Canterbury to Primates: We are not the Supremes

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a very good pastoral Lenten letter to the Primates, in which he said, 

"The unanimous judgement of those who were present was that the Meeting should not see itself as a ‘supreme court’, with canonical powers, but that it should nevertheless be profoundly and regularly concerned with looking for ways of securing unity and building relationships of trust."

Let's get this one out of the way, smile about even the notion, and move on. The letter has lots more to say, some of it quite important to the life of the Communion. But up front the image of the Primates as The Supremes or as The Supreme Court, either one, boggles the imagination. OK, done with that.

Now to the letter:

The Archbishop begins with the prayer 

"that this season will bring us closer to the reality of Christ’s love and self-giving for us, so that His Spirit will move more powerfully among us to enable us to share that love with the world."  

This is good clear Anglican praying, filled with the desire that we will be self-emptying for the world. 

He follows with the realities of the moment.

"In the forefront of all our concerns at this moment is the situation of our brothers and sisters who are living with the daily threat of violent persecution or in unstable environments." 

He is eloquent in this. No list is complete, of course, but he was moved to speak of Jerusalem, Pakistan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Korea, in terms of political and religious struggle, and of New Zealand, Haiti and Pakistan, and now Japan, in terms of environmental issues. 

Missing was any mention of the concern for gender-based violence (violence against women and girls) and for those struggling to support the marginalized in Uganda and elsewhere. Both those matters were part of the work of the Primates Meeting in Dublin, both are ongoing witness that puts those who are active in this work in danger.  Odd that these went unmentioned, for they were only a month ago on the minds and hearts of those attending the Dublin meeting.

The Archbishop is very aware of the role of such steadfast witness and writes eloquently on the matter:

"We look out at a landscape that is in many ways sombre.  But what is as miraculous as ever is the fidelity of believers in the middle of it all.  Christians in Pakistan or Egypt still obstinately go on loving their neighbours and their enemies and refusing to copy the ways of the world.  There is no greater proof of the power and reality of Christ’s resurrection than this.  The life of the One who was rejected and tortured to death is the same life that lives now in Christians; as St Paul says (Rom.6.9), Death has no more power over Christ – and we who share his life through baptism are delivered from the deathly power of hatred and revenge."

The deathly power of hatred and revenge goes deep and spreads wide and when Anglicans witness to that power not by returning its death stings, but by "refusing to copy the ways of the world," and by honoring and seeing in others the presence of Christ, we may lift our heads and hearts anew. 

Anglicans are joined, not by supreme courts or, I would submit, by specifically Anglican covenants, but by the covenant made new in Jesus Christ, to which we are all signatories by baptism and witness. The Archbishop however could not resist the temptation to speak to the Anglican Covenant, even in the midst of recognizing our unity in prayer and action around many issues facing the churches of the Communion. 

"...one reason for the fact that it (the Primates Meeting in Dublin)  did not offer any new schemes for this was that those present were still committed to the Covenant process and had no desire to interrupt the significant discussions of this that are currently going on (as many of you will know, several Provinces have already adopted the Covenant and others are very close to finalising their decision)."

"The Primates were strongly focused on the situation of churches under threat, and this was reflected in the statements they issued.  But it is also important to recognise that the Primates made no change to their existing commitments to both the Covenant process and the moratoria requests."

The "this" in the phrase "new schemes for this" is, apparently, a scheme outlining the powers of the Primates to make judgments. Thus, the concern was not to state more or less than what the Anglican Covenant does about the powers of the Primates or the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.  The Anglican Covenant is seen as a text to be voted up or down as it stand. Further revision of "schemes" for rendering judgment will have to wait.  (I am less than thrilled by this prospect.)

It is hard to know just what the Archbishop means by saying that "the Primates made no change to their existing commitments to both the Covenant process and the moratoria requests."  That can be true without indicating the different levels of commitment to either.  There is no unanimity concerning acquiescence to the moratoria requests. There is varying interest and energy around a Covenant process. All of which turns this statement into blither.

The Archbishop reminds us of the unity to which we are called, the unity that comes from reconciliation. 

"The cost of discipleship is most dramatically manifest in the sufferings that our persecuted brothers and sisters are enduring.  But it is also to be experienced in the ways in which we try to support each other in the Communion, despite all our differences.  And I would dare to say too that it is part of what God calls us to in not only ‘bearing one another’s burdens’ but bearing with one another and continually seeking ways to be reconciled – which also means seeking to see ourselves more clearly and more penitently, and asking God to show us how we must change in order for there to be unity and united witness in the Church.  Without praying together about this, we are less likely to discover what is possible and more likely to make scapegoats of each other."

He still hopes for "unity and united witness in the Church," meaning at least in the Anglican Communion. A commendable prayer.  He hopes that we will find the possible in prayer and end scapegoating. Indeed.

There are many ways in which we can have united witness in the Church and a good bit of that is taking place in and among churches in the Anglican Communion.  The union the Archbishop hopes for is less likely, a union that would make the Anglican Communion more a Church than an fellowship of churches.

Canterbury also reflects for a moment on the disunion of belief and opinion in the CofE concerning women in the episcopate, rounding out concerns across the globe.

The letter is a pastoral and caring one, and the ABC's concerns run deep.  Sometimes I wish his agendas for the Communion didn't creep in so often, but his heart is open to the hurt and joys of the peoples of the churches, and the lands in which they live.


  1. Thank you for this, Mark.

    I confess I scanned the letter, and was left w/ MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over), as so often happens when I try to read Rowan.

  2. I just wish he would stop referring to the Anglican Communion as the Anglican Church. That does not really appear in this letter but it lies out there, a creeping idea to solidify the notion of the communion becoming more like Rome.


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