Anglicans tighten up while Rome watches
It now looks as if the Lambeth Conference is beginning to go in the direction hoped for by both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Rome – preventing schism through the centralisation of authority.
The three major proposals are these:
1. A new Anglican ‘Faith and Order Commission’ which will looks a lot like an embryonic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The body would “give guidance” on doctrinal questions to the Anglican Communion.
2. A "blueprint" for a Code of Canon Law – a set of rules which are “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive”. It is likely that these rules would prevent, say, conservative African bishops exercising oversight over conservative American dioceses which do not recognise their own bishop’s authority.
3. An ‘Anglican Covenant’ – a document setting out core Anglican beliefs and a biding agreement to abide by them. This would almost certainly exclude the possibility of a practising gay man becoming a bishop.
These ideas come out of the Windsor Continuation Group, which is responsible for implementing the 2004 Windsor Report commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury to chart a way through the crisis engendered by the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003. One of the main players in this group is the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, who is close to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the man to watch in the current crisis.
With only a week to go before the Lambeth Conference ends, the stakes could not be higher. These plans are, essentially, Dr Williams’s proposals for resolving the crisis; and there aren’t any others that stand a chance. The big question is: will the North Americans accept them? And will they be enough to bring back the Gafcon bishops boycotting Lambeth?
Neither of those questions is relevant if the bishops at Lambeth cannot agree to the proposals. If they can – and it would be because they believe they are on the cliff edge, and are shrinking back in horror -- this would mark a new departure for the Anglican Church, which has traditionally spurned a central doctrinal watchdog and “authoritarian” (as many would see them) ecclesiological structures.
It would be a huge vindication for Dr Williams, and delight Rome – this is precisely the path which the Vatican has been urging Anglicans to go down.
Conversely, if the proposals fail, the Anglican Church can expect a long dark night of balkanisation and Rome will all but give up on structured ecclesial dialogue. Whom would Catholics be talking to, and what would be the point?
If Dr Williams’s proposals fail, the way opens for serious negotiations with traditionalist Anglicans for some kind of corporate reception. Cardinal Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has written to traditional Anglicans here to tell them it is open to their ideas for some kind of “corporate unity” – but definitely not yet.
Read between the lines – and take a note of the letter’s timing. The Vatican will do nothing pro tem to interfere with Dr Williams’s attempts to tighten up his Church and everything to encourage them. But if the attempts fail, the Catholic Church will be open to the Traditionalist Anglican Communion (whose head is the Australian bishop John Hepworth) coming over en bloc.
The stakes are high – and mounting. By the end of the week, a major chapter in the history of Christianity will have opened.