This Blog has been going for almost two years, and during that time I’ve studiously avoided the subject of the Anglican Communion and its current controversy with the Episcopal Church, but perhaps it is time to make a point or two not being made elsewhere.

Ever since Gene Robinson was consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire, and those who saw his consecration as a threat to the integrity of the Episcopal Church appealed to the Anglican Communion to intervene, people of all persuasions have been explaining what the various responses from the Communion have meant. I have vivid memories of several conservatives, a bit non-plussed at the measured comments of the Windsor Report, insisting that its words were ‘typical British understatement’, and that any day now the leaders of the Episcopal Church would be shown the door of the Anglican Communion. When that day seemed to be long in coming, the understatement theory fell out of favor, and readers will recall N. T. Wright, then Bishop of Durham, explaining publicly to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, exactly what Dr Williams himself meant. In all these and many other instances, it eventually became clear that conservatives were reading their own hopes into the words they read.

As the Windsor Report has made its unhurried metamorphosis into the Anglican Covenant, it has become impossible to avoid the mirror image of this behavior at the other end of the theological spectrum. Those of a more progressive bent have begun to read their own fears into its statements, and are equally convinced that they mean more than they say. English opponents of the Covenant put advertisements in the press saying that it would bring the Church of England back under ‘foreign jurisdiction’ for the first time since the Reformation, and a colleague of mine recently assured his audience that it would give the Joint Standing Committee the power to determine the meaning of Scripture and impose it on the entire Communion.

The truth is that the fears, as surely as the hopes, have no substance. The key to understanding this is the simple fact that the Instruments of Unity, as such, have been saying clearly and exactly what they mean ever since they began to consider the current disagreement. In these days of spin and equivocation, it may be hard for us to accept, but if you read them all again, from 2004 to the present, there it all is, glorious in its mereness. There is not a single statement in any communique from the Primates, or speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, or policy of the Anglican Consultative Council, or report from any of the ad hoc Committees formed by any of them, which has not been lived up to exactly as written—but only as written.

Bearing this in mind, it is worth reading—carefully—the recent letter from The Archbishop to the Primates:

The recent Primates’ Meeting in Dublin did not set out to offer a solution to the ongoing challenges of mutual understanding and of the limits of our diversity in the Communion.  But it is important to note carefully what it did set out to do and what it achieved.  In recent years, many have appealed to the Primates to resolve the problems of the Communion by taking decisive action to enforce discipline on this or that Province.  In approaching the Dublin Meeting, we believed that it was essential to clarify how the Primates themselves understood the nature of their office and authority.  It has always been clear that not all have the same view—not because of different theological convictions alone, but also because of the different legal and canonical roles they occupy as Primates.  Some have a good deal of individual authority; others have their powers very closely limited by their own canons.  It would therefore be difficult if the Meeting collectively gave powers to Primates that were greater than their own canons allowed them individually, as was noted at the 2008 Lambeth Conference (Lambeth Indaba 2008 #151).

The unanimous judgement of those who were present was that the Meeting should not see itself as a ‘supreme court’, with canonical powers, but that it should nevertheless be profoundly and regularly concerned with looking for ways of securing unity and building relationships of trust… the Primates made no change to their existing commitments to both the Covenant process and the moratoria requests. The purpose of the Dublin meeting was, as I have said, not to offer fresh solutions but to clarify what we believed about our shared purpose and identity as a Primates’ Meeting.  I think that this clarity was achieved, and achieved in an atmosphere of very demanding and searching conversation, which intensified our sense of commitment to each other and the Communion.  We were painfully aware of those who did not feel able to be with us, and held them in prayer each day, seeking to remind ourselves of the concerns that they would have wanted to put on the table.  We were all agreed that the Meeting inevitably represented ‘unfinished business’, and were all committed to pursuing the conversations needed to consolidate our fellowship.  We shall continue to seek ways of meeting at every level that will prevent our being isolated from each other in suspicion and hostility.

Not what the conservatives want, and not what the progressives fear; but how great if it turned out to be true, in its plain grammatical sense, and nothing more!