What is the Primates Meeting?
The “Primates Meeting” is a gathering of the most senior bishop by rank of each of the autonomous churches in the Anglican Communion. (Primus is latin for “first.”) Titles and jobs for senior bishops are not uniform in the Anglican churches. Many of the most senior bishops are called “Archbishops” like the Archbishop of Canterbury, but not all Archbishops are primates. (Some churches have more than one archbishop, only the highest ranking bishop is a primate). Some primates are called “Presiding Bishop” and the Primate of the Episcopal Church of Scotland is called simply “Primus.” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is representing The Episcopal Church at the meeting. He is the primate, or highest ranked, bishop in our church. The chair of the meeting is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is regarded as first among equals.
The gatherings began in 1978 at the invitation of Archbishop Donald Coggan (101st Archbishop of Canterbury) as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” They did not begin with, nor have they ever been given, any sort of legal or canonical authority. They were created to be a bit of a retreat and a place for bishops with a great deal of responsibility to share life and experience. In recent years they began issuing “Communiques” and weighing in on issues, often very divisively. Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, those statements have no canonical standing (Canons are Church laws).
What the Primates Meeting did not do:
The Primates meeting did not suspend The Episcopal Church. The Primates Meeting did not initiate a schism. The meeting did not break the Anglican Communion. The Primates do not have the authority to take any such action. Some primates might choose to leave the meeting. A primate could say something negative about another primate or another church, and an individual member church might take actions to end its links with the Anglican Communion (The Anglican Church of Uganda did something like this recently). But the primates do not have the authority to vote another church out of the Communion. There was an attempt to create a body with that kind of authority in the “Anglican Covenant” proposed under the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. The Covenant was adopted by some churches but has been a dead conversation ever since the Church of England, mother church of the Communion, voted against adoption. The primates do not have now, and have never held the authority to suspend, discipline, or expel a member church. They also do not have the authority to tell any other body in the Anglican Communion what to do.
What the Primates Meeting did:
The primates voted overwhelmingly to adopt a statement which stresses their “unanimous desire to walk together.” They also asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to form a “Task Group” to maintain the conversation and keep working. This is all good news. The bishops want to keep working together. Archbishop Welby put a lot of work into keeping the primates together at this meeting, and it seems to have paid off. In the United States, this statement is being misleadingly reported as the “suspension of The Episcopal Church” from Anglican Communion. In the UK the statement is being reported as bringing the Communion “back from the brink.” Just days ago many in the media were predicting the end of the Communion. It turns out the international governance of a loose federation of Churches is a bit difficult to understand.
The primates didn’t help with their choice of language. Frustratingly the group of bishops chose the word “require” to state their position that the The Episcopal Church should not represent the Anglican Communion on Interfaith and Ecumenical bodies, nor be elected to internal Standing Committees. They also asked Episcopalians on international Anglican bodies not to “not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.” The use of “require” is frustrating because it makes it sound like they have the power to enforce this position. The primates mostly do not have such power.
There are exactly two “internal Standing Committees” in the Anglican Communion’s “Instruments of Unity.” One is the Standing Committee of the Primates meeting. The primates do vote for the members of that committee. We can be assured they won’t ask Presiding Bishop Curry to serve. The other Standing Committee belongs to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the broadest Inter-Anglican body, which includes representatives elected by each member church, lay and ordained people. The ACC elects their own Standing Committee and also appoints many of the members of the “Interfaith and Ecumenical” bodies the primates seem to be worried about. The ACC would have to voluntarily agree to the primates’ demand.
A word about “de-facto” and “de-jure” and Anglicanism
In the Anglican Communion, there is a big distinction between “de-jure” (by law) and “de-facto” (by fact) relationship. Legally we are very loosely related to one another. There is no international court in the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not have the power of the pope, and the primates are not a curia. The primates do not have the power to enforce their will de-jure, but it is likely that for the next three years the bodies and officers that do make such appointments and elections will voluntarily pause appointing new representatives from The Episcopal Church de-facto.
This means that the most practical consequence will be for a very small number of Episcopalians, less than a dozen people, who have served in these capacities. Most of them are professional theologians, and they give up a great deal of time and sometimes spend considerable money to voluntarily serve on these commissions. I also will feel bad for the Communion if this comes to pass. My New Testament professor The Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb is one of the best minds in the Communion on Scripture, Canon Law, and living with difference. Ian Douglas, the bishop of Connecticut has offered brilliant thought on basing our common life on prayer and mission. Not having these voices at the table for three years will impoverish the conversation. I am not sure whether it will come to that.
Where do we stand today?
If the Anglican Communion had to list its relationship status on Facebook, we would say “it’s complicated.” That has always been true. Today was a sign of that complexity. The Episcopal Church today heard from senior bishops around the world that our decision to marry people of the same-gender makes us distinct, and makes many of our sisters and brothers uncomfortable. We knew that already.
Our Presiding Bishop also told his brother bishops something profound about our church:
“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”
The Episcopal Church will not being going backwards on the issue of marriage equality. It was clear this summer in Salt Lake City at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, the highest canonical authority in our autonomous church. I can assure you that my parish in Missouri, The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, will continue to honor the love of God between people of the same gender. The primates statement can’t change that, and I’m proud of our presiding bishop’s words.
A final world about “de-facto” and “de-jure” Communion.
Longtime Anglicans have been watching the international news cycles about Anglican schism with a sense of deja vu. We’ve been here before. The primates have made big statements. The media have made a big splash, and very little comes of the statement in the long run. The reality of the Anglican Communion is so much bigger and deeper than our Instruments of Unity and international statements might lead us to believe.
After another contentious primates meeting in 2003, just before the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay partnered bishop. Then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke about the nature of Communion:
A word about Communion: people have talked about being in or out of Communion within our Church. The fact is, of course, as came out very clearly in our discussions, that Communion means a great many things, and means more than simply a set of structures, a regular pattern of meetings between Primates or any other official leaders.
Communion means the Mother’s Union group from Lancashire going to visit Burundi, it mean the youth workers in the West Indies going to spend five years in the United States, and all manner of things like that. It means the existing close relationships between provinces as, for a long time, between Australia and Papua New Guinea whereby the life and the resource of different bits of the Communion is shared. So the degree to which we are in or out of Communion, as between local churches, is never that easy to determine.
As Anglicans, we are working together across the globe to study the Bible, to combat HIV/AIDs, to improve education and the health of communities. We are planting churches and building hospitals. We cross oceans to pray with one another. We learn songs in other languages and praise God. Together we get a fuller glimpse of what God is up to around our world. In that sense, no matter what our primates write, we are always learning to walk together. On paper, it may look like the Communion is made up by a series of agreements about meeting together. In fact, we are tied together by common prayer. You can huff and you can puff, but you’re going to have a really hard time blowing that house down. We are in deeper communion than any single meeting could ever undo.