18 December 2006
To the Primates of the Anglican Communion:
During the last few weeks, I have been privileged to spend time first in China and then in Rome – two environments as different as could be, yet both giving abundant signs of the faithfulness of God to his people. The survival and growth of the Church in China is one of the great miracles of our time, and I know that several of you have witnessed something of this at first hand and are eager to find ways of supporting and assisting our brothers and sisters there. In Rome, I was able for the first time to visit the catacombs and to see there the evidence of the same faithfulness, as I looked at the ancient representations of costly witness painted on the walls – the images of the young men in the fiery furnace, Noah in the ark and the haunting and simple picture of the praying woman with hands raised, who is the symbol of the Church itself in its patient endurance. God is with us as he has promised, and in ways we cannot always see clearly. Also in Rome, I had the immense privilege of sharing in a celebration of the martyrdom in 2003 of our own Melanesian Brothers who gave their lives for reconciliation in a time of civil war. In persecution, conflict or obscurity, God is still present and powerfully active. In this Advent season, the great fact we are reminded of is that he is to be trusted in all things.
As Christmas approaches, preparations continue to be made for the Primates’ Meeting in February in Tanzania. A provisional outline of the programme is almost ready – but I am particularly glad that we shall have opportunity to celebrate in the cathedral in Zanzibar the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 1806, another great sign of God’s faithfulness and of what can be achieved by Christ’s disciples when they resist the powers of this world.
This meeting will be, of course, an important and difficult and important encounter, with several moments of discernment and decision to be faced, and a good deal of work to be done on our hopes for the Lambeth Conference, and on the nature and shape of the Covenant that we hope will assist us in strengthening our unity as a Communion.
There are two points I wish to touch on briefly. The first is a reminder of what our current position actually is in relation to the Episcopal Church. This Province has agreed to withdraw its representation from certain bodies in the Communion until Lambeth 08; and the Joint Standing Committee has appointed a sub-group which has been working on a report to develop our thinking as to how we should as a meeting interpret the Episcopal Church’s response so far to the Windsor recommendations. In other words, questions remain to be considered about the Episcopal Church’s relations with other Provinces (though some Provinces have already made their position clear). I do not think it wise or just to take any action that will appear to bring that consideration and the whole process of our shared discernment to a premature end.
This is why I have decided not to withhold an invitation to Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the elected Primate of the Episcopal Church to attend the forthcoming meeting. I believe it is important that she be given a chance both to hear and to speak and to discuss face to face the problems we are confronting together. We are far too prone to talk about these matters from a distance, without ever having to face the human reality of those from whom we differ. However, given the acute dissension in the Episcopal Church at this point, and the very widespread effects of this in the Communion, I am also proposing to invite two or three other contributors from that Province for a session to take place before the rest of our formal business, in which the situation may be reviewed, and I am currently consulting as to how this is best organised.
The Episcopal Church is not in any way a monochrome body and we need to be aware of the full range of conviction within it. I am sure that other Primates, like myself, will welcome the clear declarations by several bishops and diocesan conventions (including those dioceses represented at the Camp Allen meeting earlier this year) of their unequivocal support for the process and recommendations of the Windsor Report. There is much to build upon here. There are many in TEC who are deeply concerned as to how they should secure their relationships with the rest of the Communion; I hope we can listen patiently to these anxieties.
My second point is to underline the importance of planning constructively for Lambeth 08. If we become entirely paralysed by our continuing struggles to resolve the challenges posed by decisions in North America, we shall lose a major opportunity for strengthening our common life. The recent St Augustine’s seminar which considered the Lambeth agenda was agreed by all to have been an outstandingly positive week, which has laid out a programme I believe to be worthy of our hopes for the Conference, and which was wholeheartedly owned and approved by people from very different regions and points of view within the seminar group. I do not want to lose that energy. I want to see it channelled properly into projects for better equipping ourselves as bishops and all our pastors and teachers, and into the work we all agree we must do in response to the crying needs created by poverty and violence in our world.
The question of invitations to Lambeth has been raised several times, in relation to the status of TEC, and indeed other Provinces. I shall seek the advice of the meeting on this. I am aware that decisions must be made soon, and I mention it primarily to alert you to the issues that lie ahead and to commend all this to your prayers over the coming season. But it illustrates the point I have made recently to the St Augustine’s Seminar and other groups: at the moment, we urgently need to create a climate of greater trust within the Communion, and to reinforce institutions and conventions that will serve that general climate in a global way. During my visit to the Pope in November, it was very clear that our ecumenical partners are looking to us not only to strengthen our bonds of ecclesial community and the coherence of our Christian witness, but also to show a hopeful and Christian spirit in resolving our current problems. Our partners are praying very intensely for us in this task, and their prayer deepens my own sense of resolve, as I am sure it will yours.
I should also mention that I have accepted the recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee that the Archbishop of York should be invited to the forthcoming meeting, so that there is a distinction between the two roles of speaking for the Church of England and chairing and moderating the meeting overall.
But finally, to end where I began, our reliance must be fundamentally upon God’s faithfulness. Whatever lies ahead, our God is the God who was present in the Roman catacombs with the martyrs and who has led his people in China through half a century of oppression and distress. Immanuel, God-with-us in Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, is our sole hope and our life, today, tomorrow and for ever. May God help us to honour his inexpressible gift by our faithfulness, forbearance and mutual love.
With every blessing for the Christmas season and the New Year.
Yours ever in Christ,
(The Most Rev. Dr.) Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury