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THE PB’s JOB DESCRIPTION

In an article on the pending resignation of +Robin Eames as Archbishop of Armagh, the writer of a Belfast newspaper column penned these words: “Always he was conscious of the need to carry the majority of his Anglican community with him, rather than risk a calamitous division, and posterity may judge that the heat has gone out of the controversy, thanks to his softly-softly approach.” The subject was reconciliation between the communities in Northern Ireland.

The Church of Ireland has its own north-south dimension. In the south the roots go back to the days of “protestant” ascendancy, when the franchised elite, represented by noble families, land-owners, estate managers, lawyers, doctors and police, even poets and authors ran the show for the most part for England, although not a few were champions of Ireland. After the emergence of the Irish Republic, many Irish Anglicans left the country, leaving the southern ecclesiastical Province of Dublin weakened and saddled with what seemed to me more dioceses, cathedrals and dignitaries than people. Lately a drift to the south, immigration spurred by an economic recovery, membership in the European Union and the weakening control of the Roman Catholic Church have combined to begin a growth in membership.

In the north, after partition, the Church of Ireland was naturally brought into the “troubles” and the conflict. Many if not most northern Anglicans were staunchly Unionist, keen on their status as a province of the United Kingdom. Many were members of the Orange Order, a quasi-masonic style society, some of whom supported the violent tactics of the para-military groups involved in armed conflict with the IRA. It must also be said that most Church of Ireland people were not so involved. Thus it is in this context that +Robin Eames has exercised his primacy, as leader of the whole Church of Ireland and as archbishop of the Ulster based Province of Armagh, the see of Saint Patrick. Archbishop Eames, like Archbishop Tutu in South Africa, lead his church towards reconciliation by policy and example while at the same time gently leading all church people of all opinions, by personal leadership, by pastoral care and by listening and dialogue with those opposed to his vision. He has been indeed “Primate of All Ireland”.

In another context our Archbishop of Canterbury attempts to do the same thing in his own Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion. For this he is much criticized by those who believe that primacy involves the championing of one cause at the expense of alienating those who disagree.

The job description of the Primate of the Episcopal Church, in a limited sense primacy of an international body found not only in America, begins with a section which worries me. It demands of the Presiding Bishop an executive role, in part responsible for owning and forwarding decisions of two political bodies: General Convention and the Executive Committee and related agencies and boards. Obviously such terms of reference, placed in preeminent position in responsibility may well place an obstacle to a Presiding Bishop who, as Primate wishes to “carry his/her Anglican community with him, rather than risk a calamitous division.” If a Presiding Bishop disagrees with legislated policies, as the late +Jack Allin did, the dilemma becomes even worse. Bishop Allin did sterling work in reaching out to those alienated by the 1976/79 decisions of General Convention over the ordination of women and the new Prayer Book. I was then the primus of one of the continuing churches. He reached out to us, and for some years promoted what then seemed to be fruitful talks between what is now the Anglican Province of America and ECUSA. He even managed to get the House of Bishops to go along with him. Using a provision in the American Canons we worked on a plan to reach an interim situation in which the Presiding Bishop would become our PB while we retained jurisdictional sovereignty for a period of twenty-five years. It all came to nothing when he retired.

That the Episcopal Church, at home and abroad is deeply divided and conflicted is no secret. Yet if viewed from the aspect of “primacy” whoever becomes Presiding Bishop has a bully pulpit and all sorts of formal and informal avenues to pastor those who dissent conscientiously. Such a pastoral ministry might well defuse anxiety that the Episcopal Church is willing to lose those within our church, and those who have left, and do so gladly. Many object that our present Primate has been ill used and rebuffed by traditionalists. And so a story:

In 1977 those disturbed by Prayer Book revision and the ordination called a Congress in St. Louis. Those who attended were an angry lot, many with an agenda to split ECUSA and form a pure church. They had their lobbies and societies which sent out literature and recruited followers. Of course there was no web or internet in those days.

I was there. So was the Presiding Bishop. At the Eucharist he went forward and was denied communion. Now that was a rebuff of staggering proportions. I met +Jack Allin in a hallway after the service and offered him my personal apology and then wrote to him suggesting that even at this stage there should be a way in which Christians could disagree without total alienation. The PB then wrote to continuing church leaders, heads of the ancestors of the Network and anyone with whom he could find a contact. Alone among them all, the jurisdiction I headed agreed to talks. We were asked to pick three ECUSA bishops with which we might dialogue. And so we sat down with +Stanley Atkins, then Bishop of Eau Claire, and +Jim Montgomery of Chicago. Later +Stanley, of blessed memory, was succeeded by +William Wantland, and +Philip Smith of New Hampshire joined the team. We met at 815, we met in Chicago, we met at my cathedral in South Florida, and all this in the teeth of stiff opposition from both sides. The ECUSA primate was leading gently.

I yearn to see a Primate of All American Anglicans elected who will follow that good example. Perhaps to do this we need to tackle the job description of our Presiding Bishop, enshrined in the Constitution and Canons. Surely we could establish an office entrusted with forwarding the policies and canonical changes established by our political agencies? Such a change would not necessitate a primate divorce him/herself from that which ECUSA determines in its legislative assemblies. +Robin Eames made no secret of his fundamental disagreement with clergy and parishioners who espoused the policies of anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland. With patience, with contact, with pastoral care +Robin sought gently to bring people along and thus avoided calamitous division within the Church. Surely that is the vocation of an Archbishop of Canterbury and of our own new Primate?

One Response

  1. I am sure you meant 1977 and not 1997 when describing the meeting in St. Louis. I whole heartily aggree with the sentiment of this piece. The Rector I grew up under was at that meeting – latter serving in the ACC and then going to Rome under the pastoral provision. Neither of which were viable routes for me. I believe that ++Robin along with ++Desmond are the best example of modern Primacy we have and I pray that some how God might raise up such in America

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