Most people who’ve been watching the Episcopal Church crisis unfold in the past few weeks think they know what the fight is about—sex. Three years ago, American Episcopalians broke with the rest of the Worldwide Anglican Communion by ordaining a practicing gay man as a bishop. As a result, they may be forced out of the communion, and schism within the American church could follow.

That scenario appears especially likely after Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued a statement last week calling for a significant recasting of the Anglican communion—in effect strengthening and centralizing its authority. Within days, conservative dioceses in the Episcopal Church began heading for the exits, asking for oversight from bishops outside of the United States.But is the Archbishop’s statement a sign that Canterbury is backing the conservative party in the Episcopal Church conflict? And what actually is the issue? A careful reading of Archbishop Williams’ missive, “’Challenge and Hope’ for the Anglican Communion” makes clear that for Williams the real issue is not sexuality but church law. That is the real issue before Anglicans, transcending the apparent conservative/liberal divide.

The Anglican Communion is a unique religious organization. It emerged out of the worldwide expansion of the Church of England as a result of the growth of the British Empire, and to the middle of the twentieth century functioned as such. There were always a few churches that were independent of the Church of England. The Scottish Episcopal Church and the American Episcopal Church were the most noted examples, but otherwise the ”communion” could be seen as an extension of the Church of England. The Church of England clearly ruled over the colonial churches. There was a meeting of all of the bishops every 10 years--the Lambeth Conference--at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the real players were invariably the English bishops. Colonial bishops (including Americans) were to be seen but not heard.

All this began to change after the Second World War. The importance and influence of the North American churches grew as the wealth and influence of America grew. They could no longer be ignored. Likewise, the break-up of the empire put the foreign churches under indigenous control. The Church of England no longer reigned supreme. Hence during the 1960s and 1970s Anglicans became much more self-conscious about the structure of their communion. By the late 1970s it was claimed that there were four instruments of unity binding together world-wide Anglicanism: the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council (an advisory body made up of lay and clerical representatives of the different geographical provinces of the church), and the Primates’ Meeting (or the regular gathering of the chief bishops of each province).

But what sort of organization was the Anglican communion? Any vision of an international Anglicanism butted up against a deeply held principle of the sovereignty of national churches. It must be remembered that the English Reformation (in which the Church of England was formed) was a national reformation, and authority was shaped along national lines. In the United States, the Episcopal Church was from its very beginning wholly independent of the Church of England. It readily acknowledged its indebtedness to its English roots, but it was by its organization self-governing. The principle of the autonomy of national churches has been a key feature of Anglican polity. From the very beginning of an organized international Anglicanism (which can be dated to 1868 or the convening of the first Lambeth Conference), transnational gatherings like the Lambeth Conference had no legislative authority, and their decisions were not binding on the individual churches.

This paradox of an international communion with autonomous national churches is at the root of the present crisis. The decision by American Episcopalians to ordain V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire was, as the The Windsor Report acknowledges, completely and in accord with American church law. There were no legal grounds for the Archbishop of Canterbury to intercede. But the decision created an uproar among large parts of the communion. Hence it is not enough for American Episcopalians to apologize for the pain of their action (as they have done in their most recent General Convention), nor to agree on a moratorium from ordaining other such like bishops (which they appear also likely to have done). The structural issue must be addressed.

This is the context of Archbishop Williams’ statement. The central question is (to use his words) “what kind of Church we as Anglicans are or want to be.” If Anglicanism is to be an international communion, absolute national sovereignty is no longer possible. The church must become more united.

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