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'Intense discussions' as Anglican Primates gather in Rome

As I write, humid and thundery showers are predicted in Rome, Italy, as the Primates of the Anglican Communion reach half-time in their historic meeting.

Bex Chapman

Figure Image
Source: © Neil Turner, Anglican Communion Office

Senior archbishops, presiding bishops, and moderators from churches across the globe have gathered for what we are told will be a time conceived as a pilgrimage. They will pray and study the book of Acts, visit holy sites in Rome, and reflect together about the mission and witness of the Church in the world. 

A number of Primates from the Global South have decided not to attend. Despite the programme including pilgrimage to the incredible Basilicas of both St Peter’s and Saint Paul Outside the Walls (where St Paul the Apostle is buried), plus visits to the Cistercian Abbey at Tre Fontane and Santa Maria in Trastevere (one of the oldest churches in Rome), from initial group photographs it looks like at least a quarter of the Primates haven’t joined the group. The Archbishops of Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria are among those absent, their respective provinces together estimated to total almost 20 million worshipping Anglicans. 

Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, Chair of the Global South (and Primate of South Sudan, with around five million people in it) was clear on last week’s Pastor’s Heart podcast why he cannot attend: ‘We cannot sit together with those who have intentionally violated the Biblical truth that we received from our forefathers. We cannot go and share anything with them unless they repent. But we are seeing there is no sign of repentance. What we are hearing is just “Let's be together, continue to be together in unity as we continue sinning”.’ He will instead be holding those in prayer who are attending, that ‘the Holy Spirit will guide them well and will remind them about the importance of upholding the biblical truth within the Anglican Communion.’ Worryingly, he also described how he has heard of resources being offered and ‘all kinds of tricks being done to influence people to go ahead and attend the meeting’ beyond just promises of prayer and pilgrimage and time together. 

'We cannot sit together with those who have intentionally violated the Biblical truth that we received from our forefathers...' 

In 50 years of these meetings, this is first gathering of Anglican Primates to be held in Rome. The Primates’ will be meeting with Pope Francis and having conversation with a Cardinal about the meaning and promise of synodality for the whole Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury has explained that they chose to have the meeting in Rome ‘because it is the symbol of the place which sent St Augustine of Canterbury out in 597 to begin the Anglican Church in England, which then spread around the world after the Reformation.’ Rome sent Augustine to England, from whence the Communion came. Will Rome be where the Communion’s leadership from the Chair of St Augustine, in Canterbury, ends? 

Significant changes ahead

The signs are that significant changes to the structures of the Anglican Communion as we know it will take huge steps forward at this meeting in Rome. We have been told that the agenda, to be agreed by the Primates at the start of their time together, will include ‘prayerful conversation about areas of conflict in the world and regional meetings to discuss issues of local concern’. But the big-ticket item here is unquestionably a paper by the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO), commissioned by the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) when it met in Ghana last year.  We don’t know exactly what this paper will say, as briefings merely note it ‘looks at structure and decision-making in the Anglican Communion and offers proposals to help address difference and disagreement in the Anglican Communion’.

The paper the ACC received spoke of ‘unresolved questions concerning structures of decision-making in the Anglican Communion’ and asked can we ‘reframe our disputes, and the impairment of our common life, within a shared commitment to trying to walk together with our Lord on the way to full communion?’ Can we indeed? Difference and disagreement about same-sex relationships especially have been painful, protracted, and to many are pivotal – not necessarily something we can ‘agree to disagree’ over. This promised paper will ‘explore theological questions regarding structure and decision-making to help address our differences in the Anglican Communion’. Its presenter, IASCUFO chair, Bishop Graham Tomlin (formerly of St Mellitus) will have his work cut out providing Primates with answers to what must surely be their many questions. As the week goes on, the Primates move from being reminded what they have in common and feeling and acting like brothers and sisters, back to the working out of those difficult family disagreements that seem to have no end. One primate, Archbishop Linda from Canada, has described the second day of the Primates meeting modestly as including ‘intense discussions.’ 

What can we expect? The clues are there in the ACC meeting held in Ghana in 2023. Archbishop Justin Welby’s presidential address spoke about power, and how one group in one part of the world should never order the life or culture of another, calling control like this colonial or neo-colonialist abuse: ‘money power, access to resources should never call the tune’. He was clear that he would welcome changes to the structures of the Communion if the process was right and that ‘the instruments [of Communion] must change with the times.’ Those instruments are: the ACC, the Primates meeting, the Lambeth Conference, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Archbishop decides when to convene and who should be invited to the Primates meetings and Lambeth Conference, and is President of the ACC. It is his role that seems most likely to change, in order to reshape the structures of the Communion. His presidential address in Ghana set out clearly how he would feel about such a shift – ‘I will not cling to place or position. I hold it very lightly provided that the other instruments of the communion choose the new shape.’  

As the Primates continue their prayer and pilgrimage under stormy Roman skies and meet the Pope, it is to be hoped that somehow God equips them and speaks to them as they turn to discuss the Communions problems with difference – and what they will now do about them. Being Archbishop of Canterbury has been called ‘an impossible job’ since before Justin Welby took up its mantle. If he sees Rome as the symbol of the sending of Augustine founding the See of Canterbury, how appropriate that Rome might also be where that global leadership role ends. Big questions remain, however – which of the Primates will actually be in the room where it happens, and what difference will they be able to make? And what process or people will be given the power going forward, not only in any transition, but as the Anglican Communion looks to the future? 

Read Bex's full report on the event after it finished, here.