Primates: Canterbury Speaks

Archbishop of Canterbury:  Presidential Address at General Synod
26 FEBRUARY 2007

After the debates at the American General Convention last summer, I wrote directly to all the primates of the Communion to ask about their reaction and the likely reaction of their provinces as to whether the resolutions of Convention had met the proposals of the Windsor Report for restoring something like normal relations between the Episcopal Church and others in the Communion. The answers were instructive. About eleven provinces were fairly satisfied; about eleven were totally
dissatisfied. The rest displayed varying levels of optimism or pessimism, but were not eager to see this as a life and death issue for the Communion. Of those who took one or the other of the more pronounced view, several on both sides nonetheless expressed real exasperation that this question and the affairs of one province should be taking up energy to the near-exclusion of other matters.

The public perception, as we’ve been reminded by several commentators in the last week or so, is that we are a Church obsessed with sex. The responses I received to my letter to Primates suggests that this is what many within the Church feel as well – and I’d be surprised if many in this chamber did not echo that. It feels as though we are caught in a battle very few really want to be fighting; like soldiers in the
trenches somewhere around 1916, trying to remember just what were the decisions that got everyone to a point where hardly anyone was owning the conflict, just enduring it (we don’t of course have to go as far back as 1916).

So it is natural to want to say, ‘This is a war no-one chose; there must be a simple way of halting the conflict and getting the troops home.’ That simple protest has been forcefully expressed, in the media and within the Church, in terms of giving up on the Communion and concentrating on the independent health and integrity of each local church. Unhappily, though, the truth is that when conflicts have passed
a certain point, simple solutions are unlikely to work, to the extent that they deliberately ignore the things that bred the conflict in the first place – and that have never been properly addressed. This is a recipe for the whole thing to start up again as soon as possible.

But I’d remind you too of something I said in this Synod last year. It is folly to think that a decision to ‘go our separate ways’ in the Communion would leave us with a neat and morally satisfying break between two groups of provinces, orthodox and heretics or humane liberals and bigots (depending on where you stand). Every province could break in several different directions. And if you look at parts of this
week’s agenda, can you honestly say that our debates and their outcomes would be simpler if we didn’t have the Communion’s challenges as part of the background?

In my remarks today, I want to try and identify some of the factors which, if not addressed, will lead us into more of the same unedifying divisions Рif not on this, then on other questions. And I want to outline why the final communiqu̩ from Dar es Salaam might possibly leave open some constructive possibilities. But may I take the opportunity of thanking publicly the countless people who wrote to assure us of their prayers in the last fortnight? We were very deeply supported during our
meeting, and that was a palpable blessing.

Two significant factors to start with. The debate triggered by certain decisions in the Episcopal Church is not just about a single matter of sexual ethics. It is about decision making in the Church and it is about the interpretation and authority of Scripture. It has raised, first of all, the painfully difficult question of how far Anglican provinces should feel bound to make decisions in a wholly consultative and
corporate way. In other words, it has forced us to ask what we mean by speaking and thinking about ourselves as a global communion. When ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ fail, what should we do about it? Now there is a case for drawing back from doing anything much, for accepting that we are no more than a cluster of historically linked local or national bodies. But to accept this case – and especially to accept it because the alternatives look too difficult – would be to unravel quite a lot of
what both internal theological reflection and ecumenical agreement have assumed and worked with for most of the last century. For those of us who still believe that the Communion is a Catholic body, not just an agglomeration of national ones, a body attempting to live in more than one cultural and intellectual setting and committed to addressing major problems in a global way, the case for ‘drawing back’ is not attractive.

But my real point is that we have never really had this discussion properly. It surfaced a bit in our debates over women’s ordination, but for a variety of reasons tended to slip out of focus. But we were bound to have to think it through sooner or later.

And it has arisen now in connection with same-sex relationships largely because this has been seen as a test-case for fidelity to Scripture, and so for our Reformed integrity. Rather more than with some other contentious matters (usury, pacifism, divorce), there was and is a prima facie challenge in a scriptural witness that appears to be universally negative about physical same-sex relations.

Now in the last ten years particularly, there have been numerous very substantial studies of the scriptural and traditional material which make it difficult to say that there is simply no debate to be had. Even a solidly conservative New Testament scholar like Richard Hays, to take one example out of many, would admit that work is needed to fill out and defend the traditional position, and to understand more deeply where the challenges to this position come from.

But it is easier to go for one or the other of the less labour-intensive options. There is a virtual fundamentalism which simply declines to reflect at all about principles of interpretation and implicitly denies that every reader of Scripture unconsciously or consciously uses principles of some kind. And there is a chronological or cultural
snobbery content to say that we have outgrown biblical categories. These
positions do not admit real theological debate. Neither is compatible
with the position of a Church that both seeks to be biblically obedient
and to read its Scriptures in the light of the best spiritual and
intellectual perspectives available in the fellowship of believers. And
the possibility of real theological exchange is made still more remote
by one group forging ahead with change in discipline and practice and
other insistently treating the question as the sole definitive marker of
orthodoxy.

Whatever happened, we might ask, to persuasion? To the frustrating
business of conducting recognisable arguments in a shared language? It
is frustrating because people are so aware of the cost of a long
argumentative process. It is intolerable that injustice and bigotry are
tolerated by the Church; it is intolerable that souls are put in peril
by doubtful teaching and dishonest practice. Yet one of the distinctive
things about the Christian Church as biblically defined is surely the
presumption (Acts 15) that the default position when faced with conflict
is reasoning in council and the search for a shared discernment – so
that the truth does not appear as just the imposed settlement of the
winners in a battle.

So we should have done more on what it means to be a Catholic church; we
should have done more on the use of Scripture. And, mindful of the full
text of Lambeth 1.10, we should have done more about offering safe space
to homosexual people – including those who have in costly ways lived in
entire faithfulness to the traditional biblical ethic – to talk about
what it is like to be endlessly discussed and dissected in their
absence, patronised or demonised. Again and again we have used the
language of respect for their human dignity; again and again we have
failed to show it effectively, convertingly and convertedly. This is not
just about our fear or prejudice. It is also because we live in an
environment that knows nothing of proper reticence in the public
exposure and discussion of certain vulnerable places in our humanity.
And what then happens is that every attempt to ‘listen to the experience
of homosexual people’ is easily seen as political, an exercise in
winning battles rather than winning understanding. Remember that in
different ways this is an issue for our engagement with any and every
minority group – how to secure patience and privacy and the space to be
honest without foreclosing the outcomes of discussion.

It’s in this light that I ask you to think about what emerged from the
Primates’ Meeting. Essentially, what was proposed had four elements.
First: what has been called the ‘Listening Process’, which has gone
forward in a very large number of provinces, including some of the most
conservative African ones, continues to seek at least to provide the
safety and honesty I’ve just been talking about. It has not been
straightforward, but has won a high level of ownership in the Communion,
and does so because it has retained its integrity as precisely what it
set out to be – a process of resourcing discussion, not of gathering
ammunition.

Second, the proposal has been made – partly stimulated by the very
successful international consultations held at Coventry Cathedral in the
last twelve months – of a serious and sustained piece of work for the
Communion on hermeneutics, the theory and practice of biblical
interpretation. Combined with the ongoing and very creative programme of
the working group on Theological Education in the Communion, it has the
potential to take us beyond what I called the non-labour-intensive
theologies we see too much of at the moment.

Third, the group that has been working on a draft Covenant for the
Communion has made far more progress than anyone expected, and was able
to submit a draft for discussion to the Primates which will now be
circulated for further comment from Provinces. This tries to outline
what a ‘wholly consultative’ approach to deciding contentious matters
might look like – with some of the inevitable consequences spelled out
if this is not followed. This is not, I must stress, threatening
penalties, but stating what will unavoidably flow from more assertions
of unqualified autonomy. To repeat a point I’ve made many times – you
may feel imperatively called to prophetic action, but must not then be
surprised if the response is incomprehension, non-acceptance or at least
a conviction that time is needed for discernment.

And so to the fourth element, addressed to the Episcopal Church. We have
asked for more clarity as to whether a moratorium has indeed been agreed
on the election of bishops in active sexual partnerships outside
marriage; and we have suggested a similar voluntary moratorium by the
bishops on licensing any kind of liturgical order for same-sex blessings
(the understanding of the Meeting was certainly that this should be a
comprehensive abstention from any public rites), at least for the period
during which the wider discussion of the Covenant goes forward. And to
try and encourage an internal North American solution to the bitter
disputes now raging, we suggested a structure for some kind of
supplementary oversight, and an agreement on both sides to back away
from litigation – the explicit hope being that this would remove what
some see as the need for interventions from other provinces, and would
begin to do away with what all agree is the anomaly of diversity of
foreign jurisdictions in the USA.

Much here depends upon goodwill and patience. The Presiding Bishop
rightly won praise for her careful and sympathetic engagement with these
proposals and other matters, in the course of what was undoubtedly a
very testing meeting. Likewise the readiness of many of the
‘intervening’ primates to consider negotiating a new position was
welcome and impressive.

So in short, I am commending the Primates’ communiqué, for all its
inevitable imperfections, as representing a serious attempt to go beyond
the surface problems and to give us some space to look at the underlying
and neglected theological factors. I’m well aware of the way in which
the imminence of the Lambeth Conference focuses some of the risks and
choices. But I’m also aware of the continuing obstinate will to make the
Communion work, and to work as some sort of properly Catholic and
Reformed unity. I’d be sad if that will were so much eroded in this
country that we felt no investment in the sort of processes envisaged in
Dar es Salaam.

But let me finish with two brief reflections which may be pertinent,
given some of the comment on the Tanzanian meeting. Much has been made
of the relative nobility of a ‘Here I stand’ position as compared with
the painful brokering and compromising needed for unity’s sake. It’s
impossible not to feel the force of this. Yet – to speak personally for
a moment – the persistence of the Communion as an organically
international and intercultural unity whose aim is to glorify Jesus
Christ and to work for his Kingdom is for me and others just as much a
matter of deep personal and theological conviction as any other
principle. About this, I am entirely prepared to say ‘Here I stand and I
cannot do otherwise’. And I believe the Primates have said the same.

But lastly – I shall be returning next week to Africa; first for a
consultation in Johannesburg involving the great majority of Anglican
provinces across the world and dealing with our contribution to the
Millennium Development Goals. It will be surveying our strategy,
exploring what’s needed for better co-ordination in the development
resources of the Communion, discussing with our new representative at
the UN – an outstandingly competent and charismatic Ugandan woman – how
we become more accountable for what we’re doing. After this, I go for a
few days to one of the youngest and most vulnerable of our Anglican
churches, the new diocese of Angola, engaged both in active development
work and in a fast expanding programme of primary evangelisation.

I don’t imagine that the agenda of this visit to Southern Africa will
feel much like that of the Tanzanian meeting; and it’s an obvious point
that this is the work that the overwhelming majority of Anglicans are
actually doing for the overwhelming bulk of the time, especially in
Africa. But I need to say something more. Like it or not, this work will
be harder and more poorly resourced if the structures of the Communion
are loosened, destroyed or so localised that they cannot work flexibly
on the global scene. The agenda of Tanzania has something to do with the
more obviously attractive, perhaps for some more obviously
gospel-related work of Johannesburg and Angola. The entire complicated
business of building the trust necessary for co-operation – ultimately
the trust that Christ is at work in the other person, the other group,
the other province – needs work, including the kind of work done in
Tanzania. In the diverse economy of Christ’s Body, Primates’ Meetings
too have their charism and their place, however much we may yearn for
deck-clearing, ground-breaking clarities. But then, you have after all
been elected to a Synod, and I suspect you already know that even
obscure and time-consuming labours may yet be part of the Kingdom’s
demands.

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