Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has invited the 37 primates (senior archbishops) of the Anglican Communion to a face-to-face meeting in Canterbury in January 2016.
A press statement issued on September 16 by Lambeth Palace said, without elaborating, that the meeting would be an opportunity for a “review of the structures of the Anglican Communion.”
It quoted Welby as saying that he has suggested that primates “need to consider recent developments but also look afresh at our ways of working as a Communion.”
The press statement has already caused some controversy. The Guardian ran an article under the headline, “Archbishop of Canterbury urges breakup of divided Anglican Communion,” to which Lambeth Palace responded – on Twitter – by tweeting “Just to clarify, the Archbishop of Canterbury is NOT planning to break up the Anglican Communion.” The headline was later changed.
The Guardian reported that the archbishop would propose that the worldwide grouping be reorganized “as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other.” It quoted an unnamed Lambeth Palace source as saying the proposal would allow Welby to maintain relations with both liberal and conservative churches in the Communion, which have been deeply divided over the issue of human sexuality.
Fuelling the controversy was an invitation extended by Welby to Archbishop Foley Beach, head bishop of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), to be present for part of the meeting. ACNA is composed of clergy and congregations that have left the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church over the blessing of same-sex unions by some dioceses in Canada and the election of bishops in same-sex relationships in the U.S.. The creation of ACNA, which has its own episcopacy, has led to a complicated situation where it is considered fully Anglican by some provinces in the Communion, but is not in communion with Canterbury-one of the traditional requirements of Anglicanism.
In the statement, Welby acknowledged that “we each live in a different context,” and that “the difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians.” But, he pressed for unity, saying, “A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism. We have no Anglican pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and ultimately found in scripture, properly interpreted.” The Archbishop of Canterbury is primus inter pares (first among equals) at any meeting of primates and is recognized as the focus of unity for the Anglican Communion, which has 85 million members worldwide.
Welby expressed the hope that the meeting will enable the Communion “to set a course which permits us to focus on serving and loving each other, and above all on the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the invitation was “not a surprise,” and nor was Welby’s stated desire to review the structures of the communion. “He’s been quite open about that from early on.”
When it comes to his own thoughts on what a review of the structures should involve, Hiltz sounded a note of caution.
“My hope would be that we don’t just come at a conversation like that from the point of view of saying, ‘nothings working and everything needs to be fixed or made new.’ Because I, for one, don’t believe everything is broken,” Hiltz said, pointing to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) as an example of a “pretty healthy” instrument of communion.
Regarding Beach’s participation in the meeting, Hiltz pointed out that membership in the Anglican Communion is a process overseen by the ACC, and stressed that Beach’s participation does not mean ACNA is a part of the Anglican Communion.
“I think considerable care has been taken with regard to how Archbishop Foley will be present,” Hiltz said. “My understanding is that he will be present for some time in conversation with the primates in advance of the formal meeting… The provision that Archbishop Justin has made, I know…comes out of his passion for and hope of reconciliation.”
Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion welcomed Welby’s announcement of a primate’s meeting saying, “The Anglican Communion must now allow the Holy Spirit to intervene in the differences that divide us.” In a press statement, Idowu-Fearon said the invitation extended to Beach “is an opportunity to listen to useful ideas from this group on how we continue as a Communion in light of the search and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
Invitations have been sent, but how many primates will come? “I’m hopeful everybody will come, but my honest answer is it remains to be seen,” said Hiltz, adding that he does not feel his hope is unfounded. “I think the fact that everybody showed up for his installation two years ago was a really good sign.”
The meeting, the first to be hosted by Welby since he was enthroned in 2013, will also give primates a chance to “decide together their approach to the next Lambeth Conference,” said the press release.
The primates last met at the Emmaus Centre in Dublin in 2011, a gathering attended by 23 primates. Seven boycotted the meeting over concerns about the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church’s acceptance of same-sex blessings in some jurisdictions and their support for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in their churches.
The primates’ meeting is one of the three instruments of communion in the Anglican Communion, the other two being the Anglican Consultative Council and the Lambeth Conference of bishops.
Welby has said he wants a guarantee of broad participation from across the Anglican Communion before he schedules the next Lambeth Conference. The conference, which is an opportunity for the world’s Anglican bishops to discuss and make decisions about issues facing the Communion, is usually held every ten years. The last conference was held in Canterbury in 2008.