Theologian looks at Primates' Statement: Warning, Clarity, and Calling
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Fri Oct 17 21:00:12 EDT 2003
Theologian looks at Primates' Statement: Warning, Clarity, and Calling
By Dr. Ephraim Radner
The Primates' Statement is a remarkable document on a number of scores.
In the first place, it represents a descriptive statement regarding the
Communion's condition, and not a prescriptive vision for it. This is
highly unusual. Secondly, rather than being a statement marked by a
consensus of views, the Primates speak in divergent ways - "some
Provinces..." etc. are distinguished from others in their views and
actions - which reveals a deeply unreconciled set of perspectives in
the midst of the Meeting. Taken together, these two elements bespeak a
tremendous crisis taking place at the heart of the Communion, whose
potential outcome, as the Statement itself somberly notes, places "the
future of the Communion itself [...] in jeopardy". The Statement,
then, is not a proposed resolution to a critical problem, but a grim
acknowledgment of a serious threat whose resolution apparently lies
beyond the powers of the Primates' collective authority.
The sober character of the Statement's descriptive focus, however,
contains within it some further remarkable, and to a real degree,
illuminating challenges. If these are properly noted, the traces of a
way forward can be hopefully gleaned.
1. The Statement "names names": for the first time, ECUSA (through
its General Convention and Gene Robinson) and the Diocese of New
Westminster (Canada) are clearly identified by the Primates as the
cause of alarm and as a "threat" to the Communion's unity, through
"controversial" actions which violate the "mind of the Communion as a
whole" and that "jeopardize" the "sacramental fellowship" shared by
members of the Communion. The actions of these churches are "deeply
regretted". There is no place to hide.
2. A coherent Communion teaching on sexual life is resolutely
affirmed: the resolutions of Lambeth 1998 are clearly stated as "the
present position of the Communion" on matters of sexuality, and as
"having moral force and commanding the respect of the Communion".
These resolutions represent the "teaching of the Anglican Communion".
ECUSA and New Westminster are therefore teaching something that is not
in conformance with the Anglican Communion's doctrine, indeed, that no
longer "respects" the Communion's "moral" authority.
3. A clear and overwhelming burden of accountability is attached:
Because names are named, and actions contrary to the Communion's moral
authority are being pursued by particular churches, these churches -
ECUSA and New Westminster - are being clearly held responsible for the
crisis within and the injuries being perpetrated upon the Communion.
There is no room for the leadership of ECUSA, for instance, to duck
accountability for "[tearing] the fabric of our Communion at its
deepest level". Let the world know who is at fault in this crisis.
4. A firm deadline for the assumption of that responsibility is given:
November 2, 2003 - the date of the planned consecration of Gene
Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire - has been identified as "a crucial
and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion" which will
"put in jeopardy" the "future of the Communion". Those who move
forward with this consecration, and those who encourage it, are now
placed squarely in the role of those assaulting the Communion.
5. Drastic consequences of realignment are acknowledged as likely:
Consequences that are acknowledged to be "likely" to follow this
consecration include the breaking of Communion with ECUSA by "many
provinces", and the further fracturing of Communion among other
provinces. The unstated implication here is that Canterbury itself, if
it chooses to remain in Communion with ECUSA, may well find itself "out
of Communion" with other Provinces. There is no mincing of words in
outlining this grave possibility.
6. Alternative oversight is called for in a way that demands the
consultation of Canterbury: an emphatic paragraph is given over to
expressing the "particular concern for those who in all conscience feel
bound to dissent from the teaching and practice" of provinces or
dioceses that contravene the teaching of the Communion. As part of
this concern, the Primates as a whole "call on the provinces concerned
to make adequate provision for episcopal oversight" for such
"dissenters". It is critical to see that the Primates demand here that
such oversight be offered "in consultation with the Archbishop of
Canterbury on behalf of the Primates": no oversight that is provided
solely by and potentially manipulated by offending authorities will be
acceptable, and the Primates will retain a necessary role in
controlling this process. This appears to be the first real
"intervention" into the life of otherwise "autonomous" provinces, and
it sets a startling precedent.
7. A role of "enhanced authority" by the Primates is accepted: for
the first time the Primates expressly "seek to exercise the 'enhanced
responsibility' entrusted to [them] by successive Lambeth Conferences".
This lays the foundation for future and perhaps more active
interventions (as previously encouraged) in areas of crisis and
confusion within the Communion. Rogue provinces and dioceses should
8. A commitment, with timetable, has been made to clarify the
theological and legal vocation and capacity of the ABC's "role in
maintaining communion" among provinces: a "commission", with a brief
for 12 months, has been requested that will work to lay out in a
precise and acceptable way how the Archbishop of Canterbury can, in the
future, exercise his role "in maintaining communion within the between
provinces when grave difficulties arise". This will presumably aim at
clarifying disciplinary and interventional authority that he might have
and that, at present, is confused enough as to limit discipline in the
current crisis. The desire for such a role, however, is clearly lying
in the background to this request.
Some Concluding Comments
The ground has been laid, in this Statement, for serious discipline and
moral condemnation of those who willfully and destructively offend
against the common mind and order of the Communion.
The fact that several Primates would not accept elements of actual
judgment against New Westminster and ECUSA accounts for the evident
lack of disciplinary consensus in the Statement. But it also raises
questions as to how the Primates as a whole could, at the same time,
assign responsibility (as they did) for the crisis at hand to certain
members of the Communion. These members - ECUSA's and Canada's
Primates in particular - appear to have accepted the undeniable
pertinence of their status. A failure on their part now to act,
having accepted responsibility, will prove a spectacular, if tragic,
abrogation of integrity. We will wait only briefly to see how, for
example, Bishop Griswold responds.
In any case, actual discipline has been squarely left within the sphere
of the offending provinces, e.g. ECUSA and Canada themselves. This
may, in fact, be a mature expectation, however disappointing in some
ways. After all, there are legal mechanisms still to be pursued - now
under the aegis of the Primates' own protection for "dissenters" - that
can be properly used to combat the "named" disrupters of communion and
the main rejecters of the Communion's corporate and agreed-upon
teaching. On the basis of this clear affirmation of the Communion's
teaching and of the accountable role of those supporting General
Convention actions, requests of bishops for repudiation of General
Convention actions that contravene the Communion's standards can now be
made on a clear basis; requests for resignations can follow, again on
a firm foundation; requests for alternative oversight, in the same
way; finally, the pursuit of presentments against offending bishops
now have a legal substance that is acknowledged by the Communion as a
The Primates ended with a Scriptural exhortation to pastoral
responsibility and integrity, prefaced by a call to prayer and study.
Within the context of this sober and ground-breaking Statement, it is
an exhortation and a call that we must not fail to heed.
The Rev Dr. Ephraim is Senior Fellow of the Anglican Communion
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