Orthodox Wars over Catholic Canterbury for the Anglican Primates

Orthodox Wars over Catholic Canterbury for the Anglican Primates January 11, 2016

The consecration of Reginald Heber Weller as an Anglican bishop at the Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle in the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac (Fond-du-lac-circus.preview.jpg) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The consecration of Reginald Heber Weller as an Anglican bishop at the Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle in the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac (Fond-du-lac-circus.preview.jpg) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is 11 January 2016, and the Anglican primates – mammals, yes, but top-dog archbishops in their respective Anglican provinces more importantly – are meeting in Canterbury to (dun dun dun) decide the fate of the Anglican Communion in a meeting called by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

There’s been quite a bit of drama over the last week. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which is the realignment of socially, sexually, and ideologically ‘conservative’ ‘Global South’ Anglican provinces (which, I should point out, does not include every province technically in the ‘Global South’), has put out a dramatic call for prayer on the web on a page that can only be described as constructed by North American evangelical hipsters. At the same time, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion press office has put out an alternate prayer against ‘misinformation’ on a website that can only be described as designed by Anglicans. Almost tit for tat, the Ugandan primate then declared that he and the other GAFCON folks would walk out if ‘godly order’ is not restored, by which they mean the enshrinement of GAFCON definitions of ‘biblical standards’ in relation to human sexuality. In contrast, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave an interview to the BBC saying that a schism would not be a ‘disaster’ (which conservative media put out as a ‘gotcha’ moment) but a ‘failure’ (which other media picked up). Also, with impeccable timing, the Primate of South Africa declined to comment on Mpho Tutu’s same-sex marriage because he didn’t want African Anglicans to be used as a proxy in the North American culture wars, which was pretty much a roundabout way of saying that GAFCON is pretty much about North Americans using Africans (needless to say, his province is a ‘Global South’ province that isn’t part of GAFCON, whereas – I should point out – the Sydney Diocese in Australia is technically not part of the Global South, but is part of GAFCON).

I’m writing this post because in the months-long anticipation up to this Primates’ Meeting, I had made a few predictions on social media that I’d like to get on the record. I especially want my predictions to be proven wrong by the events of the next week. In order to be discredited, I need to get my thoughts on the record. These are my tentative thoughts. I need to get them down in order to have something to work with after the events of this week. There is therefore a blog – a weblog – in the classical sense, a log of my thoughts that are unpublishable in any other venue because they are too tentative. It is also an ineffective blogpost: I ramble, go on for way too long, use technical language, and will probably get no hits. But if you read these thoughts and develop them, you’re going to have to cite me too.

In the lead-up to this Primates’ Meeting, the speculative analysis of a rumored proposal (because seriously, don’t we all know that most of ‘church politics’ is speculation about rumors?) had it that the Archbishop of Canterbury was attempting to ‘loosen’ the bonds of the Anglican Communion. In this reading, the development of the Anglican Communion into 38 provinces that are in communion with each other based on bonds of shared affection (39, if you count the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA], whose ‘Primate’ has been invited as a non-primate to this current meeting) has become an unwieldy mess, not least because in the early 2000s, two Global South primates (Southeast Asia and Rwanda) took the liberty to excommunicate the Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC) and the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) purportedly over sexuality issues. The rumor was that Welby was proposing to have the provinces come into a new relationship that wouldn’t be based so much on their relationship to each other (in this way, the bad blood between GAFCON and TEC/ACoC wouldn’t have to matter anymore), but directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The reporting about this proposal – while tentative because it really was more of a speculative rumor than a leaked document sort of deal – was that it would loosen the bonds of the Communion, an interpretation entertained no less by the Communion’s own press office.

I disagreed. My hypothesis – and this again is speculative, and therefore I’m looking forward to be proven dead wrong by the events of the next week – was that Canterbury was attempting to tighten the bonds of the Communion. This does not mean that I think that Welby is trying to consolidate power at Lambeth Palace; this Primates’ Meeting will not give Canterbury the dentures he needs to fill his office’s toothless exercise of episcopal power. Instead, it will give Canterbury the power to represent the Anglican Communion to other churches in which it is in ecumenical dialogue. This, as Paul Avis pointed out long ago, would give Anglicanism the ‘identity’ that it needs to be part of these ecumenical conversations.

In other words, I think this is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s step one in getting back together not only with the See of Rome, but also Constantinople and Alexandria. If you think I’m deluded, let me add to your perception: I also think that GAFCON is in its own right trying to get back together with Moscow. In short, I am proposing that this is the Primates’ Meeting is not really about Anglicanism; it’s about Orthodoxy and the relation of Western Christianity writ large to the political struggles of the East. Put another way, to say that this is about Anglicans becoming Catholic again is short-sighted, and to say that Anglicans are trying to figure themselves out is straight-up narrow-minded. This is about the restoration of the Christian ecumene, period.

Prove me wrong, Primates’ Meeting, but here’s some of the stuff I’ve been seeing:

1. Welby’s episcopacy has been the most openly capital-C ‘Catholic’ of recent Archbishops of Canterbury. There’s been quite a bit of hype in the last week about how friendly Canterbury has been with Rome over the last week. Not only did the Latins get to celebrate a real Roman mass in Henry VIII’s chapel, but Rome has sent over Pope Gregory’s old crosier for the Primates’ Meeting, no small reference to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in which Gregory I is known as the evangelist of British Isles in the sense that even though Christianity had already arrived there, Gregory’s sending of Augustine of Canterbury catalyzed the alignment of English Christianity with the See of Rome. Of course, all this had been said before, such as when Archbishop Michael Ramsey embraced Paul VI at the end of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and when Archbishop Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI made explicit references to the Gregorian origins of Anglicanism in their mutual dialogues.


But Welby has upped the ante. When he was first appointed, he made the implementation of Catholic social teaching and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament touchstones of his episcopacy (in his addresses to evangelicals, no less!), and he made the shrine of Julian of Norwich his first stop in his walking prayer to his enthronement at Canterbury. Soon after his election, he had a meeting with Pope Francis; he recounts laughing together with the Pontiff about how ridiculous they felt to have taken their respective offices. He invited Chemin Neuf – an ecumenical monastic community of Anglicans and Roman Catholics – to live at Lambeth Palace. He and the English Catholic archbishop, Vincent Cardinal Nichols, obviously enjoy a warm friendship and have launched joint initiatives for youth work, ecumenical dialogue, and activism to end human trafficking and slavery, initiatives that are all endorsed by Pope Francis – who was reported by the Southern Cone Anglican primate (in a report that the Vatican of course denied) to have said that the Personal Ordinariates were not needed in Catholic-Anglican relations because they are brothers (of course, Pope Francis then went on to appoint as an Ordinariate bishop an alum from my high school in Hayward, California, Moreau Catholic). A few months ago, Pope Francis’s personal preacher declared at Westminster Abbey that Catholics were fully on board with the Reformation on ‘justification,’ suggesting that the barriers between Anglican and Catholic intercommunion were coming down (although astute Protestant commentators also pointed out that there’s nothing in Cantalamessa’s speech that betrays the Council of Trent on ‘justification’ either).

Here’s what this suggests: part of the Welby agenda is definitely to try to get back together with Rome. Already I can hear the naysayers who think that Catholics and Anglicans are constantly on the precipice of falling out over women bishops and human sexuality. Don’t get me wrong: all the ecumenists and Anglican scholars from Avis to O’Donovan are agreed that these are real concerns. But check out the record, especially during the Welby episcopacy. It points remarkably to an attempt to get back together with Rome.

In this sense, the proposal to reorient the ‘Anglican Communion’ to a simple communion between a province and the Archbishop of Canterbury without needing intercommunion between the Anglican provinces is a genius ecumenical suggestion. In this way, Canterbury can represent the fragmented parts of the Anglican Communion in relation to other churches, such as the See of Rome, so that if the Holy See establishes full communion with the See of Canterbury (say, with Canterbury as ‘Patriarch’ or ‘Major Archbishop’ and Rome as primus inter pares), the participation of every Anglican under the pastoral jurisdiction of Canterbury regardless of their province would allow every person received into the Anglican Communion to receive communion with their Catholic brothers and sisters. Perhaps this is why Pope Francis might have thought the Ordinariate to be unnecessary and then ordained a bishop for it anyway: the big plot might be to make Canterbury itself the Ordinariate! This is why I say that this is tightening, not ‘loosening,’ as it would tighten the identification of every Anglican with Canterbury for the sake of reunion with Rome. In this way, Canterbury would take on the most classical of senses when it comes to the episcopacy: one of the reason that bishops historically existed and could participate in synods is because they were the points of communion in which their flock participated. It might not give Canterbury teeth to set policy, but it would strengthen the ability of this primus inter pares to be the node of communion for synodal relations.

Let’s entertain this highly unlikely thought, then, and ask what possibly could Welby’s motivation be?

2. Welby’s motivation for Catholic-Anglican ecumenism is Pope St John Paul II’s 1997 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, which is actually about the Orthodox. At Welby’s first general synod – the big one about women bishops – he was asked by the British press about his meeting with Pope Francis. Almost out of the blue, Welby shot the press a phrase of Latin: Ut Unum Sint. He said that it was the title of one of John Paul II’s encyclicals on ecumenism and emphasized that it should always be a priority for the Christian churches to end the scandal of their divisions.

As far as Catholic-Anglican relations go, though, the history of the English Reformation perhaps ensures a sort of myopia about what ecumenism is about: the Protestant question of ‘popery.’ In this short-sighted interpretation, the Anglican Communion and the toothlessness of its bishops has at base a philosophically unstable understanding of ‘Communion’ that interprets ‘communion’ and ‘unity’ through the lenses of a modern liberal overlapping consensus. Certainly, as O’Donovan shows, the liberal philosophical tradition could be seen as the underlying problem beneath the Anglican Communion’s instability. But to say that the Communion would want to get back together with Rome for the sake of stability is a bit of a stretch too.

The problem here is that in Catholic-Anglican ecumenism, another underlying current is the narrow-minded assumption that Catholics think that getting back together with Protestants is a big priority. It is not, not even in Ut Unum Sint. Read Catholic documents on ecumenism carefully, and what you might find is that Catholics don’t nearly care about Anglicans and other Protestants as much as they care about the real schism in the Christian ecumene: the one with the Orthodox. In this scandal, the real scandal in the relationship between the Catholic Churches (let’s be grownups and admit that ‘Catholicism’ consists not only of one Latin church, but also of 23 Eastern ones too) and Protestants is that ecumenical relations between Western and Eastern Christianities are rendered virtually impossible because of the fragmentation of Western Christianity. Put this way, the Protestant schisms aren’t nearly on the same level as the Great Schism of 1054; they should be understood in this framework as the fragmented discontents of Latin Christianity, a point that is reinforced every time a Protestant invokes Augustine and Anselm (of Canterbury, no less).

What I am suggesting is that Welby and his ecumenical office not only understand, but embrace, this understanding of Anglicanism. For them, this Primates’ Meeting is not about defining Anglican identity as if they were trying to play some kind of identity politics. If they’re going to participate in the agenda of Ut Unum Sint – i.e. the Western Christian call for full reunion with the churches of East – there’s something to be said about not needing so much to be ‘Anglican’ but simply ‘Western.’

After all, the ‘Anglican’ approach to Byzantine Christianity has been tried and is still being tried – not without some dissatisfaction on both sides. Previous Archbishops of Canterbury have in fact been scholars of Eastern Chrisianities – one of Michael Ramsey’s central contributions to Anglican theology was through the Orthodox concepts of ‘glory’ and ‘transfiguration,’ while Rowan Williams’s PhD was on Lossky, his big book was on Arius, heresy, and the development of Orthodox Christianity as a creative response to Arianism, and he’s got a book on Dostoevsky too. By ‘Orthodox,’ they don’t just mean Byzantine Christianity either; there are dialogues also with the Oriental Orthodox that has resulted in a statement of agreement about Christology, which has resulted in a recommendation of no small significance to all the Orthodox, Chalcedonian or not: drop the filioque.


These developments are happening in parallel to broader attempts within and without Orthodoxy to restore full ecumenical relations with the Western churches while sorting out problems of communion among the canonical and non-canonical Orthodox Churches too. Although the excommunications of the Great Schism were technically lifted by Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras at the Second Vatican Council, Bartholomew I’s enthronement as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1991 catalyzed attempts to convene both pan-Orthodox synods as well as pursue closer relations with the Holy See. On the Roman side, the most recent exchange of letters with Pope Francis has been very interesting, as Francis comes right out and says that all impediments to communion have been removed already – and this comes after the historic calls when they met in Jerusalem and Istanbul for full restoration of communion. Even more striking is that part of the ‘common home’ in Laudato Si is Francis’s direct invocations of Bartholomew’s environmental declarations, suggesting that part of the care of the common home is the restoration of full relations between Western and Eastern Christianities. In this sense, Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism, which had some encouraging fruits already in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI but were subjected to all sorts of fits and starts too, got a reboot with Francis, just as sorting out the canonical mess of the Orthodox Churches got a reboot with Bartholomew I (flanked, of course, by some very able guys like Archdeacon John Chryssavgis and Metropolitan John of Pergamon).

What I’m trying to say, then, is that while Anglicans may be making progress on their relations with both Byzantine and Oriental Orthodoxies, the overarching idea on the ecumenical agenda is not identity politics, but the restoration of the Christian ecumene, period. In this sense, the real dialogue that matters is between Western and Eastern Christianities, which has itself been going remarkably well between the Patriarch of the West (Francis) and the Ecumenical Patriarch (Bartholomew) – which means that if Anglicans were to participate in this dialogue, it’d be a good thing to be fully ‘Western.’

The only problem with this rosy picture, though, is that Orthodoxy is at war. As Metropolitan John of Pergamon points out, Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and now also in Syria has been a source of Orthodox tension with the Moscow Patriarchate, where Patriarch Kirill’s ‘symphonic’ support of Putin’s government positions it as in bed with the Kremlin in an arrangement that Catholic blogger Artur Rosman consistently mocks as ‘altar-and-throne.’ This, finally, takes us to my third and final point…

3. For its part, ACNA has been to visit the Moscow Patriarchate, which accentuates the meaning of what a potential GAFCON ‘walk-out’ would mean in an Orthodox synodal sense. In late August 2015, the leaders of ACNA, including its ‘Primate’ Foley Beach, were warmly received by Russian Orthodox hierarchs Metropolitan Hilarion and Patriarch Kirill in Moscow. The Russian hierarchs observed that ACNA had been ‘courageous’ during a ‘difficult period’ of Anglican church ‘history’ and came out faithful because it did not compromise with the ‘secular culture and powerful forces that have an impact on social development.’ For ACNA’s part, Archbishop Beach delivered a letter from GAFCON’s chair, the Kenyan primate Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, to the Moscow Patriarchate calling for closer relations on sexual ethics between (Russian) Orthodoxy and GAFCON. A write-up for ACNA’s website observed that there had historically existed warm relations between the Archbishops of Canterbury and the Russian Orthodox Church; the implication was that GAFCON was now filling that role because of its stand against ‘secular’ power and sexual liberalization.

Celebrate as ACNA might, this is a remarkable coup for a Patriarchate whose line on sexual ethics is basically the line from the Kremlin. Remarkable also is how consistent this line has been for conservatives in the American culture wars for heaping praise on Putin’s regime for its policies criminalizing ‘gay propaganda.’ It might therefore be less than remarkable to point out that despite all that’s going on in the Anglican Communion, the GAFCON letter to the recent Primates’ Meeting – authored by the same Primate who wrote to Putin – centers Anglican sexual ethics as the litmus test for biblical orthodoxy and the possible basis of a walk-out.

A ‘walk-out’ in this sense would be the opposite of a ‘synod,’ which as Pope Francis recently pointed out in a Synod on the Family that was subjected to similar contentions over sexual morality: a synod means to journey together. This ‘synodal’ rhetoric is the same language, of course, as Archbishop Welby when discussing Catholic-Anglican relations: there is a need to walk together. This is what Patriarch Bartholomew is trying to do with the Pan-Orthodox synods and synaxes: the Orthodox Churches need to walk together. What John of Pergamon points out is that in supporting Russian aggression, the Moscow Patriarchate is therefore walking apart from the pan-Orthodox synods, threatening not only the ecumenical project of pan-Orthodoxy but (as the Metropolitan emphasizes) the dialogue with Rome that would be the fruit of pan-Orthodoxy. What I am pointing out is that not only is the Moscow Patriarchate walking apart from pan-Orthodoxy, but taking ACNA and GAFCON along for the ride.

What might be emerging from this Anglican Primates’ Meeting are two geographies of ecumenism, then. As John Milbank’s most recent book Beyond Secular Order prescribes, the reunification of Christendom’s Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Byzantine ecumenes may be the political project of our times if we are serious in rebooting democratic polities with real senses of human dignity and agency. However, the division of the Primates’ Meeting perhaps point to the development of not one, but two Christendoms. One is the sense in which Welby, Francis, Bartholomew, and Tawadros II are perhaps working together to set aside their identity politics to come together to care for their common home: to end human slavery, to preserve the natural environment, to denounce the arms race, to call for peace in war-torn areas like Ukraine and Syria. In this sense, the Primates’ Meeting is about getting the ball further down the court in getting Canterbury and Rome back together with a ‘looser’ ‘tighter’ structure that enables full communion through a participatory episcopacy.

But there is also a rival ideological one that also goes by the name ‘global Christendom,’ and as recent events suggest, it might be a site where the Moscow Patriarchate and GAFCON find themselves in bed together. In this one, ‘Christendom’ is about walking apart as a strategy to defend modes of Christian ideology, which takes as its main strategy the centrality of  sexual ethics in both the ‘Russian world’ as a mode of ‘Christian nationhood’ and the unlikely victory of conservatives in the American culture wars. Just as Canterbury’s Roman strategy is ultimately to restore the ecumene of Eastern and Western Christianities, this mode of resonance also attempts to bring about a Christendom, but one that turns orthodoxy in its capital-O and Anglican lowercase ‘o’ forms into ideology.

But either way, those are my tentative thoughts: The Primates’ Meeting is not about the future of Anglicanism. It’s really about Orthodoxy and the future of Christian ecumenism.

UPDATE #1: Nothing in Justin Cantuar’s opening remarks to the meeting contradicts what I said. So far, so good. +Justin is also remarkable for emphasizing the centrality of the East African Revival to the future of the Anglican Communion, repositioning the African primates in what I might call ‘Christendom I’ (restoring the ecumene to care for our common home) than ‘Christendom II’ (ideological conservatism with Kremlin puppetmasters).

UPDATE #2: It just occurred to me that an Anglican Communion prayer against ‘misinformation’ is basically an acknowledgement that I’m pretty much right about Point #3 in this post.

UPDATE #3: Originally, I did not want to implicate anyone in my delusional thinking about Anglicanism and Orthodox ecumenisms. However, with some discussion and encouragement, I’d like to acknowledge a deeply formative conversation I had with Matthew Thomas, a brilliant scholar in his own right studying now at Oxford, at Peet’s Coffee in the Bay Area for many of these thoughts, especially because it was he who introduced me to the Ravenna Document. Matt is not to be held responsible for any of my current delusions, but he should be credited for planting this idea in my head all those years ago.

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