Archbishop on the Communion’s challenges and the way forward

Posted Nov 17, 2014
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addresses the Church of England's General Synod, meeting in London. Photo: Church of England

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addresses the Church of England’s General Synod, meeting in London. Photo: Church of England

[Lambeth Palace] In his presidential address to the General Synod on Nov. 17, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke about the issues faced by the Anglican Communion and possible ways forward.

Read the full text of the address below:

During the last eighteen months or so I have had the opportunity to visit thirty-six other Primates of the Anglican Communion at various points. This has involved a total of 14 trips lasting 96 days in all. I incidentally calculated that it involves more than eleven days actually sitting in aeroplanes. This seemed to be a good moment therefore to speak a little about the state of the Communion and to look honestly at some of the issues that are faced and the possible ways forward.

A Flourishing Communion

First of all, and this needs to be heard very clearly, the Anglican Communion exists and is flourishing in roughly 165 countries. There has been comment over the last year that issues around the Communion should not trouble us in the Church of England because the Communion has for all practical purposes ceased to exist. Not only does it exist, but almost everywhere (there are some exceptions) the links to the See of Canterbury, notwithstanding its Archbishop, are profoundly valued.  The question as to its existence is therefore about what it will look like in the future.   That may be very different, and I will come back to the question.

Secondly, Anglicanism is incredibly diverse. To sit, in the space of a few months, in meetings with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Primate of Australia, the Primate of South Africa, the Moderator of the Church of South India, the Primate of Nigeria and many others is to come away utterly daunted by the differences that exist.  They are huge, beyond capacity to deal with adequately in the time for this presentation.  Within the Communion there are perhaps more than 2,000 languages and perhaps more than 500 distinct cultures and ways of looking at the world.  Some of its churches sit in the middle of what are literally the richest parts of the globe, and have within them some of the richest people on earth.  The vast majority are poor. Despite appearances here, we are a poor church for the poor. Many are in countries where change is at a rate that we cannot even begin to imagine.  I think of the man I met in Papua New Guinea who is a civil engineer and whose grandfather was the first of his tribe to see a wheel as a small aircraft landed in a clearing in the forest.

At the same time there is a profound unity in many ways. Not in all ways, but having said what I have about diversity, which includes diversity on all sorts of matters including sexuality, marriage and its nature, the use of money, the relations between men and women, the environment, war and peace, distribution of wealth and food, and a million other things, underpinning us is a unity imposed by the Spirit of God on those who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. This diversity is both gift and challenge, to be accepted and embraced, as we seek to witness in truth and love to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, the potential of the Communion under God is beyond anything we can imagine or think about. We need to hold on to that, there is a prize, the quest for which it is worth almost anything to achieve. The prize is visible unity in Christ despite functional diversity.  It is a prize that is not only of infinite value, but also requires enormous sacrifice and struggle to achieve.  Yet if we even get near it we can speak with authority to a world where over the last year we have seen more than ever an incapacity to deal with difference, and a desire to oversimplify the complex and diverse nature of human existence for no better reason than we cannot manage difference and dealing with The Other. Yet in Christ we are held together.  In Christ the barriers are broken, peace is held out to us as a gift established, which needs living. In Christ there is hope of a life that provides hope of peace.

Fourthly, the Communion is extremely active. Let me give you a few examples. In Mexico, a small community abandoned by all, of people who had lost their homes and were living in the bad lands, where a priest (otherwise unoccupied apart from a full-time career in a professional area and running another church, as well as being unpaid) was sent by his bishop, to start a church, something he thought might well cost him his life. But there he went, to the poorest of the poor, and a community has been established with numerous baptisms, growing spirituality and a love and concern and compassion for one another that speaks of the living presence of Jesus among them.

Another example, a conference in Oklahoma City, in which from people around The Episcopal Church, with patience and courtesy to one another, there was discussion over the issues around the use of firearms and the meaning of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, in practice in the modern-day USA.

The South Sudan, and after a day spent burying the dead of a great massacre, the Archbishop stood up with extraordinary courage and called for reconciliation.  Those from the rebel group would already have opposed him, those from his own group would not necessarily have been impressed. To do that puts any of our struggles into a real perspective.

In England a church in the middle of an extraordinarily mixed area of religious faith, faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, active in its worship, lively in its preaching, yet being the centre and focus of religious leadership in the area so as to enable difference to be handled well.

There are so many others that merit a presentation of its own.

We live in a community that exists, that is deeply engaged with its world almost everywhere, that is diverse and argumentative and fractured, but yet shows in so many places both known and unknown the power and love of Christ through His Spirit at work in our world. We live in a Communion which merits celebration and thanksgiving as well as prayer and repentance.

A flourishing Communion but also a divided Communion.

I do not want to sound triumphalist. There are enormous problems. We have deep divisions in many areas, not only sexuality. There are areas of corruption, other areas where the power of the surrounding culture seems to overwhelm almost everyone at one point or another.

Our divisions may be too much to manage.

In many parts of the Communion, including here, there is a belief that opponents are either faithless to the tradition, or by contrast that they are cruel, judgemental, inhuman. I have to say that we are in a state so delicate that without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures.

In an age of near instant communication, because the Communion exists, and is full of life, vigour and growth, of faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and love for him, everything that one Province does echoes around the world. Every sermon or speech here is heard within minutes and analysed half to death. Every careless phrase in an interview is seen as a considered policy statement. And what is true of all Provinces is ten times more so for us, and especially us in this Synod. We never speak only to each other, and the weight of that responsibility, if we love each other and the world  as we should, must affect our actions and our words.

A Communion under threat

There is persecution in the Communion, in many, many areas. We are a poor, and a persecuted Church.

We are well aware of that and need to remember it constantly. In very many parts of the world, particularly parts of Africa and the Middle East, but also South East Asia, persecution comes from jihadist attacks which have killed many, many Anglicans, other Christians and in largest number Muslims, over the last few years. Not a day goes by without some report being received of the suffering and persecution of churches around the world, and of cries for help and requests for support. Not a day goes by without something which should break one’s heart at the courage and the difficulties involved.

There is immense suffering in the Communion. The terrible spread of Ebola, indescribable, a Black Death sweeping through three Dioceses of West Africa, is by itself a catastrophe of historic proportions. I was briefed on it two weeks ago in Accra, and the suffering of people in the afflicted countries makes the blood run cold. We must help, pray and call for more help.

In the South Sudan the human created food shortage threatens to turn into a terrible famine. In DRC the war continues with the utmost cruelty, usually including rape.

The list could go on and on, especially in the Middle East, Palestine and Israel, the Levant and the Euphrates valley.

Where do we go?

So what do we do? Where does this extraordinary, fractious, diverse, argumentative, wonderful, united, ferocious, peaceful, persecuted, suffering  body that is the Communion go, and what is the impact on us here in the Church of England?

First, as I have said nothing we say is heard only by us.

Secondly, we should rejoice in being part of this monumental challenge, of this great quest for the prize of being a people who can hold unity in diversity and love in difference.  It is almost unimaginably difficult, and most certainly cannot be done except with a whole-hearted openness to the Holy Spirit at work amongst us. It comes with prayer, and us growing closer to God in Jesus Christ and nothing else is an effective substitute. There are no strategies and no plans beyond prayer and obedience.

Thirdly, the future of the Communion requires sacrifice.  The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours.  Groups of like-minded individuals meeting to support and encourage each other may be necessary, indeed often are very necessary, but they are never sufficient.  Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree.  What may be necessary in the way of party politics, is not sufficient in what might be called the polity of the Church.

In this Church of England we must learn to hold in the right order our calling to be one and our calling to advance our own particular position and seek our own particular views to prevail in the Church generally, whether in England or around the world. We must speak the truth in love.

In practice that has to mean the discipline of meeting with those with whom we disagree and listening to each other carefully and lovingly. It means doing that as much as when we meet with those with whom we do agree, whether it is during sessions of General Synod or at other times. It means celebrating our salvation together and praying together to the God who is the sole source of our hope and future, together. It means that even when we feel a group is beyond the pale for its doctrine, or for its language about others or us, we must love. Love one another, love your neighbour, love your enemy. Who in the world is in none of those categories?

All of us prefer being with those whose tradition we know and in which we were brought up. I am as much part of that as anyone else here. But I have gained far more in my own walk with Jesus Christ through being willing to meet with others whose traditions I did not find sympathetic, and be as transparent with them as I am with my closest friends, as from anything else that I have ever done.

And for the future of the Communion? I have not called a Primates’ Meeting on my own authority (although I could) because I feel that it is necessary for the Anglican Communion to develop a collegial model of leadership, as much as it is necessary in the Church of England, and I have therefore waited for the end of the visits to Provinces.

If the majority view of the Primates is that such a meeting would be a good thing, one will be called in response.  The agenda for that meeting will not be set centrally, but from around the Primates of the Communion.  One issue that needs to be decided on, ideally by the Primates’ meeting, is whether and if so when there is another Lambeth Conference.  It is certainly achievable, but the decision is better made together carefully, than in haste to meet an artificial deadline of a year ending in 8. A Lambeth Conference is so expensive and so complex that we have to be sure that it is worthwhile. It will not be imposed, but part of a collective decision.

The key general point to be established is how the Anglican Communion is led, and what its vision is in the 21st century, in a post-colonial world? How do we reflect the fact that the majority of its members are in the Global South, what is the role of the Instruments of Communion, especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, and what does that look like in lived out practice?  These are great decisions, that must be taken to support the ongoing and uninterrupted work of ministering to a world in great need and in great conflict. Whatever the answer, it is likely to be very different from the past.

So, the good news. The Communion exists and is doing wonderful things. The bad news.  There are great divisions and threats. The challenge. There is a prize of being able to develop unity in diversity and also with deeper and deeper ecumenical relations demonstrating the power of Christ to break down barriers and to provide hope for a broken world. We must grasp that challenge, it is the prize of a world seeing Christ loved and obeyed in His church, a world hearing the news of his salvation. So let us here, in the Church of England and above all in its General Synod, be amongst those who take a lead in our sacrificial, truthful and committed love for the sake of Christ for His mission in His world.


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Comments (13)

  1. Well stated, Justin. (I do wish he had mentioned the ACC since it too is one of the “instruments of Communion.)

  2. Harry W Shipps says:

    Thank you Archbishop for giving us the much needed and unbiased ‘big picture’. Your overview is both encouraging and challenging.
    +Harry
    Savannah, GA

  3. Owen Hoskin says:

    We indeed have a man for the times and for this moment in history in our Archbishop Justin Welby.
    “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Amen”

  4. Mark P. Fisher says:

    I think the Archbishop has shown very well where our prayers and actions are needed. Thanks you all those who struggle.

  5. What is the Gospel – the good news – that needs to be spoken and lived in our world today? Do we follow the Jesus who was a Jew, a Rabbi, who lived in Galilee or do we follow the Jesus that came to our attention in the 4th century via The Holy Roman Catholic Church? Can we solve those conflicts so that we might, as a true Communion, present a healing message for our 21st century world?

  6. Emily Wren says:

    Beautiful and heartfelt article. As all parents worry about and work to keep their different children – siblings – together in one family so too does the church worry and work to keep its different children in Christ together and loving one another. I do not find the differences to be so difficult as the anxiety over those differences. In that is a commonality that can be nurtured. Compassion is a desire to unite at the point of differences. Love is ignoring differences which facilitates unity. To find Christ in each other we need to stop defining each other by our material circumstances and see past the catagories and classifications. We are more than the sum of our parts. We are the Holy Family of Christ. We all have the same last name.

    1. David Benedict says:

      I would bet that such an honest, thoughtful, and yet exploratory assessment of the state of the church could be similarly expressed by many communions in Christendom, further extending the universal unity Christians have in an incredible diversity.

    2. Leila DIAB says:

      Thank you for this wonderful remark. It is very encouraging.

  7. Richard W. Murphy says:

    Thank you, Archbishop. Very well said. The glory of our Anglicanism must be exactly what you say, we must stay together in unity through diversity. The energy to do that is through grace and the Holy Spirit. It is up to us to respond to that grace and Spirit, incorporate that energy into our lives and not be afraid to step out and meet the other in the midst of our differences. Jesus calls us to build up the Beloved Community together. Martin Luther King described the Beloved Community as one of redemption and reconciliation. Jesus desires it.

    1. Dennis Delman says:

      Thank you for your honest appraisal of the Anglican Communion. I agree with the comment that the ACC – the most representative of the four “instruments” – needs not only to be mentioned, but to be
      equal participants in decions about the Communion’s future.

  8. Jeremy Bates says:

    “Thirdly, the future of the Communion requires sacrifice. The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours…. What may be necessary in the way of party politics, is not sufficient in what might be called the polity of the Church.”

    Come now, Archbishop. There is no such thing as a worldwide Anglican Church. So do not speak as if there is.

    Nor should there be. The Anglican Communion is a family of independent churches. And if you try to make it anything more — if you try to establish a worldwide Anglican polity — then you will go too far. And on a fool’s errand, to boot.

    A lot of us Episcopalians will remember, for very many years to come, that with the Anglican Covenant, your predecessor sought to throw us, and Canada too, under a bus driven by the majority of the Communion.

    So we are very mistrustful of any effort to centralize power in any sort of London-based structure, no matter how it is administered.

    The Episcopal Church is autonomous. We are not going to sacrifice that autonomy. It just proved the salvation not only of our church but also of the dignity that we seek to respect in every human being.

  9. PJ Cabbiness says:

    Well thought out and well presented by the Archbishop.

  10. Selena Smith says:

    Jeremy Bates speaks with as much wisdom as does the Archbishop, I think. While Jeremy Bates writes that “a lot of us Episcopalians will remember, . . . sought to throw us, and Canada too, under a bus . . .” that is what the Episcopal Church has done to many of its bishops, other clergy and laity, who have been picked up by others. They also will remember the use of that implemented centralized power by the Episcopal Church.

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