Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has invited the top bishops (primates) of the Anglican Communion to a January gathering intended to head off potential schism in the third largest branch of global Christianity.
The agenda of the gathering, which will be held January 11-16, “will be set by common agreement with all Primates encouraged to send in contributions,” according to the announcement today from Lambeth Palace.
“It is likely to include the issues of religiously-motivated violence, the protection of children and vulnerable adults, the environment and human sexuality,” the statement reads.
While no group is openly discussing separating from the Anglican Communion, several Anglican provinces (national churches) have ceased relations with one another, effectively “living in the same house” but no longer on speaking terms. The Anglican Communion Primates officially last met in a 2011 meeting in Dublin, Ireland, but an overwhelming majority has not convened together since at least 2005 when 35 of the 38 primates attended. Tensions in the Anglican family have been growing since the mid-1990s centered upon disagreement on scriptural authority and the person of Jesus Christ. A crisis point was reached in 2003 with the consecration of an openly partnered homosexual bishop by the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. In 2008, over 200 bishops, mostly from growing and traditionalist Global South churches, effectively boycotted the decennial Lambeth conference that brings together bishops from the Communion of churches descended from the missionary activities of the Church of England.
The Global South bishops instead convened an alternative gathering to the Lambeth Conference known as the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). It first met in 2008 in Jerusalem and again in 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Among the areas of disagreement has been the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) a parallel North American jurisdiction that overlaps the geographic footprint of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. ACNA is not formally a part of the structures of the worldwide Communion, but is recognized by several of the larger overseas Anglican provinces which represent the majority of Anglican Christians worldwide.
In what will be seen as a controversial move, Welby has extended an invitation to ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach to be present for part of the summit. The invitation is a seeming acknowledgement of the central role ACNA has held in inter-communion disputes, and Beach is the only other official listed alongside the 38 primates in the Lambeth Palace announcement.
“Archbishop Beach has been invited to attend the gathering, and will go as long as the other GAFCON Primates go,” Andrew Gross, ACNA’s Canon for Communications and Media Relations, told the IRD. “It is anticipated that they will be going.”
In a statement also released Wednesday, Anglican Communion Secretary General Josiah Idowu-Fearon affirmed Welby’s invitation to Beach.
“This is an opportunity to listen to useful ideas from this group on how we continue as a Communion in light of the search and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit,” Idowu-Fearon wrote.
“We have received the information about the Primates Meeting and Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry, having been installed as Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church on November 1, 2015, plans to attend,” Neva Rae Fox, Public Affairs Officer for the Episcopal Church, told the IRD.
Announcing his plan, the Welby wrote: “I have suggested to all Primates that we need to consider recent developments but also look afresh at our ways of working as a Communion and especially as Primates, paying proper attention to developments in the past.”
“The difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians: when the command of scripture, the prayer of Jesus, the tradition of the church and our theological understanding urges unity,” Welby continued. “A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism, so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ, together.
“We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted. In that light I long for us to meet together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to seek to find a way of enabling ourselves to set a course which permits us to focus on serving and loving each other, and above all on the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
UPDATE: The GAFCON office has released a media statement “that the GAFCON Primates will prayerfully consider their response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter. They recognize that the crisis in the Communion is not primarily a problem of relationships and cultural context, but of false teaching which continues without repentance or discipline.” Read the rest here.