Anglican Angst: Is Communion Possible?

Article excerpt

When the U.S. Episcopal Church (ECUSA) decided in November to consecrate an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire, it was a given that splits in the worldwide Anglican Communion would follow, and that they would go deep. Indeed the Ugandan Church has already declared itself out of communion with ECUSA and in communion with dissident Episcopalians who have formed a new network of parishes and dioceses. Most Anglican churches are waiting on the results of the new commission convened by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, before deciding on their action. The commission, chaired by Ireland's primate, Robin Eames, begins meeting this month to examine how the Anglican Communion can bridge the chasms that have opened up between and within its member churches over homosexuality. The solution lies either in developing new boundaries of doctrine and discipline--a new venture for the Communion--or in further loosening the bonds among churches. Whatever the commission members decide, their report in September is certain to point to a new shape for the Anglican Church.

Until now the Anglican Communion--a fairly recent historical entity--has had virtually no juridical expression, and certainly no international body of doctrine or common law comparable to those of the Catholic Church. The archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the Communion, but nothing more; the Primates' Meeting (which occurs at least once a year) and the Lambeth Conference (which convenes about every ten years) produce "agreed positions" which have no legal effect unless individual churches enact them; the Anglican Consultative Council, which oversees the Communion between Primates' Meetings, is merely advisory. What was historically seen as the strength of Anglicanism--and the legal purpose, if not exactly the reason, of Henry VIII's break with Rome--has recently been exposed as its weakness.

This weakness was dramatically underscored by ECUSA primate Frank Griswold's decision to proceed with the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, only a month after a unanimous declaration by the Anglican primates urging him not to. The primates had agreed that both Scripture and tradition were against the consecration, and that to proceed would "tear the fabric of our communion at its deepest level." But Bishop Griswold went ahead even after he had signed the primates' statement, a reversal described by Archbishop Bernard Malango, the Ugandan primate of Central Africa, as a "dishonest, false, and great betrayal." Not everyone agreed with that assessment: there were the usual appeals to conscience, prophecy, and autonomy. Still, ECUSA's decision dramatically raised the question of what was actually meant by the term Anglican Communion, if one province could simply ignore all the others on a question of faith and morals.

Rowan Williams is a liberal Anglo-Catholic who cares deeply about the ecclesiological value of communion. He has made no secret of his view that the church's agreed position on homosexuality will change, just as it did over slavery or usury; but for the sake of unity he has upheld the position agreed on at Lambeth in 1991 and reinforced by the primates in 1998. He was even willing last year to sacrifice the future of his friend Jeffrey John, a celibate gay man nominated to the See of Reading, who stepped aside after protests from evangelicals and traditionalists. Williams knew that John was not in violation of the church's position that homosexual "genital acts" are not permissible for clergy. Yet he felt that the nomination was hasty, and would split the church down the middle. His strategy has been clear: although he could do nothing about ECUSA, he could ensure that the Church of England settle the question of homosexuality before appointing gay men as bishops.

As titular head of the Anglican Communion, Williams has only moral authority. Meanwhile, ECUSA seemed sure its own position was right. …