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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 113

An open letter to American Anglicans

(Please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk for archived material)

 

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Over these last months we have been reading comments from all sorts of people in all sorts of places in the world about the appointment of a gay Bishop in America. We have heard every level of accusation being directed at you all in the American Church - and we have heard all sorts of forecasts of impending doom - for the American Church, for America, for the Anglican Communion and even, sometimes, that the end of the world is nigh! One could almost imagine that the apocalypse was about to commence from the way some talked!

This has not therefore been an easy time for any member of the Anglican church, in whatever country they reside. And it cannot have been an easy time for your members in America. Sometimes our hopes would be raised, only to be dashed again as the dispute turned into yet more criticism. Some people have blamed the problems that the Anglican Communion is experiencing directly on the appointment of Gene Robinson, but I believe that to be a serious mistake. Appointing a gay Bishop may have been the trigger which has sparked the crisis but it is not the cause of the crisis. That crisis has its roots far deeper and going much further back in time.

Before I look at those causes of crisis we all need to recognise the courage and far sightedness of the Episcopal Church of America. Over the years you have been ahead of the field in a number of areas, and after years or decades the rest of the Communion has followed you. In the present case too I have no doubt that in due time the vast majority of the Anglican Communion will come right alongside you. It may take decades, but it will come, as indeed it must.

Courage has been called for because others in the Communion have emphasised to you over and over again that you are on dangerous ground and that you threaten the unity of the whole Communion. Instead of yielding to expediency you have spent time deliberating and praying, and eventually you have done what you believe to be right, not what is expedient. You believe that the Holy Spirit has led you along this path and I for one am totally sure that you are correct in thinking this. I believe that God has used you again to show to the Communion, to other churches and to the world in general that the God who created human beings with a diversity of sexual orientations, blesses and uses them all, whatever their particular orientation.

In the process of going through this test of your resolve to be obedient to God alone you have discovered those in your midst who cannot for conscience sake agree. That will always be the case - whenever real spiritual issues tax our minds there are some who think one way and some who go the other. It is painful and it is sad. But it is a fact of history that no major step forward such as the one you have taken is achieved without some pain and grief. All one can do in such circumstances is to exercise the love of Christ and try to come to an amicable settlement if they want to take property away with them. Generosity has to be the key word!

Turning to the nature of the present crisis engulfing the Communion, one sees immediately that homosexuality is only one factor. If only the ‘problem’ were that simple! Other factors include a weak organisational structure of the Anglican Communion, very widely varying views within the Communion of the essentials of our faith, an overriding desire on the part of those leading to preserve unity at almost any cost, a Windsor Report that advocated a worldly solution and seemed to ignore the importance of spiritual leadership in this situation, and a residue of ant-Western, anti-British and anti-American feeling that is clearly a deeply felt factor in the thinking of some people in African and other countries.

Looking at these in turn: The organisational structure of the Anglican Communion grew up over many decades. There was never a review that led to the provision of clear authority at the centre. Perhaps the need never arose, or perhaps the need was recognised but the whole subject felt to be too ‘political’. Anyway, the mechanism of the Anglican Communion has been clearly shown to be not fit for purpose if that purpose is to keep thirty eight national churches working together as a harmonious team. The mechanisms in place to resolve serious tensions between the various national churches were unable to do just that. There were, of course, committees and meetings at which things could be discussed - but the essential nature of Anglicanism - in which there is no Pope-like figure, nor central doctrinal authority, meant that the whole network was running on an informal basis.

I do not mean to imply that Anglicanism should have had a better defined central authority or been more regimented so that individual churches did not step out of line. Nor do I think that is the solution now. The genius of Anglicanism is - or has been till now - that we eschewed such rigidity. Which is why, of course, autonomy was allowed to each national church. The structure of the Communion grew over the years to be what it was and it was simply hoped that all churches would stay in line. When the crisis of difference about how we understood our faith arose there was no clear way forward. We all had to invent it as we went. Perhaps the central authority of the Communion did not grasp the issue strongly enough early enough. But we are at too early a stage to make any deep analysis.

The second reason for the crisis - the widely differing views of some of the essentials of our faith - was not unknown beforehand! We all knew that some churches in the Communion were far more fundamentalist in their view of Scripture than others. While we all value the bible as the most precious gift we have received from our forebears, we don’t all see it the same way. Christians in the fundamentalist tradition - as in your Bible Belt and as in parts of Africa, for example - are far less able to tolerate Christians who interpret the words of the bible differently from them. That is just a fact of life.

Full allowance must be made for Christians who are in a fierce battle with other faiths. Those of some other faiths (for example, Muslims) abhor homosexuality and therefore the acceptance of a gay Bishop in any part of the Anglican Communion would make Anglicans the focus of strong condemnation even though they live in a different continent. It would be a real problem for example for some African Christians. This is an aspect on which we in the West have sometimes laid too little importance.

Another cause of the rift that has developed concerns not so much the initial disagreement but rather how it was dealt with. It is easy to criticize after the event and we speak from ignorance of all that went on, but it is surely clear that until now there has been an overpowering desire on the part of the leaders of the Communion to preserve the Union. This has been perceived by some to be at almost any cost! Maybe nothing would have changed the course that events took - but it did seem to some that unity played a too important role in the minds of those trying for peace and concord.

The Windsor Report too was masterly in the depth of its analysis and its attempts at a solution. But here again maybe the desire to maintain unity across the Communion figured too largely as a priority?

In effect both the actions of the leadership and the Windsor Report seemed to put unity above principle. The Archbishop called all the churches to promote discussion at every level within their churches. In fact there was too little discussion for various reasons in the English Church. I don’t think this was a realistic request in the climate surrounding homosexuality and I doubt it reached pew level in any but a very few English churches. Certainly at local or national or international level one heard little or no talk of the Christian duty to maintain an open and loving fellowship with all fellow believers despite differences of opinion.

Finally, it is undoubtedly true that there is a residue of anti - West feeling outside the West - for example in some African countries. I am not condemning this - there may well be very good reasons for it. In the church world, maybe Canterbury has been perceived to overrule the wishes of other churches - especially those that were previously Colonies of Britain. Maybe there is anti-American feeling too. Such feelings may or may not be justified - but I am sure that this is a factor in the situation.

No doubt there are many deeper reasons behind this world wide fracture, and in due course we shall read all about it in the books that will be written, and so be able to see the whole story with the benefit of perspective and hindsight!

But it remains true at this stage that schism now seems likely and I believe it is a mistake to blame either you in the American Church or, indeed, just ‘homosexuality’ which is merely the presenting problem.

However we go on from here, you have made your decision and some of your number will depart. And some National Churches will cut links with you. I hope and pray that will not include the Church of England!

Thank you for what you have done. It has brought the Communion face to face with a decision about how it will regard its most treasured resource - the bible - henceforth. It has forced other churches to ask themselves whether God did not create heterosexuals and homosexuals and loves them all and blesses them all just as they are.

For all you have done we thank you and are all eternally in your debt. We pray for Gene Robinson, who carries a heavy responsibility, and for your new Presiding Bishop that she may lead you gloriously through the next phase of you pilgrimage as God empowers you to show His love and inclusivity to all, and thus bring honour and glory to His name.

Tony Cross

July 2006


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