Staging encases the towers of Canterbury Cathedral as part of a five-year restoration project. Photo courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral

‘Rebuild My Church’: A Reflection by Archbishop Fred Hiltz on Primates’ Meeting 2017

Upon arriving in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, United Kingdom for the Meeting of the Primates from October 2 to 6, 2017, I was immediately struck by the massive amount of staging encasing the towers on opposite sides of The Great West Door and extending over the entire length of the Nave Roof.  The Cathedral is in the midst of a five-year £60 million restoration. Known as Cathedral Journey, it will also include the repair and restoration of the ancient Christ Church Gate and the refurbishing of several buildings on the streetscape to become a Welcome Center.  All around the grounds are a series of wonderful panels telling the story of the Cathedral’s history and treasures, ministries and music, martyrs and pilgrims.

The seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury since 597 AD, this great Cathedral is the mother church of our beloved worldwide Anglican Communion.  At the very heart of its daily life are the rhythm of Morning Prayer and Evensong in the Quire and a celebration of the Eucharist in the Crypt.

It never ceases to amaze me how the Lectionary speaks a word into our day.  The Old Testament Readings for Morning Prayer last week chronicled the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, its dedication, and Solomon’s prayer that the eyes of the Lord be always open to this place and his ears to the prayers of the people. (2 Chronicles)  At one of the morning Eucharist’s we heard the story of the disciples commenting on the massiveness of the Temple – “what large stones and what large buildings”; and then Jesus’ word concerning its destruction. “Not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down”. (Mark 13)  They knew nothing of the nature of the Temple he himself would raise up through his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

As we kept the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4), the presider called to our minds how as Francis was kneeling before a crucifix in the Chapel of San Damiano, he heard the Lord speak to him saying, “Go and rebuild my Church”.  The work to which Francis was being called was a spiritual renewal of the Church, a re-building “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2: 20-21).

As I did my early morning walks around the Cathedral and throughout its ancient cloister, I thought time and again of Paul’s teaching. I thought too of Peter’s counsel.

Come to him that living stone, rejected by mortals but chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, be built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, making offerings acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2: 4-5)

While this text has always reminded me of the several dimensions of our calling in the Lord, it resonated with me in a very powerful way in this meeting of the Primates.

The first dimension is deeply personal.

“Come to him, that living stone…”

Peter’s call that we come to Christ would be echoed time and again throughout the history of the Church. Centuries later, Augustine of Hippo wrote, “My soul is like a house small for you to enter, O Lord, but I pray you to enter it.  It is in ruins but I ask you to re-make it.”

As Francis heard the call to rebuild the Church, he knew that unless he himself was re-made, he would not be able to take on such a venture. Likewise the Primates confessed that, if we are to offer spirited leadership in the Church, we must be renewed in our own personal relationship with Christ.

Accordingly we welcomed a conversation about evangelism.  We were glad to hear of the call for a Season of Intentional Discipleship across the Communion (2016-2025).  And we readily accepted the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury to join him in praying between The Day of The Ascension and The Day of Pentecost (May 10-20, 2018) that “many more people come to know Jesus Christ”. Known as “Thy Kingdom Come”, this initiative though Anglican in origin and now ecumenical in appeal, has reached thousands of people in the United Kingdom and in some eighty-five other countries around the world.  Many, many people have come to faith for the first time in their lives, many others have matured in their faith, and many more have renewed their commitment to follow the way of Jesus, recognizing that it touches every aspect of their living.

As the first dimension of our calling in the Lord is deeply personal, the second is a strong reminder that to be called into a relationship with Christ is to be called into community.

“And like living stones, be yourselves built up into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.”

Here Peter gives us a vision of our life together in Christ as local Churches, and as Sister Churches in our worldwide Communion.  His vision calls us to recognize the many different contexts – religious, political, economic, social and cultural – in which the Churches find themselves.  It calls us to acknowledge the diversity of theological perspective within and among our Churches.  It calls us even in the midst of deep differences of conviction over any number of matters, to remain in communion with one another.

In this meeting we heard from the Primus of The Scottish Episcopal Church with respect to amendments to its Marriage Canon making provision for same sex marriage.  The following are excerpts from the Canon as amended:

“In the light of the fact that there are different understandings of the nature of marriage in this Church, no cleric of the Church shall be obliged to conduct any marriage against their conscience. …No cleric shall solemnize a marriage between persons of the same sex unless said cleric shall have been nominated on behalf of the Church to the Registrar General for Scotland.”

Having heard from the Primus, there was then a re-visiting of “the consequences” for The Episcopal Church having amended its Canon in 2015, that is, that for a period of three years members of The Episcopal Church “would no longer represent the Communion in ecumenical and inter-faith bodies; should not be appointed or elected to internal standing committees and that, while participating in the internal bodies of The Anglican Communion, they would not take part in decision making on any matters of doctrine or polity”.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was convinced that the Scottish Episcopal Church now live with the same consequences, as were the majority of Primates.

With respect to these “relational consequences” many are already wondering what happens as we approach the end of those three-year periods.  What then?

A few of the Primates, including me, continue to struggle with these kinds of consequences.  I sometimes wonder if The Meeting of the Primates has in fact moved definitively beyond what Archbishop Donald Coggan intended it to be – a gathering for “leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation”; an occasion for the Primates to act “as channels through which the voice of the member churches are heard, and real interchange of heart can take place” (Lambeth Conference 1978).

Has the meeting already seized “the enhanced authority” called for by some throughout the Communion, and are we in fact already acting on it?  Does such action as we have taken regarding “relational consequences” reflect what was envisioned as the role of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion in dispute resolution as outlined in Section IV of the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, the one section that has been most problematic for the majority of the Churches of the Communion in their consideration of the Covenant?

Notwithstanding these questions, I want to say unequivocally that conversations in this meeting of the Primates were characterized by a measure of respect and grace that was most encouraging.

We reaffirmed our commitment to remaining in communion, one with another.

We reaffirmed our concerns over the intent and impact of cross border interventions and vowed to honour the principles that forbid them dating back to The Council of Nicaea and reiterated time and again throughout history.

We rallied around “courtesy” and “collaboration” as principles in walking together even in the midst of tensions within the Communion.

The Primates heard a progress report from the Task Group appointed at the request of our last meeting in 2016.  Its mandate was to help us find ways to “maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationships, the re-building of trust, the healing of the legacy of hurt, recognizing the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ”.  In the spirit of that mandate, the Task Group has recommended a Season of Repentance and Renewal leading into Lambeth 2020.  That call was heartily embraced by all the Primates present.

We readily took up a suggestion that next year there be meetings of the Primates in each of the regions of the Communion – Africa; Southeast Asia and Oceania; Europe; Middle East and West Asia; Central, North, South Americas and the Caribbean.  These meetings are intended to strengthen our ties with one another, and our commitments to mutual support and encouragement in the exercise of primacy.  They will be an occasion to speak about mission across our Regions and to take counsel together in helping to shape the Lambeth Conference in 2020.  I am pleased to announce that I will host the meeting for the Americas in November 2018.

This second dimension of our calling in the Lord is all about our relationships, one with another.  In so far as they reflect the companionship of which Jesus speaks, the partnership of which Paul speaks and the communion of which Peter speaks, we will be graced and more able in responding to the third dimension of our calling in the Lord.

“Making offerings acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

The Primates were generally delighted that the agenda for our meeting was shaped by our commitment to the Marks of Mission.  As our focus on Intentional Discipleship was grounded in Marks of Mission 1 and 2, so our conversations concerning the most pressing issues facing the entire human family and our common home, were grounded in Marks of Mission 3, 4, and 5.

We came to realise that Food Security is a major concern in the majority of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion.  The major factors are long-term drought, natural disasters, and corrupt regimes that starve their own people.  The poor are always at highest risk with respect to security in feeding their children.

The Anglican Alliance is doing very good work in addressing this crisis.  As a member of that Alliance, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) continues to do outstanding work by way of education and advocacy for the full realization of the internationally accepted definition of food security.  It is “the state in which all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for a healthy and active life.” (Adopted by The World Food Summit, 1996)

We were overwhelmed by the statistics associated with the global refugee crisis.  They are staggering. Sixty five million people displaced by conflict in their homelands, and 20 million by natural disasters. In the midst of much despair the Churches of our Communion are caring for those in camps making provision for the most basic of human needs.  Many are receiving refugees through Sponsorship Agreements with national governments.  They are accompanying them as they settle into a life free of the oppression they have fled. Canada is recognized as one of the most welcoming of nations and I am proud to note our own Church’s commitment to this Matthew 25 ministry.

We were confronted by the plight of millions of migrant workers throughout the world.  In recent days there has been front page coverage in a couple of our own national newspapers about the ugly truth that many migrant workers enter Canada with a work permit restricted to one employer only.  Sadly some of those employers exploit their employees, some to the point of slavery in the service of the drive for profit and gain.

We were reminded of the Church’s role in speaking up for those whose dignity and rights are violated.  Our obligation to do so is grounded in that great text from Isaiah that speaks of freedom for the captive and liberty for the oppressed (Chapter 61), the very text Jesus took as a mantra for his ministry.

We were horrified by the reports concerning the trafficking of girls and women (and boys and men too) for the world’s $32 billion sex trade.  Lured into promises of opportunity and prosperity, those who are trafficked become enslaved in nothing less than a living hell.  Their handlers and users see them as commodities to be bought and sold time and again.

It is a well documented fact that the average annual profit of a woman trafficked for sex is $280,000.  No country is exempt from this crime against humanity.  Some are known as source countries, some as transfer and some destination.  Some are all three.  Canada is one of them.   In all countries women and girls who are poor are at highest risk of being trafficked.  In Canada it is Indigenous girls.

We were encouraged by the resolved of our Communion to rid the world of this evil.  Incredible work is being done through the Anglican Family Network, the International Anglican Women’s Network and the Mother’s Union. I am pleased to see that our own Church has taken strong initiative to educate and equip us to shine a light into this deep darkness in which so many are enslaved.  In this work we are partnering with others, namely the Canadian Centre for Ending Human Trafficking, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Canadian Council of Churches, KAIROS, and the afore mentioned agencies of the Anglican Communion.

This work is grounded in our baptismal vow to respect and protect the dignity of every human being.  That vow compels us to work relentlessly in eradicating this crime against humanity.

One of the most moving of presentations at our meeting was an accounting of the number of the Churches in the Communion engaged in the work of reconciliation in the midst of civil war and schemes for systematic ethnic cleansing.  We pledged solidarity in fervent prayer for those engaged in this sacrificial and all so often life-costing ministry.

From a Canadian perspective, I raised the plight of Indigenous Peoples, subject as they have been for centuries, to government policies of forced assimilation associated with colonial expansion and empire building.  I reported that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) grounded its Report and 94 Calls to Action in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  I encouraged all the Primates to lead their Churches in following through on a call from ACC-14 to encourage all the Churches of the Communion to press the governments in their lands to endorse that Declaration.

We were humbled by the truth that throughout the world it is women who in large measure are on the frontlines of Ministries of Reconciliation. We were reminded of their critical role in spotting rising tensions, striving to de-escalate conflict, and caring for those suffering through its aftermath.  With great courage they carry the Song of Mary in their hearts, singing it not only in word, but also in deed.  And if we have ears to hear, we will all be drawn into that magnificent chorus that “casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly”(Luke 1:52).

As in meetings of the Primates in the last ten years, so in this one there was considerable attention to Climate Change and its impact from a melting Ice Cap in the North to rising sea levels in the South.  We discussed The Paris Accord and the extent to which the signatories are absolutely committed.  With regret we noted the regressive steps of the current administration in the United States of America.

With delight we noted the emergence of Justice Camps focussed on Climate Change.  With a renewed diligence we committed our Churches to the 5th Mark of Mission rooted in the sacredness of creation and the marvellous array of ecological balances with which it came into being.  Accordingly we welcomed the announcement of a “Letters for Creation project” for Creationtide in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

In so far as the Primates wrestled with all these pressing issues, we recognized people of other faith traditions also share the gravest of our concerns.  We marked the launch of the Anglican Interfaith Network and pledged to encourage interfaith dialogue and collaboration in our respective contexts.

All these concerns for the human family and our common home are very much in keeping with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s renowned public commitment to ensuring “that in international for a the Anglican voice is heard”.


I pray this reflection offers you in some measure a sense of the very spirit, reach and hope of this meeting of the Primates and Moderators of the Churches of our beloved Communion.   From our morning in quiet in the Crypt to the final Eucharist there was a momentum, not of our making, but of the Lord’s.  He was drawing us closer to Him, closer to one another, and closer to the world.

All of us were so heartened to hear that the theme for the Lambeth Conference 2020 is “God’s Church for God’s World”.  This conference is being planned mindful of the centenary of the great Lambeth Conference of 1920.  It was a time in which the world had come through much turmoil.  That conference set out numerous initiatives for the healing of the world.  Archbishop Welby has already declared his hope that the Lambeth Conference 2020 “be a strategic meeting, setting the direction of the Anglican Communion for the coming century.”

In closing may I take you back to that sight of the towers of the west end of Canterbury Cathedral encased in staging, for restoration and renewal.  Within that maze of pipe and plastic, the stonemasons go about their work, for the most part unseen.  Their labour requires skill and precision, patience and perseverance.  For them it is inspired by a vision larger than the pile of stones with which they are working on any given day.  It is the vision of a great Cathedral, a house of prayer for all people.

As they diligently work to restore the Mother Church of our Communion, so too do a host of other people work diligently in renewing the Communion’s commitment to God’s Mission in the World.  I think particularly of those who work with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, those who work in and out of the Anglican Communion Office, and all who serve on the Standing Committees, Commissions and Networks of the Communion.  And finally, I think of the Community of St. Anselm and its work of prayer for the Church and our fidelity in Christ.  For them all I give thanks to God.

As the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ in Canterbury is restored with such skilled and loving care, may we persevere in rebuilding the spiritual life of the Church in each and every place where we serve as bishops, clergy and all those signed in baptism with the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To Him be glory now and ever.

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