January 22, 2016 (revised 1/26)
Primates' Meeting Ends After Imposing "Consequences" on the Episcopal Church
Primates dodge debate on homosexuality with focus on Church's failure to consult on same-sex marriage
Post-conference briefing provides more questions than answers
CANTERBURY - Last week Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby convened a kind of peace conference at Canterbury Cathedral to engage the fractious leaders of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion in discussions on the global challenges they are facing. His hope was they'd find a way to move move beyond their bitter 13-year stalemate over human sexuality.
It was not an easy task.
Over the past two years, Welby has traveled to each of the provinces to press his case for unity, and discourage disaffected “primates,” like those in Africa, from leaving the Communion altogether.
He cancelled an every-ten-year conference of Anglican primates and bishops at Lambeth Palace when ultraconservative primates threatened to embarrass him by not showing up. They've even gone so far as to organize their own rival version of the Communion, known by the acronym GAFCON, to cultivate sympathizers and sabotage the Communion’s more modern-thinking elements.
1. GAFCON Welcomes You (sort of)
Even though GAFCON is not an official body of the Communion, it has repeatedly humiliated Welby and derailed his efforts to unify its member provinces, mostly over the willingness of some provinces to include gays and lesbians into the full life of their Churches.
Readers of this blog remember last summer’s visit to Charleston by GAFCON leaders and the Primate of the tiny Province of South America, who told us that Welby had signed off on GAFCON’s adoption of ex-Bishop Lawrence’s breakaway “Diocese of South Carolina” as a junior member. Turns out Welby never did any such a thing, according to an official spokesman for the Archbishop. The lie was never admitted to nor was there ever a public apology.
This has been typical of the disrespect shown by the GAFCON crowd to those with whom they disagree.
As late as last Tuesday, in spite of the extensive arrangements made by Welby, GAFCON primate Stanley Ntagali of Uganda sneaked out of the conference without saying a word to Welby. He was apparently back in Kampala when Welby found out he’d left, but not before telling the news media he was tired of talking to people with whom he didn't agree.
As late as Friday afternoon Welby was saying he had no clue why Ntagali left.
Read about Ntagali's self-serving media stunt
As it turns out, Ntagali was headed home to a series of pre-planned rallies and media events to boost his public image as an international superhero defending Africa from the influence of gay-loving westerners.
2. Conservatives take control of the agenda
Among GAFCON's complaints about prior Primates' meetings was that their format and pre-set agendas made it difficult for conservatives to engage their colleagues in decisive action on issues of concern to them.
So on Monday, the first day of the gathering, Welby reportedly asked the primates to suggest issues they wanted to see on the agenda for the rest of the week. Not surprisingly, disciplining the Episcopal Church over its approval of same-gender marriage rites was among the most popular.
By Tuesday a consensus had formed among the primates that some disciplinary measure against the Episcopal Church would be necessary to preserve the unity and credibility of the Communion.
However, it was not clear what that disciplining should look like.
Our understanding is that there was an emerging sense among the primates to avoid being perceived as punishing one of its members for its openness to a persecuted and widely-despised minority. They did not want to see the Communion risking its public credibility in a protracted and non-productive debate over homosexuality.
There was also a growing favorability about the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church especially among the conservative non-GAFCON primates.
Most of them had only known Katharine Jefferts Schori and maybe Frank Griswold, whose integrity, theology, and belief in Jesus Christ had been successfully pilloried by GAFCON allies in the United States even before they ever met their primatial colleagues.
Curry was not as easily maligned. In Curry, conservatives were finding someone whose understanding of the Gospel and commitment to evangelism sounded more like their own. It was not as easy for African and Asian provinces to imagine him as a mouthpiece of former colonial powers.
3. Moderates check the GAFCON primates
By Wednesday morning, momentum for a severe punishment for the Episcopalians was losing steam. The vote on just such a proposal - asking the Episcopal Church to voluntarily suspend itself from the Communion for three years - failed 15-20. Those on the losing side were reportedly GAFCON primates, plus some conservative non-GAFCON primates from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
At some point during the morning another, less heavy-handed, proposal emerged.
This time the focus of the conversation was on procedural missteps the Episcopal Church supposedly failed to follow in approving rites for same-gender marriage.
By a reported vote of 30-6, the Primates then did agree that members of the Episcopal Church should not be allowed to serve on any policy-making or ecumenical councils of the Communion for the next three years as a consequence of having approved same-gender marriage without consulting the Communion.
The resolution did not condemn homosexuality or the ordaining of gay priests or bishops, and did not propose that the Episcopal Church withdraw from the Communion. It appeared to be just enough to keep the GAFCON primates and the other conservatives on board, without totally alienating the more progressive provinces.
The action was largely symbolic since the Primates have no authority to discipline any Communion member or to override the official membership structures of the Communion.
However, the move did give anti-gay primates an opportunity to flex their political muscle, send a message to the progressive provinces, and rob Welby of the image of a somewhat unified, though quarrelsome, Anglican Communion at the end of the conference.
Read the Primates entire official statement
4. Public backlash
On Thursday, the public got its first sense of the chess game inside the Cathedral when the text of Wednesday's agreement was leaked. The international news media went wild over the story, at times even reporting that the Episcopal Church had been thrown out of the Communion altogether.
All signs suggest it was leaked by one of the GAFCON members. Welby was both embarrassed and furious, but powerless to prevent an immediate onslaught of public criticism and protests.
The public criticism across the more progressive parts of the Communion was bafflement at the extent to which the Archbishop of Canterbury was willing to bend the rules to appease the ultraconservative primates.
5. African protesters beg Welby to fight gay persecution in their countries
The unauthorized disclosure of the agreement brought more distractions down on Welby when African protesters arrived outside the Cathedral, demanding that the Anglican Communion speak out more forcefully against the persecution of homosexuals.
During at least a couple of news cycles, the most poignant images from the conference were those of African protesters outside the Cathedral begging a powerful Archbishop to use his influence end to the persecution, incarceration, and killings of homosexuals at the hands of African governments with whom many of his provinces are aligned.
And even then the bad news wasn’t over for Welby.
The leaking of the agreement and the heart-rending stories of the African protesters coincided with yet another troubling news story, this one suggesting that membership in the Church of England, the Mother Church of the Communion, had dropped to a modern low of less than a million communicants.
6. "Disappointed" Curry urges Episcopalians to keep their eyes on Jesus
The reaction of the Episcopal Church to the primates' action was largely restrained, tempered no doubt by the extraordinary response of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who spoke as passionately behind the closed doors of the gathering as he did on a YouTube video to his flock back home.
Curry’s inspiring words with his rather ordinary appearance on a sidewalk outside the Cathedral was a stark contrast to the image of a besieged Archbishop of Canterbury trying to hold things together on the inside.
7. News conference produced more questions than answers
The primates meeting mercifully concluded on Friday morning, after which an exhausted Welby had the bad idea to hold a news conference.
He was joined by three others in key leadership positions in the Communion: The Most Rev. Paul Kwong of Hong Kong; The Most Rev. Dr. Thabo Makgoba of Southern Africa; and the secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Nigeria.
Click here to view the four Communion leaders' 55-minute news conference
Not surprisingly the four were keen on having the public know that they had won the unanimous commitment of the 38 primates, minus one, to “walk together” in attending the next Lambeth Conference. Given the rumors that the GAFCON crowd was planning a mass walkout, this was no small achievement.
However, for all the talk of unity, reporters struggled with the prelates’ assessment of the meeting as positive and upbeat, amid multiple reports of difficult conversations that had produced “pain” and “hurt.”
After all, the primates had just taken the unprecedented step of punishing one of the Communion's most prominent and loyal members at the insistence of their most aggressively anti-gay colleagues, a move that could hardly have been "joyful" except for GAFCON members.
During his news conference, Welby clearly did not want to dwell on the primates' move against The Episcopal Church which, he insisted implausibly, was not punishment. He repeatedly expressed irritation with its characterization as “sanctions,” instead arguing that it was merely a “consequence” of Episcopalians taking a theological “change of direction” without first consulting the Communion.
Welby just seemed to make things worse for himself by acting as if the action taken was simply business as usual. He did not offer an example of such an action ever being taken in the past, nor did he explain how the Primates’ Meeting, one of the Communion’s four “Instruments of Unity”, had authority to act on its own against a member province, and override the membership criteria of another.
Welby also seemed to fumble a couple of times when he was asked for the vote totals on key issues.
On the question of defining marriage as between one man and woman, a Commnion press release had initially reported a "majority" of the primates had supported the Church's traditional view. However, when a reporter asked about it, Welby at first didn't seem to remember if a vote was taken, and then seemed to remember that there wasn't one, only a consensus.
When he was asked about the result of the balloting on the imposition of "consequences" against the Episcopal Church, he refused to provide it, claiming even more absurdly, that the gathering was a "private meeting".
Some of the GAFCON primates had told the news media that more than two thirds of the primates had voted in favor, but other sources said it was just a majority. In fact, we now believe it was the 30-6 vote we reported above.
9. Africans continue to avoid accountability on human rights
The Archbishop was not helped much by Idowu-Fearon who used his moment with the news media to deflect criticism of the homophobia in the African provinces by insisting that former colonial powers should just “leave Africa alone” to deal with these kinds of issues on their own.
He did not address long-standing criticism of the Church of Nigeria for its silence and sometimes encouragement of laws that require the imprisonment of gays, including jail time for those who might just seem to be gay. Over the past decade the leadership of the Church in Nigeria has also been accused of encouraging violence against Muslims.
None of the reporters chose to ask Idowu-Fearon how the Africans’ obsession with punishing the Episcopal Church was not the kind of cross-jurisdictional meddling he was complaining about, in reverse. In fact, for the past 15 years, the Anglican provinces in Africa have conducted a massive effort to seize control of Episcopal parishes in the United States, including taking them to court as in the case of places like Christ Church in Savannah.
The most obvious hypocrisy of the leave-Africa-alone crowd was their preconference insistence that the leader of the self-described “Anglican Church of North America” be invited to participate in the Primates' Meeting as a condition of their own participation.
ANCA is comprised of embittered former Episcopalians and members of the Anglican Church of Canada, many of whom used their former positions to create chaos within their former denominations. They are now demanding that they be considered the one and only Anglican province in North America.
South Carolinians are well aware of the lengths to which these people will go.
Welby has said publicly that he does not consider ANCA be part of the Communion or by implication, its “primate” to be part of its governing structure... yet its leader was right there with the all the real primates.
The presence of ANCA's man at the meeting, his participating in the debates and some votes were among one of several long-standing procedures Welby arbitrarily suspended at the meeting.
Welby did say he was unsure if the ACNA leader would be invited to the Lambeth Conference.
10. Some primates appeared hopeful after the conference
The commitment from the remaining 37 primates to attend a future Lambeth Conference was certainly a positive step for those who think it is important, while the conference’s carefully-structured small group interactions apparently produced many extraordinary and inspiring moments that seem to have created more positive relationships between the primates.
The final communique released by the primates raised urgent concerns about refugees, global warming, and violence against gays and lesbians.
A Primate from New Zealand and Polynesia said that for the most part his colleagues made an extraordinary effort to listen to one another in ways he described as intense and exhausting:
“Before our meeting there was intense media speculation that the Anglican Communion would split, irrevocably, and that there would be a walk out early in our meeting. There were rumours of cars waiting outside the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, with motors running, poised to whisk schismatic archbishops to an undisclosed venue, there to proclaim an alternative Anglican Communion.”
11. Anglican provinces not likely to go to bat for persecuted gays in Africa
The one issue Welby painfully dodged throughout the news conference was the extensive involvement of many African provinces with autocratic regimes that have aggressively persecuted gays and lesbians.
In many cases the Anglican provinces have largely been bought off by those regimes and consequently turned a blind eye to its abuses of human rights. In Uganda, the country's dictator has routinely lavished money and gifts - like luxury cars - on the Anglican primates. The Anglican province, in return, was instrumental in securing the passage of the government's new laws making it a crime for Ugandans to even seem gay.
In the 1990s, the Anglican Church of Rwanda was significantly complicit in the genocide of tens of thousands of men, women, and children... and the Anglican Communion apparently never was inclined to impose and "consequences" in that sorry expression of Anglican leadership.
According the Rev. Ruchard Kirker, an advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Africa:
“I hold the homophobia of the Church of England partly culpable for the even more extreme forms of homophobia in other parts of the collapsing Anglican Communion.
"The failure of the Church of England to understand homophobia, let alone admit that it is endemic and sanctioned in its own life, has made it much easier for the likes of Uganda and Nigeria to go on their own merry way with impunity as the Archbishop of Canterbury has never said their presence in the Communion is incompatible with contemporary understandings of sexuality and faith. Then again he could hardy say that since he and his predecessors have been busy becoming more homophobic – to the relief of the arch-bigots.”
While Welby said repeatedly this week with great emotion that he was outraged at the persecution or imprisonment of anyone because of his or her sexuality, he also was clear that whether any of the Anglican primates would speak up on their behalf was not up to him.
Visit Dr. Ron Caldwell's blog for further insights on the Primates' Meeting in London