Interview with the Primate

Anglican Communion primates and officials pose for a group shot at the end of their meeting in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: ACNS
Anglican Communion primates and officials pose for a group shot at the end of their meeting in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: ACNS
Published January 31, 2011

As he waited at London’s Heathrow International Airport to fly back to Toronto, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, spoke to Anglican Journal staff writer Marites N. Sison about the primates’ meeting, held Jan. 25 to 30 in Dublin. A total of 13 of 38 primates were absent. This included seven who boycotted the meeting to protest issues around the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of a lesbian bishop by The Episcopal Church in the U.S. last August. What follows is an excerpt of Sison’s interview with Archbishop Hiltz.

Q: What was your overall impression of the meeting?

A: I think the meeting went very, very well. We had a superb facilitation team who managed the process for us. We had considerable time-sharing with one another about the nature and exercise of the primacy in our own particular contexts. We saw a fair amount of convergence around pastoral roles, prophetic roles, administrative roles. [There was] variance with respect to term in office…everything from two years to until you retire. That was a helpful prelude to conversations around the purpose and scope of the meeting when we come to gather. There was a small writing group…which included me, to prepare the draft of a statement. After Draft 7, we came to consensus…to take the working document and discuss it among our bishops, with the other Instruments of Communion, and with those who were not present for reasons of conscience.

Q: How important was it to have this conversation?

A: Absolutely, critically, important…When you have primates who say, “For reasons of conscience and for reasons of who’s going to be there, I’m not coming,” you really have to sit down and say, “Well, what really is the purpose of the primates’ meeting?” There are some of us who would [agree with the] Archbishop of Canterbury that “the primates’ meeting is a given, you’re a primate. I may not be excited about going to a primates’ meeting, I don’t look forward to it, but nonetheless I have an obligation to attend the primates’ meeting…” It’s not just about my own personal choice; when you go to the primates’ meeting you don’t represent yourself or your own conscience alone, you go representing your province. To say, ‘I won’t go’ in some sense is to deny the voice and perspective of your own church that you represent…We recalled the fact that [the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury] Donald Coggan, 20 years ago, envisioned the primates’ meeting as a place “for leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation.” And then [Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams gave a history of the last 10 years of the primates’ meeting…What happened was there was a call in the communion for enhanced responsibility on the part of the primates… the primates were assuming an authority [that] as a group was never intended.

Q: Has this issue been resolved?

A: It was pretty clear…among those who were present, and that would have been two-thirds of us…that we don’t speak on our behalf. We speak on behalf of the churches that we represent and what we heard across the board was that we don’t speak until we’ve consulted with the bishops or the synods and councils of our churches…Within the Communion…there are some who really speak for themselves and they don’t consult or speak for their bishops or their provinces… That’s not only creating some difficulties within the communion, but it’s also, to be honest, creating tension within their own provinces. Some bishops are feeling that their perspective is not represented by what their primate says, or they’re told they can’t go to meetings because their primate has told them not to. They’re denied being part of the wider councils of the church. That’s really unfair…

Q: What effect, if any, did the boycott have on the meeting?

A: It was pretty profound in the beginning. When we first gathered…there was huge circle of chairs and on certain chairs there was the name of the province and the archbishop who was not there; we weren’t to occupy those chairs. This was a very vivid visual reminder that there were 12 or 13 not present, some because of illness; some because of visa difficulties…and others, because of reasons of conscience…It really hit us that they weren’t there and [Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan [Williams] spoke about that… In every gathering thereafter…the circle was reduced to a circle of [occupied] chairs…Whenever we did meet, [there was a candle] on the floor in the center of the circle and around the candle were the names of the primates not present…Every time we had the evening prayer and the daily Eucharist, there were prayers for those not present.

Q: How was your report received about what the Anglican Church of Canada sees as challenges to the Communion and its own province?

A: We were asked to bring symbols and most of us did. We simply laid down our symbol on the floor of the altar at the first Eucharist and said why we brought that… why it represented the challenge facing the Anglican Communion or our own province. And that was the extent of it in terms of discussion in the plenary. In smaller groups…we had a chance to talk about the challenges facing our own provinces.

Q: What symbol did you bring?

A: I took an aboriginal talking stick. I spoke about it from the perspective of how that has been a gift to our church from First Nations peoples in terms of how they converse with one another, how they listen with respect to one another, and how they reach a consensus in terms of decision-making. That has become a gift to our church in terms of how…we have all kinds of conversations particularly around difficult ones, around sexuality, for instance…At one point, I remember Rowan Williams was giving one of his reflections one evening and… he actually picked up the aboriginal talking stick that I put down and he held it up for everybody as a sign of what it means to be in communion. It was very powerful.

Q: What would you consider to be the major highlights and achievements of this meeting?

A: The general atmosphere of this meeting was very peaceful, very positive. A third of the members were new; I think they quickly felt part of the body. It might not sound like a major piece of work, but to get to some consensus around the purpose, scope and authority of the primates’ meeting was a really significant amount of work. I know that from being part of the little drafting group, we went back several times… The fact is we were able to put something out in front of people, listen to the feedback, make some changes and take it back to the group. In the end, we had full consensus…

The other major highlight from my perspective was the presentation on gender-based violence. We tend to think of that as a concern in the Congo or other parts of Africa, but in fact it’s a global concern. We heard a very moving report from Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales about this situation in the UK and that led into discussions around human trafficking. Terry Robinson, who co-ordinates the networks for the Anglican Communion, including the [International Anglican Family Network] gave an overview on all the ways the Anglican communion is involved in addressing gender-based violence… she said the ACC had passed resolutions, Lambeth had passed resolutions, but the primates, as a body, had not formally made a statement…That led to the drafting of a statement…There was also a host of international concerns that were addressed either through brief statements or open letters or letters to heads of state.

Q: There were primates with more conservative views on sexuality who boycotted the meeting, but were there others with similar views who chose to attend?

A: There was a good mix of people…Those who came…exhibited huge loyalty to the Archbishop of Canterbury, deep respect for his invitation to draw us together in consultation with one another and a huge amount of respect for the Instruments of Communion…there was honest exchange between individual primates. But I have to say that this meeting was not in any way dominated by discussions around sexuality. In fact, you actually would have to pull very hard to find references to it in our plenary conversations, which is amazing…The last few primates’ meetings have just been dominated by that issue, [the] actions of certain provinces and the reactions of other provinces to those actions, people not going to the Eucharist. None of that happened, everybody participated fully in every aspect of the meeting…People were together at the Eucharist, they were together at tea, they were together at plenary, they were together for prayer, for meals. There was a real sense of community there… The blessing of same-sex unions was just not a big ticket item, not a topic of discussion at this meeting. Not only was it not a big ticket item but nobody was saying, “When are we going to get to this issue?” which was quite profound. Likewise, with the [proposed Anglican] Covenant…there was a general feeling that…we need to let the provinces have the conversations…and we’re not going to enter into a big conversation about it until our provinces have spoken.

Q: Did you emerge from the meeting more hopeful about the future of the Anglican Communion?

A: We emerged with two feelings ? hopeful, because of what happened in the meeting, and, fearful, that those who were not present for reasons of conscience will continue to feel that way. There certainly is some angst amongst some of us that if, for instance, the next primates’ meeting isn’t until, say, early 2013, then in the case of those who didn’t come for reasons of conscience, it would be four years since they would have been at a meeting. A lot can happen in four years in terms of hardening of positions, entrenching of perspectives. Part of the role and work of the primates’ standing committee is to try and reach out to them as soon as possible and bring them into conversation and renewed fellowship with their colleagues.


  • 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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