THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 142
The stark alternatives
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In a few days time Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, (ABC) goes to the USA to talk with the bishops of the Episcopal Church in America. Then will come the date of September 30th which is the deadline set by other churches in the Communion for the American Church to renounce the idea of further gay priests and the blessing of gay partnerships.
So in a few days time the long drawn out anguish of the past several years will be entering a final stretch before final resolution one way or the other.
Once we reach the decision point, there are only two ways forward, although each has an infinite number of variations. Ultimately either of the two main groups will agree to carry on together or they will break in some form or another. Lets explore these.
The first solution has two possibilities: that either the American Church ‘repents’ and gives the assurances demanded by the others or that the Global South churches relax their demands on the American Church to give such assurances. Either course would resolve the immediate disagreement, although it would leave the basic problem still unresolved.
Frankly I think the second of these possibilities is totally a non runner. The Global South Churches are never going to change their stance on the sinfulness of homosexuality. Their whole background teaches them that to make such a compromise would be deeply wrong. It would be going back on all they hold dear.
Might the American Church give the required assurances? It is possible, but I doubt very much whether this is likely. For one thing they have acted from spiritual conviction all the way through and I cannot see them now backtracking. What would they then do with their gay Bishop - Rt Rev Gene Robinson? They would have to dispose of him somehow and I cannot see that being an even remote possibility.
For these reasons I cannot see the first possibility - that the two groups somehow patch up their disagreements - as remotely likely.
That leads us to the second alternative. That there is a break.
Such a break could take many different forms. It could be a simple walking away by one or the other. The aim would be for the Global South Churches to no longer feel contaminated by the churches that, they think, are compromising clear biblical instructions. There would be a final severing of fellowship and the two sides would go their separate ways.
That is as far as many commentators want to go. They do not want to peer into the abyss beyond that point, for the implications are just too depressing.
What are these implications? Well, simply, that the same disagreements and divisions will run through each national church as they have done through the Anglican Communion as a whole. In other words that there will be some ‘liberal’ churches and some conservative churches in each national church.
But, looking deeper still, in each local church (that, together, make up the national church) there will be those who see homosexuality as a grave sin and there will be those who say that homosexual people should be accepted into the church in just the same way that heterosexual people are accepted. The same rift of disagreement runs through local churches as well as through national churches, in the same way that it runs through the international Anglican Communion itself.
So if for a moment we assume that the end of September deadline passes without the desired resolution, and the Global South churches separate themselves from the others, what will be the position in, say, the Church of England?
The Lambeth Conference, held every ten years, was not and is not a legislating body. It has never been a supreme legislative body in the Anglican Communion and can direct no national church as to what it should or should not do. It works by consensus. That is what the Windsor Report wants to change. Certainly, each church - including the Church of England - should take note of the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference, but at present each church has to decide for itself how to proceed.
That means that the Church of England has yet to come to a final decision about how it should proceed in the matter of homosexuality.
In other words, just because the Lambeth Conference in 1998 stated that homosexuality was contrary to scripture does not settle the matter once and for all in the Church of England. The resolution passed in 1998 is by no means the last word on the matter and the Church of England will need to proceed carefully in how it deals with the matter of homosexuality and homosexuals in the Church in the future.
It must also be borne in mind that the acceptance of homosexuality in England has proceeded since 1998 and we now have, for example, the Civil Partnership Act which gives rights to homosexual people comparable to, though different from, marriage.
The Church of England is embedded in a society that happily accepts homosexual people as ordinary citizens and gives them equivalent rights. It therefore behoves the Church of England to be careful how it proceeds as regards the acceptance of homosexual people into the church. There are many Christians in the Church who accept gay people as laity and as clergy.
For all these reasons it is clear that there is going to be a struggle within the Church of England as to the status and desirability of having gay people in Church. In other words, we are going to see the battles fought over the same ground once again, just as they have been in the larger Anglican Communion.
However, all this is mere speculation. It may be that the ABC will be the catalyst for some miracle of reconciliation. After all, that is what our religion is supposed to be about! I would like to think that is possible - but I see it as unlikely.
Hitherto the ABC has held himself strictly in the middle. He has sided with neither party to the dispute. He has tried to the honest broker in the centre. Insofar as he has shown his hand at all, it has to be said that he has taken the position that the Lambeth Resolution of 1998 (that homosexuality is contrary to scripture) is a rock which cannot be moved. He has reiterated this resolution to the American Church more than once and I expect it will surface again in his meeting with the American Bishops. I think it is fair to say that some people in the liberal wing of the churches felt somewhat betrayed by that approach. They felt that it smacked of capitulation to the Conservative wing.
I believe - and it may be wishful thinking! - that the ABC took the position he did because he was acting on the basis that the Lambeth Resolution was passed by the 1998 Conference and therefore represented an established fact that was recognised internationally. It may be a right or a wrong resolution - or a resolution that is incomplete - but it was written into the record and could not be disputed by anyone. It was a point from which all could set out on the treacherous waters of debate - a fixed point.
Once there is a parting of the ways, however, as now seems likely, we are into a new situation. When it comes to the future of the Church of England I cannot see any justification for continued reliance on this Lambeth Resolution as if it were the last word to be said on the subject. It was a result of an international meeting, but it was left undiscussed and unexplored. It is insufficient a basis for a church grappling with a twenty first century society. Why? Because the Church of England is in a very different situation than, say, the African Churches. We have a much more evenly divided opinion in both clergy and laity of the Church of England. And our surrounding society is far more accepting of gay people. The matter is not cut and dried - it has now to be debated afresh and a way forward found.
We should at this point recognise that the Windsor Report is still on the table and just because some churches walk away from the Anglican Communion does not remove its importance. Maybe some clergy will wish to pursue the idea of a covenant between those churches that remain in the Anglican Communion. They may regard such a Covenant as the best way of preventing future similar ructions. The ABC may wish to pursue the idea of a Covenant as a way of binding the remaining churches together.
Although the Windsor Report is mainly concerned with providing a methodology for expelling (or demoting) any church that does not toe the line when the other churches want to present a united front, it is very relevant to the present issue of homosexuality because a tussle will emerge between those who want to exclude homosexuality and those who want to permit it. The problem does not go away just because some churches (even a lot of churches) leave the Anglican Communion.
The best solution would no doubt be to let discussion of the Windsor Report continue down the years in the hope that sufficient loopholes can be inserted into it to take away its teeth, or at least to blunt them sufficiently to allow a church like the Church of England to still have gay clergy and bishops. All of that is some way down the line and it may be that the idea of a Covenant, after the schism has been officially recognised, will fade into the background. Many Anglicans have deep objections to it.
Looking at the church of England as it appears to the society in which we are embedded, I consider it absolutely tragic that we present such an antiquated and illogical anti-gay position to the world. All those around us see is a lot of church people wrangling over homosexuality, and generally a church that wants to cold shoulder gay people because of some ancient dogma. No wonder our numbers are down! Many regard the Church as moribund and I have to say that there is little to contradict them at the present time.
While we in the church are trying to bring the irresistible force into harmony with the immovable object, the society around us is moving on. The people around us are looking at us and coming to the conclusion that these church people really have nothing to teach anyone. They see us as so divided and so unloving to gay people that they are repelled by us.
In short, I believe that many in society are now beginning to write off the Church of England - and indeed the other churches along with it - as irrelevant to today’s world. The message of Christ’s love for all has been obscured and negated. Some individual churches may keep on loving and caring but overall the opinion of the man in the street (or the person at their computer) is negative. What a tragedy!
If a breakdown comes in the Anglican Communion it will afford us a chance to rectify this. We can throw off any compromise with restrictive and doctrinaire prohibitions that date back over two thousand years and we can assert that the bible is not meant to be followed as if it is a rule book. We can so arrange matters that Christians with different views can live alongside each other in the church and yet stay in fellowship. We can prize our fellowship together more than an excessively doctrinal purity. In short, we can have a Church of England that welcomes gay people and allows them to take exactly the same part in the church as their heterosexual fellow Christians. Of course there must be adequate provision for those who still sincerely object to homosexuality - perhaps another covey of flying bishops? But we all must agree to live in peace and harmony together for the sake of the gospel.
We must continue to pray for our Archbishop. Especially that he will be guided in all he says at the conference in America. We must pray that there can be reconciliation between those Christians who differ - and that they may not break fellowship over this matter. We must pray above all that our disunity, so apparent at this time, will not discourage people from approaching the Christians and churches in order to find their way to the Prince of Peace and Lord of All.