Following two days of quite heated debate at Lambeth Palace in London on what to do about the planned consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire and the blessing of same-sex unions in the Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia, 37 primates (an Anglican word for bishops) of the worldwide Anglican Communion produced a lengthy, unanimous statement. But within minutes, the carefully crafted position appeared to fall apart as Frank Grisold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and Michael Peers, the primate of the Canadian Anglican Church, both said the statement would not alter the position of either church.
Shortly afterward, the Diocese of New Hampshire confirmed that the consecration of V. Gene Robinson would go ahead and invited all the primates to witness it. If Bishop Griswold maintains his intention to attend Robinson's consecration on Nov. 2-and he said in effect that only the Second Coming would stop him-the Anglican Communion can expect unwelcome consequences.
The statement that both Griswold and Peers had just signed spelled it out: "If this consecration proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion, and we have had to conclude that the future of the communion itself will be put in jeopardy.This will tear the fabric of our communion at its deepest level and may lead to further division.as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA). Similar considerations apply to the situation pertaining in the Diocese of New Westminster.
This is unusually blunt language for a church pronouncement. While some wanted to the statement to go even further by promising the expulsion or at least suspension of the ECUSA, it made clear precisely what is at stake in the next few days: the prospect of fracture as one or more provinces declare themselves out of communion with their North American sister churches.
The primates also agreed to establish a commission, to report within a year, examining ways to resolve difficulties between provinces when they arise. This was something George Carey, the previous archbishop, was mandated to do after the 1998 Lambeth conference but apparently never got around to.
The implications of this move are quite satisfactory for conservatives since, for the first time, it offers the possibility of the rest of the communion standing in judgment over a recalcitrant unit. Williams was at pains to point out, however, that since he is not a pope and does not preside over a curia, his powers of intervention and discipline are circumscribed, which is why the churches in the U.S. and Canada could not be forced to change their minds. It is a bit ironic that in this case low-church English conservative evangelicals, who remain deeply suspicious of popery, should be pressing for more centralized church authority.
Those outside the frontiers of the U.S. may view this commission as a useful curb to American exceptionalism, which on a wider stage is also much resented politically, not least by church people, following the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq and over matters such as the international war crimes court. But, of course, interventionism is a two-edged sword. What if a church in the future chooses to accuse Akinola of turning a blind eye to polygamy? There is room for mischief here.
What the threatened fracture means in more than symbolic terms is hard to judge--which is what the church's establishment is surely calculating. Despite assurances from the likes of the extremely wealthy and well-endowed Trinity Church, Wall Street, that its donations to African projects will not be affected, the financial implications are clearly going to be weighed in the minds of some Third World provinces: the power of the almighty dollar again. The consequences of their actions may eventually be weighed in shortfalls in their clergy pension funds or office budgets.
Beyond that, does it matter that the Episcopal Church does not walk in step with Gregory Venables, the conservative British evangelical who is archbishop of the so-called Southern Cone, which on closer inspection turns out to be the diocese of South America? Venables has care of 22,000 souls in that vast landmass-just a few more than Gene Robinson will have in tiny New Hampshire and somewhat less than some city parishes. The fact that he will not recognize Robinson as a bishop, or any U.S. bishop who does, may be sad in Buenos Aires but not terminal for the church.
The Oct. 16 statement offers some concessions to what for a better term might be called liberal opinion, notably a reaffirmation of that part of the 1998 Lambeth declaration on human sexuality which calls on all Anglicans to "listen to the experience of homosexual persons and to assure them they are loved by God." This came as a useful reminder to Peter Akinola, leader of the 17-million-strong Nigerian Church, the largest in the communion, who in July declared that homosexuals were worse than beasts, and in October stated that he could not envisage sitting down in the same room with a gay person.
As one of his African colleagues reminded him last month, would that he had spared as much scorn for the practices of polygamy, child sacrifice and stoning to death in his own country as he had expended on the moral shortcomings of the U.S., Canada, and England.
Reportedly, Akinola nearly walked out of Lambeth Palace during the Oct 15-16 meeting, but in the end he was persuaded to sign a moderate announcement, along with other conservative Third World primates such as Emmanual Kolini of Rwanda and Yong Ping Chung of Southeast Asia.
Behind the statement's rhetoric there was a sense that the words represented a holding gesture. Both sides are limbering up for the next step.