A significant boycott of the recent Anglican Primates (Presiding Provincial Bishops) Meeting in Dublin, Ireland is a radical change from the four preceding gatherings that had maintained amazing unity and charity in the face of controversy, but could not endure constant betrayals of trust by single-agenda members.
The global Anglican Communion was an effort at international Christian witness, based less on institutional machinery than on "bonds of affection." The most exciting catalyst of this global identity was the breakdown of Western Colonialism, which resulted not in the collapse of Anglican Churches in the former colonies and missionary districts, but in their emergence as vital, growing Provinces led by indigenous clergy and lay people.
To foster the bonds of affection that would balance Provincial identity and leadership with global interdependence, four "Instruments of Unity" emerged. These are the Archbishop of Canterbury as "first among equals", the Lambeth Conference to which he invites all Anglican Bishops every ten years, an Anglican Consultative Counsel (ACC) which gathers Provincial delegates for coordinating common action, and the Primates Meeting, which gathers the Archbishops (or Presiding Bishops) of the 38 global Provinces.
The Primates meeting had potential to be the most representative and effective body. Anglican Primates are elected by the people of their Provinces, so they are a representative body and, as chief pastors of Provinces, are called to protect faith and order in their churches. The Primates meeting seemed to be the instrument least likely for bureaucratic manipulation on the one hand (compared to the ACC or the politically appointed Archbishop of Canterbury) or unwieldy chaos (the several hundred bishop Lambeth Conference) on the other.
Sadly, the Primates Conference just concluding in Dublin, Ireland has been an instrument of profound disunity, with 15 Primates representing most of the world's practicing Anglicans (mainly in Provinces that used to be colonies) absent, at least half and probably more of these protesting the refusal of the body to honor and act upon its prior agreements.
Certain of the Primates have gone to great length to break the bonds of affection and achieve this profound disunity. To show how badly and abruptly this has happened, one need look at the meetings of the last 8 years:
2003 - after the regular meeting in Brazil, with most all of the Primates present, it was determined that there was significant concern over the push by the Episcopal Church (USA) and some allies to a) consecrate and thereby mandate the presence of actively homosexual Bishops in Anglican bodies and b) break from the shared Anglican and global Christian teaching on marriage to make same-sex union ceremonies.
The Archbishop of Canterbury called for a second, emergency meeting, which was held that year in London. Almost every Primate was present to grapple with the growing controversy. This meeting generated a statement that the pending consecration of a non-celibate, gay bishop in the U.S. would damage the Communion, and called for "restraint." Presiding Bishop Griswold of the Episcopal Church signed on to that, then flew home and consecrated the gay bishop just the same.
The next meeting, held in Northern Ireland in 2005, still drew almost all of the Primates. Only three did not attend: Burundi's due to a death in the family; Hong Kong's due to illness and North India's, who was responding to a natural disaster in his Province. This meeting's final Communique continued to use gracious language, reaffirmed the earlier position of the Primates, and called for Provinces to refrain from gay ordinations and blessings "to restore the full trust of our bonds of affection across the Communion."
The situation escalated as Bishops in the U.S. and Canada continued to consecrate active gay and lesbian clergy and permit blessings of same sex unions. Numbers of Episcopal and Church of Canada clergy, laity and even entire congregations and a few dioceses began to leave these denominations to form alternative Anglican bodies.
Still, the 2007 meeting, held in Tanzania, again stayed close to full attendance (the Primate of Wales was unable to attend) as the leaders tried to find some kind of stability on which to build a way forward. 14 newly elected Primates, including Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori of the Episcopal Church, were on hand, as was the Archbishop of York, included to represent the Church of England so that the Archbishop of Canterbury could emerge as more of a presiding and unifying figure.
The meeting issued a Communique which stated, "At the heart of our tensions is the belief that the Episcopal Church has departed from the standard of teaching on human sexuality accepted by the Communion..."
The 2007 Primates meeting called again for the cessation of same sex ordinations and blessing rituals, for foreign bishops to stop crossing into the Episcopal Church and Canada to support dissenters, and for a cessation of lawsuits, which Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori was implementing as the Episcopalian response to dissenting clergy and congregations.
The situation continued to deteriorate but still, at the 2009 meeting in Egypt, all but four Primates attended (Pakistan, North and South India due to scheduling conflicts and The Philippines due to visa difficulty.) The leaders still attempted to hang in together, despite three previous meetings devoted to the controversy and consistently ignored or broken commitments coming out of them.
In Egypt, the Archbishop of Canterbury continued to campaign for an "Anglican Covenant," which would give Provinces the choice to opt in or out of some broad principles of faith and practice. The pointed language and specific demands of the earlier meetings were increasingly muted or eliminated. By this point, a large body of the majority Anglican leaders had participated in a 2008 "Global Anglican Futures Conference" in Jerusalem, drafting a more concise and specific statement of Anglican Christian commitment.
Today, less than 8 years after the 2003 emergency Primates Meeting, 15 of the Primates are no-shows. There is loss of trust and a sense that words and efforts are meaningless - that the Episcopal Church in particular will act unilaterally against the mind of the Provincial leaders and global Anglican witness.
The Episcopal Church continues to decline, with its membership the oldest among U.S. denominations and its internal reports showing no reliable sources or patterns of growth. In an Anglican Communion of some 80 million members, only about 700,000 Episcopalians attend services on an average Sunday. The gay bishop consecrated in 2003 downsized his diocese, spent most of his time at gay movement and media events, and recently announced his retirement after less than a decade in office.
A lesbian bishop was consecrated, and some gay and lesbian couples have had high profile ceremonies, including a recent lesbian union worded contentiously as a variation on the Prayer Book marriage rite.
So, a small, affluent, socially homogeneous inner circle of a very small denomination indulges its fancies at the cost of a diverse, global Christian fellowship - a fellowship whose leaders hung in with misrepresentations and broken commitments while trying to maintain bonds of affection. That is, until this 2011 Anglican Primates Meeting in Dublin.