On January 11th, 38 leaders of Anglican provinces around the world will begin a five-day meeting in Canterbury, the spiritual home of the global Anglican communion. They have been invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby…in what observers are calling a last-ditch attempt to save the third-biggest Christian denomination in the world, with some 85m followers. Why is this meeting so important for Anglicans and what is likely to happen?
Anglican primates usually meet every two years, but have not convened since 2011, largely because of an ongoing dispute about homosexuality. In 2003 the Episcopal Church (the American wing of Anglicanism) consecrated a sexually active gay bishop and last year moved towards allowing its clergy to solemnise same-sex marriage. The Anglican communion cannot excommunicate people or provinces and, as a result, conservative bishops have formed a group, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which is threatening to break away entirely. (If this meeting had not been called, they might have done so already.) Another group of conservatives in America has already split away from the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). At the last primates’ meeting in 2011, a third of the archbishops did not show up, in protest at the Episcopal Church’s stance on homosexuality. It is clear, wrote one cleric at the time, that, “barring a miracle, there cannot again be a Primates’ Meeting in which the Archbishop of Canterbury gathers all Anglican primates from across the Communion.” That miracle has come to pass. The appointment of Michael Curry, a more conciliatory head of the Episcopal Church, may have helped. He has not balked at an invitation being issued to Foley Beach, leader of ACNA, despite his breakaway church’s never having been officially recognised as a province of the Anglican communion.