The Anglican Church: Together for Now

The news from Jerusalem, where 280 "orthodox" Anglican bishops are meeting before the Lambeth Conference, is something of a non-story. There are no plans, after all, for a split or schism. Given that the Global Anglican Future conference (Gafcon) started with just such a prospect on the horizon, this is an important development with a potentially huge impact on the future possibility of "Bible-believing" Anglican Churches in developing countries co-existing in the future with the liberalising Anglican Churches of North America. According to Ruth Gledhill, the London Times religion correspondent who is in Jerusalem, "the agenda is now reform from within rather than starting a breakaway conservative Anglican church". The de facto leader of the worldwide Anglican rebellion against gay bishops and same-sex marriages, the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, has said legal schism would be not only undesirable but impossible in practice. (After the ordination of Gene Robinson, a number of US Anglican parishes split from their bishops but were told by judges to leave their properties behind.) The focus of the conservative Anglican efforts will now be on confronting the implications of what they regard as the schismatic act of the consecration of the openly gay Gene Robinson in 2003 in defiance of the wishes of Anglican primates worldwide. There is talk of "realignment" but they won’t be splitting. "The Anglican in me is delighted," says Ruth on her blog – essential reading for those following the Anglican drama. "But what do I tell my newsdesk?" I’d suggest: "Anglicans have agreed to stay together – but set to drift further apart". Jensen of Sydney holds out no hope of the North-American Anglicans repenting of the consecration of Gene Robinson, nor of Canterbury demanding that either they do so or leave the Communion. "They will do their thing," says Jensen of the North-Americans. "But if they do that thing, then their freedom frees us as well." The Primate of the 17m-strong Church in Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, spells this out: there will be an "unavoidable realignment" of Anglicanism’s power base from Canterbury to the developing "Global South" nations of Africa, Asia and South America. Jensen’s implication – backed up by his boycott, along with most of the Gafcon bishops, of the Lambeth Conference when it opens on 26 July – is that the Anglican Communion will be, in the future, an even looser federation than it has been even until now, with the "Bible-believing" Churches forming closer ties with each other and weaker ones with Canterbury. The Gafcon bishops believe that the Lambeth Conference, as an instrument of unity, is definitively broken. And they have a point: if the consecration of Robinson could go ahead against the express wishes of the Anglican Primates, and despite many urgings from the Archbishop of Canterbury, then what does the authority of the Lambeth Conference – the 10-yearly meeting of the 38 Anglican primates worldwide, and the principal instrument of Anglican unity – add up to? With the North Americans unwilling to climb down from their decisions to allow the consecration of a gay bishop and the marriage of gay couples, and the Gafcon leaders unwilling to renounce what they see as the Bible’s explicit condemnation of homosexuality, the future seems etched in stone: the member Churches of the Anglican Communion will float ever more freely, and look less and like each other. But that is not what the Archbishop of Canterbury seeks. He knows that the longer it continues without a centripetal dynamic the Communion will be condemned to a centrifugal disintegration. As in marriage, if you’re not coming together, you’re drifting apart; and if you remain married but live in different cities and never see each other, it raises the question of what marriage actually means. The news out of Jerusalem will be a relief for Dr Williams – agreeing not to divorce is, at least, a starting-point – but it doesn’t relieve the enormity of his task. Last Saturday I attended a moving memorial service at Westminster Cathedral to celebrate the life of Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare movement, presided by both Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Dr Rowan Williams. The latter’s address, which has not been posted on his website, was a stunning evocation of Chiara’s genius for forging unity through kenosis, or self-emptying –the necessary renunciations we make for the sake of unity with the other. As he was speaking, I was wondering what either side of the Anglican divide might be willing to renounce at Lambeth. Would the evangelicals in Africa cling less tightly to their abhorrence of homosexuality and their literal reading of Scripture? Could the North-Americans renounce their conviction that they were blazing a prophetic path? The answer, of course, is no to both. Which leaves Dr Williams, a liberal Anglo-Catholic with a strong sense of communion, with a humanly impossible task. But he can, at least, count on Chiara Lubich’s intercessions. Austen Ivereigh
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