Five days busily working behind closed doors. No information could be leaked. No official document was released during the meeting, signalling a focused debate to restore lost unity. Finally, the danger of an irreparable schism was avoided, and the primates of 38 Anglican Provinces took an important decision: the “suspension” of the USA Episcopal Church (TEC) – the United States-based member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion – from Anglican committees and decision-making processes for three years. In 2003 TEC ordained its first openly gay bishop Gene Robison.
Following that decision several Anglican Churches, especially in Asia and Africa, have interrupted their relations with the Episcopal Church. Since then, the Anglican Communion has been divided.
Divisions between the area of so-called liberals, who have continued following the path of “modernity” with the ordination of openly gay men and women, and the more conservative wing that in 2008 went so far as to boycott the Lambeth Conference, the most important assembly of Anglican primates, owing to the presence of the Episcopal Church.
In recent years Rowan Williams and the current archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby have been assiduously committed to preserving as much as possible the unity of the different Provinces of the Communion. This has been a very difficult undertaking, marked by reiterated possibilities of a schism. And it was precisely to avoid a definitive rift that Archbishop Welby summoned the meeting in Canterbury. It was the last card he had left to play. All the primates of Anglican Provinces responded to the Archbishop’s invitation. From Canada to the United States to Nigeria. For five days they held closed-door talks in the premises of Canterbury’s Cathedral.
Reportedly, the atmosphere was initially “charged”, then “depressed” and finally, “exhausted”.
The final statement was released the evening of Thursday January 14, prior to the press conference of Friday 15th– Parts of the document had been leaked, thus the primates decided to publish the full text to avoid “speculations”.“The agreement –is written in the text – acknowledges the significant distance that remains” between the various Provinces, “but confirms [our] unanimous commitment to walk together” and to “continue the life of the Communion with neither victor nor vanquished.”
In realty, there has been a looser at the Canterbury meeting, which is the Episcopal Church of the United States. To this regard, the final statement is clear: “Recent developments in the Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage”.
The primates reiterated that in view of the teaching of Scripture
The Church “upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union”.
They add: to autonomously break away from this teaching is considered by “many of us” “as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence” which exists within the Anglican Communion”.“These actions – the Primates reiterated – further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us”.
It was thus decided to suspend the Episcopal Church for a three-year period.
In concrete terms, this means that the Episcopal Church can no longer represent the Anglican Communion in ecumenical and interreligious bodies; that TEC members can no longer be elected or appointed to internal standing committees, or take part in decisions relating to doctrine or polity of the Anglican Communion. The latter decision is especially significant ahead of the Lambeth Conference scheduled to take place in 2018. Finally, it was decided to set up a Task Group with the intention of restoring relationship, rebuilding mutual trust among the Churches.
In a dedicated statement, GAFCON, the primary world group of Anglican Conservatives, declared:
this action towards the Episcopal Church must not be seen as an end, but as a beginning”.
Conservative Churches have conveyed their concerns over the developments within the Canadian Church that in recent years has approved the blessings of same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay pastors.
“We fear that other Provinces could do the same”.
In the release GAFCON underlined “ever increasing numbers of people” supporting the movement. They concluded: “We are encouraged in our conviction that God has called us to work for an Anglican Communion which is a truly global family of Churches”.