Why the Primate's meeting is important.

There is a storm brewing regarding the Primates Meeting coming up Monday the 11th. At least that is what some Anglican commentators seem to hope will be the case. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury is hoping that a wide variety of topics will be covered in the meeting. There is considerable anxiety that only one will be of importance - the topic of Anglican unity and identity. Supposedly that topic will be decided in the first days of the meeting leading to compromise and / or walkout. For all intents and purposes that will be only item on the agenda that will make the papers. It is assumed that that there will not be much good news in all this.
Most of the press seem to think this meeting will result in one of three possibilities: 

(i) That the Global South, GAFCON, Primates (about 10-12 or so in number) will, on the first day of the meeting, demand that The Episcopal Church, The Anglican Church of Canada, possibly the Church of England and assorted other Primates  cease and desist from supporting the full inclusion of gay people in the church, allowing gay marriage and ordaining gay people, and that these churches repent of their actions in the past and otherwise become "biblical Christians." If the culprits do so, all will be well, sort of. 

The Communion that will then exist will be different from the Anglican Communion of the Lambeth Conference, Communion wide office and programs, Anglican Consultative Council and Primates Meetings. The difference will be that the Archbishop of Canterbury will no longer be the focal point of unity. It may look like a short term win for the ABC, but it will not be.

(ii) That the Global South, GAFCON, Primates will make the demand and the culprits will say "no," including the Archbishop of Canterbury's own Church of England. In which case the esteemed Primates of GAFCON will leave, meet elsewhere and there will be two distinct world-wide bodies claiming to be the primary expression of Anglican identity: one, identity based on communion with Canterbury, and the other identity based on a declaration (the Jerusalem Declaration).

(iii) That the Global South, GAFCON, Primates will make the demand and the Archbishop of Canterbury will not go with the usual suspects, but rather affirm the Global South position, in which case the Jerusalem Declaration will be effectively the litmus test used by the Archbishop of Canterbury for inclusion in the new improved Anglican Communion.

For most of us Episcopalians, or for that matter for most of any of us Anglicans in whatever national or regional church we belong to, this is all pretty foreign, mostly a snooze, and not really very important either to our own church life or the ministries we have, domestic or foreign. 

There has been considerable "yawn" here in Episcopal Church land concerning the meeting and what might transpire.  I suspect being tired of all this foolishness is pretty well the case in many parts of the Anglican world. But that yawn is also a bit overdone. It betrays, I believe, a deeper sense of avoidance, avoidance of uncomfortable problems in our relations with others in the Communion.

So, why is anything that happens at the Primates Meeting around this important?

Well, dear friends, it is important because in spite of all the hard feelings and anathemas being hurled at various churches, in spite of colonial history, there are residual feelings of real companionship in the Gospel and real hopes for engagement in common mission. We have been a community of considerable depth and mutual respect.In all the wringing of hands and lamenting of this or that deep hurt this fact is likely to get lost.

The redefinition of the Anglican Communion is being drawn along lines of the "clean" and "unclean." And the clean, in this case the GAFCON Primates, have made a big show of their purity by loudly proclaiming that they will have nothing to do with money coming from the unclean churches. Some Churches have hedged their bets: The Church of the Sudan still accepts relationships, financial and otherwise, with dioceses in the US that have held to purity standards of GAFCON. There are companion diocese links that have continued even across the purity borders. But on the whole the GAFCON crowd believe that some money is more tainted than other and they are set on the purity way. 

There is, of course, considerable evidence that monies and other aid from churches has been accompanied by various pressures from the giving churches on a variety of issues. Most notably, grants and other monies have often been given with Western ideas of purity regarding financial reporting, which in turn has led to patronizing and humiliating "accounting" processes. Granting organizations have come to the receiving church with sometimes insulting demands. Where some Western churches have seen graft and corruption in their receivers, some receivers have seen only the strings attached. And of course there has been graft and corruption at times.  But there have always been strings... and those have been seen as puppet strings.

It is also true that receivers sometimes have a different sense than the givers of what a grant is. Does receiving the grant make the receiver an agent of the giver? Or is the giving free and the actions of the receiver a stand alone moral issue? Is the giving and receiving between equals or not.

And there is the long term sense that "The white man came to our land an brought us the Bible, when it was over we had the Bible and they had the land." While the Bible was accepted there has been long resentment of the colonial exploitation of land and people.  Colonialism brought Christianity and the Bible. Now whole nations have a strange and convoluted relationship to the churches who were missionary to their nations. The Word came among them carried by the very people who were exploiting them. 

Many of the churches formed out of the missionary enterprise that accompanied empire building are now led by the children of former hirelings of the empires. There is both resentment and admiration of the style of empire, and a love / hate relationship to the parent churches.

There is a new analysis of this colonial paradigm from writes in the GAFCON crowd. (I believe it is mistaken.) It goes like this:  The West is pushing its gay and feminist agenda by way of the actions of Western churches that have been co-opted by anti-biblical compromise with Western culture. Those same churches are pushing that agenda in every place in the Global South where they have influence by grant making, missionary involvement or education of clergy. It is a new or "neo" colonialism, the purpose of which is to make the Global South conform or at least buy into the West's cultural sensibilities. But because the Global South have indeed received the Bible and live by it faithfully they will have none of the cultural imperialism of the West which is both un-biblical and immoral.

To all of this the better voices in the West continue to insist that they are motivated in their own churches by the voice of justice, which they believe has biblical foundations. And they believe that justice is not limited by boundaries.

The battle then involves the underlying long term suspicion of some Churches in the Communion that they are being caught again in an imperialism of the West, this time not bringing the Bible but some new message which runs against both ancient community standards AND those adapted from the Biblical witness they received from the Western churches. Having suffered colonialism once they will have none of it.

No wonder there is a sense that betrayal accompanies every incursion of the Western churches into the lives of peoples they have reached. At every turn the Gospel was accompanied by some form of imperial reach. In imperial times it was the reach for land. In modern times it is the reach for economic dominance. The imperial reach could carry the Gospel.The modern economic reach, as they understand it, has no Gospel to bring, only the superficial good news of consumer power and hedonism.

The distrust by some of our brothers and sisters of other Anglican Churches has been fanned by puritans within the Anglican Churches of the west, particularly by some in the United States. It has been easy to fan. A good bit of coaching and teaching has come from puritan conservative Anglicans.

Nothing of this distrust and coached suspicion is addressed by the posturing at the Primates Meeting. No matter which way things go there - peacefully or otherwise - nothing addresses the longer term distrust of colonialism and imperialism, or for that matter the distrust of the notion of biblical purity.

What is desperately needed is a combination of (i) theological work, driven by work in the newer churches, about what to do with the reality that the Gospel was brought in colonial and imperialistic containers and (ii) good solid on the ground building of deep friendships that cannot be contained by any cultural expectations.

What is needed is post-colonial paradigms for the Gospel and its containers, and renewed deep companionship. 

The best thing to do at the Primates Meeting is to meet and not walk away, to not play various power cards but to find small ways to trust. The best thing to do is to do what the Primates meetings were designed to do - to give heads of the churches a chance to have deep discussion and increase mutual affection. Anything else is business and war as usual.

We Anglicans can do better than that.


  1. Thank you, Mark, for this helpful analysis.

  2. Weary travelers. I believe many (millions) of Anglican/other LGBTI people are worn out by attempting to understand *religious* people who believe WE live a dirty-colored version/vision in the world of their world-wide blame making. We know (mostly) they have always been *upset* at the thought of US...troubled, indeed, very troubled. Possessed? focused on personal prestige or financial success? Obsessed. Dangergous. Unkind.

    When fear/loathing and hatemongering directed against LGBTI Anglicans/others is wrapped up in little un-holy-statements about WHO ¨Gay People¨ (really) are we get more tired. Exhausted. The ignorance and basic lack of human/spiritual love, faux-Christian-hospitality or the offering up of any model of TRUE character building at Church leaves many of us without hope. We are sometimes running on empty but still we have trust in God.

    There is no room left for sweet little purity chats ABOUT US, LGBTI Christians/others, by people who quite often would have US be outcasts/arrested/punished within our own countries, cultures and even amongst our OWN family and friends.

    There is no amount of self-soothing spew GAFCON archbishops can spread around that will validate the harm they do to LGBTI Anglicans in Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya and beyond...these men, and they are men, do not save Souls (or Lives) with their deadly unkindness...we know them better than they know themselves...yet, they know what they do.

    They attempt to harm the spirit of fellow human beings.

    There is no place left for prejudice, bigotry and emotionally twisted pogoms-at-Church to thrive...not at Canterbury Cathedral, not at the ¨Pearl of Africa¨ or downtown Buenos Aires. Lord, please, ¨no more¨ raw LGBTI demoralizing and excluding at Anglican Communion.



  3. I am one of the many lifelong Episcopalians, Mark, who is indeed “tired of all this foolishness.” The only acceptable outcome is possibility (ii) as you have outlined. If the GAFCON provinces want to leave, let them and good riddance!

    The only GAFCON affiliate with which I have any interest in at all is the Church of the Province of West Africa’s Episcopal Church of Liberia, which was initiated by American missionaries in 1836. Today’s Liberia was amalgamated from America’s only African colonies. They signed a Covenant Agreement with TEC in 1979 and have stated clearly that they remain in communion with both TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada—even if they have some disagreements with us on various issues.

    In provinces of the Global South, subsidizing schisms from TEC, ACofC, etc. may end up being dangerous for their own continued unity. I’m really surprised at their lack of self-awareness and self-reflection in this regard. They apparently believe that they can only be actors on the stage of the West, and that they cannot be acted upon in their own home territories. Even now they may be setting the stages for their own schisms somewhere down the road. Those schisms may not be that far off, either. Thus far, the historic North American Anglican Churches have practiced restraint—as befitting senior founders of the Anglican Communion. We will see what happens next week, however. Things could get very interesting very fast for some conservative Evangelical leaders in the Third World and elsewhere.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

  4. Tom Woodward8/1/16 1:59 PM

    I do not know where we as an Episcopal Church would be without Mark Harris' incisive commentaries through the years. We would not as centered nor as wise without him.

  5. Phil Almond9/1/16 8:32 AM

    The disagreement among Anglicans in the Church of England and elsewhere is much deeper than the same-sex controversy which is 'merely' (though very important) a symptom of that more fundamental disagreement. Anglicans (indeed all those who believe that Christianity is in some sense true and who wish to be called 'Christians') disagree about who God and Christ are, what they are like, what they have said and done, are saying and doing, will say and do, what the greatest need of human beings is and how God has acted and is acting in Christ to meet that need. Among the most important disagreement is the brontosaurus in the room - the doctrine of Original Sin. Complete and painful candour is needed to be honest with each other. There is no way that the various versions of Christianity can be reconciled under some overarching agreement. Compared with this enormous disagreement the survival or not of the Anglican Communion and the survival or not of the Church of England in its present form are relatively (stressed) unimportant.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.