In a week’s time the Primates of the Anglican Communion will gather in Canterbury for an emergency meeting designed to resolve the ruptured relationships in the Communion. Some of the most dogmatic conservatives would like the meeting to be a make or break moment over homosexuality.
Jonathan Petre has filed a very predictable report for the MailOnline. Predictable because Jonathan has been reporting on Anglican Communion dynamics for many years and predictable because the same old threats and hopes are being trotted out.
In the past I would have become emotionally involved and distressed as I read through this latest report on ’the crisis’. Crisis is what the conservative leaders think they are engaging with, not in the sense of crisis leading to breakthrough but crisis leading to terminal breakup.
GAFCON threats and tactics
Jonathan is good at phoning around for inside information. This time, his insiders have said a hardcore of eight to 12 conservative archbishops from Africa and Asia are preparing to leave the meeting on the first morning unless the liberal Americans ‘repent’ or the Archbishop throws them out.
They are then likely move to their own headquarters nearby for the rest of the meeting. They would boycott future official meetings and set up a parallel church, with the intention of, as Jonathan puts it, drawing away traditionalists from the Church of England. What they really want to do is create an alternative, GAFCON Anglican Communion.
The conservatives are said, as usual, to be accusing liberals of abandoning the word of God by backing openly gay bishops and marriages for gay couples.
This is all wearily familiar from previous meetings. At the Primates’ meeting in Dar Es Salaam in 2007 at which I was present, the conservatives had set up an operations center in the hotel adjacent to the one where the Primates met. In addition they had an operations room on the first floor of the hotel where the Primates met in which strategic plotting was taking place involving the then Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola. I could name some of the people who will be resourcing conservative Primates from their operations centre in Canterbury next week.
The issuing of threats continues, though whether the 8 to 12 Archbishops do actually demand on the first morning that the ‘liberal’ Americans repent or the Archbishop of Canterbury throws them out remains to be seen. This is Jonathan’s construction and the Primates’ fantasy dream of what they are going to do come the day. Pre-meeting threats have been issued for years and yet here we are again with every Primate apparently going to turn up despite previous boycotts.
The Mail on Sunday aka Jonathan says it has learned that feelings are running so high that the three most powerful leaders, the Archbishops of Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, were last week on the brink of snubbing the meeting altogether, but were persuaded to attend by colleagues still hoping to force concessions from Welby.
The dream of God divides us more radically than differences over sexuality
I suppose similar dynamics have characterized high level Church meetings from the beginning. Reading about the threats of walkout this weekend, I observe that a number of very senior, adult, intelligent, Christian leaders are behaving once again in a very infantile, un-Christian way. It isn’t the gulf over the practice and teaching in relation to human sexuality that strikes me now so much as the dramatically different ideas they have from me about appropriate, Christian human behavior and attitudes.
The Anglican Communion is divided by unacknowledged but far more dramatic divisions over our images of God, of authority, our approach to hermeneutics and our ideas about what it is to be human and what then constitutes a Christ-like way of behaving and relating to each other.
Let the Holy Spirit infuse their hearts
I hope there are enough courageous adults in the room on the first day of the meeting who will engage appropriately with the Archbishops of Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, should they start to act on their threats, and encourage them to take some deep breaths, sit in silence for a while, and reflect on the warm diversity of theologies and identities of those present in the room.
I hope there is a corporate willingness to recognize the infinite presence of God’s spirit within every one of them, the integrity of each Archbishop who has been called to such office in the Church, and the deeply prayerful and pastoral life each of them leads. God’s infinite, unconditional love has drawn them together and, when hearts are open, the Spirit is able to melt prejudice, hostility and defensiveness and reveal their common humanity in Christ.
If the meeting is sabotaged at any time, and conservatives withdraw to start planning a parallel Communion, it won’t be the end of the world, nor the end of the Communion. There are many bishops, clergy and lay people back home in each Province who have no wish to separate from the Anglican Communion as presently constituted.
A split might free the Church of England and other Churches in countries where equal marriage is now the norm to change the teaching (and revise Canons and dismantle quadruple locks and exemptions from equality law in the case of England).
In the past I would have argued that a schism would be bad for LGBTI people in those Provinces where anti-gay legislation is on the statute book and the Church contributes to homophobic attitudes and teaching. I’m less worried now. The last decade has seen a slow but secure development of confidence among pro-LGBTI NGOs and support groups in these countries. In Malawi, Eric Sambisa’s decision to confront the homophobia of the government by coming out on the front page of the Times of Malawi is the most dramatic sign that some LGBTI Africans are ready to confront homophobia directly.
The idea of God’s word that the conservative Anglicans are trying to defend has already collapsed in the West and its collapse has already started in the Global South Provinces of the Anglican Communion. GAFCON leaders believe they are doing the right thing according to God’s word by maintaining prejudice and consigning LGBTI people to a life of secrecy and fear. The course of revelation in history is showing them to be totally wrong.
According to Jonathan’s report, the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to broker a deal to allow both sides to co-exist peacefully. I hope and pray with all my heart that he achieves his goal. To co-exist peacefully with my brothers and sisters across the globe, whatever their gender, sexuality, faith or spirituality is most profoundly and prayerfully to be desired.