Maybe the Center Holds
time for the English press to entertain the possibility that the Anglican
communion in general, and its U.S. branch in particular, aren’t cracking up
last June’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) in
Columbus, Ohio, Fleet Street reporters had no doubts about what was going
Episcopal church was on a defiant collision course with the rest of the
worldwide Anglican communion last night after representatives at its general
convention refused to refrain from electing any more gay bishops or rule out
blessings services for same-sex couples,” began Stephen Bates’ June 21 story
in the London Guardian.
lede on Jonathan Petre’s June 22 story for the London Daily Telegraph:
“Worldwide Anglican-ism was in its death throes last night after its liberal
American branch failed to toe the conservative line on homosexuality
demanded by the majority of the Communion.”
As for the
ECUSA itself, Christopher Caldwell’s June 24 story in the Financial Times
ran under the headline, “A Church Whose Day is Done.”
American journalists were much more restrained. On the scene, the
Columbus Dispatch set the tone in successive headlines June 13 and 14:
“Episcopal Church Proceeds Gingerly” and “Panel hopes for truce in church;
U.S. Episcopalians look to heal recent rifts with communion over gay bishop,
that was the prevailing sentiment among most of the gathered delegates and
bishops. From their standpoint, the goal was to do everything possible to
stay at the table with worldwide Anglicanism, short of sacrificing their own
autonomy and values.
was particularly well captured by Ed Jones of the small (50,000 circulation)
Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star.
line from Columbus is that, through earnest, heartfelt compromise,
Episcopalians opted to stick together—to continue a prayerful pilgrimage
despite deep divisions over issues of human sexuality,” Jones wrote in a
July 16 analysis. “[T]he doomsday scenarios snagging the headlines are
premature, at best.”
If, in its heyday, the Church of England was
anything, it was The Establishment—a broad ecclesiastical enterprise whose
business it was to uphold the state by embracing all parties and viewpoints
so long as they were willing to be accommodated into the larger whole. And
the ECUSA, as currently constituted, is very much in this time-honored
“latitudinarian” tradition. Although there are many differences over issues
of doctrine and tradition, the vast majority of ECUSA leaders wish to stick
of ECUSA latitudinarianism is the principle of local autonomy. Out of
respect for the decision-making power of the individual diocese, even some
of those opposed to the ordination of gay persons voted in favor of the
election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as bishop of New Hampshire
at the 2003 General Convention.
for local autonomy is far less characteristic of the other churches—called
provinces—in the Anglican communion. That is precisely what upsets American
conservatives, who would prefer a hierarchical authority structure that
enforces their own conception of orthodoxy.
At the heart
of what contentiousness there was at Columbus was what the conservatives
considered ECUSA’s inadequate response to the Windsor Report, a document
commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury following negative reaction to
Robinson’s election on the part of conservative Anglicans around the world
but particularly in Africa.
Most of the media focused on whether the convention would, in accord with
the report’s recommendations, express regret “that the proper constraints of
the bonds of affection were breached” in the events surrounding Robinson’s
election. In fact, a motion expressing regret was passed, but the delegates
did not say that the election was in itself morally or doctrinally wrong.
The motion merely identified a desire to ask forgiveness in order to “live
into deeper levels of communion.”
convention’s most controversial action was to limit further strains on the
communion by passing a resolution “urging” standing committees and bishops
with jurisdiction “not to consent to the consecration of any candidate whose
manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.” This resolution,
known as B033, was, at the last minute, substituted for one requiring a
“commitment” not to give such consent.
substitution, engineered by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Presiding
Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori, demonstrated the lengths to which
the establishment was prepared to go in order to prevent the schism that at
least some conservatives seemed anxious to provoke.
In the event,
B033 fully satisfied neither the most liberal nor the most conservative
wings of the convention. Many liberals saw it as an insult to gay and
lesbian clergy, while conservatives regarded it as an insufficient response
to the Windsor Report. In “An Open Letter to my Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and
Transgendered Brothers and Sisters in Christ,” dated June 24, Gene Robinson
noted that gay support of B033 was given reluctantly by persons “willing to
fall on their own sword for the presumed good of the Church” as a gesture of
support for Schori, in order to “give her what she needs to continue the
perhaps, there was less controversy surrounding Schori’s election as ECUSA’s
first woman Presiding Bishop—and the first woman first woman primate (as the
leader of a province is called) in the entire Anglican communion. Some
conservatives were rumored to have voted for her in order to precipitate a
breach, on the assumption that conservative provinces would be more inclined
to break with ECUSA if it were headed by a woman.
consensus view was that she was chosen because of her commitment to harmony
both within the ECUSA and with the communion as a whole. “I will,” she said
at her first news conference, “bend over backwards to build good relations
with those who don’t agree with me.”
convention, Arch-bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote a letter to all
Anglican primates cautioning against any church acting “prophetically” on
the grounds that such “radicalism” could prove costly. It was not clear
whether he was referring to conservatives who want a break in the communion
or to liberals who want to push ahead with the ordination of gay persons—or
position in the communion is at the moment ambiguous. Liberals think he
caved too quickly on his previous support for equal rights for homosexuals,
and conservatives believe that he hasn’t moved decisively enough to root out
the majority of ECUSA leaders, who have, in their opinion, betrayed the
In his letter,
Williams suggested (as he has earlier) that it might be necessary to develop
some new ecclesial structures to accommodate the diversity of views. To this
end, he broached the idea of a “covenant” among provinces, so as to limit
provincial autonomy for the sake of a “wider witness.” Those willing to sign
onto such a covenant would then become “constituent” churches in covenant
with the Anglican communion, while churches not subscribing to the covenant
would be “churches in association, which were still bound in a single and
unrestricted sacramental communion and not sharing the same constitutional
“associated” churches “would have no direct part in the decision making of
the “constituent” churches, though they might well be observers whose views
were sought or whose expertise was shared from time to time, and with whom
significant areas of co-operation might be possible.”
does not appear to have generated much support on either side.
Archconservative Nigeria initially rejected the two-tier membership scheme
and claimed it no longer recognizes the archbishop. In the U.S., the
proposal seems only to have compromised Williams’ authority further. As one
retired Episcopal bishop recently said to me, “American Christians are not
going to accept decisions made by an English crown appointment….We settled
that in 1789.”
In any case,
it is not clear who would constitute the constituent churches. The Windsor
Report, among its many recommendations, urged the maintenance of “historic
diocesan boundaries, the authority of the diocesan bishop, and respect for
the historical relationships of the separate and autonomous Provinces of the
Anglican Communion.” These boundaries, in the view of some moderate and
liberal bishops, have been and are being violated by a number of African
bishops who have attempted to appoint American priests as bishops to
minister to disaffected conservatives in America—notably Peter Akinola of
Nigeria, who compares ECUSA to a “cancerous lump” that should be “excised”
from the worldwide communion.
recently consecrated Martyn Minns, a Virginia priest, to the episcopate, so
that he could head the Convocation for Anglicans in North America (CANA).
Minns’ episcopate would violate the ECUSA’s practice of designating its
dioceses along geographical lines.
By his action,
Akinola is, in the view of some, as much in violation of Anglican policy as
he and a number of fellow African bishops believe the American church to be.
Nevertheless, most observers believe that if the plan for “constituent”
churches proceeds, it will be the conservatives who acquire that status.
there have been many reports of individual churches breaking from the ECUSA,
to date only 30 of the church’s 7,600 congregations have voted to affiliate
with an overseas diocese. The most significant of these is the Episcopal
Church in Plano, Texas, which has (on unclear canonical authority) been
granted by its diocesan bishop the right to dissociate itself from the ECUSA
and to pay the Diocese of Dallas $1.2 million for the title to its property.
action, the establishment’s latitudinarian faith shows no signs of
faltering. It is telling, for example, that the diocesan bishop of Virginia,
Peter Lee, has not yet moved against Minns. Most Episcopalian leaders want
to avoid a schism at almost any cost, and given Anglican history, their
potential for success should not be underrated.
at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury, bishops Griswold and Schori
met in New York with several conservative bishops who wish to receive
“alternative primatial oversight”—i.e., not to be beholden to the presiding
bishop of the ECUSA. (According to Mary Frances Schjonberg of the Episcopal
News Service, seven diocesan bishops to date have asked for such oversight
but none of their diocesan conventions has ratified their requests for it.
It is not provided for in the canons of the Anglican communion, nor is it in
the policy of the ECUSA.)
which was facilitated by the secretary general of the Anglican Consultative
Council, ended with some diplomatically positive words (“candor,” “honesty,”
“charity”) but no resolution. This did nothing to enhance what little was
left of Rowan Williams’ authority.
the establishment wants to keep muddling through together, division, if it
comes, will be have to instigated by conservatives unilaterally declaring
themselves the true Anglican church in America. But separation will not come
easily for them. Most individual churches don’t have the money that Plano
has, and even the most schismatic conservatives seem determined not to sever
their bonds with a Canterbury opposed to “radical” steps.
23, the Times of London headlined a meeting in Rwanda of 20 African
and Asian archbishops, “Anti-gay bishops vote to split the Anglican church
in two.” The archbishops, wrote religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill, “took
the first steps…in creating formally a new Church structure for anti-gay
evangelicals in the United States.”
later, the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, Njongonkulu Ndungane told
the Episcopal News Service that he had not been consulted about the document
and that he and other attendees did not go along with major portions of it.
Ndungane said, is “not consonant with the position of the Anglican Church of
Southern Africa,” whose bishops had, in early September, unanimously issued
a strong call to work for unity within the Anglican communion.
September 27, came a report from the Religion News Service of a new
biography of Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, in which the former Archbishop of
Cape Town is quoted as saying that his church’s rejection of gay priests in
1998 made him “ashamed to be an Anglican.”
words, don’t count your schisms until they hatch.