Headlines are rarely the place to get a good grasp of a complex story, but yesterday the Washington Post got it more wrong than most ("Anglican Communion suspends the Episcopal Church after years of gay rights debates”), and their clumsy take on the issue seems to exemplify a misunderstanding that needs to be addressed, if Episcopalians and others are to understand our places in the Communion after the Primates' gathering in Canterbury.
Who are the Primates?
The Primates are bishops of the various provinces - national or regional Churches - who have leadership roles in their own settings, some with more authority than others. They do not individually make decisions even for their provinces, but of course speak with significant moral authority for their members, and often act as spokespersons for their national bodies.
Together, the Primates meeting formally are seen as one of the “instruments” of unity or communion for Anglicans - along with the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conferences, and the Anglican Consultative Council. They cannot however collectively make decisions except for themselves, although they may exercise a significant moral authority for us all. This recent gathering was actually not a formal meeting of the Primates, however.
What did the Primates do?
The Primates came together at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury to pray and to share various experiences. The website created to reflect the focus and tone of the meeting is encouraging in its breadth of concerns and its focus on common prayer. The final communiqué is also more than one-dimensional.
But before that came the statement about TEC. First, it has to be said that the gathering of Primates has stretched the limits of any authority they have, in “requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee.” The Primates do not actually have control over the membership of such bodies, which typically relate to the more broadly-constituted Anglican Consultative Council.
While global Anglican leaders who are not part of the Primates meeting will not be pleased by the presumption involved in this statement, and there will almost certainly be some fallout about it behind closed doors, nevertheless the Primates’ views will be taken seriously, and interpreted as though they had spoken with proper authority (urging, calling on, etc.) rather than with an apparent prelatical lack of self-awareness. In other words, the ACC and national groups who actually make appointments to the committees referred to will almost certainly adhere to the principle that has been outlined.
What is that principle, though? The Primates’ statement goes on to say "while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, [TEC] will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.” What this makes clear is of course that TEC will be taking part in all these internal bodies as previously - simply put, it will have voice but not vote. And in fact the distinction is not so different from present practice; in a number of ecumenical conversations TEC is already not taking part, because of sensitivities ranging from same-sex marriage, to ordination of persons in same-sex relationships, to women’s ordination.
While we know little about the details of meeting, given the posturing by GAFCON sources about walkouts and more radical actions we should assume that this outcome reflects serious efforts by numerous Primates to fend off worse outcomes. It is a compromise, and should be read with a grain of salt; its unanimity covers a complexity of thought and purpose, even among the Primates. The Primates know TEC is part of the Anglican Communion and want it to be.
What is the Anglican Communion?
What the Post got completely wrong, but which some TEC members and other Anglicans may not get quite right either, is that none of the above has anything much to do with participation in or membership of the Anglican Communion as such. The Anglican Communion is not these international bodies, but is constituted by the set of relationships at all levels including local and bilateral ones. Calling those committees “the Anglican Communion" is like calling some senate committee "the United States."
In a recent blog post, Berkeley grad Jesse Zink reminded us that the reality of the Communion may be constituted as much by small-scale interaction across geographical distance and cultural boundaries. This is not merely a warm personal insight, but a quite fundamental aspect of Anglican polity. The Primates did not seek to define the Communion any differently, but neither can they; it is one thing for them to get the polity of the Instruments of Communion a bit wrong, but they know enough not to think they can define Anglicanism itself.
So, no - the Episcopal Church has not been suspended from or by the Anglican Communion. The fact that the Primates’ approach is problematic regarding issues of human sexuality is another matter. But let us not imagine that these events make TEC “second class Anglicans,” let alone that they remove TEC members from the Communion in any way. They should have little impact on how members of TEC see themselves as part of a wider Communion, a community of Churches with a common history and with an extraordinary scope and richness.
As far as Communion itself goes, the main message TEC members should take from Canterbury this week is that Communion is what we ourselves will make it. While the Primates may be judged by many to have stumbled in their difficult work of fostering communion, at least in their declaration about TEC, they are an instrument of Communion and not the thing itself. We should redouble our own efforts to have strong relationships with other national Churches and their members, and be thankful for the opportunities we have to engage with Anglicans of other cultures and traditions. The curious and powerful gift of Communion is God's, not the Primates, to give.