The significance of a press statement from a grouping of theologically conservative Anglican primates which recommends the withdrawal of “orthodox provinces” from the rest of the Anglican Communion, and which has drawn international headlines, has been overblown, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, tells the Anglican Journal.
The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) released the statement Feb. 20, in response to a Feb. 9 vote by the Church of England’s General Synod to allow clergy to bless same-sex marriages and relationships, though not to perform the marriages themselves. In the statement, the authors call the move a departure from biblical teaching on marriage and say that they can no longer be in communion with provinces that do not hold to what they consider the only supportable reading of Scripture.
“As the Church of England has departed from the historic faith passed down from the Apostles by this innovation in the liturgies of the Church and her pastoral practice, she has disqualified herself from leading the Communion as the historic ‘Mother’ Church. Indeed, the Church of England has chosen to break communion with those provinces who remain faithful to the historic biblical faith,” reads the statement’s first of seven resolutions.
The primates also say they can no longer recognize Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as “first among equals” in relation to the world’s other Anglican bishops, and that they will “expeditiously meet, consult and work with other orthodox primates in the Anglican church across the nations to re-set the Communion on its biblical foundation.”
Exactly what they mean by “re-set” is not laid out in the document, but they go on to promise that they will “seek to address the leadership crisis that has arisen.”
The authors also offer to provide primatial and episcopal oversight for dioceses and networks of churches which follow their view of orthodoxy but “who find themselves in revisionist Provinces.” They say they will do this in partnership with other orthodox primates as well as the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), another conservative Anglican organization which claims to represent the majority of the world’s Anglicans.
Neither the GSFA’s representatives nor the Anglican Church primates who signed the statement responded to the Journal’s request for an interview to clarify whether this meant they would be forming a competing leadership structure or a separate Communion.
The GSFA counts 25 of the world’s 46 Anglican provinces as members, though only 12 primates’ names appear on the document. Two of these, Archbishop Foley Beach, primate of the Anglican Church in North America; and Archbishop Miguel Uchoa Cavalcanti of the Anglican Church in Brazil, preside over breakaway churches that are not officially part of the Anglican Communion.
But Nicholls says she doesn’t see the statement as announcing a “major split,” despite international news headlines to that effect. She also raises questions about its interpretation of the Church of England’s decision, the authors’ ideas of the structure of the Communion and the degree to which the 12 signatories actually represent the views of all the GSFA provinces.
The motion passed in the Church of England’s General Synod allows clergy to use their conscience in deciding whether to use the prayers of blessing, meaning that they can opt in or out of blessing same-sex unions on an individual basis. So no church or individual will be required to give blessings that they disagree with, Nicholls says. In fact, she adds, since the Church of England motion extends only to blessings, it does not actually make any changes to its policy on marriage itself. For comparison, some dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada, after extensive discernment, have provided same-sex marriage as a pastoral response, Nicholls says.
In that context, she says, it makes little sense to break up the Communion over such a small change.
“This assumption by the GSFA that somehow the actions of the Church of England in making a very modest move towards allowing the blessing of civil partnerships is [breaking] orthodoxy when it’s quite clear the Church of England affirmed the traditional view on marriage is, frankly, trying to catastrophize something that doesn’t exist,” she says.
Though the move may be modest in the context of policies already in place in other parts of the Communion like Canada, the GSFA is focusing on the fact that this change has been implemented in the Church of England, the church from which the rest of the Communion grew. The statement describes the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury as “forfeiting their leadership role of the global Communion.”
However, Nicholls argues, that leadership never really existed as authoritative power.
“There is an ongoing confusion about the relationship of the Church of England to the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion consists of member churches of which the Church of England is one … It does not carry more or less weight than any other church in the Anglican Communion,” she says.
As Welby repeatedly stresses in public speeches, including at last summer’s Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury has no legislative or executive authority over the churches of the Communion. He frequently describes himself instead as a facilitator of unity and dialogue between its provinces.
So while the GSFA’s position has been reported by some media outlets as a rejection or even toppling of Welby’s status, Nicholls says it’s important to realize he had never attempted—nor had the authority—to impose any change on the Communion as a whole.
While the GSFA’s member provinces do include some of the countries with the highest populations of Anglicans in the world—Uganda, Nigeria and Rwanda by themselves account for about 20 million of the world’s 85 million Anglicans—Nicholls casts some doubt as to how well the GSFA statement represents the views of all its member provinces.
For one thing, she says, the 12 signatories on the document represent fewer than half of the GSFA’s provinces. (The GFSA claims it has 25 member provinces.)
Notably absent are the primates of Nigeria and Rwanda, who along with the primate of Uganda have asserted their disagreement with Western churches’ teaching on same-sex marriage by declining to come to the past two Lambeth Conferences as well as boycotting the Primate’s Meeting since 2011. Nicholls says that could be a sign that not all provinces in the GSFA are on board with the statement.
“They have normally been the triumvirate with Uganda,” she says.
The 2016 Primates’ Meeting issued a document in which the primates of the Communion agreed to “walk together,” maintaining their unity as a communion despite the pain and serious disagreements associated with differing views on sexuality. In their statement, the GSFA authors say this approach is no longer acceptable to them in light of the Church of England’s decision.
But in Nicholls’ view, that’s not new in the context of Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria’s non-participation in Anglican Communion affairs. “Some of them have not been walking with us for the last eight years,” she says.
She also calls into question the GSFA’s apparent understanding of “orthodox,” a word that appears 11 times in the 1,629-word document. “I do find it interesting that the final test of orthodoxy is human sexuality,” she says.
All the Communion’s provinces, Nicholls says, continue to adhere to the Lambeth Quadrilateral, the four points of which are the bases on which the primates of the Communion have agreed to walk together—Scripture, creeds, sacraments and the historic episcopate. When it comes to Scripture, she says, we need to be careful about claiming to have the only valid interpretation.
In the footnotes of the GSFA statement, however, the authors state repeatedly that their disagreement is over one of these four pillars: they believe that performing, blessing or otherwise endorsing same-sex marriages is incompatible with “the plain and authoritative teaching of holy Scripture.