The Primates: Intense but gracious listening

By Paul Feheley

“It was day of very intensive listening, characterised by graciousness, patience and care.”

These were the opening words of Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, Primate of Australia and the designated spokesperson for the Primates as they began their meeting in Tanzania. Archbishop John Chew, Primate of South East Asia, joined Archbishop Aspinall to share the news of what had been expected to be a very difficult day. As it turned out the meeting has begun with stronger bond of friendship among the Primates than many had expected. There were no issues raised about the seating of either the Archbishop of York or the Presiding Bishop of the United States. In worship the Primates joined together in noonday prayers, which included a litany of reconciliation. It was not a day of decision making but rather a time largely devoted to consideration of the Windsor Report, the Episcopal Church and the decisions concerning Windsor that were made at their General Convention.

The Primates received a report (available from a Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates. The group was called to assist the Secretary General of the Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury in discerning the response of the Anglican Communion to the decisions made at the General Convention in Columbus Ohio last summer. The committee’s report dealt with three requests made of the Episcopal Church and found the church’s response on two of the matters sufficient and that the third needed more conversation.

The first dealt with the election of bishops and called on standing committees and bishops to withhold consent if a person were elected “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” The report to the Primates noted that the exact language of Windsor had not been used but that the response met in an adequate way the spirit of the Windsor Report.

The second was the expression of regret that was offered by the Episcopal Church. It also did not use the exact wording of the Windsor Report but was also found “sufficient to meet the request of the primates.”

The matter that the Report did take issue with is the Public Rites of Blessing for Same Sex Unions. A recommendation from the Windsor Report adopted by the Primates called for a moratorium on the authorisation of Public Rites of Blessing for Same Sex Unions. The report speaks of a “level of dissonance between the life of the church at the national level and at the local level, which makes it hard to discern exactly where the Episcopal Church stands on the issue.”

The report also notes that there are different understandings among the dioceses about public and private rites of blessings. The report in its final paragraph on this subject acknowledged that the Primates did admit that there could be “a breadth of private response to individual pastoral care” and called upon the House of Bishops to urgently address the question of the Episcopal Church acting “in a way which diverges from the common life of the Communion.”

In the afternoon the Primates heard from three invited U.S. bishops: Robert Duncan, Chris Epting and Bruce MacPherson as well as from the U.S. Primate, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori who spoke about the situation in the Episcopal Church. They presented their perceptions of how things are and of how all voices must be heard. Archbishop Aspinall noted that each spoke frankly and passionately about the positions they represented.

There was an acknowledgment of the importance of the Primates in assisting the church to create the space necessary for healing and reconciliation. They also believed that unwanted and uninvited intervention by others into the Episcopal Church inhibited their process and in fact made it more difficult to proceed. Archbishop Aspinall said that the presenters agreed that many parishioners and local clergy had a sense that enough is enough and asked the church to move forward towards other issues of importance. A small group was to meet overnight and begin to work on proposals and a response to the Episcopal Church.

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Canadian Primate said that the mood inside the room was excellent and that everyone accepted that more work needed to be done. He remarked that the proposals being brought forward would be applicable to the worldwide Anglican Church and not simply the Episcopal Church in the United States. The proposals he said, could also have a bearing on the work of General Synod when it meets in June.

Archbishops Aspinall and Chew closed the briefing by thanking the people of Tanzania for their warm and hospitable welcome. The agenda for Friday February 16 includes more conversation on yesterday’s reports, and sessions on the Panel of Reference, the Covenant for the Anglican Communion and the Listening Process.

Paul Feheley is the Principal Secretary to the Canadian Primate.

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