Here is a part of the Presidential Address delivered by the Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, to his Diocesan Synod on 10 March 2007:
…The same might be said of the Primates Meeting in Tanzania. None of us were there but in a letter to Primates last week Archbishop Rowan observed that the meeting was far from being an easy few days but he believed that it had been a productive gathering with a great deal of honesty. The product of the meeting was a communiqué containing a set of demands to which the American Church must respond by the end of September, and a draft covenant to which provinces are to respond and their bishops are to discuss further at next year’s Lambeth Conference.
We’ll look a little more closely at both covenant and communiqué a little later in our agenda, but now I’d like to reflect upon what might be a flaw at the heart of this approach to our difficulties…
…I may be getting this wrong, but I believe that the Primates have ignored or underestimated the strength and depth of these values in church as well as state in the United States. The church was the creation of popular democracy after the revolution. Church congregations in each state voted as to whether they wished for bishops to be appointed. Still today, bishops in America have no authority to veto decisions of their diocesan councils. African bishops might in some places be in a position to hire and fire their clergy at will; American bishops have no such authority and would regard it as being un-American.
Whatever the issue, then, for primates to instruct or request American bishops to take actions which appear to them to be undemocratic, or exceeding their powers, is to ask something that they are not in a position to deliver without denying their church polity, culture and history, however loyal they wish to be to the Communion.
And here I believe lies the fundamental flaw. The Primates have misunderstood the nature of our communion. From the consecration of the first overseas Anglican bishops there was no intention of creating a kind of Soviet bloc Communion where each province had to march in step with one another.
Listen to this letter of the English Bishops to the Philadelphia Convention in 1786 when they had been requested to consecrate an American priest as bishop. They wrote: ‘We cannot but be extremely cautious, lest we should be the instruments of establishing an ecclesiastical system which will be called a branch of the Church of England, but afterwards may possibly appear to have departed from it essentially, either in doctrine or discipline.’
There was no intention then of creating a branch of the Church of England in America, or an Anglican satellite, and the English bishops were ultimately satisfied in their negotiations with the General Convention and America had their bishops but in way far more accountable to local church democracy than we have ever seen here.
Of course most of the Anglican Churches in the Communion were established in countries which were part of the British Empire, with bishops initially sent out to serve from England. But that was not universally so, and just as the nations achieved independence with their own constitutions, so we see autonomous local Anglican provinces with their own constitutions and systems of canon law.
And just as many of these nations, with others, have voluntarily become members of the Commonwealth symbolically focussed on the Queen, but with no pretence of having authority in one another’s nations, so the Anglican provinces find the focus of their unity in the archbishop of Canterbury, but up until now there has been no sense of having authority in one another’s provinces. That is not the post-Tanzanian meeting climate. We will see later in the year whether the American bishops can find the form of words demanded of them. I could offer them one or two priests from the Diocese of Southwark who are skilled in drafting words which take us to the brink but not quite over it. It might be possible and we might yet all show up at the Lambeth Conference next year.
But whether we do or not, I would like us to return to our roots and ask ourselves, is it our calling to be a Communion where we must march in step, and if one province departs from the others in doctrine or discipline, they must depart the Communion because otherwise the others feel compromised? Or is it our calling to be a Commonwealth of Anglican provinces, uncompromised by the beliefs and behaviour of other provinces, trusting that they know what is best for the Church and world in their particular culture with their particular history and tradition. I don’t hear that argument being made. Perhaps it should be…