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Advent to Lambeth

A Response to the Archbishop of Canterbury‘s Advent Letter

Accepting his invitation to the Lambeth Conference, says the Archbishop in his Advent Letter, must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference’s agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a Covenant.

The language is so cautious that one does not really know what, in the end, it means. What is a “willingness to work with” certain agenda items? Would it include a willingness to consider those items, but with a view to substantially prolonging the discussion of them? If not, it is not clear that the Canadian bishops can, in good faith, accept their Lambeth invitations. The current position of our Church has been stated quite unambiguously by the Council of General Synod, namely that the development of a Covenant must be a process undertaken with the utmost careful deliberation and consultation, and that the timetable that has been proposed is very much too short:

…the timeframe proposed is impossibly short for us to engage in the adequate process of discernment and affirmation that our polity requires. The Covenant is an extremely important proposal, with longterm implications for all Anglicans, and we will need to take more time to prepare a response that truly speaks for the Anglican Church of Canada.

And this need for time and care in the development of a covenant was recognized by the Windsor Report itself, when it saw the covenant as being developed through a

long-term process, in an educative context, … considered for real debate and agreement on its adoption as a solemn witness to communion. (¶118)

To our minds this passage of the Windsor Report is not recommending a ten-month process; it is recommending something much more like a ten-year process.

Our present disagreements are deep; they are the result of not listening to one another for many decades. The most shocking allegation of the Windsor Report was that the Church in North America had sprung to its honoring of homosexual partnerships without having done the theological work to back it up. But this work has been a central engagement of Anglican theology in North America for three if not four decades. The thing is that the rest of the church did not read that work; we did our theology but no one else bothered to read it. Only in this way can the surprise of the rest of the Communion at Gene Robinson’s consecration be explained; to us, at the time, it seemed a perfectly natural development. That is why our disagreements can only be resolved “in an educative context” – there are four decades of education to catch up on, and that cannot be accomplished in ten months.

We understand the urge to hurry this matter up. For one thing, persons of good will are enormously anxious to put this divisive row behind us and to get on with the work of the Church. For another, those who are anxious to break up the Communion must have certain anxieties about how long the process can be bankrolled. The motives for hurry are strong, on both sides. But hurry is precisely what might do us in.

As the Archbishop points out in the Advent letter;

“The debates about sexuality, significant as they may be, are symptoms of our confusion about these basic principles of recognition. It is too easy to make the debate a standoff between those who are ‘for’ and those who are ‘against’ the welcoming of homosexual people in the Church. “

Given this understanding, a rush to solution of what he calls the “current crisis” without a full discussion about how that solution will address other issues in the life of the Communion could cause far deeper and longer lasting issues from which we might not be able to extricate ourselves. We have already seen in Canada those who make the ‘claim to orthodoxy’ speak of possibly re-visiting the role of women in the ordained ministry and the official forms of liturgy in use by the church. Lambeth must develop a solution to the ‘current crisis’ in such a way that the outcome of other issues in the life of the church are not pre-determined.

The Covenant will be, as it is currently conceived, at base, an instrument of exclusion. The Archbishop’s letter insists that “our identity as Anglicans is not something without boundaries”. The Covenant is understood as a device for setting those boundaries. And of course it is clear that what is on everyone’s mind is whether liberalism about homosexual partnerships is inside or outside those boundaries. But what else, that is not yet on the horizon, will be outside those boundaries? There are those who want to devise a Covenant that all the provinces can sign; there are those who want to devise a Covenant that some provinces cannot sign. In these conditions it really does seem that rushing to devise a Covenant is misguided. The Covenant, if one is needed at all, should emerge from a long period of education, education in one another’s theology. We need to become acquaintances, maybe even friends, once again, before we try to say what it is that binds us.

We need to learn to think in centuries, or at least in decades. As things stand we are thinking in months; we risk being bedevilled by hurry. The Archbishop thought of his Advent Letter as being about advent to Lambeth; let it be so, but let it be advent to Lambeth 2018.

John Thorp
Rae Fletcher +

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