Primates’ meeting likely to be difficult

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The 38 primates of the Anglican Communion have yet to meet this month in Dar Es Salaam, but events leading up to the meeting scheduled Feb. 14-19 already indicate that it will be a tough one, particularly for Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA).

Shortly after her election last June, conservative primates from Africa and other developing nations, including the meeting’s host province of Tanzania, stated unequivocally that they would not meet with Bishop Schori because of her support for the election of Gene Robinson, the gay bishop of New Hampshire, and because she is a woman. (While some provinces within the Communion, including Canada, ordain women to the priesthood, others remain opposed to it.) These same primates have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to invite someone other than Bishop Schori to represent ECUSA at the meeting. The United Kingdom-based Church Times newspaper has reported, however, that Archbishop Williams has already invited the presiding bishop to attend the meeting, so that she can “be given a chance both to hear and to speak, and to discuss face to face the problems we are confronting together. We are far too prone to talk about these matters from a distance, without ever having to face the human reality of those from whom we differ.”

Aside from being the only woman in the all-male grouping of church leaders, Bishop Schori attends her first meeting among equals burdened by very public upheavals in her own backyard that some observers have noted, almost seem orchestrated to shame her and to force the resolution of the division within the Communion against ECUSA. She had barely taken office when seven dioceses opposed to female leadership in the U.S. church asked the Archbishop of Canterbury for “alternative oversight.”

Meanwhile, San Joaquin, a California diocese with 10,000 members, approved an initial step toward changing its constitution to end ties with the church. Additionally, last December, eight parishes in Virginia – several with roots going back to colonial America – severed ties with ECUSA and aligned themselves with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, which is overseen by Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of the Church of Nigeria. Included in the eight departing congregations is The Falls Church (in Falls Church, Va.) which once counted the first U.S. President, George Washington, among its members. Reacting to the departures, Bishop Schori wrote in the Dec. 19 issue of Washington Post that the departures “have received a significant amount of publicity, but they represent a tiny percentage of the total number of Episcopalians in the church.” ECUSA, which counts 2.4 million members, has 7,200 congregations.

Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, released a statement that squashed anyone’s hopes of CANA gaining equal recognition in the denomination. CANA, he wrote, “is not a branch of the Anglican Communion as such but an organization which relates to a single province of the Anglican Communion,” and it is “to my knowledge, a ‘mission’ of the Church of Nigeria.'” The group has also “not petitioned the Anglican Consultative Council for any official status within the Communion’s structures, nor has the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated any support for its establishment,” he added.

But while the communion office was swift in issuing that clarification, the fact remains that the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is increasingly under pressure from provinces with more conservative views toward homosexuality to come down hard on ECUSA. (The Anglican Church of Canada, whose diocese of New Westminster approved the blessing of same-sex unions in 2002, has also been the subject of vociferous debate within the Communion, and like ECUSA, chose to withdraw official representation to the Anglican Consultative Council in 2005.)

The level of response of ECUSA’s General Convention to the Windsor Report has been identified as a major item for resolution at the primates’ meeting. The Archbishop of Canterbury has already sought reactions from primates, and a small advisory group appointed by the Joint Standing Committee of the primates and the Anglican Consultative Council has been asked to examine the resolutions passed by General Convention. Primates from the so-called Global South have already stated that they are not satisfied with ECUSA’s response and therein lies the promise of yet another contentious meeting that could rival the chilly atmosphere of last year’s meeting in Dromantine, Northern Ireland.

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, acknowledged that primates are approaching their coming meeting with trepidation.

“I think everybody is a little nervous about just what the outcome of that meeting might be,” he said in an interview. “There is a drift … away from the centre, (by) certain provinces within the Communion and they seem to be very well-organized and I wonder what that’s all about and what impact that might have on the primates’ meeting.”

Archbishop Hutchison said the Canadian church was less likely at this meeting to be in “the hot seat” than it was in Dromantine, since it has yet to officially respond to the recommendations of the Windsor Report. The church’s governing body, General Synod, is expected to state its official position during a meeting this June in Winnipeg.

Archbishop Hutchison ex-pressed the hope that the coming meeting “will achieve some clarity on the way forward for the communion.” He added: “We have a significant issue before us – Archbishop Williams’ proposal that there be a covenant of some kind developed, and it will be interesting to hear the responses to that around the table.”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 9, Archbishop Williams announced the membership of the Covenant Design Group that he has appointed in response to a request of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates’ Meeting and of the Anglican Consultative Council. The group, chaired by Archbishop Drexel Gomez, primate of the West Indies, was expected to hold its first meeting in Nassau, the Bahamas, in mid-January, and present an interim report to the primates meeting and Joint Standing Committee at their meeting in February. The list of group members can be found at www.anglicancommunion.org, the Anglican Communion News Service Web site.

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Marites N. Sison
Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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