Friday 29 January 2016

To the Laos - To the People of God: Tensions in the Communion?

Dear People of God 
Addressing a news conference in Canterbury.

Welcome to 2016! My focus in this letter is on the meeting of Primates from across the Anglican Communion which we held in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral this month, and on the communiqué we issued afterwards, dealing with a number of issues but attracting most attention because of the differences among us over our teaching on matters of human sexuality.

    Context is always important in comprehending text. The communiqué was penned after a rhythm of morning and evening offices coupled to daily Mass and the sharing of meals together. We were constantly reminded of where we were by the intermittent chiming of the cathedral bells. All of this was accompanied by the robust reflections we exchanged in plenary meetings and in small groups.
    There was consensus in the meeting that the resolution on Human Sexuality which was adopted at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 is not contested—especially that part of it which requires that we minister pastorally and sensitively to all people, irrespective of sexual orientation. (You can read the full text of the resolution on the Anglican Communion’s website.) Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people are God’s people, present in all Anglican Provinces across the world, and we are to be just and caring towards all. I shared with my fellow Primates that we have numbers of LGBT people in the Province of Southern Africa and that although different countries in the Province have different laws, in South Africa there is legal provision for same-sex civil unions.
    On the issue of human sexuality, the questions at hand in Canterbury were these: When the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in the United States last year authorised new rites allowing same-sex marriages in church, did it do so ignoring the Communion-wide moratorium on the issue and in breach of Catholic unity? If it did, what consequences if any should there be for The Episcopal Church? Our answer was that the church had decided to walk alone and our recommendation was that there must be consequences for doing this. These are outlined in the communiqué. Our recommendation was made to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who will act with the Anglican Consultative Council, a Communion-wide body representing lay people, priests and bishops from every Province in the Communion, and with the next Lambeth Conference.
    No written text and no individual can convey fully the meaning and feelings involved in the proceedings of our meeting or its culmination. We were deeply conscious of our need for sufficient grace from God as we decided on the recommendations. In our own Church, when I conclude a synod and promulgate its Acts, I am always torn by the prayer which implores that “no harm should befall God’s church because of our decisions.” In that spirit, and in the presence of the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church—who shared with us his pain for the Church and his love for Catholic unity—we offered to God the consequences of how we chose to order our common life.
    Of course, each of you will have different views and feelings, different conclusions based on what we discussed or should have discussed. At this stage I don’t wish to comment on these, save to reflect on the tensions that I think are at stake here. After the meeting I drove to Heathrow Airport with the primates from Scotland, the Middle East and Horn of Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and Australia. We shared diverse views, during which more tensions came into play, and I wish briefly to share these:

•    Unity and diversity: Our recommendation on The Episcopal Church appears to have “punished” diversity at the expense of ensuring unity at all costs. It would seem that for the sake of holding onto unity, we were content with playing a zero sum game. What are your views on the degree to which sacred law and doctrinal statements can be altered? Who should alter these and how should we go about doing this? Are doctrinal formulations to be agreed upon once and for all, or may Jesus the Holy Spirit reveal new truths and formulations? If we accept that there are such revelations, how are we to decide to receive—or not to receive—them in such a way that the unity of the church catholic is not compromised. Is this a matter for the Anglican family only, or do we need to consider the whole church catholic? Immediately after the meeting, I came home to meet with fellow South African church leaders in an ecumenical think tank. There I was struck by the fact that all the churches, including the Zionists, are wrestling with the challenge of same-sex civil unions, and we are all trying to work it out separately, operating in silos and in fear. Although one South African church has moved ahead to accept same-sex marriages and another took the matter to the secular courts, we agreed at least in the ecumenical Southern African context to walk together, and to hear the experiences of LGBT people as we seek clearer revelations on doctrinal matters.

•    Interdependence and autonomy: The Anglican Communion is made up of 38 unique, interdependent bodies, viewing itself as being bound together by unwritten, invincible bonds. We cherish our polity, in which we hold in tension both our autonomy as Provinces and our interdependence. How do the Primates’ recommendations respect this polity? Since our polity also allows individual Dioceses within Provinces considerable autonomy, the Primates’ recommendations have far-reaching implications for the limits, or lack thereof, that a Province can impose on a Diocese. There is no single Communion canon law; rather our communion-wide canon law is the sum of the canon law of the individual Provinces and the exercise of “jurisprudence” on the basis of mission realities. Do our recommendations imply a move in the Communion towards centralisation of authority, and therefore towards imperialism or the kind of autocratic leadership we see in the secular sphere in some of our countries? Within our own Province, these questions arise all the time in litigation over the implementation of our disciplinary canons, resulting in the formation of a standing committee called the Canon Law Council to advise us on them. As the Church in Southern Africa, we have canons which spell out consequences and disciplinary action for infringements relating to doctrinal and moral matters. We don’t have those at a Communion level. The question our communiqué seeks to address with respect to The Episcopal Church is whether the extension of such provisions to the Communion is desirable.

•    Individuals and the Communion: In trying to balance the tension between concern for the lives of individual Christians and the interests of the Communion, my sense is that we as Primates elevated issues of doctrine, rules and polity above those of love and of respect for the uniqueness of individuals within the body of Christ. Why did we do that? What should we have done? What are our limits as a collective in such matters? When can we err together for the sake of our traditions? When can we trust God the Holy Spirit to take charge and not control everything, including doctrinal matters? Might the Pauline understanding of rules, the law and the Body direct us as we further reflect on future consequences and doctrinal matters, especially in the area of human sexuality? No one has triumphed from the outcome of our meeting in Canterbury; we finished our meeting limping together towards God in Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, needing to have our feet washed and to wash our neighbours’ feet. The issues around human sexuality have been with us and will remain with us for a long time; there is no cut-and-dried solution and we should not try to advance a technical solution. People on both sides of the matter are pained, and we must journey together, deciding on a path which will order our journey.

    I have received calls and written messages from LGBT clergy and laity, pained by our indecision. I have received notes from others who differed from them. All have humbled me as they have assured me of their prayers for this journey. I have received requests from the media to comment on the matter but have felt constrained in doing so—I don’t comment well whilst in desolation.
    The rhythm of the Primates’ meeting, the ecumenical think tank at home, and the funeral service I attended upon my return, for 20-year-old Njabulo Mathebula, who took his life last week, reminds me of the fragility of life and how we are all carried by grace as we wrestle with the question: what is the goal of life in Jesus Christ in the here and now? The Synod of Bishops, which meets in February, and Provincial Synod, which meets in September, will guide us on these matters, and on other missional issues that the Primates meeting discussed: climate justice, extremism and the sustainable development goals. I look forward to your responses and reflections on our draft ACSA pastoral guidelines.

    God bless you, 

    †Thabo Cape Town

LATE UPDATE: In the Diocese of Niassa, in northern Mozambique, the Elective Assembly for a new bishop has, after 21 ballots over three days of voting, delegated the choice of a bishop to the Synod of Bishops in terms of Canon 4(12)(i).

The Niassa Elective Assembly.


  1. Thank you Archbishop Thabo, Leonardo Ricardo/Central America

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection. How do we balance the issues of walking the line between guarding against what some regard as heresy, and the worse evil of schism? Jesus spoke of unity more than he spoke of doctrine, yet we need to know the difference between Church and "not church," and between "Anglican" and "not Anglican." I continue praying for our worldwide leadership and for the lov and unity that Christ prayed for among all who follow in his Way.

  3. Thank you Archbishop Thabo for your care, wisdom and love expressed here. I thank God for our friendship and brotherhood in Jesus Christ. Faithfully, Ian T. Douglas (Bishop of Connecticut)

  4. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church has stood before the primates with great vulnerability and you also are expressing your uncertainties. Most of the primates have used the language of certainty about what is right and wrong. The wholehearted are always vulnerable and often uncertain. Now these three things remain, faith, love and hope. The greatest of all is love. Ultimately love will triumph.....the long walk to freedom.

  5. Not good news but news ... Strength and prayers as we move forward into 2016. God Bless.


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