Primates call for breathing space

Published April 1, 2005

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Canadian primate, and Archdeacon Paul Feheley, his principal secretary, walk the grounds of Dromantine Conference Centre near Newry, Northern Ireland.

Asking the Canadian and American churches to “voluntarily withdraw” from the Anglican Consultative Council for at least three years averted a much-feared split within the Anglican Communion last February but the crisis over homosexuality, which has bitterly divided churches, is far from over, say Anglican leaders.

“We still face the possibility of division, of course we do,” Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told BBC in an interview. “Any lasting solution will require people somewhere along the line to say, ‘Yes, we were wrong.'”

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, was emphatic that the issue “is not over.” He said in an interview that regardless of whether the North American churches voluntarily bow out of the Council, “It doesn’t lay to rest the issue of homosexuality.”

During their meeting in February, 35 of the Anglican Communion’s primates (three were absent) asked the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) not to send their representatives to a scheduled June meeting of the Council in Nottingham, England. The request was contained in a communiqué released Feb. 24.

The request will be debated by the Canadian church next month at the spring meeting of the Council of General Synod (CoGS).

In a press conference, Archbishop Williams and Archbishop Peter Carnley, primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, clarified that the Canadian church and ECUSA were not being kicked out from the Anglican Communion as some reports suggested.

“I think we are more in marriage counseling, than in divorce courts,” Archbishop Williams told BBC.

“We’re simply suggesting that they should withdraw their representatives between now and the Lambeth Conference to create space,” said Archbishop Carnley, who helped draft the communiqué.

Archbishop Williams said the onus is now on the North American churches to explain their actions and to prove their commitment to the Communion.

“Though I don’t want to second guess what the official bodies of the North American churches might do, what has been said to them is that the cost of carrying on with this sort of unilateral development is very high,” he told the press conference. “The question now is, given the potential costs, how close do you want to be to the other churches in this family?”

The Anglican Communion, composed of 38 provinces representing 70 million Anglicans worldwide, has been threatened by schism after primates – mostly coming from Africa, Asia and South America – were outraged by ECUSA’s decision to consecrate a non-celibate gay bishop and by the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster’s approval of same-sex blessings.

Archbishop Hutchison said a voluntary withdrawal from the Council was “part of a pain that needs to be endured.”

The Canadian primate said he had argued “passionately” against the request to withdraw in the meeting, which he described as a “difficult” one. He confirmed that “a dozen or so” primates had refused to attend eucharist because of his and Bishop Griswold’s presence there.

Primates from the so-called Global South, particularly Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone, Archbishop Bernard Malango of Central Africa and Archbishop Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria (who represents some 17 million Anglicans) are the most outspoken critics of the North American churches and have demanded that they “repent” as a condition of their continued membership in the Communion.

In a candid interview with Anglican Journal, Archbishop Hutchison said he was disappointed with the boycott of the eucharist by some primates as well as with a “failure of leadership” on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury. On one occasion some delegates were not informed that a number of primates would not be able to attend the meeting because they were having a dinner party with some conservative U.S. Episcopalians who had been monitoring the meeting from the nearby village of Newry. “I think when primates come together to do their business they should be permitted to do that, without outside interference,” he said. “There was a feeling that we (primates) were not fully in control of our agenda.”

Archbishop Williams had known about the party but did not try to stop it, he said. “Virtually nothing was done about it except that following the exodus of those people, (he) did apologize to the whole plenary session and did state how inappropriate that had been.”

There were also moments, he said, when he was profoundly disappointed as some primates glossed over their own provinces’ struggles with the issue of homosexuality. Fourteen dioceses in the Church of England regularly allow blessings, he said, and “in one diocese alone, I suspect there have been more blessings than have ever occurred in Canada,” he said. “But it’s all done unofficially, in the shadows rather than out in the light of day. So there is a profound sort of hypocrisy here.”

The sexuality issue, he said, is a global one. “What Canada has done is it has decided to be open and honest and above board in its discussion of the issue rather than keep it in the shadows as have other churches.”

Meanwhile, Sue Moxley, suffragan bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and the Canadian church’s episcopal delegate to the Council, expressed disappointment with the primates’ request, saying, “My whole thing is: as long as we can stay at the table, we can talk. If we’re not there, how can we go forward?” she asked. Bishop Moxley questioned why the primates chose to exclude the North Americans from the Council.

‘They didn’t decide that Andrew (Hutchison) and Frank (Griswold, presiding bishop of ECUSA) couldn’t be at the next primates’ meeting,” she noted. “It seems that they don’t want anybody other than primates making decisions.” She said the Council is the only place in the Anglican Communion where laity, clergy and bishops all have a voice.

The primates also recommended that representatives from ECUSA and the Canadian church be invited to appear at a “hearing” at the Council’s June meeting so that they may have “an opportunity to set out the thinking behind the recent actions of their provinces.”

The primates asked Archbishop Hutchison and Bishop Griswold to “use their best influence” in imposing a moratorium on same-sex blessings and the ordination of gay bishops.

However, the communiqué also acknowledged that ECUSA and New Westminster had not acted illegally but, rather, had “proceeded entirely in accordance with their constitutional processes and requirements” in their controversial decisions.

Equally important, said Archbishops Hutchison and Carnley was the primates’ “unanimous” commitment “not to encourage cross-boundary interventions.” The communiqué asked conservative primates to stop taking in parishes and churches outside their jurisdiction who are opposed to acceptance of homosexuality. It recommended the creation of a panel of reference to supervise dissenting minorities. (Late last year, the Canadian house of bishops approved a plan for shared ministry that allows bishops to cross diocesan boundaries when parishes do not agree with the issue of same-sex blessings.)

Directly after the primates’ meeting, however, Archbishop Venables met with dissenting Canadian Anglicans, including those who have walked away from the diocese of New Westminster. The Canadian primate has written a letter of protest to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking him to enforce the primates’ agreement.

Meanwhile, the question of the Anglican Consultative Council’s funding remains unclear. The North American churches are two of the biggest funders of the Council.? General Secretary Jim Boyles said that CoGS will consider that issue at its May meeting. “CoGS approved the budget and it’s up to them to decide on it,” he said.

The Anglican Church of Canada’s 2005 budget provides for a $105,000 contribution to the Anglican Consultative Council, plus $7,000 to support travel for Canadian members. In the past, the Canadian church has also provided staff support. Canon Eric Beresford, a former General Synod staff member, served as ethics consultant to the Council for years. ECUSA contributes $600,000 US to the Anglican Communion office.

The main agenda for the Council’s Nottingham meeting is a discussion of the Windsor Report.

With files from Leanne Larmondin and Solange De Santis


  • 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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