The Episcopal Church has voted to appoint a lesbian bishop. Like Gene Robinson, whose election in 2003 split the Anglican Communion, Mary Glasspool, elected a suffragan by the Diocese of Los Angeles Saturday, is in a long-term gay relationship. She views her election as in political terms. “Any group of people who have been oppressed because of any one isolated aspect of their persons yearns for justice and equal rights,” she says.
But the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other Anglican Primates who are committed to the 'covenant' process of unification believe differently. Dr Rowan Williams said back in July that "the question is not a simple one of human rights or human dignity. It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences. So long as the church catholic, or even the communion as a whole does not bless same-sex unions, a person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle."
He said then that "what affects the Communion of all should be decided by all". So no surprise that his response to Saturday's election of Mary Glasspool is to point out that it "raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole."
The move is contrary to the moratoriums on further elections of gay bishops agreed by TEC in 2004. But it's hardly unexpected: back in July, the General Convention of the TEC meeting at Anaheim, Calif., voted to lift the moratoriums, signalling their determination to defy the rest of the Communion. It means that Canon Glasspool's election is very likely to be confirmed.
There was something almost weary in Dr Williams reminding the TEC, in his statement, that “the bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.”
But as I've pointed out often before, "schism" is too simple and apocalyptic a term for this -- although the press will continue to use it. It's much messier and more complex than a split.
Dr Williams spelled out what would happen with those churches which did not sign up to the covenant process in his July reflections on the TEC General Convention:
For those whose vision is not shaped by the desire to intensify relationships in this particular way, or whose vision of the communion is different, there is no threat of being cast into outer darkness – existing relationships will not be destroyed that easily. But it means that there is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance: that is, a "covenanted" Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with "covenanted" provinces. This has been called a "two-tier" model, or, more disparagingly, a first- and second-class structure. But perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a "two-track" model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, one of which had decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value and so had in good faith declined a covenantal structure. If those who elect this model do not take official roles in the ecumenical interchanges and processes in which the "covenanted" body participates, this is simply because within these processes there has to be clarity about who has the authority to speak for whom.
Dr Williams was referring here not just to TEC but to developing-world evangelicals, many of whom are wary of the covenant. As I've said here before, we're looking at a future in which there will be a much smaller 'core' Anglican church -- with which Rome will do business - surrounded by satellite groupings of Anglican churches whose communion with Canterbury will be largely nominal and which have increasingly less in common with each other; or which, in the case of the Catholic Anglicans, will find their home in Rome's new ordinariate plan.
That process is gathering pace: the LA election comes just as the covenant is being finalised and sent to the Primates for their signature. The restructuring of the 70m-strong Anglican Communion is under way.