Justin Welby has made a valiant attempt to placate both sides of the Anglican divide. He has insisted that the official conservative teaching on sexuality, agreed at the Lambeth Conference of 1998, is still valid. But he also said that provinces that dissent, and affirm same-sex marriage, should not be disciplined. In effect, he is calling their dissenting view an authentic expression of Anglicanism.
In the crucial passage of his speech that he delivered this week, he asserts that, ‘for the large majority of the Anglican Communion’, to question the traditional teaching is ‘unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.’ But he goes on:
'For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.’
The latter paragraph goes surprisingly far in endorsing the dissenting provinces. They are being true to their perceived calling, he suggests. The really interesting question is the role of the Church of England in all this. For Britain is surely one of the countries where the traditional teaching is widely felt to be a barrier to evangelism. Is Welby hinting that this is now his view? At the end of the speech he ducks the question. The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘is to be a focus of unity and…an Instrument of Communion. That is a priority.’ His role is to hold the ring while a consensus might emerge.
The problem with this is that he is also the leader of a particular province. Does the Church of England have the right to be one of the dissenting provinces? Or must it renounce this right, because it is led by the ‘focus of unity’? I suggest that Welby’s primary duty is to the Church of England, not the Communion. If it decides that it must reform its teaching on sexuality in order to speak to its culture, then this trumps his role as impartial umpire.