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Archbishop Justin Welby reflects on the Primates’ Meeting

Abp Justin Welby

Posted By Abp Justin Welby

21 January 2016 10:29AM


Last week the Primates of the Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury for a week of prayer and discussion. You might well have been following the events in the media. I want to share some thoughts of my own here about what took place last week – which was without doubt one of the most extraordinary weeks I have ever experienced.

The first thing to say is that the week was completely rooted in prayer. The Community of St Anselm – the international young Christian community based at Lambeth Palace – took up residence in Canterbury Cathedral and prayed all day every day for the Primates as we talked together. As Primates we joined with all who gathered for Morning Prayer, Eucharist and Evensong in the Cathedral each day. And meanwhile thousands – perhaps millions – of Anglicans and others in the Christian family around the world prayed in churches and posted prayers on social media. I want to thank everyone who prayed last week. We felt it and we appreciated it deeply.


So onto what actually happened last week.

As leaders of the family of Anglican churches in a world so racked by violence and fear, we gathered in Canterbury with much to share and discuss – from climate change to religiously motivated violence.
A significant part of the week was spent discussing how – or even if – we could remain together as the Anglican Communion in the light of changes made by our brothers and sisters in The Episcopal Church (the historic Anglican Communion church in the USA and some other countries) to their understanding of marriage.

It is really worth stressing here that this was not a meeting where we discussed formally our differing views on human sexuality. Personally the fact that people are persecuted for their sexuality is a constant source of deep sadness. As I said in the press conference on the final day of the meeting, I am deeply sorry for the pain that the church has caused LGBTI people in the past – and the present – and for the love that too often we have completely failed to show in many parts of the world, including England. The worst thing about that is that it causes people to doubt that they are loved by God.

We have to see that changed. In our communiqué the Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence. We resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. And we reaffirmed our rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted adults. We need to act on those words.

But back to the response that we made about how to move forward together in the light of decisions taken by The Episcopal Church (TEC). This was a meeting where we discussed whether or not we could stay together as one family after one member has taken unilateral action – in this case, making a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching on marriage held by the large majority of Anglican Provinces globally. But the question could and undoubtedly will apply in the future to other issues. I should say that Provinces are described as autonomous (they make their own minds up) but interdependent (we are linked as family to one another).

It’s no secret to say that before the meeting, the signs were not good. It really was possible that we would reach a decision to walk apart – in effect, to split the Anglican Communion. In the debates that have raged around these issues for several decades now, some have said unity is worthless if achieved at the expense of justice. Others have argued unity is a false prize if it undermines truth.

Both of these views misunderstand the nature of the church, which is not an organisation but a body of people committed to each other because they are followers of Jesus Christ. We are put together as family by God, because we are all God’s children.

The meeting reached a point on Wednesday where we chose quite simply to decide on this point – do we walk together at a distance, or walk apart? And what happened next went beyond everyone’s expectations. It was Spirit-led. It was a ‘God moment’. As leaders of our Anglican Communion, and more importantly as Christians, we looked at each other across our deep and complex differences – and we recognised those we saw as those with whom we are called to journey in hope towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ. It was our unanimous decision to walk together and to take responsibility for making that work.

We remain committed to being together, albeit we asked that TEC, while attending and playing a full part in our meetings and all discussions, will not represent the Anglican Communion to other churches and should not be involved in standing committees for a period of three years. During this time we also asked that they not vote on matters of doctrine or how we organise ourselves.

It’s clear in Christian teaching that it’s not for us to divide the body of Christ, which is the church, but also that we must seek to make decisions bearing each other in mind, taking each other seriously, loving one another despite deep differences of view.

Because of that, the unity that was so remarkably shown by the Anglican Primates in Canterbury last week is always costly. It is always painful. It feels very fragile. We are a global family of churches in 165 countries, speaking over a thousand languages and living in hundreds of different cultures – how could we not wound each other as we seek to hold together amidst great diversity?

There will be wounds for each other, but we must repent of wounding others who are especially vulnerable, whether they are LGBTI people or those menaced by religiously-motivated violence, terrorism and exile. Some, of course, will fall in many categories.

But that unity is also joyful and astonishing, renewing and nourishing – because it is unity in love for Jesus Christ, whose single family we are, often argumentative, sometimes cruel (which is deeply wrong) but created by God and belonging to each other irrevocably.


We spent time talking about the desperate situation of so many Christians around the world living with the threat and reality of religiously-motivated violence. The primary fear for many, probably near a majority of Anglicans in the world today – just as it is for our brothers and sisters in other parts of the Christian Church and for other communities entirely – is the violence that confronts them and their families daily.

It’s the risk of a Congolese woman getting raped by a militia when she goes out to fetch water. It’s the risk of church congregations in Pakistan being killed by a suicide bomber as they worship on Sunday morning. And it’s a thousand other risks besides. We heard many moving stories from around the world, shared by fellow Primates, and discussed what we can do to challenge that violence.

All of us were deeply moved when the devastating effects of climate change were presented in terms of the very existence of peoples, communities and even nations. From rising sea levels, to drought and famine from the increase of unforgiving arid landscapes, the result is life-threatening for many of our brothers and sisters.

So there was much darkness to lament and to recommit ourselves to challenging. But there were rays of pure, joyful hope as well. The Primates committed ourselves – all of us, in every part of the Communion – to evangelism. To proclaiming the person and work of Jesus Christ – inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel and to proclaim that to everyone.

There will be plenty more to say on this in the coming weeks and months – certainly not just by me, but also by everyone who cares passionately about the Anglican Communion. For now, I wanted to share these initial reflections with you, and ask for you to keep praying for our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ. If Christ’s flock can more or less stay together, it's hope for a world that tears itself apart – a sign of what can happen with the love and mercy of God through Jesus Christ.


  • You can read the Communiqué by the Anglican Primates here.

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22 January 2016 10:52PM

" should we not agree that different provinces understand God's mercy in entirely different ways and give everyone the freedom to be faithful, in their own integrity, to that understanding" What do we do as the body of Christ if these "freedoms" are direct contradiction to one another like like foundational truths(virgin birth ,deity of Christ , bodily resurrection,etc)where can the unity come from ,,we done walk the same path nor follow the same Lord.Unity comes in shared core beliefs. Now you even have those in the communion who would do away with the creeds and just recite the Shama. Jesus prayed ""keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one." We are to be one as the Father and the Son are one, they believed the same thing.

Bruce Garner

22 January 2016 3:01AM

I am glad that there were discussions about other issues than human sexuality. There are problems in our world far more important than who can marry whom. Although a loving couple wishing to be married by the church as a reflection of their lifelong commitment to each other should be allowed to do so. I do have to wonder when other provinces of the Anglican Communion will be held accountable for the atrocities committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and/or gender expression/identity? This is not just an issue for The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada or others. It is an issue for all the church. As the years pass, more and more children of God will gain the courage to be open about who they are. In doing so, they will move the discussion away from being an "issue" to being part of what it means to be a child of God, to be human. Putting the face on something makes it more difficult to dismiss than if it is just an "issue." I also wonder when the Communion will openly discuss issues of polygamy in some provinces. And while polygamy is closer to the Scriptural standard of marriage than what most of the world recognizes today, it is still not viewed in the most positive light. So if we want to have honest discussions, we need to have them about all the issues that impact us. Finally, it is time to hold Anglican clergy at all levels accountable for supporting or inciting violence against lesbian and gay people. It is duplicitous to say that lesbians and gays are "acceptable" and then support legal sanctions that result in imprisonment, sometimes torture, and sometimes death. Jesus told us to "love one another as I have loved you." Jesus also reminded us that the second commandment was to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus did not provide exceptions to either. What makes us think we can create exceptions and still remain true to the Gospel?

Michael H

21 January 2016 10:06PM

I agree with the Archbishop that the issues of sexuality are hardly the most important matter confronting Anglicans world wide. Why, then, do we spend so much time on it? I would like the Archbishop to explain why the actions of TEC, which apparently define marriage differently from the majority of Anglicans, constitute "a fundamental departure from the faith"? Which of the historic formularies do they depart from? It seems to me that they constitute only a difference of opinion about the interpretation of scripture and its application in contemporary society. In that sense, they are an entirely normal part of Christian discourse and policy.

Thomas A.

21 January 2016 6:26PM

As a life-long Episcopalian who has chosen to remain, I must say that the greatest sin of my beloved church is not the change in the definition of marriage – although this change is, indeed a sin, for the ones who suffer most are those who receive same-sex “blessings,” and thus are led to believe they are living in the fullness of God’s will. The biggest sin of ECUSA is our intellectual arrogance. We think we are smarter than everyone else. We believe we are smarter than our other Anglican brothers and sisters; we are smarter than Catholics, Baptists, etc., and certainly Pentecostals – all those who hold up scripture and tradition to a high authority. Our human reasoning trumps all that. This was further exemplified by our Presiding Bishop’s arrogant response to the Primates’ vote, “We are the Episcopal Church, and we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that Movement goes on, and our work goes on. And the truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people.” In other words, “We have a better understanding of who God is than the rest of you, and you who hold to traditional marriage are not as loving and welcoming as we are.” A bit of confirmation of this: at the Primates meeting, of the 27 who voted, 2 voted “for” the Episcopal Church’s redefinition of marriage and 25 voted against the redefinition.

John Twidell: Leicese

21 January 2016 5:37PM

The Ugandan Primate decided he could not stay with the meeting, but surely there should be expressed sympathy with the distinctive history of the Ugandan church? This church was established in honour of the young Christian men who were executed for refusing to engage in homosexual practices with the Kabaka (king) and his companions. These young men are now honoured by the Ugandan churches as martyrs; their witness cannot seemingly be bypassed.

Revd. Dr. Lorraine Cavanagh

21 January 2016 4:53PM

I do not understand how it is that we can square the idea of TEC being put in the position of defendant while at the same time claiming that we want to do all we can to repair the damage and hurt done to LGBTI people. The two positions seem incompatible and entirely contradictory. Rather, should we not agree that different provinces understand God's mercy in entirely different ways and give everyone the freedom to be faithful, in their own integrity, to that understanding - whatever issue it pertains to?