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The calm after the storm: What difference does the Anglican Primates Meeting Make?

The Anglican Primates meeting in Italy is over; the stormy weather warnings in Rome have passed and clear skies are now anticipated.  But can the same calm be true of the meeting itself?  What happened, and why does it matter to the future of the Anglican Communion? 

Rebecca Chapman

Figure Image
Sunset over Rome

For the last five days, the senior archbishops, presiding bishops, and moderators of the churches of the Anglican Communion have been meeting in Rome for the 2024 Primates’ Meeting.  With a packed schedule, they have had five days of pilgrimage and prayer, culminating in what Archbishop Justin Welby called the ‘climax of the Primates meeting’ – a meeting with Pope Francis.  

Their times of prayer, Bible study and pilgrimage to holy sites across Rome was a large part of their time together, as they have traced the footsteps of St Paul.  The language of family has been used by many who attended the meeting.  From the Archbishop of New Zealand Don Tamihere describing how quickly Primates began ‘acting like they have been brothers and sisters all along’ to the Archbishop of Canterbury noting proudly that it had been ‘a week of family’ and that he had ‘felt the sense of genuine family love’ and Archbishop Albert Chama of Lusaka emphasising that family means we need to ‘carry one another’.  Like many family gatherings, there was, of course, also talk of those family members who could sadly not be present ‘for various reasons’. Archbishop Justin noted during the final press conference ‘some members of family absent, which has been very, very grievous to us but they are no less loved for their absence, and no less do we long to see them present and to hear their voices’.  

Some of those family members representing the Global South had attended despite the Ash Wednesday agreement.  Archbishop Albert Chama explained that some of those attending the Primates Meeting were also going to meet with the Global South in their upcoming gathering in Egypt in June, and his hope is that they are able to ‘encourage our brothers, those who are absent for whatever reason, that the next time they need to come, to see’.  

Fascinatingly, the family metaphor was extended further when the ‘family’ turned to business.  For alongside the breaking of bread, the travelling together, and hearing from the Pope, there were four sessions to discuss the very structure of the Anglican Communion.  There was a paper from IASCUFO (The Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order) to consider, a group described as ‘one of the main places where the Anglican Communion does its theological and ecclesiological reflection’.  Alongside addressing ‘honestly the fractures of the Anglican Communion’ it seemingly set out the evolution of Anglican structures, including how the definition of the Anglican Communion as we now know it was set out at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, and that it was this that IASCUFO had revisited and rethought.  Over the last 90 years the Communion has changed in so many ways, including what was described as a change in its ‘centre of gravity’. Reverting to the family imagery, Bishop Graham Tomlin described how discussions with the Primates had reflected on the 1930 definition of the Communion as the mother church with small children around it, whereas now we have a ‘different kind of family, with grown up children - the mother is still there, but with a different position as the family grows up’.  The Primates, he said, were unanimous in their agreement that the existing definition and description of the Anglican Communion needed to be looked at again.  

However, there was a second proposal.  This was to have an elected Primate, chosen from existing Primates, who would sit alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other Instruments of Communion as chair of the Primates’ Meeting, and possibly also as president of the Anglican Consultative Council.  This suggestion was not accepted by the Primates present.  Instead, they discussed how they might assist and even broaden aspects of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ministry throughout the Communion, including through the Regional Primates who form the Primates’ Standing Committee, and will be welcoming suggestions and further conversations on this in due course.  The selection of people from across the globe who sit on IASCUFO may well have their work cut out for the foreseeable future!  A further paper, an edited version of the one the Primates considered this week, has been promised in the next month or two.  

The mood music for everything emerging from the meeting so far has been one of unity – a message only reinforced by their time with Pope Francis.  He too, stressed the family connections, repeating some of what he said in January during the service commissioning Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, emphasising that ‘First our brothers and sisters, the structures later’.  Unity was mentioned again and again, and he stated that ‘it would be a scandal if, due to our divisions, we did not fulfil our common vocation to make Christ known’.  

With Primates now back in their Provinces across the globe, what difference might their time together have made?  While Archbishop Justin made it clear last year that ‘the instruments [of Communion] must change with the times’ and he did not want to cling to either power or position, the Primates present this week have, perhaps unexpectedly, not approved the proposed changes to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  As things stand, it remains, as it was, ‘an impossible job’.  

Those stormy skies over Rome have passed – the Primates have dispersed, and for now all is calm in the Anglican Communion, or as calm as it has ever been over recent years.  But the fundamental questions posed by IASCUFO, in that original paper that we may well never see, remain. Just what is the ongoing role for the Church of England within the Anglican Communion in what Bishop Graham called ‘a post-colonial world’? How might the Communion structures now move to reflect the way that the Anglican Communion has matured and developed over time? And what does it even mean now to be in communion with the See of Canterbury?  Storms may yet lie ahead, but to quote The Message version of Proverbs 10 ‘When the storm is over, there’s nothing left of the wicked; good people, firm on their rock foundation, aren’t even fazed.’   May faithful Anglicans remember the Communion in its time of trouble in prayer… but remain firm on that rock foundation, unfazed.