George Austin on the recent meeting of Primates in North Carolina
IT WOULD be mischievous to judge the recent Primates’ Meeting by the entertainment provided at the dinner hosted by the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA and Mrs Griswold, when guests were treated to ‘hammered dulcimer and fiddle music’ and took part in square dancing and a ‘hymn sing’ after dinner to the music of the Rev Bucky Hanks and his group, ‘who played the blue grass, gospel and Celtic (sic) music typical of the Appalachians.’
In any case, I have to admit I was not present at the Kanuga Conference Centre in North Carolina where the meeting took place. But nor for that matter were any observers or journalists, accredited or otherwise, and two who did attempt to gain access found their way blocked by four burly and ‘aggressive’ guards at a blockhouse said to be newly provided for the occasion. Were they afraid of embarrassing photographs of the Careys skipping about to the Dashing White Sergeant, or maybe the Griswolds leading the Gay Gordons?
From what can be learnt from the press releases, it is clear that issues of importance to the Anglican Communion filled the agenda. Professor Daniel Hardy of Durham University led a discussion on theological education, Equipping the Church for Mission and Evangelism, and a working party will present a report to the next Meeting in 2002. Plenaries were held on the major problems of poverty and debt, on the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is devastating parts of the Communion, on the continuing difficulties in the Middle East and the Congo. Domestic matters such as the role and purpose of the office of Primate were discussed, while Lord Hurd introduced a consultation paper from the group reviewing the See of Canterbury.
All very worthy, and all of it clearly well grounded in worship, bible study and prayer – so why the caution about observers and the media? Well, the argument would be – and not without some justification – that this was a private meeting, that the presence of outsiders would have been a distraction from the main business, that the press would have concentrated on sex and the Primates were not there to talk about that, or at least not only about that.
Yet there was one serious and contentious issue, the discussion on which the authorities, rightly or wrongly, may have wished to hide, preferring that dirty linen was not washed publicly. For those wicked and backward Primates from Asia, Africa and South America, still so unenlightened as to regard Scripture as the Word of God and to consider that His Word (if ECUSA – and the compilers of Common Worship – will forgive the masculine pronoun) is the unalterable basis for all aspects of the Christian life, had called, in the document To Mend the Net, for provinces of the affluent West to return to that foundation or to be disciplined if they would not.
On the first Saturday afternoon the document was discussed. According to the official diary of events, Archbishop Carey, ‘noting that our tradition has learned how to handle conflict’, invited the Archbishop of the West Indies and the Primate of the Southern Cone to present the report and Presiding Bishop Griswold to respond. With Carey, Griswold and the ACC advisers opposed to the contents of the document, it was hardly surprising that To Mend the Net ended in the Anglican equivalent of the waste-paper basket – it was sent to a working party for an eventual response.
What is certainly true is that the Church of England has ‘learned how to handle conflict.’ The arrangements brokered by Archbishop Habgood and agreed (reluctantly by some bishops) at the time of the women priests legislation, certainly allowed many to remain within the Church of England, in spite of the marginalisation which some clergy have suffered from their bishops. It is like a marriage where partners live happily together without abandoning principles they may hold dear.
The same is certainly not the case in some parts of ECUSA, where revisionist bishops have deliberately made life difficult for the faithful, priests and laity. When Archbishop Carey in his post-Kanuga statement said that some of his brother Primates ‘work, live and witness in the most dire and even hostile settings’, he should have been aware (if his advisers tell him unpleasant facts he may not wish to hear) that ECUSA is one of them – certainly not the danger of death and torture that some Anglicans must endure, but mental harassment and persecution of a most vicious kind.
More than one priest has been driven from his parish and his home for no more crime that upholding that which the Church has always taught and still, officially at any rate, believes. In some cases whole congregations have been driven from the church buildings where they have always worshipped, forced in at least one case to hold services in the street outside.
I was once asked to speak at a meeting of the Prayer Book Society in a large city in the States. The local ECUSA cathedral had a notice outside trumpeting its ‘inclusiveness’ for all religions and none, all sexual orientations and whatever. It was an inclusiveness that did not extend to the Prayer Book Society, which was not allowed to hold a service there.
The reaction came after Lambeth where, it will be remembered, the bishops – led by Carey – passed a resolution on sexuality which welcomed all, heterosexual and homosexual, into the fellowship of the Church but pointed out the biblical proscriptions against certain physical expressions of sexual behaviour. In England, 46 bishops undermined the Archbishop’s authority by a public statement which effectively rejected that which they assembled bishops had agreed. The USA went further, by claiming that provincial autonomy in the Anglican Communion allowed them to ignore the resolution, and since then the ordination of practising gay clergy has continued apace and it is not unusual to find, in the most revisionist of the dioceses, gay marriages being conducted openly.
It is significant that, for the first time at a Primates’ meeting, those assembled did not worship at the local cathedral, where same-sex blessings take place. The plea of orthodox Primates that ECUSA be disciplined might have been sidelined to a working party, but to have held a service there would almost certainly have made public the deep divisions within the Communion, by the non-attendance of Primates from Africa and Asia.
The response of the ostrich is not unknown in Anglicanism, but a problem as fundamental as the attitude to the Word of God is not a minor side issue and simply will not go away by the easy expedient of a working party or commission. ECUSA is already beginning to disintegrate and the signs are that this process will gain momentum in the coming months and years, alongside growing evidence a spreading decay.
When other provinces consecrate bishops to minister to persecuted orthodox Episcopalians something serious is happening, too serious for the disapproval of the Archbishop of Canterbury to undermine or ignore, too significant to be pushed under the table to a working party.
But God is in charge and his Word will prevail, whatever the Primates do or fail to do.
George Austin is a writer and journalist. He is a former Archdeacon of York