SHAFAQNA – The Archbishop of Canterbury, fresh from his global tour of the Anglican Communion, talks to Michael Binyon
Having now visited every one of the 38 provinces that comprise the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has concluded that Anglican churches around the world are strong, resilient and thriving. But he also realises that the differences between some of them remain profound — and that despite all attempts to reconcile their different views and traditions, they may not be able to remain together in the Anglican Communion.
“I think, realistically, we’ve got to say that despite all efforts there is a possibility that we will not hold together, or not hold together for a while,” the Most Rev Justin Welby told The Times. “I could see circumstances in which there could be people moving apart and then coming back together, depending on what else happens.”
Speaking two days after returning from Scotland, the final visit of his 18-month mission to visit the primates of all the Communion, he admitted that some churches, particularly those in Africa and the global south, may find it difficult to stay in a single global Anglican community. But he insisted that “it would take a long time for the latent underlying link to Canterbury to cease to be an important factor in the way people looked at life and the Communion.” That meant that any schism could be “a sort of temporary separation”.
Would it matter? “Oh yes. If we disagree well, it matters less.” (“Good” disagreement is one of the leitmotifs of his commitment to reconciliation). “But the strength of the Communion is linked to its global unity, the fact that people belong to each other.” A little bit of slippage on that might not have done any harm, he said. “But a lot of slippage does a great deal of harm.”
He added: “I’m not saying that that’s inevitable or even more probable than not. I think it’s very much up in the air at the moment. And my suspicion is that the vast majority of people will stay within the Communion, completely.”
His assessment comes after travelling with his wife, Caroline, more than 149,000 miles — from Brazil to Papua New Guinea, from South Sudan and Rwanda to South Korea and Myanmar — in an attempt to engage all the primates and archbishops, listen to their concerns and reaffirm the bonds of friendship. Whatever happened, he said, the post-colonial Anglican Communion in the 21st century would be very different from the Church that was established in the time of the British Empire. “If you ask, will the Communion as it was in the 1980s be here in 30 years, I would say ‘Certainly not.’ Will there be an Anglican Communion? Very, very likely indeed. But it will look very different. And I don’t quite know what it will look like.”
When he began his global mission in May last year, soon after being enthroned as Archbishop, he believed that the Communion should evolve much as the way the Commonwealth has evolved, with individual autonomous churches being only loosely linked to Canterbury. He had now changed his mind. “I’m beginning to row back on that. I went out thinking the Archbishop of Canterbury must no longer lead the Communion. And I said it everywhere we went, and virtually everywhere we went, people said ‘No, no, no, that’s completely wrong.’ So there’s going to be something in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is still the first among equals. Exactly how the links work is yet to be decided.”
The Anglican Communion, he insisted, was not analogous to the Roman Catholic Church, where the primary responsibility was obedience to the Pope. He had never met anyone on his travels who thought that. “It’s not a question of obedience to the Archbishop of Canterbury at all.” The bonds were, instead, spiritual — a spiritual reality that was frequently tested by events. Indeed, one of the main issues in the Communion was how decisions were made. And there was no answer to that. At issue, for example, was the question of whether, and when, to call another Lambeth Conference, the regular summoning to Canterbury of all the leaders of the Communion. Technically, the Archbishop said, this remained his call. But he was now hoping that the decision could instead be taken by all the primates together. He suggested this new arrangement in his talks, and the other primates agreed. “A move towards a more collegial, collective responsibility was popular.”
Visiting all the provinces had been an enormous, and exhausting, undertaking. The Archbishop calculated that he had spent a total of 11 full days sitting in planes. “I reckon it’s about a day just standing watching luggage go round.” It had, nevertheless, been “enormous fun” — though at times fairly traumatic, especially when he had met people living and worshipping in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. But he could not think of anywhere where he had not received a warm welcome.
What had he learnt from it all? First, he said, he had realised that the Communion still looked to Canterbury as its centre — though not necessarily to a particular Archbishop. Second, he found that individual churches were extraordinarily robust. “Almost every province is imaginative, flexible, dealing with rapidly changing contexts rather well.” Most churches were punching well above their weight, even if they were small. Being part of the Anglican Communion enabled them to have contact with government and local leaders, even when they were very small minorities with relatively few adherents — in places such as Mexico, Central America, Pakistan or North and South India. “That interested and surprised me.”
The reason, he believed, was that in almost all cases the churches themselves were deeply engaged in reconciliation. “They’re building bridges in all kinds of directions. They are almost all heavily involved in their local communities and looking outwards.” The visible manifestation was the large number of highly regarded schools and health clinics run by Anglicans. And although some of the schools catered for rich elites, most were open to all people, of all faiths, and catered particularly for the poor.
What impressed him most was that Anglican churches were overwhelmingly “churches of the poor, with the poor.” There were very few places in the world where they were made up of the comfortable middle class, as was largely the case now in Britain and North America. “The vast majority of Anglicans are the desperate people. And that’s very striking.” Despite being poor, however, the leadership was often very effective, involved in development issues, in issues of justice and in evangelism. For that reason, many were growing rapidly in numbers.
Was evangelism not a toxic word in some parts of the world? Did this not present a problem, especially, for example, in the Muslim world? The Archbishop denied that. “It’s emphatically not a problem. It’s a challenge. It requires a level of sophistication and thoughtfulness.”
In the Middle East, nevertheless, he admitted that circumstances sometimes made things incredibly difficult. Some churches were heavily persecuted, and evangelism was risky. But the churches were reaching out successfully, and did not use what he called the “tricks and power games” of the 19th century. They genuinely represented communities that loved one another and got on with life.
He had not been surprised by the differences he found, which mostly arose from the diversity of very different cultures. He admitted that he disagreed “profoundly” with some of their views. The Church of Nigeria and the Episcopal Church in the United States are polar opposites, and the Archbishop was circumspect in speaking of both. He voiced his respect for the way that the Nigerians were coping with the pressures they were facing, especially the challenges of violence and corruption. They, and also the church in Pakistan, faced issues that would “buckle any other church”.
And although the church in America almost provoked an open schism with the consecration of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003, Welby said his visit had been something of a breakthrough. “It was a real gift in terms of communication. At least there was understanding why we disagreed with each other when we disagreed, rather than simply disagreeing and not understanding each other.” But he added: “The situation there is complicated, to put it mildly.”
Learning to disagree without hatred has been a theme of the Archbishop’s ministry. He argues that “good disagreement” is vital (although some churches did not accept that). He did not want to see the same level of bitterness that had characterised some disputes in the past. There had been a danger, he admitted, of parts of the Anglican Communion drifting into that.
He could not ask people to give up views they strongly held. “But what you can ask is for people to engage with those with whom they disagree, not expecting to be convinced, or even to convince, but to understand the other person’s humanity and why they come to such a different view.”
Unity, however, could not come at the price of truth and integrity. “I’m absolutely not saying ‘Unity at all costs’ — quite the reverse. Truth and integrity matter hugely.” This was equally true for the Church of England, especially on the question of women bishops, approved by the Synod in November.
“It’s all very well making declarations. The difficult bit is living together and working it out in practice. And we’re absolutely determined to do that. It’s very tough. But it’s a prize that is so absolutely worth going for.”
He and his wife travelled together because they believed that the visits were personal and pastoral, not just professional. And all the churches that they visited understood that. “In the life of the Church, we are all caught up together by the spirit of God through Jesus. You don’t divide up the professional and the pastoral in that way.” People in Africa, India and the Middle East always asked about each other’s families, he said, even if they had never met them.
The Welbys were determined to show that they saw reconciliation as overcoming the barrier between rich and poor. “That’s why it’s so important to show up, rather than just say it from far away.” More than any other Archbishop in Anglican history, he and his wife have certainly shown up.
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