The Archbishop of Canterbury’s press people will be smiling this morning: ‘How Williams kept his flock together’ is the Guardian’s headline; ‘Way ahead found in Church gay row’, is the BBC’s; while the London Times’s runs: ‘Bishops back Archbishop Rowan Williams’.
Hence the Daily Telegraph’s story: ‘Archbishop of Canterbury upbeat after Lambeth Conference’.
None of this could have been predicted three weeks ago, when all the talk as the Lambeth Conference opened was of a pointless and expensive (it cost $9m) exercise that was likely to leave the world’s Anglican bishops more divided than ever.
Press headlines have almost universally focussed on the divisions over homosexuality, so the media have also been pointing out that the bishops have not actually reached agreement on the issue. But that was never the purpose of the Lambeth Conference, which was to try to find ways of living with the differences while moving towards greater internal communion. In this aim, Dr Williams’s strategy of avoiding divisive resolutions and of getting the bishops to listen to each other and understand each other has been a triumph.
"Anglicans to seek pact to prevent schism" is how the New York Times neatly sums it up. The bishops have, in essence, backed Dr Williams’s “Covenant” strategy, first laid out in the 2004 Windsor Report. In my America piece in the current issue, I said that this report had been “largely ignored” at the time – which is true. So I was taken by surprise when Dr Williams suddenly – or so it seemed o me – revived it at this Conference and secured consensus from the bishops for implementing it.
The “Covenant” strategy means forging an agreed set of principles and beliefs, and backing these up with a tighter juridical framework. The implementation of these “instruments of communion” will be a lengthy process -- a meeting of the Primates is scheduled for January, and there will be a series of further meetings next year – which probably won’t see fruit for many years. Dr Williams told reporters that he hoped Anglican leaders could agree on a draft covenant within a year, but said that winning approval for it among the 44 national and regional churches of the Anglican Communion could take until 2013. But a commitment to it is far more than could have been predicted a few weeks ago.
The question is whether this process will be enough to bring back into the fold the 280-odd Gafcon evangelical bishops from the developing world who boycotted the Conference in protest at Dr Williams’s failure to expel the North-American Anglicans (TEC). And, indeed, whether the TEC can consent to keeping in place the moratoria on consecrating actively gay bishops and blessings of same-sex couples—that is the price of the TEC remaining part of the Communion, and it may prove too high.
Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire whose 2003 consecration sparked the row, does not like this one bit. “It’s a very odd thing for a Church that was founded as a resistance to any kind of centralised authority would now be trying to set up a centralised authority, that would decide what was right, what was orthodox, what was permissible”, he told the BBC’s Sunday programme. But Robinson does not speak for the TEC, and today he looks a lot less influential.
There are predictions that there will be, in effect, a two-tier Communion: one with those Churches that wish to be part of the new Covenant process led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and those that do not. The eventual loss of the North-American Episcopalians and some of the developing-world evangelicals may turn out to be the price of a firmer, stronger, Anglican Communion, that agrees on the basics in order to get on with its mission.
Throughout these posts I have argued that at the heart of the crisis has been a very ancient Anglican tension between incompatible ecclesiologies – one essentially Protestant (whether conservative or liberal), the other more Catholic. The first leads to balkanisation whenever there are serious doctrinal differences. The second is the only serious way of remaining together.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has led his divided flock down a route marked ‘Catholic’, and not everyone will be able to follow him there. But most will. And that means embarking on a historical process that will lead the Anglican Church closer to Rome.
For Roman Catholics, perhaps the most exciting and satisfying result of this Lambeth Conference is to see just how much Rome has been a partner in this process, encouraging Dr Williams along this historically unprecedented route. Gene Robinson is right: it does seem a “very odd thing” for a Church which began by rejecting Catholic ecclesiology to end up, 450 years later, turning back to it.
Historians will no doubt see the transformations of the Second Vatican Council, and the intense Anglican-Catholic dialogue that resulted, as one of the prime reasons for this. Others may say it is inevitable: as Cardinal Newman noted more than a hundred years ago of the ‘Via Media’, those who stand in the middle of the road tend to get run over. Others may point to Dr Williams, who exemplifies Keats’s "negative capability" -- a rare capacity to live in tension and uncertainty. Certainly, no one else in the Anglican hierarchy could have pulled this off: cometh the hour, cometh the man.
But let’s not leave out the Holy Spirit, which has a consistently nice habit of running ahead where humans and their institutions recoil from treading.