Question of whether Anglican church can avoid an eventual split

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Is the Anglican Communion headed toward an eventual crackup? The situation doesn't look particularly hopeful, based on reaction to the work of an emergency commission whose goal is preserving the worldwide body of 77 million Christians.

Anglicans are sharply divided over Christianity's teaching against gay sex and, underlying that, the interpretation and authority of the Bible. The Lambeth Commission's report said it regrets five incidents that created a crisis over the issue:

Consecration last year of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, by the Episcopal Church (Anglicanism's U.S. branch).

The U.S. church's recognition that Episcopal clergy "operating within the bounds of our common life" perform blessings for same-sex couples.

Approval of same-sex blessings by the Anglican Church of Canada's Vancouver Diocese.

The Canadian church's decision to "affirm the integrity and sanctity" of gay and lesbian relationships.

Conservative bishops' boundary-crossing to lead North American parishes that cannot accept the authority of their liberal bishops, without permission from those local bishops.

In diplomatic tones, the commission said last month that the North Americans should be "invited" to express "regret" over same-sex blessings and the elevation of a gay bishop and place a moratorium on both practices. The boundary-crossing bishops also were asked to express regret and desist.

Since then, neither side indicated much willingness to budge.

U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold responded that "we regret how difficult and painful actions of our church have been" for others, but didn't express regret over what was done or raise hopes for a rollback.

Griswold affirmed the contributions of gays and lesbians "in all orders of ministry" (bishops and priests) and added his regret that other Anglican churches repress homosexuals. He said he didn't consider his own leadership of Robinson's consecration "fundamentally wrong or contrary to the Spirit or I could not have participated."

He has started work on another commission request, for an official explanation of how the Episcopal Church justifies gay bishops in light of biblical and church tradition.

Similarly, Vancouver's Bishop Michael Ingham said his diocese "does regret the consequences of our actions, but not the actions themselves."

But the heads of Africa's churches insisted that the North Americans must move beyond regretting the effect of their actions "to a genuine change of heart and mind. Failure to do so" will signify their decision to leave Anglicanism and "follow another religion," they said in a joint statement Oct. 28.

On boundary-crossing, the angry Africans said it's offensive to see any "moral equivalence" between their helping "beleaguered friends" and the North American actions.

The commission said Anglicanism's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, should "exercise very considerable caution" on inviting Robinson to Anglican meetings. It also suggested that unrepentant bishops who consecrated Robinson or authorized same-sex blessings should consider "in all conscience" whether to voluntarily withdraw from Anglicanism's "representative functions."

Jim Naughton, a spokesman for the liberal Washington, D.C., Diocese, thinks the report "will have such a chilling effect" and prevent further gay bishop consecrations for years -- no matter how the immediate crisis shakes out.

What now? Several upcoming meetings loom large.

Canada's Toronto Diocese will decide Nov. 27 whether to proceed with same-sex blessings, and the U.S. bishops will discuss the Lambeth report Jan. 12-13.

But most observers expect the crunch to come at a Feb. 21-26 meeting of the 38 "primates" who head world Anglicanism's branches.

Canon David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, says "continued recalcitrance" means the primates must decide now whether to require "repentance and change of action" by the North American churches under threat of suspension -- or watch the erosion of those denominations.

But the Rev. Ian Douglas of Massachusetts' liberal Episcopal Divinity School says the collective authority of the primates is so undefined that the situation could play out for years. He also says the Episcopal Church can't respond officially until its 2006 convention.

David Kalvelage, editor of the independent weekly The Living Church, doubts Episcopal Church leaders would care much if their church is eventually suspended or removed from Anglican Communion ranks.

"To move forward in the direction it's going is much more important to them than the status of Communion membership," he says.

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