American conservatives were in constant contact with many of these primates, who later reportedly held a celebration dinner to toast the disciplining of the Western churches. While such stories sometimes take on a life of their own, enough quotes emerged from within and outside the meeting that many conservatives (both among the primates and in the wider church) feel they scored a win. Their glee has been undisguised.

It is distressing that the disagreement over the role of gays and lesbians in the church has been turned into a blood sport between provinces. Once, observers of the early church were said to have exclaimed, “See how these Christians love one another.” Reasonable onlookers today would find that love sadly lacking in this situation.

As many observers have noted, there is some irony inherent in the North American churches having been asked to withdraw – or dis-unite – from what is commonly understood to be an instrument of unity – the Anglican Consultative Council. It is ironic, too, that the body making the request, the primates’ meeting, is also a so-called instrument of unity.

The primates themselves know that they have no right to make demands of either the Council or of individual provinces – nor should the church grant such power to the 38 men who lead the world’s 70 million Anglicans. Put simply, if CoGS members vote to withdraw the Canadian representatives from the Anglican Consultative Council, then, for better or for worse, the conversation continues (or ceases) without us.

What would pulling out of the Anglican Consultative Council mean? Would it give the other provinces and the Communion some breathing space, as some of the primates suggested in an attempt to put a not-so-awful spin on the meeting? Would it be a chance for the North Americans to pull back from their decisions on gay clergy and same-sex blessings, in order to preserve unity? Or would it be one of those marriage separations that amounts to dead time, awaiting the final divorce decree? Will three years apart be just enough time for the churches of the Global South to discover that they have more in common with each other than with the Western world? Would three years apart result in the North American churches discovering that perhaps their differences with their counterparts render the idea of a worldwide Anglican Communion a quaint anachronism?

Would ceasing to fund the Council be seen to be petulant, or simply a reasonable stewardship decision? Why would Canadian money be acceptable when its members are not?

And, finally, if the North American churches decide, instead, that the primates’ request is invalid and they continue to try to meet as a worldwide body with their fellow Council members, will their presence so distress others that they find themselves at a half-empty table?

It is often repeated that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, said that the glue that kept the Anglican Communion together is that, “We meet.” Once, when the former Canadian primate Archbishop Michael Peers retold that anecdote, someone commented wryly, “Pretty thin glue.” Archbishop Peers responded, “But what if someone says, ‘I won’t meet?’ That is the end.”

Pray for the members of the Council of General Synod, since the end might be near.

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