A clear difference in style is to be noted between the way in which various African Anglican Synods and Meetings of Bishops have recently spoken of the innovations pursued by the Churches of North America and that of the Communiqué issued from the Primates’ Meeting on February 24, 2005. This difference is partly that the former were written by Africans and the latter was drafted by an Australian; but it is much more in terms of what we may call Anglican Polity.
A Synod of a Province is, under God, the final authority in that Province and so when it speaks it can do so, if it wishes, in the style of the apostles and of the councils of the Church. That is, it can speak as a body with the Word of God and both interpreting and applying that Word to a given situation or against a known heresy or immorality. And this is how various African groups have spoken of what they judge to be the acceptance and celebration of heresy and immorality in North American Churches.
But in terms of having one voice in the world, as does the Roman Catholic Way through the Pope and Vatican, the Anglican Way has to seek to find one through the coming together of representatives and leaders from the 38 provinces in ordered ways – e.g., in the Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council & Primates’ Meeting. Such bodies have moral authority but no legal or doctrinal authority. Anything that they unanimously or by a vast majority recommend can only become part of the Anglican Way when accepted by each and all of the Provinces.
This explains how it is that the African Bishops can state “Thus saith the Lord” when speaking to North American bishops, and why they believe that they must be in broken communion with them and are willing to adopt parishes in the USA and Canada where the local bishop is a heretic or immoral person.
It also explains why the Primates’ Meeting, wherein the vast majority believe the North Americans to be commending heresy and immorality, used what seem weak forms of address. Their Communiqué does not say to North America, “We require” or “We command in Christ’s Name” but simply “we request”. It asks for the compliance of the offenders; it does not address them in the Name of the Lord. The only authority possessed by the Primates’ Meeting as such is a moral one and so the Primates appealed to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to change their ways and return to the doctrine and practice of the vast majority in terms of sexuality, and meanwhile asking them to absent themselves from certain joint meetings (e.g. Anglican Consultative Council).
This said, it is well known by these two North American Churches that a majority of Provinces of the Anglican Communion of Churches has declared itself to be in broken communion with them and so behind the moral authority there is the full reality of ecclesial censure, and that on a big scale!
It needs also to be known that this ecclesial censure of broken communion is the basic reason why there was no Common Eucharist at the Primates Meeting – for the first time ever! There was a service of Holy Communion on offer each morning conducted by one of the chaplains but this was optional and not part of the official joint gatherings of all the Primates. Thus there was the search for Koinonia at the Meeting but no expression of it in Common Eucharist.
A final thought. When the African Primates come to explain what the Meeting decided to their people, it may be that they will put the “we request” into a stronger verbal form, even as people reporting on the Primates’ Meeting have already done, calling it "exclusion". For we must bear in mind that behind the “we request” is the “Thus saith the Lord” of various Synods!
While the present separation between North America and the rest of the Anglican Family may not yet be likened to a divorce, it is certainly like a very serious stage in marriage counseling to prevent divorce, and the likelihood of divorce appears greater than does reconciliation in truth.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon February 27, 2005
(I was present as an observer of the Meeting and will issue a longer Report and interpretation on Monday next of the Communique.)