Letter to the Editor: putting a human face on the Primates’ “sanctions”

The Primates Meeting in January 2016 called for sanctions against TEC. Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon said that the primates’ decision has this result: “the three-year absence of a gifted priest, ecumenist, and Bible scholar who serves on our dialogue with the World Communion of Reformed Churches” That is, although the primates’ resolution “applies to the TEC as a whole,” it “practically involves” just one person.


I am the person to whom the Secretary General referred.


In October 2015 I had the privilege of representing the Anglican Communion in the International Reformed and Anglican Dialogue (IRAD). This was the first dialogue in more than thirty years between the Anglican and Reformed Communions. The theme of our meeting was “The Nature of Communion.” As Dr. Iain Torrance, a representative of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, stated, participants in the dialogue hoped we would arrive at a “better understanding of ourselves and how we may resolve disagreement better and an improved ability to concentrate on what matters most—namely, articulating the gospel of Jesus Christ today


I was encouraged by our experiences of shared prayer and worship, our mutual desire to recognize communion as a gift of God and source of shared mission, and our common hope that our dialogue could result in something that would make a difference in the lives of the approximately 160 million Christians whom our small team represented, and not just be a statement read by a few interested ecumenists or archbishops. My Reformed and Anglican partners in this dialogue are wise, compassionate, and caring disciples of Jesus Christ who love Christ’s Church and believe that we will better bear witness to the redeeming love of God as partners than as a divided body. I left our meeting with the assignment of working with a Reformed Church partner on a paper about the nature of God as communion that will form part of the basis for next year’s meeting’s topics: the marks of communion; communion, unity, and divergence; and communion, governance, and authority.


In January 2016, the Anglican primates met and decided to sanction TEC by removing TEC from participation on ecumenical or interfaith bodies for a period of three years. While several people have noted that the primates meeting does not have the authority to take such action, I have been advised that at the Anglican Consultative Council’s meeting in April those with such authority will agree with the primates’ decision and the exclusion will go into effect, removing me for the next three years from participation in IRAD.


Archbishop Stanley Ntagali issued a statement to the Church of Uganda in which he writes of the Primates’ resolution, “This is a very important, symbolic vote.”


A symbol may be described as an object or action used to represent something more or something else. In order for a symbol to convey its intended meaning, there needs to be a connection between the object or action and the desired representation. The object or action should evoke by association the thing it is meant to represent. As members of the Church, constantly engaged in the use and examination of symbolic speech and action, we should know we need to be clear and careful in our wielding of symbols lest they convey unintended meanings, become meaningless, or fail to be symbols at all, and become merely puzzles that the intended audience must piece together.


If this is a “symbolic” vote, what does it symbolize? Archbishop Ntagali states the that vote reflects the “mind of the Primates . . . to uphold the Bible’s understanding as between one man and one woman, and to declare that is the position of the Anglican Communion.”


While I do not doubt Archbishop Ntagali’s sincerity regarding the intention of the “symbolic” vote, I doubt the results convey what he intends. Rather, I see a set of very different symbols at work, each borne of the concrete result of the primates’ decision. The failure of the vote to symbolize what he says it does is one more reason the resolution is problematic and betrays the primates’ misuse of authority.


First, I am the only member of the Anglican representation in IRAD who is a biblical scholar. Is excluding the biblical scholar from an ecumenical dialogue an effective symbol of the Anglican Communion’s commitment to “the Bible’s understanding” of any issue? Doesn’t such action better symbolize a reluctance to take biblical interpretation seriously? Removing the biblical scholar seems to do the opposite of claiming that biblical interpretation is of the utmost importance to us.


I am also the only woman representing the Anglican Communion in this ecumenical dialogue. While I know that those involved in appointing the Anglican members desired the inclusion of more women in IRAD, this is not the case at present. And soon there will be none. What is symbolized by the exclusion of the sole woman involved in this ecumenical dialogue? If the exclusion is meant to symbolize something about the Anglican Communion’s understanding of the nature of marriage, as Archbishop Ntagali says it does, does it expose an understanding of Christian marriage as not engaging women as fully as it does men; or that in Christian marriage, only men may contribute in an effective or meaningful way; or that only men may communicate the loving nature of God or the paschal mystery as understood within the bond and covenant of marriage?


If these questions sound silly, that’s precisely the point.


Two images in the Bible come to mind in light of the primates’ vote: sin as a contagion and the efficacy of the scapegoat, both of which God through Jesus Christ exposed as powerless and antithetical to the gospel.


When Jesus touched sinners and the unclean, to the surprise of even his disciples, Jesus did not contract the uncleanness or sinfulness of those he touched. Jesus didn’t worry that the sin or impurity of others might infect him. In fact, holiness and healing power flowed through him to heal those with whom he came in contact. Are the primates concerned that a member of TEC on the team may infect others, spreading suspect notions to the rest of the Anglican members and possibly our Reformed brothers and sisters? If the Anglican primates are worried about increasing the purity of its membership, would not a better symbol be to allow the purity of the other Anglicans be a good influence on the TEC member? The members of IRAD are dealing with a host of differences within our communions, let alone the many differences between our two communions. They are an intelligent enough group of people who understand that TEC (and every other Anglican province) brings several differences to the table that are of greater and lesser concern to the members of the dialogue. I did not find myself at risk of contracting from my Reformed brothers and sisters the idea that less frequent celebration of the Eucharist would be helpful or that the Anglican prayer book tradition is not important. The primates need not be concerned that my dialogue partners might contract impure notions about marriage from me. Can’t we all be enriched through meaningful dialogue about our real differences? Minds may be changed and we need to be open to change in order to engage in dialogue, but Jesus showed us sin is not contagious.


  1. Mark Heim is one scholar who writes* about the death of Jesus as scapegoating. Gentile and Jewish authorities thought the death of Jesus would bring peace. The Romans thought Jesus was getting the Jews riled up and if they killed Jesus, they could bring peace. The religious leaders thought if they handed Jesus over to death, the Romans would give them some peace. The disciples thought that if they just kept their distance and their mouths shut, Jesus would die, but they themselves would be safe. The result would be crushingly sad, but safety is a sort of peace. As the high priest Caiaphas says, “better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). The narrator explains the truth to which Caiaphas unwittingly witnesses: “he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51-52). To the people involved in the decision to kill Jesus, however, Jesus is simply another sacrifice, business as usual. Opposing parties thought they had accomplished peace. “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (Luke 23:12).


But God intended it to be the sacrifice to end sacrifices; scapegoating to end scapegoating. Jesus, the only completely innocent victim, hands himself over to death so that God breaks the power of death and destroys the fallacy that making sacrifice again and again is what will save us. God took the human scapegoating of the only truly innocent victim and used it to overcome that kind of violence.


Mark Heim also says* “God did this so that we would turn to finding some new basis for peace, such as that around the communion table . . . Christ is not to be remembered with more scapegoating.”


It’s highly problematic then that primates see scapegoating as the way forward to better communion. Whether the scapegoat is one person, one dialogue team, or one area of ministry in which Christians work together to experience what Jesus Christ achieved on the cross, the gathering “into one of the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52), scapegoating needs to stop. In the old model of scapegoating, exposed and destroyed by God in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a temporary and false peace was achieved if both sides agreed to the scapegoating. To my knowledge TEC has not yet said, “so be it.” I hope we won’t, even though the practical reality may be that I don’t participate in what I still hope may be a fruitful and faithful dialogue.


An exciting and holy purpose of ecumenical dialogue is to seek unity despite our real differences. By excluding TEC from a group that may provide a model of doing the hard work of seeking unity, the Anglican Communion is not enriched. It is not only TEC that suffers when one member of the body is told, “We have no need of you.” The Anglican Communion did not make the work of IRAD more holy or comprehensive by excluding its sole Anglican biblical scholar and woman.



*see “Saved by What Shouldn’t Happen: The Anti-Sacrificial Meaning of the Cross, in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, edited by Marit Trelstad; Augsburg Fortress, 2006; 211-224


The Rev. Amy E. Richter, Ph.D is Rector of St Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, MD and Instructor in New Testament at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD and serves on the International Reformed and Anglican Dialogue.  She has published several books and Articles on the New Testament and Christian Formation.

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