THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 93
Comments on the Windsor Report Number six
Newry and since.
It is now several weeks since the thirty eight Primates met in Belfast for their momentous time together to decide how to go forward following the Windsor Report. Although things move slowly overall one has to recognise that the position world wide is very fluid. One doesn’t quite know what will happen next.
The outcome of Newry has been variously interpreted and it is not yet fully clear exactly what lies ahead. Certain things are clear: the American and Canadian Churches are asked to report to the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council ( in June) with their reasoning behind and justification for the actions they have taken in respect of homosexuals in their churches.
That document will be profoundly important and will be studied far beyond the boundary of the Anglican Communion. Other churches will be moving themselves towards decisions about what their attitude should be to homosexuality. It is yet another important turning point in this long saga.
Anyone who thinks that that will solve anything for the Anglican Communion is, I fear, greatly mistaken. As I have pointed out in a previous article, there is no likelihood of the two sides of this disagreement ever reconciling their views. They are as different as chalk and cheese and surely it is now obvious that neither side is going to have a change of heart.
Let us remind ourselves where all this started and how it has developed. It started by an accusation that ECUSA and the Canadian Churches were contravening a resolution passed at the last Lambeth Conference in 1998. They had elected a man as Bishop who was gay and living in a close relationship with another man. They were also blessing gay unions. This went ahead of any world wide agreement to tolerate such actions.
When those churches failed to repent of their actions, some of the Primates, speaking for their churches, said that it was the action itself that was wrong - not just the jumping of the gun in obtaining general approval. That is, they said that homosexuality itself was against tradition and what the Bible taught. They were not prepared to tolerate this sort of divergence from normal and they started to withdraw from fellowship (the official word is ‘communion’) with the churches that followed such practices.
The split widened and reached its peak at Newry when certain Primates even refused to attend the Service and share the Eucharist with the other Primates. In effect schism was operating and this could not be covered up or glossed over.
However, the formal outcome of the Newry meeting was that the two offending Communions (the USA and Canada) were asked to voluntarily absent themselves from the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in May this year.
I must point out here that it is interesting that the process has jumped a stage - whereas what was objected to originally was that the USA and Canada had acted precipitately - now the objection concerned how Christians should treat homosexuals. The lesser problem of wrong procedure has been subsumed into the greater problem - should Christians condemn homosexuality?
So immediately after Newry the position was that the USA and Canada had certain hoops to jump through. Whether or not they would be invited to the next Lambeth Conference (2008) was left up in the air, but the inference was that they might be ‘expelled’ (i.e. not invited) before the Conference.
The response of the American and Canadian Communions is going to take time to ascertain, because those churches consult their membership on matters like this. However, as a gesture of goodwill, and to show that they regret the fact that their actions (which they still think were right) have caused distress in other Anglican Communions, the American Church decided to temporarily stop creating any new Bishops, straight or gay, pending developments.
There the position rested until a few days ago, when the College of Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church issued a statement which stated that they ‘had never regarded the fact that someone was in a close relationship with a member of the same sex as in itself constituting a bar to the exercise of an ordained ministry’.
This is a strong support for the American and Canadian position - however, the Scottish church has only forty five thousand members and therefore is rather outweighed as regards numbers by Nigeria, for example, which has seventeen million members. Nevertheless it is one of the thirty eight Communions represented at the Belfast meeting.
Such a statement will undoubtedly be objected to by those Communions that have taken a strong line against homosexuality. In fact it might be termed rather like a red rag to a bull!
The position might be described as rather fluid! Who knows which Communion will come out next week to add their two pennyworth! And who can tell what the response might be!
Is it possible at this stage to stand back and look at the overall situation objectively? I have to declare, of course, that I start from the position that God accepts heterosexual and gay people in the same way that he accepts black and white people - without distinction - and sees nothing wrong in a gay relationship in the appropriate circumstances.
It seems to me that those who object to homosexuality might raise three strong factors for their case. Firstly, the bible can be read as condemning homosexuality. Secondly, the fact that homosexuality is not generally accepted in the culture of their countries - and often is illegal - does make for huge problems for those churches if their world wide Communion accepts gay Bishops. And thirdly, that accepting homosexuality does fly in the face of Christian tradition over many centuries.
All these are important factors and must be appreciated by those who would seek to find any way forward.
On the opposite side of the argument, too, there might be three factors. The first is that it is self evident that it is no longer acceptable to treat the bible in a literal way; it has to be interpreted for each new generation, and to do so in no way devalues its message or authority. Secondly, there have been huge advances made in human knowledge and understanding in many fields, including human sexuality, and due weight must be given to what has been learned. And thirdly, most Christians absorb the cultural outlook of their surroundings and, therefore, we must accept that different Christians will see things differently. This does not mean that some are right and some are wrong. Nor does it mean that some are advanced and others are backward. It simply means that we see things differently.
Where does this get us? Not very far forward, I am afraid!
At present I see two possible ways forward. The first is that the worldwide Anglican Communion changes (breaks up) and we travel together in a less close way than heretofore. The second possibility is that the Primates stay together but agree to differ on this issue - indeed, as they have on other matters previously.
The response of those opposed to homosexuality might be that they consider homosexuality is such a sin that they cannot continue in fellowship with anyone who condones it. In which case the break will have to be clean and final.
There is a complicating factor. It has to do with homophobia. It is an established fact that it is perfectly possible for people to harbour a hatred of homosexuality and homosexual people. It is a complicated matter, and often it has to do with what has happened to the child or how he has been taught. When homophobia is evident then it is almost impossible to have rational discussion or to make any headway along the route of possible compromise.
That fact of homophobia has to be recognised and allowed for in all discussion of the issue.
I am concerned - as are many people - that the future of the world wide Communion is being unduly influenced by a group of Christians who hold what many would deem a narrow view of Christianity. By that term I mean that such views are not recognised as middle of the road, nor are they moderate. I see grave danger if the Church of England principle of toleration and compromise are sacrificed for the sake of holding the world wide Communion together. It seems to me that that would be too great a price to pay for unity.
Is that likely to happen? Here in England there are some strong influences at work to push our Anglican Church and its leadership that way. For one thing there is the group in England itself that want to pursue that agenda. They would claim a majority of rank and file members support them, but that is by no means sure. Then there is the desire by the present Church Leaders to avoid being those who officiate at the break up of the world wide Communion.
At the end of the day the Church of England is going to have to work out its own response to whatever happens on the world wide scene. There will undoubtedly be disagreement and possible dissention. How it will turn out for the Church in England is an open question.
There is much water yet to flow under the bridge and we are surely in for more surprises before we are finished. More reports are in the pipeline and there are legal aspects that bear upon the position. Some of the Primates will be retiring soon and that may have an effect. The response by the American and Canadian Churches has yet to arrive and be studied. And there is the personal leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury to take into account. There is also the fact, of course, that the general population cannot understand why the Church is tying itself up in knots with this issue. People generally see homosexuality as a fact of nature (which it demonstrably is) and therefore is to be accepted. These are only some of the many factors which are operating in the overall situation.
Above all else, however, we have to remember whose church it is. The Lord is in all that happens and is looking for men and women who will stand up and be counted. He looks for those who are close to his own heart. For men and women of principle who, insofar as is possible, are reconcilers and healers rather than destroyers.
And to us all is presented the simple instruction to pray. Do we believe prayer can influence these weighty matters? If we don’t we have no right to be involved in any way.