Primates Meet, Confusion Ensues

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Episcopal Church representatives to the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in New Zealand in 2012 included (l-r) Deputy Josephine Hicks, Bishop Ian Douglas, and House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings. photo credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

When the cloud of confusion created by the most recent meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion had dissipated, not a great deal had changed. The Anglican Communion is still intact, the Episcopal Church is still a full member, and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, Deputy Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine, and Bishop Ian Douglas are still planning to participate fully in the Anglican Consultative Council’s (ACC) next meeting in Lusaka, Zambia in April.

Jennings is the Episcopal Church’s clergy representative to the ACC, Ballentine is the lay representative, and Douglas is the bishop representative and sits on the ACC’s standing committee. All three were elected by Executive Council.

The confusion began on January 14, while the primates of the Anglican Communion were meeting at Canterbury Cathedral in England, word began to circulate on the social media platform Twitter that the Episcopal Church would be sanctioned for its 2015 General Convention decision to enact marriage equality.

“Rumors often circulate on social media when top church leaders are meeting,” said Jim Naughton, a communications consultant in the Episcopal Church and editor of Deputy News. “But when I saw the Church of England’s official spokesperson trying to make tweeters use the word ‘consequences’ instead of ‘sanctions,’ I knew something must be happening.”

It quickly became clear that parts of the primates’ communique had been leaked to a conservative Anglican website.

Several hours later, the primates’ meeting issued an excerpt of its communique that sought to prevent Episcopalians from representing the Anglican Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, serving on internal standing committees, and voting on issues of doctrine and polity for three years. The interval of time was presumably chosen to give the 2018 General Convention time to reconsider its actions on Resolution A036 and Resolution A054 which enacted the canonical and liturgical changes necessary to bring about marriage equality in the church.

The next day, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby held a press conference at which he defended the decision of the primates and apologized for the “hurt and pain” inflicted on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by the church.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, filmed speaking outside the closed gates of Canterbury Cathedral, said, “And the truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people. And maybe it’s a part of our vocation to help that to happen.”

Response from Episcopal leaders, including deputies, was swift. Deputy Brian Baker, deputy chair of the marriage task force at General Convention, told The Guardian, “It is my belief that the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church is God’s will. If there is a price to pay for this, then we have to pay it.”

Alternate Deputy Susan Russell, writing for the Huffington Post about what the primates’ vote meant, said, “It means we’re willing to pay ‘the cost of discipleship’ as we follow the Jesus who welcomed, blessed, included, empowered and loved absolutely everybody. It means we take seriously our call to be part of the Jesus Movement — proclaiming the Good News of God’s inclusive love to the world.

On Facebook, Deputy Winnie Varghese made the wry observation that, “Only in the Anglican Communion is not serving on committees for a time considered a real punishment.”

In the aftermath of the primates’ communique, debate quickly turned to the issue of whether or not the primates had the authority to compel Anglican Communion bodies, including the Anglican Consultative Council, to abide by their sanctions.

Experts across the communion, including Norman Doe, director of the Centre for Law and Religion at Cardiff University and one of the drafters of the proposed Anglican Covenant, argued that they did not. “I find it utterly extraordinary,” he told the Church Times. “No instrument exists conferring upon the Primates’ meeting the jurisdiction to ‘require’ these things. . . Whatever they require is unenforceable.”

Deputy Sam Candler was one of those who took exception to media reports that the Episcopal Church had been suspended from the Anglican Communion. “But, whatever else the primates can do, they cannot vote, by any margin, to keep a province or church from participating in the Anglican Communion of Churches. In fact, the word ‘suspension’ does not appear at all in their January 2016 8-point resolution.

“The Anglican Communion of Churches is simply not organized in the way that the Roman Catholic Church is. Casual readers of church news might prefer otherwise, desiring a handy table of hierarchy and doctrine. But no.”

Jennings, writing to deputies on January 15, sought to draw attention to the plight of LGBT Anglicans who are especially vulnerable when their church’s anti-gay stands are in the headlines. “The people most likely to suffer from this news are faithful LGBTI Anglicans and their allies, especially in Africa. I count many of them as my friends and colleagues, and today I am especially praying that this new message of exclusion does not fuel more hatred and homophobia and make them even more vulnerable to violence and discrimination than they already are.”

“And regardless of the primates’ vote,” she wrote, “we Episcopalians will continue working with Anglicans across the globe to feed the hungry, care for the sick, educate children, and heal the world. Nothing that happens at a primates’ meeting will change our love for one another or our commitment to serving God together.”