The Archbishop of Canterbury – an instrument of unity?

Cross-posted from the Essentials blog. Warning – if you are not an Anglican, this may not make a whole lot of sense!

Having had time to digest the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent letter, and read some of the responses that have been made, I thought that I would add my thoughts here.

Firstly, it is encouraging that Archbishop Williams understands this debate is not at the fundamental level to be one regarding sexuality, but one of scriptural interpretation. And, further, that he believes that there are certain provinces that have precipitated this crisis by making decisive and unilateral moves:

Where one part of the family makes a decisive move that plainly implies a new understanding of Scripture that has not been received and agreed by the wider Church, it is not surprising that others find a problem in knowing how far they are still speaking the same language.

This has to be a helpful response in overcoming the rhetorical fog, where the accusations of homophobia etc often obscure the real issues that are being debated.

Secondly, and in conjunction with the first point, the Archbishop warns strongly against ecclesiastical boundary crossing:

Successive Lambeth Conferences and Primates’ Meetings have, however, cautioned very strongly against such provision. It creates a seriously anomalous position.

This is indeed true. It is not a provision that should be undertaken lightly, for it does create a seriously anomalous position. However, as the Archbishop continues, he presents only a partial view of these provisions. For instance, he states:

The view that has been expressed by all the Instruments of Communion in recent years is that interventions are not to be sanctioned.

However, if one goes back to the original texts, we find the following:


15. In order to protect the integrity and legitimate needs of groups in serious theological dispute with their diocesan bishop, or dioceses in dispute with their Provinces, we recommend that the Archbishop of Canterbury appoint, as a matter of urgency, a panel of reference to supervise the adequacy of pastoral provisions made by any churches for such members in line with the recommendation in the Primates’ Statement of October 2003 (xii). Equally, during this period we commit ourselves neither to encourage nor to initiate cross-boundary interventions.


10. The Windsor Report identified two threats to our common life: first, certain developments in the life and ministry of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada which challenged the standard of teaching on human sexuality articulated in the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10; and second, interventions in the life of those Provinces which arose as reactions to the urgent pastoral needs that certain primates perceived. The Windsor Report did not see a “moral equivalence” between these events, since the cross-boundary interventions arose from a deep concern for the welfare of Anglicans in the face of innovation. Nevertheless both innovation and intervention are central factors placing strains on our common life. The Windsor Report recognised this (TWR Section D) and invited the Instruments of Communion [1] to call for a moratorium of such actions [2] .

26. The interventions by some of our number and by bishops of some Provinces, against the explicit recommendations of the Windsor Report, however well-intentioned, have exacerbated this situation. Furthermore, those Primates who have undertaken interventions do not feel that it is right to end those interventions until it becomes clear that sufficient provision has been made for the life of those persons.

32. Second, those of us who have intervened in other jurisdictions believe that we cannot abandon those who have appealed to us for pastoral care in situations in which they find themselves at odds with the normal jurisdiction. For interventions to cease, what is required in their view is a robust scheme of pastoral oversight to provide individuals and congregations alienated from The Episcopal Church with adequate space to flourish within the life of that church in the period leading up to the conclusion of the Covenant Process.

As we read these statements, we can see that the full story is a little more complex than what the Archbishop is presenting to us in his Advent letter.

Firstly, it is obvious that the primates do not speak with one voice. The division within our national churches is mirrored in the larger body. It is fair to say that all recognise that interventions are not helpful in maintaining the ‘common life’ in the Anglican communion. However, a large number of primates also recognise the necessity, since all other avenues have failed.

One may not view axing down the front door as helpful to the integrity of a house, but it becomes a rescue necessity for the minority when the house is on fire and the majority within are feeding the fire.

There is also the recognition within the texts that “interventions in the life of those Provinces which arose as reactions to the urgent pastoral needs that certain primates perceived” is not morally equivalent to the “challenge towards the standard of teaching on human sexuality”. This distinction is lacking in the Archbishop’s letter.

Another point made within the original statements was “for interventions to cease, what is required….is a robust scheme of pastoral oversight”. Although the Archbishop notes:

what has been proposed (by TEC / ACoC) does not so far seem to have commanded the full confidence of those most affected

he has not then drawn the conclusion that as a result interventions are likely to continue out of necessity.

The main point here, and one that appears to be getting obscured, is not that “boundary crossings” are potentially damaging to the Anglican Communion. That could be accepted by all.

The main point should be, in light of the theological innovations in TEC and the ACoC, and in light of their refusal to countenance a robust scheme of pastoral oversight, many who wish to remain Anglican have been faced with only two options – either to compromise conscience and accept heresy, or seek alternative episcopal oversight.

Thirdly, it is notable that the Archbishop reserves his strongest language for the Lambeth conference. Indeed, his concern that there is a full attendance at the conference stands out from other, more nuanced, paragraphs, so much so that he makes a remarkable statement:

And this is also why I have said that the refusal to meet can be a refusal of the cross – and so of the resurrection.

Even carefully worded as it is, it is at best reaching to attempt to relate attendance at Lambeth with refusing the Cross, or in other words rejecting Christ.

Although there is a hint of possible further “dis-invitations”,

acceptance of the invitation must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference’s agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor………I intend to be in direct contact with those who have expressed unease about this

the rest of this section of the letter indicates business-as-usual – a few bishops of both “sides” regarded as particularly troublesome will not receive an invite.

At the same time Archbishop Williams strongly urges those who have said they will not attend (for various reasons) to reconsider and be present at Lambeth. Such sentiment is understandable, whether it is a realistic request is another matter. Considering this,

I have not felt able to invite those whose episcopal ordination was carried through against the counsel of the Instruments of Communion, and I have not seen any reason to revisit this

it would seem at best hopeful to refuse to revisit his earlier decisions whilst desiring others revisit their response to his decisions.

Lastly, let us look at matters of consequence. As we have seen the Archbishop has already made clear the scriptural nature of the problem, as well as his concern regarding the response to that problem.

His recommendations are I believe by far the weakest part of his letter. To summarise, he proposes to

pursue some professionally facilitated conversations between the leadership of The Episcopal Church and those with whom they are most in dispute, internally and externally, to see if we can generate any better level of mutual understanding


I also intend to convene a small group of primates and others, whose task will be… work on the unanswered questions arising from the inconclusive evaluation of the primates to New Orleans and to take certain issues forward to Lambeth

The first part of the proposal seems to me somewhat akin to flogging a dead horse. It is, with the most charitable reading, a remarkably optimistic hope. It certainly does not appear to recognise reality on the ground, where communication is now occurring through lawyers or lawyer-like letters. To give credit, it is always worth the attempt, but it is hard to envisage this attempt succeeding at this stage.

The second proposal is somewhat open-ended and fraught with questions. Who will be part of the group? What exactly will be their remit and authority? How will it avoid the fate of irrelevancy that befell the Panel of Reference? The latter point raises perhaps the nub of the issue – how exactly will one more committee solve a problem that innumerable previous committees have failed to solve? To the cynical, it looks like a further attempt to avoid finally addressing the issue.

Much has been made of the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury does not have the power of a Pope to issue discipline from on high. Nevertheless, the powers he does have he does not appear willing to use (except in a few isolated cases of bishop ‘dis-invitation’ which is likely to satisfy nobody and irritate everybody). Having identified the miscreants, the sentence then given is for further facilitated talk and additional committee generation.

Does the Archbishop have a better path? Yes! Firstly, to truly represent the ‘common mind of the communion’ then he needs to recognise, as has been stated, that those responsible for the current crisis and those responding to that crisis are not “morally equivalent”. Much as in a multi-car crash – the one deemed ultimately responsible is the one whose actions precipitated the crash.

Secondly, on recognising the difference, he needs to act as much as his office will allow. For example, he could refrain inviting to the Lambeth conference all in TEC and ACoC who have reinterpreted scripture in isolation, as well as formally recognising what is currently happening in North American Anglicanism as both a tragedy and a necessity.

One cannot accuse the Archbishop of precipitating the crisis. This is a division that would have occurred with or without him. However as an instrument of unity he has the ability either to gather the communion together, accepting the division that has and will occur; or to procrastinate while the communion body as we have known it fractures and founders. Sadly it appears he has chosen the latter, and as a result rejected the very essence that his position requires.

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5 Responses to The Archbishop of Canterbury – an instrument of unity?

  1. Good analysis, Peter. Sadly, the ABC, by his inaction and waffling, seems to have rendered himself irrelevant—a spectator at the Anglican Communion’s realignment.


  2. Diana says:

    He is a very clever theologian, but it seems to me that he ‘sits on the fence’ when I really wish he would be stronger.


  3. Peter says:

    It does seem that way indeed Scott. Yes, he is a very clever theologian, and I have to wonder whether that would have been the best fit for him.


  4. timbob says:

    Greetings. I’m in a rush right now, but tryhing to say hi to as many as possible before we head out of town for a few days. I’ll keep you all in prayer upon every rememberance.

    Have a blessed Christmas and new years.



  5. Scarlenn says:

    Thanks for sharing thiis


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