It’s Broken. Fix it!

Written by:
Friday, January 14th, 2011

The Reverend Canon Professor Christopher Seitz
The Reverend Dr. Philip Turner
The Reverend Dr. Ephraim Radner
Mark McCall, Esq.

The Dublin gathering of Primates—is it a “Primates’ Meeting” when so many are not attending?—is soon to happen. Many are the views on whether conservative Primates should attend, and the reasons pro and con equally many. We hold a range of views among ourselves, but we are unanimous in our hope that the Primates of the Global South will be united in their response.

Moreover, opinions of others are irrelevant at this point: it will be the case that a major block of the Communion will not be represented at the Meeting. To say it is ‘only ten’; or to argue that the Primates don’t represent their Provinces; or to say it should be more; or to question whether the Primates’ Meeting is a bona fide gathering at all – all of this simply shows how degenerated has become the very basic life of the Communion, as measured against what has been a tacit fellowship in charity and mission not all that long ago. One ought properly to conclude that just one Primate not appearing is a terrible thing.

Reasonable people may and do disagree about attendance at this meeting. Still, we are seeing a tragic development and a public scandal, which by now many have become accustomed to if they have not simply turned away.

Whatever one’s view of the matter, there is one perspective that is particularly disturbing in its implications. It argues that the Archbishop of Canterbury and his fellow administrators – or in some versions, the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church — are conniving and manipulative, perhaps even heretical, and that the meeting is a sham. Surely people are entitled to this view, or for that matter, its opposite: such is the confusing state of affairs we find ourselves in, and manifold is the evidence to be used to draw this conclusion or that – indeed, by those who are otherwise opponents in our parlous season.

It is not that people have sized up this or that Primate in this or that way that is so disturbing. What is the truly serious area of concern is this: the claim that, given the character of e.g. the Archbishop of Canter bury, there is nothing that can be done about the Meeting. The Archbishop of Canterbury is held to be an immovable force, impregnable and beyond challenge. The effect of this is to give him an authority virtually beyond the scale of the Bishop of Rome. A council of the church, if we are right in holding that the Primates’ Meeting is such, is not really a council and cannot be, according to this view. The will of the Primates cannot, must not, be capable of expression. The iron hand of the Archbishop of Canterbury is beyond the reach of fellow Primates. If Hilary were to appear in Dublin as the Athanasius of the West, in the very nature of the case he would have to be defeated and sent packing.

It matters little in such an understanding of the situation whether ten, one, or twenty were not to appear. If the Primates Meeting is not really a Council of the Church and if the Archbishop of Canterbury has the power to defeat any influence from those fellow Bishops whose actual leadership and authority in the Provinces is not in question, then it must be renamed. It is The Archbishop of Canterbury Meeting. And if this is the true state of affairs, will the Primates as a total body accede to this? Whose responsibility is it to assure that the Primates’ Meeting is a Primates’ Meeting if not the Primates themselves? Perhaps one does not need to be in Dublin in a couple of weeks to answer this question, but an answer must be found all the same.

And that answer is not to create a parallel structure – leaving aside whether it can succeed in gathering a sizeable number of all the conservative Primates when the dust settles. For that would not solve the problem of how to have a Council of the Church called ‘The Primates’ Meeting’, or one where the Primates did their job. It would merely defer and avoid the matter, and so leave it unresolved. The Primates’ Meeting must be that place where the integrity of the Instrument is worked through. If one does not attend the Dublin gathering, it remains the case that the Primates as individual leaders and as a body must propose and resolve how they will gather and do their work. Physical attendance may not be necessary at the month’s end and it is not going to happen anyway. But it remains the case that the composition and good working of the Primates as a Meeting, as a council, must be addressed by the Primates. How will they do this?

No one doubts that the Archbishop of Canterbury has certain rights and responsibilities in respect of the Instrument called the Primates’ Meeting. What is disturbing is the apparent concession that his power is infinite. One need not attribute to him any nefarious actions at all to acknowledge that such a view of his role would be intolerable to the good working of the Primates as a Body. If this is the problem, then let us hear from the Primates how they are prepared to address it. Anything less is just a counsel of despair and a sure way to watch the Communion slide deeper into dysfunction and distrust.

January 14 2011 10:40 am | Articles