The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his capacity as chief bishop of the Anglican Communion, has invited his fellow primates to a meeting at his home next January. (A primate, variously enjoying the title of archbishop or presiding bishop, is the senior bishop of one of the 30+ self governing churches which have historic roots in the English Church. Communion has its root in a Greek word, used in the New Testament to describe the relationship that exists between Christians and their local churches with God and with each other.)
Archbishop Welby is asking the primates to come together to pray, to invoke the Holy Spirit, to examine the recent history of the Communion, to contemplate the future and to be honest with one another. None of those objects seems to be controversial. His invitation of Archbishop Foley Beach of the break away Anglican Church of North America may dismay the official Anglican Churches in Canada and the United States. He is not a full participant and it is difficult to see how a full and frank discussion about the causes of disunity -those that drove people out of the two churches; those encouraged by overseas intervention – may be successfully achieved without his presence. All this is very much in line with the reconciliation process, forged in South Africa and Northern Ireland and refined by the people at Coventry Cathedral. One of those people was Canon Justin Welby.
There has been much speculation about what the Archbishop is up to. Those on the left think that Welby is being realistic and will suggest that the Communion reorganize to be a sort of ecclesiastical Rotary International but with fewer rules. That would leave “progressive” churches to enjoy the word Anglican while being free to do as they please without constraint. Those on the right, if they brave attending at all, hope that the archbishop will propose throwing out the offending provinces and re-creating the Church as it was when Edward VI died. Both want the authenticity that comes with claiming some sort of genealogical heritage without having to offer up anything. I think both misjudge the archbishop.
Justin Welby is a convinced Christian with his roots in evangelicalism. This does not mean that he hasn’t been refreshed and renewed by Catholicism, the sacramental and spiritual disciplines of the historic church. Nor should one think that he is devoid of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. He is not likely to be impressed by nationalism masquerading as ecclesiology, either in its American of Global South variations.
I will leave further speculation to the English newspapers, and those whose fear overrides hope. We know a few things. The invitation has gone out. The primates are to assemble, pray, invoke the Holy Spirit, review the events and decisions of the past forty years, and consider the future of the Communion as chief bishops of their own churches and collectively leaders of the Communion. We know nothing more and nothing less. Perhaps the best response is for Anglicans across the globe to similarly pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide the thought and actions of our Chief Pastors.