The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, preached at evensong in the 13th-century St Patrick’s cathedral in Armagh on Tuesday evening. Thirty-five of the 38 primates who head the provinces of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion are meeting at the Dromantine Centre, a Roman Catholic monastic retreat near Armagh. Just three are missing, for personal reasons.
The press are describing the conservative archbishops as having won the first round in the battle for the soul of the Anglican Church on Monday when they “tore up” the agenda of the week-long meeting. Led by the primate of Nigeria, Dr Peter Akinola and the primate of Central Africa, Dr Bernard Malango, the anti-gay evangelicals used their numerical strength to force the meeting to put subjects such as Aids and world poverty on the back burner and to spend all week debating the threatened schism over homosexuality. Insiders said Dr Williams had seemed sympathetic to the demands of the conservatives.
About half of those attending are believed to want the US church, and the Canadian church where one diocese has authorised same sex blessing services, to faces sanctions unless they repent. There have been reports that some archbishops are refusing to take communion with the US presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, an action avoided by the expedient of not having daily communion and having services conducted by a local chaplain. So far there have been no walkouts and all the archbishops attended the evensong,
English and American conservative evangelicals have congregated in the nearby town of Newry to lobby the meeting and maintain contact with their sympathisers among the archbishops by mobile phone. Since there is a news blackout during the meetings, the rumours that emerge are coming filtered through the prism of the lobbyists. One cleric attending the gathering said: “They are still talking. We thought if there were going to be walkouts we would have had them by now but opinions are deeply entrenched.”
At the Tuesday evening service, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached a sermon pointedly observing Christ’s role as a peacemaker: “He has made peace and our life rests on what he has done and nothing else.” delivered a powerful rebuke to the Primates. It was a passionate and almost despairing plea for peace that he acknowledged was probably “doomed”. He also condemned “anxious striving, desperate activism”. He urged the archbishops to “find peace in our worship together”. He told the primates that Christ called them to be instruments of His peace. He said that the Church was, above all, a place of prayer and thanksgiving. “If the Church fails to be such a place, it is no real Church.” He continued: “We are required first of all to know that it is Christ who has made peace. In other words, we are not to be anxious, a doomed piece of advice it may be for any Church — not least the Anglican Communion at the moment — and yet that is what Christ says to us. How readily we turn to anxious striving, as if Christ had not died and been raised. How awkwardly we sit with one another to pray together, to worship together.” But the Church should not close its doors to those “lost in unhappiness, in error and in sin”. Dr Williams indicated that it might not be the best thing to strive to reach a firm resolution of the issues in the immediate future. “Our own efforts at peacemaking and witnessing to peace in world and Church alike must not be characterised by anxious striving, by desperate activism, by the passion to get it all sorted out right now,” he said.
Since penitence is precisely what some of the Primates are demanding of the US Episcopal Church for its temerity in electing an openly gay bishop 18 months ago, the words reverberated around the cathedral with pregnant meaning.
Hymns at the hour-long service included one with repeated invocations of God the Trinity, the traditional symbol of unity, against “the natural lusts that war within” and “against false words of heresy”. The primates also sang Psalm 133: “Behold how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity!” The service was attended by Paul Murphy, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State.
The archbishops are aware this may conceivably be the last time they will all get together – it will be if the conservatives have their way in calling for the US church to be expelled from the communion unless it repents.