Future shape of Anglican Communion uncertain, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Published May 12, 2009

ACC delegates at worship service.

Kingston, Jamaica
The 14th Anglican Consultative Council has not “given evidence of any belief” that Anglicans worldwide “have no future together,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury, even as he warned that it would be “inevitable” that the Anglican Communion could turn into a “much more dispersed association” or federation if all member churches do not sign on to the proposed covenant.

“We have not in this meeting given evidence of any belief that we have no future together,” said Archbishop Rowan Williams in his presidential address, delivered on the eve of the last day of the ACC meeting. “The question is, of course, what that future will look like.”

Archbishop Williams said that Anglican provinces are “a bit reluctant” to engage the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant in greater detail because it “does underline for us that the possibility of division is there, the possibility at least of certain kinds of division.” He said people have spoken of the future of the communion as a federation, “an association within which some groups are more strongly bound to one another and some groups less strongly bound.” He added, “I suspect that will be more inevitable if not all provinces do sign on to the covenant. And I hasten to add that’s not what I hope. It is what I think we have to reflect on as a real possibility.”

He issued a plea that, no matter what happens, Anglicans should think of preserving the structures that will allow them to continue working with each other. “My plea is ‘don’t write off those instruments of communion whatever may happen in the years ahead,” the archbishop said. “There’s an awful lot we want to do together…I believe very strongly that even if we are facing a more diverse or divided future, we would still want to do these things,” he said. “I really don’t believe that if not all provinces sign up to the covenant in the years ahead, that (it) means the development and educational things we do together instantly disappear…”

Archbishop Williams urged Anglicans to think about how the Instruments of Communion – the ACC, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, and the primates’ meeting – “can continue as organs of life-giving exchange” even if other alliances emerge.

But even as he put forward the possibility of the Anglican Communion breaking up into a federation, Archbishop Williams said the ACC meeting has proven that the bleak prognosis about it could be wrong. “If someone diagnosed as terminally ill has prayed and planned and given new evidence of energy and life from their deathbed to begin new things we might just possibly question the diagnosis of a terminal outlook,” he said.

As meetings are bound to assess achievements and failures, he urged the ACC to think that “in critical times, small things might be large achievements.”

“What have we achieved? What have we learned? There’s no absolute measure for achievement. In critical times – small things might be large achievements. Our willingness in certain areas to act as one and to discover more deeply how we pray as one is, by God’s grace and gift, for no other reason, an achievement,” he said. He added that the Bible “has a great deal to say about the day of small things and the work of God in small things, and in apparently routine things.” He said, “We got up every morning, we prayed every morning, read Scripture, we affirmed our will to stay in relation, we’ve done some planning.”

He cited the advances made in the areas of forming an Anglican alliance for relief and development, plans for evangelism and church growth, the follow up on the Windsor Continuation Group, and “we even agreed on the substance of the covenant and the time scale of that work.”

Nonetheless, the archbishop acknowledged that “while we thank God with all our hearts for what’s been given to us…there remains in a good few areas an intensely felt standoff between groups in our communion,” who continue to be deeply divided over the thorny issue of human sexuality.

Archbishop Williams said that, in explaining the decisions reached by the ACC on issues, including postponing the presentation of the proposed covenant to the provinces pending more consultation and more work on the more controversial section dealing with dispute resolution and the question of who can sign the covenant, delegates can say the following in defense: “We did it because we heard that, through all these procedures, Christian people will be able to recognize each other a bit more fully, a bit more generously and a bit more hopefully.”

He assured the ACC that he and the office of the secretary general of the communion “are trying to make sure that any delay is as brief as possible.”
He urged Anglicans not to put off discussing the covenant. “The text is on the table. Begin the discernment, begin that intelligent engagement as soon as you can,” he said.

Archbishop Williams also commented on the way that the resolutions had been handled. There was confusion around whether proper procedures were followed in dealing with the covenant resolution. “One thing we’re not terribly good at is resolution passing,” he said, suggesting that the next ACC should have a little briefing in advance about procedures.

(Some have criticized the handling of that resolution, but John Reese, the legal adviser to the Anglican Communion, told a press briefing that none of the delegates complained to him directly about it, nor asked for a re-vote. ACC chair John Paterson maintained that the resolution had been dealt with adequately and fairly. “I’m not embarrassed about the outcome,” he said.)

Reflecting on the ACC’s discussions about the “intense situation” in the Holy Land, Archbishop Williams said it occurred to him that “there are echoes of language we hear in our home.” He noted parallels between the rhetoric in the conflict in the Middle East and the conflict within the communion. “Echoes of perceptions around emergencies mean all rules and standards are suspended; we can’t discuss while there are tanks on the lawn… We’ve conceded something and you haven’t moved. If you were where we are you would see the absolute moral imperative that something has to be done.”

He said, “Well, thank God, our divisions and our fears are not as deep and as poisonous as those communities in the Holy Land.”

Looking at the conflict in the Holy Land “also offers us one or two clues about how life continues to be at work,” he added. “What is it in that tragic and terrible situation in the Holy Land that gets underneath that rhetoric of rival victims’ suffering, rival resentments?” He said that a network of families from both sides of the Holy Land’s divide have been able to come together “on the basis of that very loss, have been able to find one another from the very depth of the suffering that they endured,” when they are “somehow able to recognize one another.”

He challenged the delegates to reflect on “who are the people who bear the biggest cost” in the conflict in the communion. Gays and lesbians, he said, feel that they bear the cost in that “they can’t commend the Christianity they long to believe in” because they feel they are bound up in a church “where scapegoating and rejection are deeply ingrained.”

Those opposed to the granting same-sex blessings and the ordination of gay persons to the episcopate, on the other hand, feel that they bear the cost, since “the decisions others have made in other parts of the world have put them in a position where they cannot commend the Christianity they long to share with their neighbours with ease and confidence because they feel fellow Christians are somehow undermining their witness,” he said.

The challenge is, “how can those who share that cost, that sense of profound anxiety about how to make the Gospel credible, how are they to come together for at least some measure of respect to emerge, so that they can recognize the cost that the other bears and also recognize the deep seriousness about Jesus and the Gospel that they share?”

Archbishop Williams said that he was aware that “that won’t solve the problem.” But, he said, “All I know is that it’s part of the imperative in dealing with this in a Christian way, not just in terms of managing something or glossing over something.”

The full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address is available at http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/news.cfm/2009/5/11/ACNS4625


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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