Much has already been written about the Primates’ Meeting that concluded last Sunday. From our perspective, the most important evaluation of this gathering is one that assesses its place in the ecclesiology of the Anglican Communion that has been developed with considerable effort, thought and consensus over the last century. That ecclesiology can be summarized as defining the Anglican Communion as a communion of autonomous churches bound together by a common faith—in the words of TEC’s constitution, the “historic faith and order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”—and linked institutionally by four “Instruments of Communion” that, in the words of the Covenant, “assist in the discernment, articulation and exercise of our shared faith and common life and mission.” Sadly, the Dublin meeting constituted a repudiation of this well developed Communion ecclesiology.
First, as we and others have already noted, the Dublin meeting represented only a small fraction of the Communion’s active members. Thus, from the very outset it lacked one of the defining criteria of a Communion Instrument, the ability to function as a body that “interprets and articulates the common faith of the Church’s members (consensus fidelium)”. (Covenant 3.1.4.) Last week, the consensus fidelium was to be found elsewhere with those who did not attend.
Second, the Dublin meeting acknowledged no accountability to and, indeed claimed no continuity with, past Primates’ Meetings. It made no mention whatsoever of the moratoria the Primates and other Instruments had developed and ratified repeatedly over many meetings in the previous decade. The Anglican Covenant, similarly the focus of several years’ intensive effort, was mentioned only in passing in a footnote. Each of the Primates’ Meetings, and indeed meetings of the other Instruments, in recent years had placed their work in the context of developing and interpreting their own prior work and that of the other Instruments. On both the acknowledged “critical situation” facing the Communion and their own self-definition, the Dublin participants seemed to operate in a vacuum, having a conversation among themselves about “journeying together in honest conversation.”
Third, as if to confirm these previous observations, those present in Dublin concluded by refusing to accept or even acknowledge the role repeatedly specified for the Primates’ Meeting by the Communion over the last forty years.
In one of its daily briefings, the ACNS noted that:
Primates spent the afternoon sessions sharing their expectations of Primates’ Meetings. Following a request to the Archbishop of Canterbury he shared with them a short history of the meetings. He explained that, although it had altered over the years, the original purpose of the meeting established in 1978 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan was an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation”.
After the meeting was concluded, the Canadian Primate stated:
We recalled the fact that [the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury] Donald Coggan, 20 years ago, envisioned the primates’ meeting as a place “for leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation.” And then [Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams gave a history of the last 10 years of the primates’ meeting…What happened was there was a call in the communion for enhanced responsibility on the part of the primates… the primates were assuming an authority [that] as a group was never intended.
The primary document produced by the Dublin meeting, “Towards an Understanding of the Purpose and Scope of the Primates’ Meeting: A Working Document,” also begins by noting that “Archbishop Coggan was the first to call for ‘meetings of the Primates of the Communion reasonably often, for leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation …’.”
Oddly missing from this selective history are the actual concrete specifications of the role of the Primates’ Meeting as developed by all the Instruments over the past four decades. Indeed, lost in the oft-quoted dicta of Archbishop Coggan is the fact that his remarks were made in an address to the very 1978 Lambeth Conference that created the Primates’ Meeting by resolution. That initial resolution and those of subsequent Conferences make clear that the "leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation" were intended to serve a broader purpose.
From the outset, the Primates’ Meeting was intended as a mechanism for coordinating with the Archbishop of Canterbury the other activities of the Communion. Thus, the request in the first Lambeth Conference resolution (1978 Res. 12) was:
The Conference asks the Archbishop of Canterbury, as President of the Lambeth Conference and President of the Anglican Consultative Council, with all the Primates of the Anglican Communion, within one year to initiate consideration of the way to relate together the international conferences, councils, and meetings within the Anglican Communion so that the Anglican Communion may best serve God within the context of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Significantly, 1978 resolution 12 followed immediately after Resolution 10, which affirmed the traditional teaching on human sexuality, and Resolution 11:
The Conference advises member Churches not to take action regarding issues which are of concern to the whole Anglican Communion without consultation with a Lambeth Conference or with the episcopate through the Primates Committee, and requests the Primates to inititate a study of the nature of authority within the Anglican Communion.
In 1988, the Lambeth Conference went further:
2.(a) Urges that encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates Meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that the Primates Meeting is able to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters. (Res. 18.2(a).)
This request was then reiterated in 1998 when the Conference:
(a) reaffirms Resolution 18.2(a) of Lambeth 1988 which "urges that encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates' Meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that the Primates' Meeting is able to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters";
(b) asks that the Primates' Meeting, under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, include among its responsibilities positive encouragement to mission, intervention in cases of exceptional emergency which are incapable of internal resolution within provinces, and giving of guidelines on the limits of Anglican diversity in submission to the sovereign authority of Holy Scripture and in loyalty to our Anglican tradition and formularies;
Gradually during the 1980s and 1990s, the Primates’ Meeting began to exercise the responsibility the successive Lambeth Conferences had requested. Meeting in London in October 2003, all the Primates, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, accepted the responsibility given to the Primates’ Meeting by the Lambeth Conferences and undertook “to exercise the ‘enhanced responsibility’ entrusted to us by successive Lambeth Conferences.”
In the last decade, the Covenant accepted and reiterated this developed understanding of the Primates’ Meeting by specifying the responsibility of the Primates (along with the other Instruments) as:
- articulation and exercise of our shared faith and common life and mission.
- to interpret and articulate the common faith of the Church’s members (consensus fidelium).
- to work as representatives of their Provinces in collaboration with one another in mission and in doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters that have Communion-wide implications.
- to initiate and commend a process of discernment and a direction for the Communion and its Churches. (Covenant, paragraph 3.1.4.)
It must be emphasized that the Covenant has been approved by both the Anglican Consultative Council and the Archbishop of Canterbury and has now been adopted by three of the Communion’s churches.
Against this background, what is most remarkable about the Dublin meeting is that its working document on the Primates’ Meeting cites only the preliminary remarks of Archbishop Coggan, but makes no mention whatsoever of the subsequent work done to implement those remarks by the Lambeth Conferences and the Covenant in specifying the role of the Primates’ Meeting, work that by now has been accepted by all the Instruments of Communion. As far as one can discern, this established understanding played no role at all in the deliberations at Dublin. While one might try to parse the provisions of the Dublin document to align it to greater or lesser extent with the accepted precedents, the simple fact is that those other sources were not acknowledged, were not quoted and were not even the subject of obvious paraphrase. Those meeting in Dublin staked no claim to continuity with the past, ignoring the will of the most authoritative of the Instruments of Communion—the Lambeth Conference of Bishops.
For all these reasons, the group of Primates who met in Dublin cannot be recognized as acting in accord with the accepted Communion understanding of the Primates’ Meeting as an Instrument of Communion. This Instrument thus joins the others as now being dysfunctional and lacking in communion credibility. The role of the Lambeth Conference as an Instrument of Communion is to “express episcopal collegiality worldwide.” But in 2008, when the bishops of most Anglicans “worldwide” were not present, it could not perform this function. It accomplished little of substance and is now regarded throughout much of the Communion as a symbol of futility. Similarly, the Anglican Consultative Council has been re-structured legally so that it is no longer recognizable as the Instrument defined in the Covenant or in past Anglican documents. The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as an Instrument of Communion is to function as “a primacy of honor and respect among the college of bishops,” as “a focus and means of unity,” and the one who “gathers” the Lambeth Conference and Primates’ Meetings. Whatever may be said about the cause of the disintegration, it is incontrovertible empirically that Canterbury has been unable to perform this function over the last three years. The Communion thus finds itself with no working Instrument that has been able to perform its necessary function, follow its rules, and garner credible acceptance from the majority of the Communion.
We are left with a grouping—one can no longer say “communion”—of three dozen or so autonomous churches, many of whom are not in communion with others, without any effective Instruments of Communion to bind them together. This is made no less heartbreaking by being the Communion’s obvious trajectory for several years.
But we can only proceed from where we are. The first task for those who share a Communion ecclesiology is to begin to re-constitute working Instruments of Communion. These will necessarily be provisional at first, but if the Communion is to survive they must evolve into Instruments that actually work to unite the member churches of the Communion. If church history, including our own recent experience, teaches anything it is that neither confessions without instruments nor instruments without common faith and order are sufficient to preserve unity. As recently noted by the Secretary General, the vast majority of the Communion continues to share Anglicanism’s historic faith and order notwithstanding its rejection by two provinces. What is needed as a matter of urgency are Instruments that express that common faith. We call on the Primates representing the vast preponderance of Anglicans, together with their colleagues, to take up the charge of seeing to the furtherance of the Communion and we pledge our prayers to that end.
The Reverend Canon Professor Christopher Seitz
The Reverend Dr. Philip Turner
The Reverend Dr. Ephraim Radner
Mark McCall, Esq.