The Archbishop of Canterbury is facing the biggest challenge to his authority to date from within the Anglican Church, in a row on homosexuality which threatens to split the church. In a week’s time Anglican leaders from across the world will meet at a “make or break” summit, but conservative primates have threatened to walk out unless liberal bishops drop their support for gay marriage.
The Archbishop, Justin Welby, has convened the summit in an attempt to broker an agreement between the heads of the 38 churches representing 165 countries in the worldwide Anglican Communion, following years of bitter infighting.
It will be the first time that all of the Anglican leaders have met in over a decade; the row prompted Welby to postpone last year’s Lambeth Conference, a gathering of all Anglican Bishops which has convened nearly every decade since the 1860s. Only the two world wars prevented previous meetings from going ahead.
The last Lambeth Conference to take place, hosted in 2008, was boycotted by key conservative figures who objected to the consecration of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, by the Episcopal Church in America in 2003. American bishops have responded by accusing the conservatives of homophobia.
As feelings run high in the run up to January’s summit, three of the most powerful Archbishops, those of Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, were considering not attending in protest. They have now been persuaded to attend by colleagues hopeful of wringing concessions out of Welby, insiders have told the Mail on Sunday.
But a group of eight to twelve conservatives are considering walking out of the summit on the first morning, unless the Americans agree to “repent” or the Archbishop ejects them from the meeting first. They also hope to see the Archbishop offer a firm commitment to traditional Christian doctrine.
The Global Anglican Future (GAFCON) movement, which represents traditional Anglicans globally, has issued a statement to that effect, welcoming the meeting as a “courageous initiative” in a statement.
“The GAFCON Primates will attend in the hope that Archbishop Welby will, like them, stand firm to guard the gospel we love, knowing that we cannot rewrite the Bible to suit the spirit of a secular age,” the statement read.
However, it continued that while “GAFCON and the other orthodox Primates are willing to attend, they know that after many years of debate, action is needed to restore the spiritual and doctrinal integrity of the Communion they care for so deeply.
“They are clear that their continued presence will depend upon action by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a majority of the Primates to ensure that participation in the Anglican Communion is governed by robust commitments to biblical teaching and morality.”
If the conservative representatives do leave the summit, they are likely to decamp to an alternative venue and discuss setting up a parallel church, drawing traditional congregants away from the mainstream Anglican church. They would also boycott all future meetings.
The Archbishop in turns hopes to persuade them to remain within a Communion which evolves to become a more loosely linked “federation”, possibly along the lines of a federal model similar to that used by the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia.
But GAFCON has rejected any agreement which centres around recognition of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the only link between the Communion.
“It has been suggested that the way forward is for the Anglican Communion to abandon the idea that there should be mutual recognition between the provinces and that it should instead find its unity simply in a common relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“This is not historic Anglicanism; the See of Canterbury is honoured and respected as the Mother Church of the Communion, but the unity of the Communion does not depend upon the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“Rather, it depends upon the various provinces being able to recognize each other, with all their differences of culture, as truly apostolic and committed to the faith as it has been received. Tragically, that recognition has now broken down and affection for Canterbury is no substitute.”
Lambeth Palace said: “The Archbishop has invited everyone. If people walk out that will be viewed with disappointment rather than anger, and the door will always be open.”