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Time for a time-out?

By Andrew Carey, CEN

In a sermon delivered on a trip to Mexico this month the Archbishop of Canterbury drew attention to the current Anglican crisis in the starkest terms, comparing Anglicans to drunks ‘walking near the edge of a cliff’. His analysis is that Anglicans are drifting back towards the times of Jeremy Taylor, upon whose commemoration day the sermon was given. He quoted Taylor’s words: “it is unnatural and unreasonable to persecute disagreeing opinions… Force in matters of opinion can do no good, but is very apt to do hurt.”

The stark choice facing Anglicans today, he argued, was a “steep fall into an absence of any core beliefs, a chasm where we lose touch with God, and thus we rely only on ourselves and our own message.” Or an equally “vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion.”

He had rather more condemnatory things to say about the fall into intolerance than the drift into unbelief arguing that this fall into intolerance ‘risked us becoming small, out-of-touch, divided and ineffective small churches’. Justin Welby’s solution is to “walk in the light with each other.” He added, “Light is the answer to the troubles of the Communion, to enable us to find our true way and to serve our world.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury is, of course, preaching a homily and not offering a blue print for rescuing the Anglican Communion. His analysis is  probably the most realistic to date in that he actually recognises the severe dangers facing the Anglican Communion. Yet, does he go far enough?

The Anglican Communion is already a smaller and more divided place than it was. In fact, the marks of the Communion in the past were an interchangeable ministry, common prayer and some measure of sacramental integrity. The fact is that for years we have had problems with interchangeable ministry, compounded by disagreements over the actions of the Episcopal Church of the USA in consecrating practising homosexual bishops. At every high-profile Anglican Communion meeting in recent years many bishops and leaders from the global south have absented themselves or refused to accept the sacramental ministry of others. Those who appear to believe the Anglican Communion is still in good shape point to the absence of any significant moment of schism or secession. The problem is that the Anglican Communion has fragmented and divided over many years. If the Anglican Communion doesn’t meet any more can it any longer be said that there is a communion at all?

My suspicion is that many Anglicans have already fallen down one or other of Archbishop Welby’s precipices. They have fallen variously into unbelief and into exclusion of each other. From this analysis, the Archbishop of Canterbury needs to find ways to gather
Anglicans together again across the divisions. The next Lambeth Conference will be one of his greatest challenges. In 2008 it can hardly be said that there was a Lambeth Conference at all when over a third of Anglican bishops refused to attend.

We have reached the halfway point between Lambeth Conferences. Each conference needs to be booked, carefully planned and funded. In 2008, there was a financial crisis which had to be resolved by temporary funding from the Church Commissioners and the Central Board of Finance. There will be little appetite in the Church of England for a similar debacle in 2018.

The challenge for Archbishop Welby is to find out whether his role as an ‘inviter’ and ‘presider’ still carries weight in every province of the Anglican Communion. He is making a good start with a programme of visits around the world. He needs to gather meetings of the Primates more frequently than his predecessor did in order to build up relationships. There is little point in a Lambeth Conference taking place in 2018 while there remains a risk that a substantial number of provinces will be absent. A 2020 date will give Justi Welby much more time to consult throughout the world and build relationships to secure the integrity of the Anglican Communion.

In the meantime, the eyes of the world will be on the Church of England later this year when the Pilling Report is published. If the Church of England sends out confused signals on human sexuality with moves to bless civil partnerships the Anglican Communion
will face further division and fragmentation.

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