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Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

Anglicans at the crossroads

It may take more than a report to mend growing fissure


Shortly before a battle breaks out there is a period of uneasy calm. Nothing, outwardly, is happening; each side has staked its position, with a commanding view of the other. The bullets are ready at hand, the rifles clean, the forward positions calculated. In the case of the Anglican church, the armies even know the date when the fighting is to be joined -- Oct. 18.

That is the date of publication of the report of the Eames Commission, which was formed in October last year by the archbishop of Canterbury shortly after the Anglican primates solemnly declared, “We have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican communion.” The commission was asked to look at the future shape of the worldwide Anglican church, a loose federation of national churches accurately described recently by Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A., as a “nonjuridical reality.” The question the commission has been asked to consider is “how to maintain the highest degree of communion possible” in the light of Griswold’s decision -- taken against the express pleas of the Anglican primates -- to consecrate an actively gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in November last year. That action infuriated evangelical Anglicans who believe homosexuality is expressly contrary to scripture. But it also dismayed mainstream Anglicans -- whatever their views on the issue -- who believed that U.S. Episcopal church had no right to defy an agreed Anglican position.

So the question is, should the U.S. Episcopal church be disciplined -- expelled from the 75-million strong communion, as the many provinces of the developing world, where most practicing Anglicans live, are demanding? Or is there a means short of this solution -- of allowing the church to remain in the communion, but on an “impaired” basis?

Behind these questions lurks another, bigger issue. Will it be possible, in coming years, to contain the fissure in the Anglican church over homosexuality with something more than a Band-Aid?

What is not in doubt is that the communion needs more concrete shape than hitherto. If bishops can go their own way on fundamental questions of doctrine, Anglicans will be unable to claim, as most do, that they are a part of the universal Catholic church; nor can the Anglican communion be taken seriously as a dialogue partner of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- a liberal Anglo-Catholic who puts a high value on communion -- wants to see the Anglican church across the world acquire a “shared sense of boundaries.” The question, he added when I spoke to him in Rome last year, was how such boundaries could be agreed without centralizing authority on the papal model. That is the conundrum he handed to the Lambeth Commission headed by Robin Eames, the archbishop of Armagh in Northern Ireland. It is fortunate that Eames is -- as he describes himself -- “a divine optimist.”

Throughout this year, as the commission has heard submissions from all wings, Anglican churches have been told to sit tight, to adhere to a “period of restraint,” as Williams has called it. This has not stopped 17 provinces -- representing some 33.5 million Anglicans -- from declaring themselves in “impaired communion” with the U.S. Episcopal church, refusing to recognize Bishop Gene Robinson and any bishop present at his consecration. But other threats have not been followed through. “Waiting for the report” has become the main Anglican sport in 2004 -- and a nail-biting one at that.

The tension has been fueled by secrecy -- the odd leak suggests that the report will not evade the issue, but the commission’s members are playing cards close to their chests -- as well as allowing heavily circumscribed room to maneuver. No one doubts that with this issue the Anglican church has reached the limits of inclusiveness. The report, says a spokesman, will make a “profound and practical impact” on the future shape of the communion. For unlike other issues with the potential to divide the church over the years -- the ordination of women, say, or divorce and remarriage -- this time there is no question of rearranging the furniture. The splits are visceral and irreconcilable.

Broadly speaking, there are three positions:

  • Mainstream traditional Anglicans believe that the U.S. church and the Canadian diocese of New Westminster (which last year approved same-sex blessings) have flouted agreed Anglican teaching on human sexuality, and must be disciplined. (Conservative evangelicals care more that the U.S. church has violated scripture than an agreed position; for them, homosexuality is a key determinant of whether the Anglican church is genuinely biblical.) “Anglican Mainstream,” a broad coalition of bishops and theologians from both the West and the Global South, has called for a two-year period of “restorative discipline” in which the U.S. church chooses either to be a full member of the communion by renouncing its consecration of Robinson or leaves the communion. But in the meantime, they say, it must be clear that the U.S. church is not Anglican.
  • Liberal Anglo-Catholics such as Williams place a high value on reason and tradition, but also on communion. This means that while their positions on homosexuality may be broadly tolerant -- many believe that the church will over time recognize homosexual love as willed by God -- the Anglican church must move as one on the issue. Williams demonstrated his stance last year when he asked his friend Jeffrey John not to accept a nomination as bishop of Reading. Even though his friend was not, technically, at odds with the agreed Anglican position (John is gay but celibate), Williams believed that the time was not right to have a self-declared homosexual in the episcopate -- something liberals saw as a betrayal. Liberal Anglo-Catholics would like to keep the Anglican church broad and inclusive, but accept the need for a tighter juridical structure that would effectively banish the U.S. Episcopal church to some sort of “associate” status.
  • Liberal Episcopalians see homosexuality as a line-in-the-sand conscience issue. The Anglican church should make way for “new realities,” as Griswold argued, and be open to Holy Spirit “showing up in unexpected places.” They believe the U.S. church had every right to consecrate Robinson because the churches of the communion are bound together by bonds of affection and understanding rather than by an agreed authority.

Of the three positions, the third stands the least chance of vindication in the Lambeth Commission report. While both liberal Episcopalians and liberal Anglo-Catholics agree that scriptural literalism is un-Anglican, both conservatives and Anglo-Catholics believe in communion, which the U.S. Episcopal church clearly does not. (“We thought it was a local event,” Griswold told the BBC recently.)

But the Anglo-Catholics also know that the evangelical view of communion is a limited one: Should the church move slowly, together, toward a greater acceptance of homosexuality, the bonds tying the churches in Africa to the See of Canterbury will weaken. Simply taking the evangelical line on the question -- expelling the U.S. church -- will not be enough to keep the Anglican communion from Balkanization.

That is why, they say, it is vital to put in place new structures that will help to bind the communion together.

Enter, at this point, Norman Doe, a widely respected professor at Cardiff Law School in Wales. Because there is no common Anglican law comparable with that of the Catholic church, he has argued, the Anglican church lacks a “centripetal dynamic.” Each time a church enacts independent legislation, the differences within the communion grow. The Anglican church worldwide is therefore condemned to a “centrifugal disintegration.” A common canon law, he argues, would “make the moral order binding and perhaps reduce the possibility of conflict.”

Doe’s ideas impress Williams and have gradually gained currency among Anglican primates. It is likely that some sort of proposal for an ius commune will be contained in the Lambeth report. The plan could look something like this: At their meeting next February, the primates would declare, in principle, that an Anglican common law existed. The lawyers would be set to work. At their 2008 meeting the primates would declare, possibly in the form of a concordat, a legal definition of the Anglican communion and some means of common decision-making -- possibly a global synod.

The fate of the U.S. Episcopal church would then hang in the balance. The commission may recommend that the Episcopal church be “suspended,” or “in a state of impaired communion” -- which is, in practice, the place that it currently occupies. But it would not be banished to outer darkness. The U.S. church will be told it must take time to decide whether to be part of a communion with a juridical structure.

If this is what the commission recommends, it will amount to the extension of the Church of England model of governance to the whole of the Anglican communion. Anglicans worldwide -- whether liberal or evangelical -- will be forced to choose whether the principle of communion comes before principle. It will not make the church any less divided, nor any less fractious; the fissures over homosexuality will continue to deepen. But at least there will be a commonly agreed framework for existing as a church with those divisions.

It will be good news, too, for relations with the Catholic church, which last year suspended one of the main instruments of its dialogue with Anglicans. The Vatican told its partner, in effect, to take some breathing space to decide if it wanted to be a coherent church or not. A juridical framework would be a positive answer to that question. It would mean that the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, one of the success stories of modern Christianity, would be back on track.

But whether the commission can square the circle remains to be seen. The plans for secession are well advanced; the Nigerian primate, Peter Akinola, is known to be contemplating the establishment of a rival Anglican church with its headquarters in Alexandria, Egypt. “You do not need to go through Canterbury to get to Jesus,” is how he puts it. Liberals are planning mass resignations. An alternative to the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. has already formed in the United States. The centrifugal disintegration, in other words, is gathering pace, and it may yet take more than a report to reverse it.

Austen Ivereigh is deputy editor of the London-based Catholic weekly The Tablet.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004

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