Williams calls for more cohesive, theologically aware communion

Anglican Consultative Council considers recommendations for strengthening bonds
May 4, 2009

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told the representatives of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting here May 5 that he wants the Anglican Communion be "more cohesive and more theologically aware."

During his 40-minute presentation on the recommendations of the Windsor Continuation Group's final report, Williams said that he does not have "complete and absolute confidence that the Anglican Communion in something like the form it had 20 years ago is going to survive this crisis" over authority and differing theological perspectives.

He told those participating in the May 2-12 gathering that there "may or may not be a lasting division" in the communion, "but before we do say goodbye to each other in the communion, we owe it to the Lord of the church to have those conversations and to undertake that effort at listening to one another and taking one another seriously in the Gospel."

In a short question-and-answer session, Bishop Ikechi Nwosu, of the Church of Nigeria's Diocese of Umuahia told Williams that he must set a time limit on the communion's Listening Process, an effort to hear the experience of homosexual persons and also of those who struggle with the full inclusion of such persons in the life of the church. Nwosu said the process is "endless … it's assumed to continue ad infinitum" and that eventually some decisions have to be made.

The archbishop responded by noting that Jesus refused to set "a possible cut-off point" when Peter asked (in Matthew 18:21-22) how many times he must forgive a person who sins against him. "Reconciliation among Christians at the level that matters takes as long as it takes, I'm afraid, which is no joy to me or others in positions of authority, but it does," Williams said.

He added that the "level that matters" may not be the level of church structures.

"The deep business [of] whether or not we separate structurally, whether or not some local divisions intensify, we are still called to what is implied in that exchange between Jesus and Peter," Williams continued. "Even if we were separated by any number of canonical and theological determinations -- even if we flew apart as a communion in chaos and disruption, which God forbid -- sooner or later … we would have to hear the voice of Christ say: there's your brother, there's your sister, there's a long journey for you to go and start reconciliation."

He then recalled the words of fellow Welsh national and poet Waldo Williams who defined forgiveness as "cutting your way through a bank of thorns to stand beside your enemy."

Williams' remarks came as he walked council members through the recommendations of the Windsor Continuation Group, which he had charged 18 months ago with addressing questions arising from the 2004 Windsor Report. That document recommended ways in which the Anglican Communion could maintain unity amid diversity of opinions, especially relating to human sexuality issues and theological interpretations. The continuation group's report calls for the development of a "pastoral council" and supported Williams' plan to appoint "pastoral visitors" to assist in healing and reconciliation within the communion.

The continuation group also addressed the Windsor Report's call for moratoria on same-gender blessings, cross-border interventions and the ordination of gay and lesbian people to the episcopate. At their February meeting, the primates (leaders) of the communion's provinces called for "gracious restraint" with respect to all such actions.

In his presentation, Williams linked the continuation of the Listening Process with the continuation of the moratoria because, he said, "without it we're not going to move forward at all in mutual understanding, without … the moratoria it's very unlikely the Listening Process will go anywhere."

ACC members are spending May 4-6 in open and closed sessions considering both the continuation group's report and a request to ask the member provinces of the communion to sign onto the latest version of the proposed Anglican covenant. One of the open sessions, on May 6, will feature a report by the Rev. Canon Phil Groves on the Listening Process.

An open "decision-making" plenary session on the covenant and the continuation group's work is set for May 8.

Williams said the continuation group's report "suggests at least some provisional ways forward of containing the chaos and division that threatens us, and actually going beyond that chaos and division to something more constructive in the life of the communion."

The group's recommendations which Williams asked the ACC to affirm include:

  • continuing the Listening Process;
  • continuing the three moratoria and asking the Joint Standing Committee (JSC) of the ACC and the primates to find ways to facilitate conversations with provinces "where the application of the moratoria gives rise for concern" and explore the "relational consequences" for violations of the bans;
  • commissioning a review of the council's "effectiveness and confidence in its work" and allowing the primatial members of the JSC to "fully participate" in the ACC meetings;
  • joining in a call for the newly formed Inter-Anglican Standing Commission for Unity, Faith and Order to make a statement about the role and authority of the instruments of communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ACC, the Lambeth Conference of bishops and the Primates Meeting); and
  • asking the member provinces of the communion to sign onto the latest version of the proposed Anglican covenant.

All but the recommendation to continue the Listening Process are included in a draft resolution Williams gave ACC participants. He called the draft resolution "a starting point for discussion." Resolutions about the Listening Process will come before the ACC separately.

Williams also gave the participants three other discussion questions:

  • What kind of relationship is God calling us to as churches of the Anglican Communion and what vision does that call give for the communion?
  • What can the provinces and ACC do to encourage adherence to the moratoria?
  • How can the instruments of communion "enhance their effectiveness?"

The continuation group's report charges Williams with considering:

  • some changes to the scope of his office;
  • the shape and frequency of the meetings of the Lambeth Conference;
  • the idea of pastoral visitors and a pastoral forum to "assist in the clearest discernment of the ways forward in any given situation of tension"; and
  • holding a "mediated conversation" on the call for a parallel Anglican jurisdiction in North America.

Williams said that the report's call for a clear definition of the role, authority and inter-relation of the instruments of communion came because the communion "suffers from a lack of clarity about what kind of fellowship it's meant to be."

"And so long as we have the un-clarity, we shall be unclear about what we really mean by 'church,'" he continued. "The Anglican Communion has never called itself 'a church' in its official documents and yet as a world-wide communion -- not just a federation -- it has claimed for itself and claimed particularly in relation to its ecumenical partners that it is precisely more than just an assembly of local churches that happen to belong to the same bureaucracy. It has tried to behave in a church-like way: recognizing ordained ministry, sharing sacraments, sharing teaching and to a large extent doctrinal formulations and canonical positions."

Williams asked the ACC to consider whether that was the way forward or whether there should be "a system where Anglicanism is a far more dispersed family in which we no longer in any way make that claim that we can act as a unit in the Christian world." He acknowledged that "there's a case to be made for that," adding that he is "not at all persuaded by that case." He said it would mean that local churches which had been "historically Anglican" would exist in "a vague global cluster with no organs for acting together."

"We're not quite sure what sort of church we believe in for ourselves," Williams said. "It's not as though if we did nothing, something would just go on. We need to make some choices and those choices are basically … more or less communion, integrity and cohesiveness."

At one point during his presentation, Williams raised a few eyebrows when, in talking about the primates’ meeting, he said that the group is not "simply a committee of -- let's be charitable and say -- 'middle-aged clergymen' who happen to meet in parts of the world from time to time." Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Episcopal Church's primate and the only woman in the group.

The Anglican Communion is made up of about 77 million members in 44 regional and national churches around the globe in 164 countries.

The ACC is the Anglican Communion's most representative decision-making body and includes bishops, clergy and laity. While it has no jurisdiction over the provinces of the communion, it makes policy, approves the Anglican Communion Office's budget and encourages the communion's members to engage together in mission and ministry.

More information about plans for the meeting is available here.

Video clips from the meeting can be found here.