I’m glad that the Archbishop of Canterbury has decided that it is time to call a Primates Meeting. A growing number of voices – mine among them – have been suggesting that it is time for this. I look forward to being there and I hope that the other 37 will be there too.
Why is it time? Because the Anglican Communion is a body without centralised authority. It therefore is very important that its life is sustained by constant contact, dialogue and prayer. The Primates Meeting is one of four Instruments of Communion – the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council. As the Communique from the last Primates Meeting in Dublin in 2011 said, ‘By God’s grace we strive to express that unity in diversity which is the Spirit’s work among the Churches of the Communion and the community of Primates.’ Collegiality is what matters. Indeed in the Primates Meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury is to the Primates as I am to our College of Bishops in Scotland – a Primus inter Pares or First among Equals.
The Anglican Communion has, I believe, suffered from a lack of clarity about what Communion means for us. It’s not so long since people talked about the Communion as held together by ‘bonds of affection’. That was all very well in its time. But the massive missionary success of the Anglican Church means that we are now a church of the most extraordinary diversity and vitality. For a global body of this kind, it is hard to see how the view that Communion means uniformity of practice in every context can be attainable.
What the commentators today have mainly failed to see is that two things are happening at the same time. The invitation to Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church of North America is part of an attempt to make it possible for the full breadth of the Communion to be present at this meeting. It is a worthy attempt to encourage the attendance of those who might otherwise stay away and I hope it succeeds because I yearn to be part of a dialogue which involves the whole Communion. But there is another movement under way which makes it important that we try to shape our understanding of what communion means for us today. Many of the Provinces of what we often call the Global North – America, Canada, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, etc – are now moving on the issue of same-sex marriage. Massive and rapid social change coupled with legislative change – together with the passionate conviction of some – create a context to which those Provinces find themselves ‘on the move’. That movement creates tensions within Provinces – as in Scotland. It will also increase tension within the Anglican Communion.
This is the moment for the Primates Meeting – I look forward to it and pray for honest and respectful dialogue.