As the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States confirmed that the consecration of the world’s first openly gay bishop would go ahead as planned, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said a huge crisis is looming for the Anglican Communion. Speaking after an emergency meeting of the world’s Anglican leaders, U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold confirmed he will serve as chief consecrator for Canon Gene Robinson. Since becoming Presiding Bishop, I have served as chief consecrator for all bishops, and I will serve as chief consecrator at the New Hampshire ordination on Nov. 2, he said.
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, had called the extraordinary meeting of primates within hours of the general convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America confirming the election of Canon Robinson, who lives with his partner, Mark Andrew, as bishop of New Hampshire. The two-day crisis talks at London’s Lambeth Palace, where the Anglican Communion was formed in the 19th century, brought together 37 of the church’s 38 leaders, who preside over 70 million Anglicans in 160 countries.
In a unanimous statement at the meeting’s conclusion on Oct. 16, the primates reaffirmed the position, outlined at the Lambeth Conference of 1998, that the Anglican Communion cannot support the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions or ordaining of those involved in same-sex unions. The primates warned that the New Hampshire decision threatened to tear the fabric of our communion at its deepest level.
The church leaders stopped short of expelling ECUSA, which has only 2.4 million members (but is the communion’s wealthiest province), opting instead to set up a commission to study how to handle such differences in the future. The commission will report its findings within a year, a period that Archbishop Williams hopes will give individual provinces thinking time to reflect on the crisis. He said, If the church were ever to change its view, it would have to because the church as a whole wanted it, not because any one person’s conviction prevailed. Asked whether he believed Canon Robinson should become a bishop, Archbishop Williams replied, No, I don’t, because I believe that on a major issue of this kind, the church has to make a decision together. He said the issue left the church with a huge challenge about coordinating its discipline and its legal systems across the world, which we have never had to do before.
In their statement, the primates urged church members not to act precipitately, but appeared to concede that some parts of the church would cut off communion with the New Hampshire diocese or the whole Episcopal Church if Canon Robinson’s consecration went ahead. In a press conference after the meeting, Archbishop Williams said that although discussions had been honest and open, these issues will continue to cause pain and anger, misunderstanding and resentment all round. He feared that minority churches in Islamic states, which depend for their status on being associated with a worldwide body, could suffer if that body was perceived as being in favor of homosexuality.
Though each of the communion’s 38 provinces is autonomous and Archbishop Williams has no authority to discipline them, he could withdraw recognition of that province as a part of Anglicanism. The fact that he did not offers some hope that the communion’s fragile association will remain intact.
Both liberals and conservatives took positive signals from the meeting: I think the most significant thing is they were asked to intervene, and they chose most pointedly not to, said the Rev. Michael Hopkins, president of the gay advocacy group Integrity. A lot of us thought this would be the moment when things would come apart, and they haven’t. They’ve made a commitment to keep trying. Meanwhile, conservative clerics voiced hopes that Canon Robinson, a divorced father of two, would be pressured into reconsidering his position. Canon David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, said Bishop Griswold, who put his name to the Primates’ Meeting statement, would be duplicitous if he allowed Canon Robinson’s consecration to go ahead. However, unlike Archbishop Williams, who forced the gay theologian Jeffrey John to withdraw his candidacy as bishop of Reading this summer, Bishop Griswold has no power to force a resignation.
I listened to my fellow primates speak with anguish about the ridicule they have had to endure and the threat the ordination presents to their proclamation of the Gospel in their local context, said Bishop Griswold. At the same time I become more and more aware of how profoundly different the contexts are in which we seek to bear witness to the Gospel. Bishop Griswold said his role was to uphold decisions made by the Episcopal Church in accordance with its constitutions and canons. Canon Robinson was overwhelmingly elected by the people and clergy of the diocese of New Hampshire, and his election was formally consented to by a majority of lay and clerical deputations of the 110 dioceses, together with a majority of bishops exercising jurisdiction, he said. Therefore, since the diocesan process has been properly carried out and the necessary canonical consents have been given, I am obliged by canon law to take order’ for the ordination and consecration.
The primates’ statement from the Lambeth meeting also criticized the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada for deciding to permit blessings of gay couples. The church of Nigeriathe communion’s second-largest province, with 17.5 million faithfulhas already severed ties with the Vancouver Diocese; and Nigeria’s primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola, said there could be no compromise about homosexuality because it is clearly outlawed by the Bible. Archbishop Michael Peers, Canada’s primate, said his church would respond to Canon Robinson’s scheduled consecration in its own way, just as the church of Nigeria will proceed in its own way. We have agreed to disagree, and we are still a communion, but there are dark, dark clouds on the horizon. In an interview on the BBC on Oct. 17, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that if consecrated, Canon Robinson would not be licensed to officiate in England. Archbishops in Africa and Australia later made clear that he would not be welcome in their dioceses either.
The statement released after the primates’ meeting asked senior Anglicans to make adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities within their own area of pastoral care in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is so that bishops on one side of the debate over gays would not have to supervise congregations that rejected their views. Though the statement did not specify what form such oversight should take, in the Church of England, traditionalist flying bishops have been appointed to oversee parishes that refused to recognize the ordination of women.
Conservative primates in Africa and South America speak openly of a schism. Even in the event of a schism on Nov. 2, the Archbishop of Canterbury could delay a response until the commission draws its conclusions. The preliminary findings are due to be discussed at the General Synod in February, which means more time for thinking and dialogue. Whether that thinking and dialogue will be enough to bridge the widening gap between conservative and liberal elements of the communion remains to be seen.