Archbishop of Canterbury – ‘Challenge and hope’ for the Anglican Communion

27 June 2006 • Persistent link:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has set out his thinking on the future of the Anglican Communion in the wake of the deliberations in the United States on the Windsor Report and the Anglican Communion at the 75th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (USA). ‘The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today, A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion’, has been sent to Primates with a covering letter, published more widely and made available as audio on the internet. In it, Dr Williams says that the strength of the Anglican tradition has been in maintaining a balance between the absolute priority of the Bible, a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility:

“To accept that each of these has a place in the church’s life and that they need each other means that the enthusiasts for each aspect have to be prepared to live with certain tensions or even sacrifices. The only reason for being an Anglican is that this balance seems to you to be healthy for the Church Catholic”

Dr Williams acknowledges that the debate following the consecration of a practising gay bishop has posed challenges for the unity of the church. He stresses that the key issue now for the church is not about the human rights of homosexual people, but about how the church makes decisions in a responsible way.

“It is imperative to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation…”

The debate in the Anglican Communion had for many, he says, become much harder after the consecration in 2003 which could be seen to have pre-empted the outcome. The structures of the Communion had struggled to cope with the resulting effects:

“… whatever the presenting issue, no member Church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship; this would be uncomfortably like saying that every member could redefine the terms of belonging as and when it suited them. Some actions – and sacramental actions in particular – just do have the effect of putting a Church outside or even across the central stream of the life they have shared with other Churches.”

Dr Williams says that the divisions run through as well as between the different Provinces of the Anglican Communion and this would make a solution difficult. He favours the exploration of a formal Covenant agreement between the Provinces of the Anglican Communion as providing a possible way forward. Under such a scheme, member provinces that chose to would make a formal but voluntary commitment to each other.

“Those churches that were prepared to take this on as an expression of their responsibility to each other would limit their local freedoms for the sake of a wider witness: some might not be willing to do this. We could arrive at a situation where there were ‘constituent’ Churches in the Anglican Communion and other ‘churches in association’, which were bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion and not sharing the same constitutional structures”.

Different views within a province might mean that local churches had to consider what kind of relationship they wanted with each other. This, though, might lead to a more positive understanding of unity:

“It could mean the need for local Churches to work at ordered and mutually respectful separation between constituent and associated elements; but it could also mean a positive challenge for churches to work out what they believed to be involved in belonging in a global sacramental fellowship, a chance to rediscover a positive common obedience to the mystery of God’s gift that was not a matter of coercion from above but that of ‘waiting for each other’ that St Paul commends to the Corinthians.”

Dr Williams stresses that the matter cannot be resolved by his decree:

“ … the idea of an Archbishop of Canterbury resolving any of this by decree is misplaced, however tempting for many. The Archbishop of Canterbury presides and convenes in the Communion, and may … outline the theological framework in which a problem should be addressed; but he must always act collegially, with the bishops of his own local Church and with the primates and the other instruments of communion.”

“That is why the process currently going forward of assessing our situation in the wake of the General Convention is a shared one. But it is nonetheless possible for the Churches of the Communion to decide that this is indeed the identity, the living tradition – and by God’s grace, the gift – we want to share with the rest of the Christian world in the coming generation; more importantly still, that this is a valid and vital way of presenting the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. My hope is that the period ahead – of detailed response to the work of General Convention, exploration of new structures, and further refinement of the covenant model – will renew our positive appreciation of the possibilities of our heritage so that we can pursue our mission with deeper confidence and harmony.”

The Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet early next year to consider the matter. In the meantime, a group appointed by the Joint Standing Committee of the ACC and the Primates will be assisting Dr Williams in considering the resolutions of the 75th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (USA) in response to the questions posed by the Windsor Report.

Archbishop’s letter to Primates:

Following last week’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church (USA), I have been preparing some personal reflections on the challenges that lie ahead for us within the Anglican Communion. I have addressed these reflections to a wide readership in the Anglican Communion and they are being made public today on my website. I wanted to bring them to your attention accordingly, for you to draw to the attention of members of your Province in whatever way you see fit.

These reflections are in no way intended to pre-empt the necessary process of careful assessment of the Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report. Rather they are intended to focus the question of what kind of Anglican Communion we wish to be and to explore how this vision might become more of a reality.

I am also sending you a copy of the press statement I issued at the close of General Convention, which you will see mentions the Joint Standing Committee working party that will be assisting in evaluating the outcome of the 75th General Convention.

I shall be writing to you again later this week, to invite your own response to me to various questions as the Communion’s discernment process moves ahead.