Welby: ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it’

The primates gather for evensong in Canterbury Cathedral on the first day of the Primates' Meeting. Photo: Canterbury Cathedral
The primates gather for evensong in Canterbury Cathedral on the first day of the Primates' Meeting. Photo: Canterbury Cathedral
Published January 15, 2016

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was noncommittal about 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.

Welby acknowledged, however, that the Canadian church’s upcoming vote on whether or not to change its marriage canon to allow for same-sex marriage was discussed by the Primates’ Meeting, held January 11-15, in Canterbury, England.

“We discussed [the Canadian church vote], and we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said at a press conference held at Canterbury Cathedral. He also said that there are “another two or three” provinces that are looking at taking action on same-sex marriage.

Welby was responding to a question about whether the Canadian church would meet the same fate as The Episcopal Church, which had been asked by the primates withhold participation in the Anglican Communion’s decision-making related to issues of doctrine and polity, because of its General Convention’s approval in June 2015 of same-sex marriage. In an announcement posted on the Primates’ Meeting website, the primates said that “given the seriousness of these matters,” The Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, should also “no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, [and] should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee…”

In a communiqué released after their meeting, the primates expressed their unanimous desire to walk together and said that their decision was made following a recommendation by “a working group of our members which took up the task of how our Anglican Communion of Churches might walk together and our unity be strengthened.”

The Episcopal Church’s decision represents “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage,” said the communiqué, adding that “possible developments in other provinces could further exacerbate this situation.”

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, has issued an initial statement about the Primates’ Meeting. [See story here.] He has a scheduled interview with the Anglican Journal early next week.

U.S. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry told the Episcopal News Service (ENS) that while the primates’ decision was “not the outcome we expected, and while we are disappointed, it’s important to remember that the Anglican Communion is really not a matter of structure and organization.”

Curry also said that the primates’ call was something for the Anglican Consultative Council (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.”

Welby, for his part, stressed that the limitations on The Episcopal Church’s participation in the life of the Anglican Communion are not “sanctions,” but “consequences” of its decision around same-sex marriage.

“The issue with The Episcopal Church was…that they went ahead with a basic understanding of doctrine in the Anglican Communion ahead of the rest of the Communion, and without consultation. That’s the problem. We’re not sanctioning them; we have no power to sanction them,” he said. “We’ve simply said that if any province, on a major issue of how the church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion.”

Welby acknowledged that “unity shared by the primates here is going to be costly because we have deep differences and it is going to be painful as well.” However, he said, there were instances evident at the meeting that unity was “often joyful and remarkable.”

This is not the first time that a ban from serving on ecumenical and interfaith bodies has been imposed on The Episcopal Church, reported ENS. “In 2010, [Canon] Kenneth Kearon, then the secretary general of the Anglican Communion, told Episcopalians serving on the communion’s ecumenical dialogues that their memberships were discontinued.

“Kearon’s move came after then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposed that people serving on ecumenical dialogues should resign their membership if they are from a province that has not complied with the communion’s moratoria on same-gender blessings, cross-border interventions and the ordination of gay and lesbian people to the episcopate.”

Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, then the chair of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity Faith and Order, lifted the ban in 2012.

In 2005, primates made the unprecedented move of requesting that The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada “voluntarily withdraw” from the Anglican Consultative Council until 2008 as a step toward restoring unity within the Communion, which had been fractured by the ordination of a gay bishop in the diocese of New Hampshire and the blessing of same-sex unions in the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster. The withdrawal from the ACC was one of the recommendations made by the 2004 Windsor Report, published by the Lambeth Commission, which was established to make recommendations “on how to maintain the highest degree of communion possible” following the decisions made by the North American churches.

The American and Canadian churches, while acknowledging the “pain” that resulted from that move, complied with the request. The Canadian church’s Council of General Synod (CoGS) voted on the request after an anguished debate about the merits of complying with or rejecting the request.

Despite his concerns over The Episcopal Church’s decision regarding same-sex marriage, Welby stated that “it is for me a constant source of deep sadness that people are persecuted for their sexuality” and apologized for the “hurt and the pain in the past and present that the church has caused.”

Asked whether the primates’ decision to censure The Episcopal Church made the Anglican church look outdated, Welby said, “It makes us look out of line in the U.S. and the U.K., but not in many parts of the world.”

Archbishop Paul Kwong, primate of the church in Hong Kong, who also appeared at the press conference, said, “We’re not outdated…We want to be a responsible and relevant church to the world.”

In the communiqué, the primates also said they condemn “homophobic prejudice and violence” and resolve to “work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.”

The primates “reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.”

Asked whether primates will take steps to actively advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality, Welby said, “It’s for primates to make those decisions. We’re not a centralized church.”

The communiqué also noted that the breakaway Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which is not formally part of the Anglican Communion but whose bishop, Foley Beach, was invited to be present at the Primates’ Meeting, has expressed interest in becoming part of the Communion. It stressed, however, that Communion membership is under the jurisdiction of the ACC, not the Primates’ Meeting.

Matters of internal church order and human sexuality were not the only issues the primates discussed, said Welby.

There were discussions around the plight of refugees worldwide and the churches’ response to them, and the primates also talked about issues such as climate change, religiously motivated violence and problems around “tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and patronage networks, and the deep evil of corruption,” the communiqué reported, and it was announced that the next Lambeth Conference will take place in 2020.

The primates discussed “the reality of religiously motivated violence and its impact on people and communities throughout the world,” said the communiqué. “Primates living in places where such violence is a daily reality spoke movingly and passionately about their circumstances and the effect on their members.”

Welby noted accounts of women who fear being raped by members of militias and church members who fear being killed by suicide bombers.

The primates said they also “look forward” to a proposal being brought to the ACC “for comprehensive child protection measures to be available throughout all the churches of the Communion.”

The communiqué acknowledged that the meeting was a spiritual time, which began in prayer and fasting and which was supported throughout by the prayers of the Community of St. Anselm, an intentional community of youth spending a “year in God’s time” at Lambeth Palace, and Roman Catholic philosopher social innovator Jean Vanier, who addressed the primates on January 14.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement issued by Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. A correction has also been made to this article. The Primates’ Meeting was held January 11-15, not June 11-15.



  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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