By Austen Ivereigh
It took just a few hours at an Episcopal Church (TEC)meeting last week in Anaheim, Calif., to destroy the uneasy truce which has held in the Anglican Communion worldwide for the past few years. Now it's back to the business of disintegration.
It was in 2003 that TEC (formerly ECUSA), the 2-million-strong Anglican Church in North America, defied the Anglican Church leadership worldwide by consecrating an openly gay bishop, a year after a Canadian diocese introduced church weddings for same-sex couples. The consecration of Gene Robinson -- a divorced man living in a civil union -- as bishop of New Hampshire, in the teeth of opposition from the leaders of the Anglican Church worldwide, brought the simmering tensions over homosexuality within the Communion (worldwide membership: 80 million) to a head. The 38 primates, as the heads of the Anglican provinces are known, had been unanimous that consecrating Robinson would "tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level." They have been proved right.
The spiritual head of the Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, for a time assuaged the "global south" Anglican provinces of Africa and Asia -- who were demanding TEC be "disciplined" -- by appointing a commission to examine how to unify Anglican churches worldwide.
When the Eames Commission published the Windsor Report in 2004, it regretted that TEC had chosen "to walk apart" from the Communion, and laid out two conditions for it remaining in the fold: The Church should not ordain more gay bishops, and should desist from approving same-sex blessings. In 2006, TEC agreed to these moratoriums, and a tense peace supervened.
Tensions boiled over in the run-up to last year's once-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops worldwide. Although Bishop Robinson was excluded from the Lambeth Conference, the TEC was not, and some 280 "Bible-believing" Anglican bishops in the global south, representing over a third of Anglicans worldwide, boycotted the Conference in protest. The boycotting bishops created their own, parallel Communion -- known as the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, or FOCA.
But TEC leadership made clear it will not be part of that process. "I hope and pray that there won't be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart," Archbishop Williams pleaded, but they ignored him. The bishops at the Episcopal General Convention at Anaheim voted 104-30 to develop liturgies for blessing same-sex relationships, while the motion to allow the consecration of gay bishops passed 99-45.
The TEC vote was not just a direct snub to Archbishop Williams and his authority, but a clear rejection of last year's Lambeth Conference. Jim Naughton, canon for communications at the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, saw last week's vote as a chance finally to "push back" what he calls Archbishop Williams' "centralizing agenda" and his attempt to impose "a single-issue magisterium on the issue of homosexuality."
Like others in the TEC, Naughton believes each Anglican province should be allowed to make up its own mind on doctrinal questions. The TEC, in other words, has both a liberal-Protestant theology (its view of homosexuality -- and chastity generally -- is largely indistinguishable from secular norms) and an ecclesiology to go with it. The first is unacceptable to developing-world evangelicals, the second to the liberal Anglo-Catholics such as Archbishop Williams in the Church of England.
Because -- unlike Roman Catholics -- Anglicans have no magisterium for resolving doctrinal differences, and no ecclesiological structures capable of binding together those that differ, "schism" is the wrong word for what is taking place. The Anglican Church worldwide is not sufficiently united to constitute a body from which the TEC can separate: It is a loose federation of self-governing churches with only the office of the archbishop of Canterbury and the once-in-a-decade gathering of bishops at Lambeth as its "instruments of unity." Nor is TEC itself sufficiently united to separate itself from the rest of the Anglican Church, which is why a weary round of complex legal discussions looks set to dominate TEC's life over the next years.
"For those of us still in TEC it is not a simple matter to move to ACNA[the Anglican Church in North America]," wrote one Episcopalian pastor, disturbed at the decisions made at Anaheim. "That move includes claims of abandonment of communion, loss of pension, loss of insurance, possible civil suits over property, recriminations, possible loss of employment. My mission is a small one and cannot pay court costs, and my diocese has shown a willingness to threaten and sue whenever it wishes."
Meanwhile, the disintegration of the worldwide Anglican Communion that began after 2003 will now resume: Provinces will declare themselves out of communion with each other; global south bishops will recognize ACNA, and not TEC, leaving the archbishop of Canterbury to decide between them, or for both. The theologian N.T. Wright -- the bishop of Durham in England, who is close to Archbishop Williams -- appeared to raise the possibility of Canterbury recognizing "many American Episcopalians, inside and outside the present TEC, who are eager to sign the proposed Covenant," which raises the unedifying prospect of a TEC split between "Covenant" and "non-Covenant" Episcopalians.
The crisis is exposing major shifts within Anglicanism. The Church of England is held together -- just -- by the English state, and a tradition of political liberalism which thrives on compromise. But worldwide, neither obtains. In the developing world, to where the center of gravity in Anglicanism has shifted, the church is not part of the liberal political project, and no glue is strong enough to tie conservative evangelicals in the south to liberal Protestants in North America.
That is why Bishop Wright describes the Anglican crisis as a "slow-moving train wreck." As long as it lacks a centripetal force, it will be torn apart by the centrifugal forces put in place by King Henry VIII's Reformation. Ironically, the TEC vote may make it easier to press ahead with the Covenant, by making clear the urgent need for it. Whatever happens, it seems likely now that the Anglican provinces which share Archbishop Williams' Catholic ecclesiology will grow closer through the Covenant, while the more "Protestant" ones -- TEC and FOCA -- will go their own way. But the process will be messy, for the fault lines lie not just between provinces but within them.
Archbishop Williams believes in an essentially Catholic ecclesiology, based on a theology of communion, but without "papal powers." His leadership of last year's Lambeth Conference was applauded by Rome, which offered discreet encouragement and advice. Rome will continue to back him, for it is in its interest for Anglicans to unite: Any hope of a future reconciliation between Catholics and Anglicans depends on there being a coherent church for Catholics to talk to.
As long as Archbishop Williams remains, that will be his path. But it will be a considerably smaller Anglican Communion he takes with him.
1989: First openly gay priest, Robert Williams, is ordained by Bishop John Shelby Spong.
1998: Developing-world bishops at Lambeth Conference push through resolution declaring homosexuality to be "incompatible with Scripture," call for abstinence for those not called to marriage.
2002: New Westminster diocese in Canada authorizes blessing of same-sex unions.
2003: First openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, is consecrated as a bishop of New Hampshire, despite unanimous opposition of Anglican primates worldwide.
2004: Anglican Communion's Windsor Report urges moratoriums on gay consecrations and same-sex blessings, and lays out instruments for deepening unity.
2004: Common Cause partnership unites conservative rebels in the United States.
2006: Episcopal Church passes resolution B033, interpreted as pledging to abide by moratoriums.
2008: Lambeth Conference is attended by Episcopal bishops, but Gene Robinson refused. 280 conservative bishops boycott Lambeth Conference in protest at Episcopal presence, refuse to recognize authority of Archbishop of Canterbury, and establish FOCA. Bishops at Lambeth agree to "Covenant," based on Windsor Report recommendations.
2009: Common Cause churches establish the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which seeks recognition from Canterbury.
2009: General Convention of Episcopal Church agrees to consecrate gay bishops and to allow gay blessings.
Austen Ivereigh writes from England.