Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (right) greets Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of Nigeria, during a primates’ meeting at Lambeth Palace in October 2003 to discuss the "consequences" of the election of a gay bishop in the United States.
The Church of Nigeria’s decision last September to amend its constitution by deleting all references to its communion “with the See of Canterbury and with all dioceses, provinces and regional churches which are in full communion with the See of Canterbury” has far-reaching implications for Anglicanism worldwide, say some experts on canon law.
Weeks after Nigeria’s General Synod changed its constitution the diocese of Sydney passed, without debate, a similar motion making it optional for the Church of Australia to maintain its traditional ties with the Church of England. A proposed amendment has likewise been submitted to Australia’s General Synod authorizing it to establish canons declaring with whom it is in communion.
“This might be seen, on one hand, as an attempt to protect themselves from the possibility of ‘inadequacy’ or ‘error’ on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury by grounding their Anglicanism in what they see as a surer anchor,” said Archdeacon Harry Huskins. On the other hand, he added, “it might be seen as an attempt to increase both their own autonomy while lessening that of others at the same time, by enhancing their power to declare ‘definitions of Anglicanism’ and who is in or out of Communion and, so, justify intrusions into the jurisdictions of other provinces, bishops and dioceses, or threaten the ‘break-up’ of the Communion.”
He added: “The irony in this latter case would be that those who would be most vocal in declaring their ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘traditionalism’ would be those moving farthest from what has been ‘orthodox’ and ‘traditional’ in Anglican Communion structure and functioning.” (In an interview with the Anglican Journal Mr. Huskins, who is studying for a doctorate in canon law, stressed he was voicing his personal opinion and not that of Ontario’s provincial synod, where he is executive officer.)
Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of mission and world Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, said Nigeria’s decision was a “significant departure from historic understanding of what it means to be Anglican.” Communion with Canterbury has been a defining characteristic of Anglicanism, he said. He added: “When a church identifies itself as Anglican on a new set of formularies, namely the articles of religion and the Ordinal of 1662, that is a different way of defining one’s self as being Anglican, as compared to what we have historically done, namely in relationship with the See of Canterbury.”
The revised constitution of the Church of Nigeria, whose primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has been most vocal in his opposition to homosexuality, now states that it is in communion with “all Anglican churches, dioceses and provinces that hold and maintain the historic faith, sacrament and discipline of one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church.”
Archbishop Robin Eames, primate of the Church of Ireland and chair of the Lambeth Commission has also spoken out against the Church of Nigeria’s decision.
“As a primate of the Anglican Communion I find the implications of this revision most serious,” he said in a lecture last October at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. “Am I alone in interpreting such wording as the removal of established bonds of communion and their replacement by a provincial-wide authority which will set its own criteria for whoever or whatever it considers worthy of a communion relationship?”
Archbishop Eames, who headed the Lambeth Commission appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to search for ways to arrest a schism over sexuality, added that deleting all references to the See of Canterbury “not only removes what the Windsor Report described as the ‘pivotal’ role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the instrument of unity, but perhaps of greater significance, challenges the concept of Communion as understood throughout Anglican history.”
‘Focus of unity’
The Windsor Report, released by the Lambeth Commission last October 2004, unequivocally stated that, “the historic position of the Archbishopric of Canterbury must not be regarded as a figurehead, but as the central focus of both unity and mission within the Communion. As the significant focus of unity, mission and teaching, the Communion looks to the office of the Archbishop to articulate the mind of the Communion especially in areas of controversy.”
In 2002, a network of 17 Anglican legal advisers (now formally constituted as the Anglican Communion Legal Advisers’ Network, see sidebar on this page) met in Canterbury to study a draft document stating that “communion with Canterbury is a necessary part of the self-understanding of each member church of the Anglican Communion” and that it was one principle of canon law “common to the communion.” The group had met after primates acknowledged that “the unwritten law common to the churches of the Anglican Communion may be understood to constitute a fifth instrument of unity in the communion” and had requested that a “statement of principles” regarding canon law be identified. The Church of Nigeria, which now seeks to distance itself from parts of the Communion, was represented in that consultation.
Ronald Stevenson, chancellor (legal adviser) of the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod said “it is not clear what process the Church of Nigeria will follow to determine which Anglican churches meets its canonical test for full communion.”
‘No sacred cows’
Archbishop Akinola has stated that his church changed its constitution “so that those who are bent to walk a different path, may do so without us. We have chosen not to be yoked to them as we prefer to exercise our freedom to remain faithful.” He admitted it was a direct reaction to an announcement in July by the Church of England that its gay priests could remain in same-sex partnerships as long as they were celibate. “Why should England be spared? There are no sacred cows. What’s good for the geese is good for the gander,” he told Associated Press.
A further change in Nigeria’s charter also allows Nigerian missionaries to create “convocations and chaplaincies outside Nigeria,” a move which Archbishop Akinola said was made to “extend pastoral care and episcopal oversight to those of our people and others who are geographically separated from us but who share our faith convictions.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has not issued any direct comment about the Church of Nigeria’s removal of reference to his See, or official seat of authority, in its constitution but acknowledged in an interview with Reuters that, “the divisions are quite deep, if I am honest, and there is now quite a reservoir of ill-feelings on both sides.”
Archbishop Williams, who attended a gathering of traditionalist Anglicans from Africa, Asia and Latin America in Egypt last October (see related story, page 12) did caution church leaders opposed to more liberal views on homosexuality not to create new church structures.
Canon John Rees, registrar for the province of Canterbury and legal consultant to the Lambeth Commission, attempted to play down the significance of the Church of Nigeria’s decision. He told The Times of London that other provinces in the Communion no longer make any reference to Canterbury in their constitutions. “I do not see a difficulty. It does not seem to me to change the legal position at all,” he said.
The Windsor Report itself acknowledged that, “at present, individual canonical systems are ambivalent to global communion, rarely centripetal (looking outward), mostly neutral (internal), and sometimes centrifugal (keeping other provinces at a distance).” This, said the Windsor Report, “has been a persistent problem in Anglicanism contributing directly to the current crisis.” It therefore recommended that primates consider “the adoption by the churches of the Communion of a common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion.”
Archbishop Williams has voiced his approval of this recommendation, stating recently that, “for me, the prospect of an Anglican ‘covenant’ or a convergent system of canon law is the best hope that we have.” But he acknowledged that this would not be an easy thing to implement.
Mr. Douglas said churches “need to be careful that a covenant is about a voluntary offering of one’s self in one’s church into a relationship and not a set of laws under which we are forced to live. Covenant is not communion law.”
Mr. Huskins also noted that the meeting of conservative Anglicans in Egypt has called for provinces to “assent in advance to a new covenant” and have warned that “if provinces do not do so they will be declared to have chosen to ‘walk apart,’ that is, separated themselves from the Anglican Communion by this ‘inaction.'” This, he said, would be like writing a blank cheque.