In a statement, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury and the spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, invited 37 primates to meet in Britain next January to “discuss key issues face to face, including a review of the structures of the Anglican Communion.”
Among those invited was the leader of the Anglican Church in North America, a conservative alliance that broke away after the decisions by the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada to ordain openly gay people. The Anglican Church in North America is recognized by conservative provinces in the Communion, but regarded by others as an illegitimate splinter group.
After years in which the leadership of the church had sought to persuade those of different views to work together, the convening of the meeting suggests that Archbishop Welby now believes a new strategy is required to confront divisions and prevent the worldwide Communion, in which 38 provinces are formally joined, from splitting apart.
The Communion includes the more liberal Anglicans led by the national churches, or provinces, in the United States and Canada and other countries; and conservatives in Africa, Latin America, the United States and elsewhere.
The event that precipitated the conflict was the election in New Hampshire of V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop, in 2003. The Episcopal Church affirmed the election but suffered when some of its churches, priests and members — and even a few entire dioceses — departed as a consequence.
The creation of a lighter and looser relationship among the churches might be enough to allow Canterbury to maintain relations with the Episcopal Church and, say, provinces in African countries, which have encouraged their governments to criminalize homosexuality. The archbishop’s statement stressed that he was not in a position to dictate policy. “We have no Anglican pope,” he wrote. “Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted.”
His aides confirmed, however, that while he was not proposing any specific solution, the archbishop was open to discussion of a new, looser federation.
On Wednesday, Lambeth Palace, the seat of the Communion, confirmed as accurate British newspaper reports citing an unnamed source as saying that the archbishop felt he could not leave his eventual successor in the position of “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere.”
If such an outcome were agreed upon, members of all the churches would be able to call themselves Anglican, but the change of structure would make clear that there need no longer be a common doctrine.
When asked by The Guardian newspaper whether this would represent if not a divorce, then a legal separation, the source responded: “It’s more like sleeping in separate bedrooms.” The archbishop’s office confirmed the authenticity of the quotations.
In his statement, Archbishop Welby said that the agenda of the meeting would “be set by common agreement with all primates encouraged to send in contributions,” but added that it would likely include topics such as religiously motivated violence, the protection of children and vulnerable adults, the environment and human sexuality.
He also noted that “the difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians.”
“A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism,” he added.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, will soon be replaced by Bishop Michael B. Curry, who was elected this summer and will be installed in the next few months. A spokeswoman for the church, which has 2.1 million members, said Bishop Curry planned to attend the meeting.
Archbishop Foley Beach, the leader of the Anglican Church in North America, which counts 112,000 members in Canada, the United States and Mexico, said Wednesday that he had received a call from Archbishop Welby inviting him to the meeting, and that he planned to go if conservative primates in other countries also attended.
“The challenges facing the Anglican Communion over the last couple of decades are no secret,” the Rev. Dr. Beach said, “and it is time to face them.”