Looking back and to the future

The compass rose identifies churches who belong to the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The compass rose identifies churches who belong to the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Published October 4, 2013

In 1963, Toronto was the host city for an international congress to discuss the future of Anglicanism and the global Anglican Communion. The 10-day event was attended by about 2,000 people from around the world, including delegates, their spouses, organizers, observers and about 250 journalists. More than 16,000 people gathered in Maple Leaf Gardens for the opening evensong service.

Last Sept. 18, Toronto’s Wycliffe College hosted an academic conference, supported by the Cranmer Institute, to mark the 50th anniversary of the congress and to consider the current state of the Communion and its future. International guest speakers included primates from the Anglican provinces of Egypt and the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, Burundi and Kenya, as well as a Nigerian archbishop and a dean from Singapore.

The Communion and the Congress in the Sixties

Reflecting on the context of the congress 50 years ago, Bishop Stephen Andrews from the diocese of Algoma said Canadian Anglicans were encouraged to attend the conference “to take a long hard look at the church, under pressure on all sides by atheistic ideologies, humanistic and ‘scientific’ philosophies, to say nothing of the resurgence of non-Christian faiths.” Even though 1965 marked the peak of the Anglican demographic in Canada, Bishop Andrews said that people at the congress saw that the church would need to adapt to a rapidly changing world. “In what became the watchword of the congress, the Archbishop of Canterbury solemnly warned the assembly that the church that lives to itself will die by itself,” he said.

Part of the church’s response was unveiled at the congress in a manifesto entitled “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence.” Primates and metropolitans who had gathered two weeks before the congress framed the manifesto. It was intended to inaugurate a new post-colonial approach to mission, that would no longer label some churches as giving churches and others as receiving, but rather acknowledge that all churches had needs and resources, Andrews explained. Tensions involved in that interdependence are not new. Bishop Andrews said one Algoma participant noted “the most critical frustration in the congress seemed to be that experienced by the members of the younger churches as they considered the modern laxity in morals in countries they had regarded as Christian. This was pointedly expressed by Asian and African bishops, who were perhaps even more frustrated by the apparent lack of concern about it.”

The Communion Now

The Rev. Ephraim Radner, a professor of historical theology at Wycliffe, argued that the diversity in the Communion, which has grown since 1963, “requires a clearer mode of mutual allegiance” than currently exists. “As churches, we cannot be sovereign states, and this whole idea that we are sovereign states needs to be broken down and thrown away. Personally, I believe that the Covenant is still one of the most creative things we have on the table in this direction.”

Many of the speakers represented the perspective of conservative Anglicans who objected to the blessing of same-sex marriages and the election of gay and lesbian bishops in North American churches. Archbishop Mouneer Anis, the primate of Egypt and the Middle East, spoke of the crisis in the Communion as being especially painful because the relationships are those of family, not of a federation. While the issue of sexuality is divisive, he said the crisis revealed broader differences over other matters, such as the interpretation and authority of scripture. Archbishop Mouneer quoted an often-heard metaphor that “the fabric of the Communion is torn to its deepest level.” He recommended repairs that include restructuring the Anglican Consultative Council and the Anglican Communion Office, and re-establishing a covenant relationship among the provinces of the Communion. He noted, however, that the Anglican Covenant currently being considered has been too “watered down.” He added that, “Even if every province adopted the Covenant, it would not help our situation.”


The Future of the Communion

There were, however, voices of hope for the Communion.

Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, bishop of the diocese of Kaduna in Nigeria, said he believes there are extreme conservatives and liberals within the Communion, but a majority of about 70 per cent of Anglicans are in the middle and want the Communion to hold together.

Idowu-Fearon, in speaking about the Communion’s instruments of unity—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council—offered suggestions for making them more effective, including creating a commission to decide whether the Lambeth Conference should be designed for talk or decision-making; giving the Archbishop of Canterbury direct oversight of the Anglican Consultative Council; and the idea that each primate could come to the Primates’ Meeting, accompanied and advised by both a liberal and a conservative on controversial issues.

“I think, as Anglicans, it is about time we stopped running away from the fact that we are two groups—the liberal and the conservatives,” Idowu-Fearon said. The primates might not agree, but there is an opportunity for building understanding, he said, adding that recommendations from the Primates’ Meeting could then be taken to the Anglican Consultative Council, like a synod. “If this Communion has a mission, which is to unite the church, we must learn to accommodate one another,” he said. “The conservatives have been very arrogant, the liberals have been very despotic, and I believe we both need to ask the world for forgiveness…”

Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, the primate of Burundi, who is also the chair of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Faith, Order and Unity, strengthened that message. When protestations of love are immediately followed by recriminations and character assassinations, “harm is done to the cause of Christ,” he said. “The true test of love is how Christians relate to one another in times of disagreement.”

Comparing the Communion’s situation to that of the divided church in Corinth in the time of Paul’s ministry, he said that the heart of the problems in any divided church “is actually a problem of the heart…For genuine reconciliation to be a reality, there will have to be justice, repentance and forgiveness but, above all, speaking the truth in love. Thus reconciliation becomes a language of learning to live with the other and to manage our differences.” Ntahoturi argued that unity is not uniformity, and truth is not one-sided. The only solution, he said, lies in dialogue.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby used Skype video teleconferencing to address those attending the conference.

“The trouble with the Anglican Communion at the moment,” Welby said from England, “is that we focus on one or two sins and forget that all of us need to come in repentance and humility to the cross, and kneel before the cross and seek the forgiveness of God.” He added that it is important to consider each church’s context. While the U.K. church has challenges around the issues of sexuality, other churches face issues of corruption, persecution and hostility. Each will behave differently according to its context, he said.

Welby added that Anglicans need to look at challenges in the Communion in the light of their charism and vocation. After visiting Jerusalem in June, he said he was inspired by the fact that the Anglican church there is small and yet it has extraordinary influence. “That’s partly because of the work of the bishop, but it is also because of the grace of God, who has called the Anglicans to be bridge-builders, to be those who reach out to one side and another and bring them together.”

He said that his spiritual director once told him that “all ministries, all people, all churches are attacked by the devil most in the area of their vocation and charism.”

Welby went on to say, “And so as Anglicans, if we are good bridge-builders, we will find ourselves struggling with unity…It is enormously important that we hold on to that vision that God has called us to, to draw together as a church, to draw together people in conflict, to serve them, to love them and in doing so…show the glory of god.”


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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