National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

Analysis: Schism looms after stormy Anglican meeting


The Anglican church’s stormy two-day meeting in London Oct. 15 and 16 ended with the church looking set for schism despite diplomatic maneuverings that resulted in a unanimous statement signed by all 37 primates attending the emergency meeting. The statement put the onus on the U.S. church to refrain from proceeding with the ordination of gay canon Gene Robinson Nov. 2.

That seems unlikely, however. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, vowed at the meeting in London that he would personally proceed with the consecration in New Hampshire. Only the Second Coming would keep him from it, he said.

“Brutal honesty” was how the archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez, described the two-day meeting in which conservatives battled with liberals over the issue of homosexual priests while struggling to keep the Anglican communion from splitting. The communion is made up of 38 member churches comprising 70 million people in 164 countries.

The statement issued by the primates said they regretted the actions of the Episcopal church and of the Canadian diocese of New Westminster, both of which have agreed to bless same-sex unions. It went on to say that to preserve the communion, the autonomy of individual provinces must be kept in check. “Each province needs to be aware of the possible effects of its interpretation of scripture on the life of other provinces in the communion. … None has authority unilaterally to substitute an alternative teaching as if it were the teaching of the entire Anglican communion.”

In the news conference that followed the meeting, Griswold defended his decision to continue with the consecration of Robinson as bishop and said that the communion cannot remain static. “It is always developing and evolving and the tensions that one has to face in living the mystery of communion often deepen that sense of relationship,” Griswold said.

These words effectively rendered null the unity that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had worked so hard to achieve in the meeting.

The archbishop of Canterbury has made clear his opposition to Gene Robinson’s consecration as bishop and said at the news conference that the canon would not be allowed a license to serve as a priest in Great Britain.

Nonetheless, Williams is known to be sympathetic to the liberals’ cause. He has argued for the legitimacy of same-sex unions and ordained a gay priest in his time in Wales, but as archbishop of Canterbury he has sacrificed his personal beliefs to uphold the corporate position. “My primary concern is to the church, whose unity I have to serve,” Williams said.

The meeting that took place within the walls of Lambeth Palace was a seismic clash of cultures that shook the Anglican communion to its core.

For the traditionalists from the global South -- Asia, Africa and South America -- the issue was simple: Homosexuality is a sin. In this, they could refer to the Lambeth Conference of 1998, which affirmed that scripture was incompatible with homosexuality.

Liberal primates, including Canadian Archbishop Michael Peers, argued in return that their ministry would become irrelevant to their respective nations if they did not embrace homosexuals as fully part of their churches.

The conservatives wished to expel the American church, but were checked when they learned from the provincial registrar that there was no way they could legally discipline the North American church. Some of the Asian primates were also unwilling to accede to as hard a line as the African primates wished to take.

Primates from provinces that had declared themselves out of communion with the North American churches were urged to share the Eucharist with them at a church service held the first day of the conference. Williams’ appeal to the conservatives’ generosity of spirit was successful. In the breaking of the bread, the archbishop had broken the back of their resistance to remain within the Anglican communion should events not go their way.

The following day, however, the African primates demanded the strongest possible rebuke of the American church. The result was a victory for the conservatives. In signing the statement, the Canadian and American primates acceded to a document that severely criticized the actions of their churches and warned them that if they persisted, the communion would be torn at its deepest level.

The unanimous statement is seen as a diplomatic coup for Williams. Nonetheless, the archbishop of Canterbury seems to have postponed, rather than averted, the break-up of the communion.

Members of the American Anglican Council, a conservative group of Episcopal bishops formed in 1995 to protest liberal trends within the Episcopal church, said that if the ordination of Robinson proceeds, it’s conceivable many of them will turn to the Roman Catholic church.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones is deputy editor of The Church of England Newspaper.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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