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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 145

Here we go again

 

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Here we go again!

So, the miracle has happened - or has it? Perhaps a half miracle? Well, lets see what the outcome is of the first meeting of the Archbishop of Canterbury (hereafter ABC) with the Bishops of the Episcopal Church in America.

The American Church was asked for three things. They were asked to stop elevating gay men (and women) to the position of bishop. Secondly they were asked to give assurance that they would not authorise a liturgy for the blessing of gay couples. And thirdly they were asked to provide alternative oversight for those conservative members of the church who objected to the liberal programme.

In the statement issued by the bishops we read that they have agreed to a number of things. Firstly they have agreed to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any clergy to the episcopate where the manner of the living presents a challenge to the wider church. Secondly, they have pledged not to authorize public rites for same sex unions. Thirdly, they have commended their presiding Bishop’s plan for Episcopal visitors - in effect a provision of flying bishops for those who want alternative oversight.

So is all well now? Have they met the necessary conditions? Can the African and Southern Cone churches relax and join hands in friendly fellowship again with them? Not on your life!

For the bishops have in addition deplored the incursion of uninvited bishops into their jurisdiction. They want an end to it. As the African churches have recently been busy ordaining new bishops for precisely this purpose that will not be acceptable!

In addition the American bishops want to explore with the Archbishop of Canterbury ways for the Bishop of New Hampshire (Rt Rev Gene Robinson) to attend the Lambeth Conference next year. It would seem, from what has been said in interviews and articles by the African Primates, that they would not like this. In fact it may well trigger their non attendance. So that is a no-no!

The American bishops also call for unequivocal and active commitment to the civil rights, safety and dignity of gay and lesbian persons. This may sound innocuous but in reality it strikes at the heart of what Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria and, indeed, a number of primates in Africa appear to think about homosexuals. Their civil rights record as regards homosexual people would appear to be less than sparkling. Indeed, civil rights of gay people in Nigeria might be described as limited to getting enough food while in prison! So this is a requirement that will, I guess, be resisted. Yet it is something that is basic to the view of the gospel by most if not all Western Christians.

The American bishops have also supported their Presiding Bishop in her desire to pursue world wide consultation and for the increasing implementation of the listening process across the Communion.

The history of this is that it was called for by the Primates some time ago - but it does not appear to have been followed up as rigorously as it might have been. Indeed, it could be that the consultation with gay people has never happened in lots of local (not national) churches - mine included! I very much doubt whether the African Archbishops would want to consult the homosexuals in their countries - that is, if the gay people could be tempted out of their closets where they are hiding to avoid arrest or persecution.

In addition to all the above there is not the slightest indication of repentance by the Americans! They do not think there is anything to repent of!

So there it is - a well drawn up response by the American Church that shows they are keen to stay in the Anglican Communion, but cannot be penitent about what they do not consider a sin.

How will this exciting saga end? What will be the response of the conservative churches? Who knows! This may prove to be the turning point for the conservative churches. Maybe they are ready to launch their equivalent Lambeth Conference. They appear to see themselves as the true Anglican Communion and to see the others as straying off the right path. But if the ABC does not go with them how can they call themselves the Anglican Communion? The unity of the Communion is presently centred around his person. Is this the point at which change will all happen, or shall be have to wait until Lambeth? Or may we yet see the difficulties resolved and a miracle ensue?

I will hazard a guess that this response will not prove to be the last straw for the anti-gay churches - after all, this is a conciliatory move by the American Church, although of course what they have now said could all be reversed at their General Convention in 2009.

What this response by the Americans does do is provide the ABC with more ammunition to use as he pursues his lonely path of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. This response gives him good reason to include the American Bishops in the Lambeth Conference - and possibly Bishop Gene Robinson too! Although, if Bishop Robinson is included, that in turn could trigger the Africans and others not attending the Conference in 2008.

And so the saga continues.

While all the churches adhere to the ABC in his capacity as the main instrument of union there is hope for the future. What we now have in effect is a federation of Anglican churches - the one point of contact for them all being the ABC. Full schism does not come into play until that final and vital link is broken.

To summarise the situation: the American Church has gone some way in accommodating the worries of other churches in the Anglican Communion, but they have not turned from their intention - only deferred action pending more discussions. However, what they have done is enough to face the African and other objecting Churches with a further challenge to put up or shut up. Do the objecting churches place any value on unity? Or are they dead set on the getting their own way at all costs?

As the ABC now focuses on the upcoming Lambeth Conference and calls for all parties to come together, despite their differences, the objectors must decide whether to go along with him or not.

If they decide the time to break has come, have they enough of what it takes to set up an rival Communion? Or will their strategy still be to try to oust the Americans and, by their majority voting power, become the major player in the Communion? On a basis of number of members, they are the majority voice in the Communion - able to out vote any or all of the liberal ’Western’ churches.

The Windsor Report leads us onto a dangerous path. Once the national churches sign away their independence all is lost! The majority then takes over. The churches must cling to their independence - their birthright under Anglicanism as it has been to date. Once they agree to be ruled by the majority they effectively elect the Africans to run the shop. They must hold onto their right to run their affairs as they see fit. .

This single factor is the genius of Anglicanism and its distinctive mark. This degree of independence is what the objectors want to destroy, because in such a Communion they do not have power over anyone. Each church remains autonomous. The Windsor Report enables the majority to evict or demote those who won’t conform to the ideas and beliefs of the majority. As I see it, that has never been the spirit of Anglicanism.

If you say that unity must means uniformity in doctrine and belief - the idea underlying the Windsor Report - then you are already outside Anglicanism as we know it. Of course there must be unity in the absolute fundamentals. But all else must be left to the individual churches, leaving them free to match themselves to the needs of their society. The needs of African parishioners are very different from those in America or Britain!

Uniformity means that the majority view on all those matters that are thought important to the majority, are insisted upon. Only to a degree will such an organisation tolerate dissent and disagreement. Today the issue is about homosexuality, and the majority will not tolerate any disagreement with their views. Tomorrow it may be birth control. The next day it may be abortion. Or it might be alcohol or - whatever.

The principle at the heart of the present debate is more important even the presenting problem of homosexuality. It is whether Anglicanism is to change its nature and adopt a uniformity, governed by the churches that have a voting majority. If the churches in the Anglican Communion cannot hold together and voluntarily agree to differ on all but the absolute essentials, then it is surely best they relax the present form of union and adopt  something less constrictive - perhaps a federation with one acknowledged leader in the ABC. If they cannot cohere without having the power to eject or demote members then they should opt for a less restrictive association together.

So we wait to see what happens next. Keep praying for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is God’s gift to us at this crucial time.

Tony Cross

September 2007


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