Rowan Williams on the recent Oporto Meeting of the Primates

SOME PEOPLE wanted to know why Anglican primates should be gathering in Portugal, which is not a great historic centre of Anglican activity, it has to be admitted. The answer is not simply that pleasant scenery takes your mind off the worst bits of ecclesiastical wrestling, but that the tiny Lusitanian Church – a product, like the German and Swiss Old Catholics, of nineteenth-century protest against the First Vatican Council – is celebrating its 120th anniversary and, as it is in full communion with the Anglicans, it seemed a good moment for a visit that honoured that Church’s history and distinctive witness.

But it could be seen as a focus of sorts for the major issue underlying the meeting. The Lusitanian Church came into being as a protest against one kind of clarity about central authority, how far can the Anglican Communion survive without some mechanism of authority more robust than currently exists? The consecration in February this year of two bishops in Singapore, who were supposed to be deployed for the pastoral care of traditionalist Anglicans in the United States, was an unprecedented breach in the received order of the Communion, since no attention was paid either to the views of the official Anglican leadership in the United States or to the counsel of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Many obviously expected the meeting to deliver a firm condemnation of this action.

But others expected a condemnation of a different kind. The main driving force behind the Singapore consecrations was the extraordinary bitterness of feeling in some quarters of the United States about the Episcopal Church’s lack of unity over the issues around homosexuality. It has been, for a vocal minority, the last straw in a long process that is seen as the uncritical adoption by Episcopalians of a liberal, multicultural, relativist agenda. The theological fireworks of Bishop John Spong, formerly of Newark, New Jersey, who has been cutting long swathes through pretty well every received doctrine and ethical conviction of classical Christianity, have done a lot to sharpen up this discontent. Has North American Anglicanism no means at all, people ask, of reining in pluralism? And if it hasn’t, are its structures at all trustworthy?

These tensions precipitated the Singapore crisis, and some traditionalists have been arguing that a canonical irregularity is far less significant than what they call the apostasy of North America. Their appeal has been to the Lambeth Conference resolution declaring homosexual practice incompatible with scripture, a resolution won largely by the overwhelming support of bishops from the growing and powerful Third World Churches, especially in Africa. There was undoubtedly some hope that the primates’ meeting, numerically dominated by the African and Asian archbishops, could deliver a “final warning”, at the very least to the Episcopal Church in the United States. There was a visible penumbra in Oporto of American conservatives, aiming to strengthen the resolve of traditionalist primates, hanging around in doorways and lobbies.

But what emerged was – perhaps predictably – a less dramatic outcome, which some will undoubtedly see as a typical bit of Anglican evasiveness. The truth is that many primates, especially the Africans, while they are uncompromisingly traditional about sexual ethics, can see the risks of the Communion either becoming completely mired in this question for years or breaking up over it. It was very clear that they wanted neither. One influential African archbishop declared forcefully that a lot of the discussion had been a waste of time for him, faced as he was with civil war, the effects of the Aids pandemic and the debt crisis: “Some of us”, he said, poker-faced, “are tired of sex….”

Of course the homosexual question is not one that affects the United States alone. But some impatience was palpable by the last few days of the meeting. The result was a carefully worded reminder to the United States that actions taken there had repercussions elsewhere, weakening the Anglican Church in the eyes of other Christians and – a more sinister matter – giving ammunition to the hostility of militant Muslims. The meeting seemed to have no appetite for denunciation, or even direct appeal to the United States for a moratorium on gay ordinations; the seriousness of the concern was registered, and the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church was left to work out with his house of bishops what the implications might be.

Similar restraint was in evidence over the Singapore affair. Here, while some more liberal primates pressed for strong words, the consensus was that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initial response had said most of what needed to be said: that this was an action damaging to the Communion and, in its haste. and secrecy, sending some very unhelpful messages about the proper processes of scrutiny and discernment for episcopal appointment. Judging from the conversation at the meeting it is unlikely that there will be any attempt to repeat such a step; America and the provinces involved in the consecrations (South-East Asia and Rwanda) will now have to work together to sort out the canonical mess created.

Central to much of this was the clear statement that a province only excludes itself from the Anglican Communion by public and formal rejection of any aspect of what is familiarly called the “Lambeth Quadrilateral” – namely the supremacy of Scripture in doctrinal matters, the two sacraments instituted by Christ, the creeds of the first four centuries and the historic episcopate. Obviously there can be dispute as to whether some development constitutes a de facto breach of the Quadrilateral (would lay presidency of the Eucharist, as proposed by the extremely Protestant diocese of Sydney, conflict with the second or fourth? Does the ordination of a practising homosexual overturn the first?); but the stress was laid on formal abandoning of this “grammar” of Anglicanism, in full recognition of the difficulties of deciding what constituted a merely implicit rejection. On this basis, the debate on sexuality is clearly seen as one which may divide provinces from one another (South East Asia has already declared that it will not consider itself to be in communion with any diocese that repudiates the Lambeth resolution on sexuality) but does not necessitate decisions about whether a local church is or is not in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and so formally part of the Anglican family.

This is a precarious balance, but leaves the emphasis on the solidity of sacramental practice and theological method as criteria for mutual recognition. This at least allows the assumption of a common agenda on most issues of mission and of justice, where the most deeply felt concerns of practically all the primates actually cluster. It was sad that only on the last full day (which included a splendidly inflammatory, even visionary, address from the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short) did we note the achievement of the conference in Nairobi earlier this March, organised by the Coalition against Poverty in Africa (CAPA), a network largely Anglican in inspiration and leadership. On this occasion, several African primates invited representatives of the World Bank for a face-to-face consultation about what was needed not only in the sphere of debt relief but also in respect of the construction of civil society in Africa in a way that will attack the problems of endemic corruption and militarism which aggravate the debt crisis. A superb report emerged from this meeting.

This is the kind of thing that a world-wide communion can nurture, both practically and theologically; it evidently wasn’t obvious to the primates that it depended on unanimity over sexual ethics.

In the last analysis, Anglicanism has always been wary of a central executive power. It has worked on the assumption that a common ecclesial language and theological method take you a long way, and its authority has been a mixture of authoritative texts and a process of rather untidy corporate interpretation of them. The primates’ meeting showed no signs of wanting to become a ruling synod. Its one plea was for more frequent meeting, and this is likely to happen: the present strains on the communion are severe enough for personal contact and consultation to be imperative, so that actions are not taken without awareness of the wider context. The next few years will undoubtedly be increasingly painful and difficult for many Anglicans; but this particular meeting suggested that the classical Anglican method was not dead yet – and that the sheer experience of sustained biblical reflection (wonderfully led by David Ford of Cambridge) and uninhibited theological conversation may yet save Anglicanism from its own variety of the Vatican 1 debacle.

Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Wales. this piece originally appeared in The Tablet for April 8, 2000