IT is said of Robert Runcie that he regarded the Anglican Communion with the gentle and indulgent irony for which he was famous, until he became the head of it, at which it is certainly true that being the ‘spiritual leader’ (as the press insist on saying) of the ‘world’s 70 million Anglicans’ is heady stuff for a man who is in fact merely the figure head of a declining church with less than a million communicants. Archbishops of Canterbury are ex officio inclined to make much of the worldwide communion. Rowan Williams is no exception.
By calling what is in effect an emergency meeting of the Primates to deal with what is almost certainly the most serious problem which the Communion has yet faced, he is doing his best to get matters under control. The issue as he sees it is one of the nature of communion itself: do Anglicans really want to be ‘in communion’ one with another? The answer to his question seems to be no.
There are no structures of commanding authority, and what does exist is fatally compromised. The authorizations of the Hong Kong ordinations by the Anglican Consultative Council rendered that body inoperative as an instrument of unity. It had effectively advised the Communion to embrace internally a lesser degree of ‘visible unity’ than most provinces were envisaging in ecumenical relations with other churches. And the Archbishop of Canterbury is in no better position. He has welcomed and embraced Provincial Autonomy in the matter of orders; why not in morals and doctrine as well?
Some might hope that the Primates Meeting will take on the magisterial role. But hardly so. The Communion is a sort of United Nations of Anglicanism. Every separate church has one vote. The Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church (scarcely the size of an English diocese and shrinking) is the equal of the Primate of Nigeria (ten or fifteen times the size of the CofE and growing). In such a circumstances the tail has ample opportunity to wag the dog. Decisions are unlikely to be reasonable and equitable, and equally unlikely to be heeded by churches for whom unilateral revisionist action has become a way of life.