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Meeting of Anglican primates facing task in holding Anglican Communion together

By Pat Griffith
[Episcopal News Service]  Many Episcopal churches are circling the dates of October 15-16 in red this year.  That is the time set aside by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for an emergency meeting of the 38 primates, or archbishops/presiding bishops, of the Anglican Communion at Lambeth Palace in London.

Williams is calling the primates together for prayer and private discussion about issues of human sexuality and Anglican teaching that have been raised since the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in August. In two controversial decisions, majorities of bishops, clergy and lay deputies confirmed the election of an openly homosexual bishop in New Hampshire and left the issue of blessing same-gender unions to the discretion of individual bishops in their own dioceses.

Reactions across the broad landscape of the Episcopal Church have run the gamut from enthusiastic support to quiet agreement to bewilderment and personal anguish.  At least some of the nation's 2.3 million Episcopalians are walking out the door to join other denominations. Others are focused on forming a new "orthodox" Anglican Church in the United States that they envision as separate from the Episcopal Church but still part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Some of the harshest criticism has come from abroad.  Archbishop Bernard Malango, primate of the Province of Central Africa, was quoted by Episcopal News Service as saying that the decision of the General Convention  "has shattered the Anglican Communion.  Deep pain has been inflicted upon us all. We are now experiencing an overwhelming sense of loss of direction of the Anglican Communion." 

In a separate statement, Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo of the Church of Uganda chided Episcopalians for "separating themselves from the Anglican Communion family . . . leading your people astray into satanic ways."

Anglican gifts

In a letter to his fellow primates after the General Convention, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said, "My own sense is that one of our Anglican gifts is to contain different theological perspectives within a context of common prayer." He said his mission is to help the church move forward in unity while "honoring the deeply held divergent points of view among us."

In calling the primates to London for consultation, Williams expressed the hope that "we will find that there are ways forward in this situation which can preserve our respect for one another and for the bonds that unite us."

Clearly that will be no small task, especially when vastly different expectations are being applied to the meeting.  Will primates issue a consensus statement "agreeing to disagree" on homosexuality, and leave it at that?  Will they chastise the Episcopal Church--or conclude the church has the will and ability to continue to live with internal differences and move on?  What would it mean if a majority of primates were to favor the establishment of a new Anglican province within the United States?  What would that entail and is it even possible?

The constitution of the Episcopal Church, adopted in Philadelphia in 1789, declares the church is  "in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer." It recognizes the General Convention -- not the Archbishop of Canterbury or the collective voice of primates around the world--as its highest governing authority.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's traditional authority within the Anglican Communion is, most simply, that of invitation.  He alone can "invite" churches to be in communion with the See of Canterbury. He could withdraw that invitation but beyond that he has no additional authority, except his considerable stature as the primate of All England and bishop in the Diocese of Canterbury,  to affect decisions of churches in the Anglican Communion.

Advisory and consultative

Traditionally, the Archbishop of Canterbury has called Anglican primates together  "to take counsel together, to pray together and to look at their common concerns," the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of Mission and World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained in a telephone interview.  In the past, they met every three years.  More recently they have been meeting annually in various provinces, including Jerusalem, Portugal, Scotland, the United States and Brazil.

Because the primates are not a legislative body, Douglas said, their gatherings typically have had the ambience of private, "relaxed retreats," at which the emphasis is on fellowship, Bible study, and issuing reports on topics of general interest.   Their meetings usually conclude with the
issuance of a pastoral letter, perhaps containing a call to action on a pressing concern, such as the AIDS epidemic or Third World debt and poverty.

What happens next is up to each province and its own governing body. "Strictly speaking,"  Douglas said, "no church has authority over another church in communion. Unless the Episcopal Church takes action to deliberately ascribe to something coming out of a primates' meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury has no power over us.

"Any inter-Anglican meeting is at best advisory and consultative." he continued. "We can't tell Kenya what to do, and Kenya can't tell us what to do.  And neither of us can tell England or Australia." 

Yet this is not a routine meeting of primates.  They have been summoned on short notice to discuss sexuality, the actions of the General Convention, and the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada in blessing same-sex unions, and their impact on the unity of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.  They will meet against a backdrop of controversy not experienced since 1976, when the General Convention approved the ordination of women and a revised Book of Common Prayer. 

Seeking intervention

A week before the primates gather, the conservative American Anglican Council (AAC) is inviting "faithful orthodox" bishops, priests and lay Episcopalians to a meeting in Dallas on October 7-9.  All who want to attend have been asked to sign a statement of faith and scriptural belief to assure that only "like-minded Anglicans" participate in discussions. 

In an advance statement, the conference leaders have announced they intend to ask Anglican Church primates "to intervene in this pastoral emergency" while they work "to prepare our congregations and ministries for possible realignment to insure an orthodox and vital Anglican/Episcopal presence in the United States."   

In a statement titled, "What is About to Happen," leaders of a related online "communion parishes" movement  hypothesize that conservative primates might first try to strip the Episcopal Church of its vote and voice at Lambeth conferences and on Anglican commissions, and then attempt to persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish some form of "oversight" of the Episcopal Church to ensure its adherence to "the views of the majority." 

Finally, they suggest,  if the Episcopal Church "persisted in its defiance of the views of the majority, it could be expelled from the Anglican Communion and a new jurisdiction would then be recognized as a representative part of the Anglican Communion."

However, the Rev. Canon J. Patrick Mauney, executive director of the Office of Anglican and Global Relations at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, emphasizes that  "the primates, as such, have no authority" over decisions taken by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. 

No democracy

Primates' Meetings "are not exclusively and never have been an exercise in democracy," Douglas said.  It is the Archbishop of Canterbury who decides whether a bishop or group is in communion with the See of Canterbury. Therefore, he said, conservatives opposed to the actions of the General Convention could theoretically claim to have the "votes" of every primate to "expel" the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion, and that alone would not be decisive.  There's no "vote,"  Douglas said, "unless the Archbishop cedes his authority and says he's going to abide by the views of a majority."

 The drive to increase the authority of prelates in the Anglican Communion and give them the tools to discipline individual provinces is coming from conservative members who believe the Episcopal Church has moved beyond the bounds of "acceptable" Anglican teaching.

"I think that's going to be well neigh impossible," said the Rt. Rev. Catherine Roskam, suffragan bishop of the Diocese of New York, who serves on the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC).  "No body of the Anglican community has that kind of power, and canonically it would be a legal nightmare to centralize authority.  It would undermine, if not destroy,  the essential character of our identity as Anglicans--a worshiping  church gathered together in communion, not a doctrinal church under a magisterial authority." 

The procedure for forming a new province within the Anglican Communion is centered in the Anglican Consultative Council, made up of 100-plus lay and clergy members drawn from the present 38 provinces.  Every province has at least one person sitting on the council, and, depending upon size, may have up to three representatives. As a large province, the Episcopal Church is entitled to three members-a bishop, a priest and a lay person-who are elected by the Executive Council.

Forming a new province

The Rev. Bob Sessum, rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky, sits on the ACC, along with Roskam and Judith Conley, lay member from Goodyear, Arizona.. For this article Sessum described the time-consuming process that would be necessary before a second province could be recognized in the United States. Since the geographic United States is already a province, it would have to be split in some manner for another province to be formed.  This has never before happened for doctrinal reasons.

The ACC requires the presiding officer or primate of the original province to request it to begin the process leading to division.  That could be the first formidable hurdle for a theoretical new Anglican province in the United States.  "I don't envision the presiding bishop of the Episcopal
Church requesting such a division," Sessum said.   

Conservatives suggest a potential new "North American Anglican province" could incorporate scattered pockets taken from dioceses throughout the country, and possibly a handful of entire dioceses.  Were this to come about, one might envision the geographic Episcopal Church looking like a piece of Swiss cheese, with the "holes" belonging to a totally separate Anglican province. This would be something dramatically new: one province overlaid on another, with the two not in communion with each other, yet both part of the Anglican Communion.

"The general polity has been that dioceses shouldn't overlap,"Mauney said, though there are a few special exceptions.  The Church of New Zealand has three bishops serving distinct population groups, but they are part of the same province.  Episcopal expatriate churches in Europe operate in close concert,  while the Church of England permits "flying bishops" to serve churches that refuse to accept the ordination of women. However, these flying bishops are connected to the Church of England and don't have independent geographic jurisdiction.

Long process

It is a near certainty that Bishop Griswold would seek approval from the General Convention before making any proposal to the ACC. In an interview with the Associated Press on Sept. 29,  he noted that authorizing a separate Anglican province "would involve our own decision-making processes, our own constitution.  So most likely it would require action by the General Convention."  The next General Convention is scheduled to meet in 2006.

When the Secretary General of the ACC receives a request to establish a new province, the matter is turned over to a subcommittee to be sure all rules and regulations are followed.  They have to consider all the financial arrangements, including clergy pension plans, how dioceses would be established in the new province, and the availability of clergy and bishops. A split of the Episcopal Church would involve negotiations, and quite possibly lawsuits, within scores of dioceses over the division of property and liquid assets.

When the subcommittee is satisfied all is in order, it sends a recommendation for approval to the eight-person standing committee of the ACC, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  If the standing committee gives the green light, their recommendation moves on to the 38 primates for approval.  And finally, when that is accomplished, the Archbishop of Canterbury declares the formation of a new province and invites it into the Anglican Communion.

Sessum said the ACC process takes anywhere from 18 months to three years or even longer, and the next ACC meeting isn't scheduled until 2005. Establishing a new province is  "not done at the snap of a finger," he said, "and it's just not going to be resolved one way or the other at the Primates' Meeting. . . . There's not anything the Archbishop of Canterbury or the primates can do (about forming a new province) right now." 

Scary and unknown reality

As the global debate over human sexuality continues, Douglas said the true nature of the Anglican Communion turns out to be "a lot messier than the people on either the right or left want to believe.  We've really grown as a somewhat haphazard communion of churches, where none of us can say we have no need of each other, and yet there is no one form to follow."

He points out that there are four churches within the Anglican Communion that are not exclusively Anglican, but a blend of  "different stripes of Protestantism." These are the churches of Pakistan, Bangladesh, North India and South India.      

"There has been an incredible growth in the Anglican Communion from its beginnings as basically a North Atlantic communion of English-speaking people.  We're moving into a scary and unknown new reality . . . and the challenge for all of us is how we move from a mono-cultural communion to the radical plurality of peoples and cultures. "Some have the idea we can 'neaten it up.' That's never been our history."