Primates’ decision puzzles Communion watchers

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby takes a reporter’s questions at a news conference in Canterbury at the conclusion of the Primates’ Meeting January 15. Photo: Anglican Archives
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby takes a reporter’s questions at a news conference in Canterbury at the conclusion of the Primates’ Meeting January 15. Photo: Anglican Archives
Published January 19, 2016

The lack of legislative authority vested in the Primates’ Meeting has some observers of the Anglican Communion scratching their heads as to how primates (senior archbishops) can impose “consequences” on The Episcopal Church (TEC) for its stance on same-sex marriage.

“The Primates’ Meeting is a meeting-not a body that makes resolutions. It was originally designed to be a gathering for mutual support,” Suzanne Lawson, the Anglican Church of Canada’s lay representative to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), said in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “That they are taking authority that is not ascribed to them by the description of what the Primates’ Meeting is, seems curious to me.”

Prof. Norman Doe, director of the Centre for Law and Religion at Cardiff University, told Church Times, “No instrument exists conferring upon the Primates’ meeting the jurisdiction to ‘require’ these things…Whatever they require is unenforceable.”

Last Friday, January15, primates from across the Anglican Communion released a communiqué calling for TEC to be temporarily banned from ecumenical and interfaith bodies, internal standing committees and generally from “decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

The primates said they were “requiring” that these measures be taken because of the distance they said TEC had put between itself and them by changing its marriage canon to allow same-sex marriages.

TEC’s General Convention voted to approve of same-sex marriages in June 2015.

U.S. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said the call from the primates is a question for the ACC to consider “because that’s the one constitutional body we have in the Communion, so the ACC will have to adjudicate what the primates say about themselves, whether or not they concur with that.”

When asked to comment on the process that will be involved in enforcing the “consequences” on TEC, the chair of the ACC, Bishop James Tengatenga, told the Anglican Journal, “I wish I knew the answer…I was not privy to the discussions as I am not a primate. All I know is what is in the public domain.” But, he added, “I am sure that the ACC will, at some point, be asked to respond to this in some way, but until that happens and until the council meets I cannot preempt what it would say or do and how it will do it or effect it.”

At a news conference after the communiqué was released, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the primates had also discussed the Anglican Church of Canada’s vote, scheduled to take place at General Synod this July, on allowing same-sex marriages. Welby would not say what consequence, if any, there would be for the Anglican Church of Canada should its General Synod vote this July to allow same-sex marriage. “We discussed [the Canadian church vote], and we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said, adding that there are “another two or three” provinces that are looking at taking action on same-sex marriage.

While the primates’ communiqué does not mention Canada explicitly, it states that “possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation,” referring to what it called TEC’s “fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage.”

Although there were reports that primates took a vote that would have asked The Episcopal Church to withdraw voluntarily from the Anglican Communion for three years, Lawson noted that it’s the ACC-not the Primates’ Meeting-that would have the authority under church law to decide on Communion membership.

The ACC, composed of representatives from all the world’s Anglican provinces, is slated to meet in April. In a statement responding to the primates’ communiqué, the president of TEC’s House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, one of TEC’s representatives at the ACC, affirmed her intention to attend the ACC’s April meeting. She also said TEC had no intention of changing its policy on same-sex marriages.

“I want to assure you that nothing about what the primates have said will change the actions of General Convention that have, over the past four decades, moved us toward full inclusion and equal marriage,” she said.

In a reflection published after the Primates’ Meeting, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said that primates were reminded of the principle stated in the Windsor Continuation Group that “when the Primates speak collectively, or in a united or unanimous manner, their advice-while it is no more than advice-nevertheless needs to be received with a readiness to undertake reflection and accommodation.”

Archdeacon Alan Perry, executive archdeacon of the diocese of Edmonton and a specialist in Anglican canon law, said that although the Primates’ Meeting has no legislative authority, it appeared the primates were counting on their moral suasion to influence the Communion’s other decision-makers.

“The authority of what they have said remains to be determined, and will be seen to the extent to which their statement is respected by those who do have authority to make decisions or appointments, or to elect,” said Perry.

Algoma Bishop Stephen Andrews said the primates’ decision might, for example, influence the Archbishop of Canterbury to not appoint representatives from TEC to any of the bodies for which he has the power of appointment, or that “the communication would be made to the internal bodies of the Communion that they…make clear to their TEC representatives that they are there as guests with voice but no vote, because I think that was also part of the idea here.” Andrews was part of the group that presented the Canadian church’s position on human sexuality in a consultation with the ACC in 2005.

In 2005, representatives from both the Canadian and American Anglican churches were instructed by their church councils to “attend but not participate fully,” withdrawing from voting sessions, at the meeting of the ACC in Nottingham, England. The councils made this decision in response to a request by the Primates’ Meeting earlier in the year that the Canadian and American churches “voluntarily withdraw” from the proceedings, because of the approval of blessings of same-sex marriages by the Canadian diocese of New Westminster and the consecration of a non-celibate gay bishop in the U.S.

But the result of the Canadians’ and Americans’ semi-participation at the ACC meeting was not pleasant for anyone, Lawson said, and seems unlikely to be repeated.

“The experience of voluntarily withdrawing which the two churches had in Nottingham was extraordinarily painful to many people in the Anglican Consultative Council,” she said. “I don’t think it made people on the opposing side of where we were at that point feel very good either. Because we were there-we were a constant, annoying presence in the back row. Not speaking, not participating. And our presence there made it very awkward for many people.”

The conclusion following the meeting, said Lawson, was that “we’ll never do that again. Now that wasn’t a resolution or anything, but that was the feeling-?We just can’t do that again.'”

On the other hand, allowing the primates to gather at Canterbury last week and issue a rebuke against TEC as they did may have been the only way for Welby to stave off walkouts from the ACC on the part of provinces highly opposed to same-sex marriage, Lawson said.

“I wonder whether some of the primates would have said to their own groups-their own elected or appointed individuals-?Our province is not going,’ ” she said. “So I think that’s where I have to say, in fairness to the Archbishop of Canterbury, I don’t know that he had any choice but to get the primates together to have this discussion.”

Nonetheless, Lawson said she was “saddened” and “grieved” by the primates’ communiqué.

Chris Ambidge, spokesman for the Anglican gay advocacy group Integrity Canada, said he was “disappointed but not at all surprised.”

“This is exactly congruent with the way that the Communion as a whole has been behaving towards LGBT people, and towards churches that support them, since at least Lambeth 1998,” he said, referring to the bishops’ meeting during which a statement was issued that homosexual acts were incompatible with Scripture. “It’s cut from exactly the same cloth…It’s difficult and certainly very hurtful.”

Ambidge, himself a member of General Synod, said he had a “horrible feeling” the measures announced against TEC would make the passage of changes to the Anglican Church of Canada’s marriage canon this summer less likely.

“There may well be, I can hear it now: ?Well, we shouldn’t do anything, because it might jeopardize our position in the Anglican Communion-look what happened to The Episcopal Church.’ That will get said, I am sure,” he said.

“TEC is being extremely gracious about this,” Ambidge added. “They could do other things. They could pick up their marbles and go home. They could say, ?OK, if we’re suspended for three years the financial support we give to the Anglican Communion is suspended for three years.’ And that’s a lot of money.”

For his part, Andrews said it’s very hard to predict what effect, if any, the primates’ decision might have on the Anglican Church of Canada’s vote.

“On the one hand, I think what it probably does for folks is it underlines the seriousness of these matters, in terms of our relationship with the Communion,” he said. “On the other hand, people were predicting that we would see the primates divide, that the global south primates would leave en masse, and we have not seen that, so there is some kind of commitment to stay together that I think is encouraging for folks…Part of it would depend, I think, on how important our Communion relationships are to the delegates at General Synod.

“For those who understand the Anglican Communion in political terms, it would seem that neither side has won,” Andrews added. “But this is the real victory, for there still is hope for general and genuine repentance, confession and reconciliation.”

Welby also announced he would lead a task force charged with reconciling different views of sexuality in the Communion, with a view to repairing relationships within it.



  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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