The Canterbury Travails

On August 3rd, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, released a statement at the end of the Lambeth Conference urging the Church’s hierarchy not to consecrate any more openly gay bishops. Held once every ten years, the Lambeth Conference is a meeting of all bishops serving in the worldwide Anglican Communion and derives its name from the Palace of Lambeth, the official London residence of the ABC. In Williams’ summary remarks, he also petitioned the 77 million members of Anglican Communion — which includes the U.S. Episcopal Church — to give its leaders “further space for study and free discussion without pressure” on matters of human sexuality.

The space to which Williams refers opened up first in 1992, when the Church of England (HQ for the Anglican Communion) began ordaining women as priests. This resulted in a mini-exodus of male traditionalists who contended that Jesus only wanted men in leadership positions. Taking its own counsel, the Episcopal Church forced the issue. It began independently ordaining women bishops and eventually elected a woman as its national Presiding Bishop. When the dust cleared at Lambeth, a resolution was passed which will now allow women to become bishops throughout the worldwide Communion. That put a high hurdle in the Anglican-Catholic dialogue, but Rowan Williams and Co. no longer risk being labeled as “misogynists.” The sexuality hurdle has proved insurmountable at present.

In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson as a bishop in New Hampshire. Robinson’s elevation was met with grievances on two points. Not only was he openly gay and living in a same sex relationship, Robinson was a divorced father of two. It was said by his detractors that this man obviously has trouble keeping solemn vows. Once the blessings of same sex unions was also put on the theological table, the betting odds went up that a schism was inevitable.

In the world of religious institutions, schism (from the Greek schisma) refers to the rupture of an ecclesiastical union. The two big ones that come easily to mind are Martin Luther’s 15th century Protestant Reformation and Henry the 8th’s divorce, in the 16th century, which led to the creation of the (Anglican) Church of England. Over the centuries, there have been many smaller schisms out of which new church bodies were formed. But tremors along the Anglican fault lines seemed to suggest this could be another big one. Could an open rebellion be forestalled? The answer turned out to be “yes,” but only just.

For a start, 230 of the serving 900 Anglican Bishops on the planet boycotted the Lambeth. Conference. A goodly portion of those absent serve as Bishops in African countries, where the Church is actually growing in size and influence. They protested that if the Church adopted pro-gay policies, it would be harder for them to compete for souls against Islam — a religion that completely rejects homosexuality. The Africans are also fighting the AIDS epidemic and feel that Church-directed strict moral practices are an essential component of their battle against the spread of this disease. Although he has spoken out against anti-gay violence, the Anglican primate of Nigeria, Dr. Peter Akinola, has endorsed the Nigerian government’s recent plans to strengthen laws against homosexuality, and so he forbade his bishops to attend the conference. Only one bishop, Cyril Okorocha of Owerri, broke ranks and flew to England. Akinola has become a figurehead in the revolt against the liberal wing of the Church. He has encouraged congregations to break away from their local liberal-minded dioceses. In the U.S., 100 Episcopal parishes (of 7000 nationwide) have already taken this path.

Voicing the opposing view is Integrity, the advocacy group for gay and lesbian Episcopalians. Integrity’s position is that “there is no theological defense for sacrificing a minority of the baptized for the sake of unity.” The group asserts that one day the Church will regret its treatment of gays and lesbians as it came to regret supporting slavery in the past. Pro-gay advocates were filled with ire by the news that Robinson had been deliberately left off the Lambeth invitation list. Robinson flew to England on his own and maintained a visible presence, giving interviews to members of the banished media.

What banished media, you ask? Another tactic the ABC used to manage the proceedings was to draw up a list of unfriendly media people, relegating them to a “press room” way “off-campus.” This led several of the ostracized group to comment that the ABC had acquired “the Stalinist touch.” The outcasts delighted in running with stories from other dissidents. Howls of official outrage ensued after a U.S. woman bishop gave an interview in which she claimed some bishops probably beat their wives, especially those from countries where wife beating was culturally acceptable. An African bishop called in to excoriate the Anglicans for being a relic of British colonialism. This generated heated retorts about how the Africans ought to do more to stop genocides in their own backyards.

But it wasn’t all without a bit of fun. Before the serious talks got underway, the Bishop of Columbo, Sri Lanka, suggested the liberals and conservatives form teams and settle their dispute by playing a cricket match. The spiritual entertainment was very ecumenical. One Canterbury service featured Buddhist chants and grass-skirted native Melanesian dancers. For exercise, the bishops were handed picket signs bearing the message: “Do Justice — Love Mercy,” and were organized to walk — with representatives of other faiths — around London. Then there were the surprised looks when discussion groups were handed directions on how to employ a method of conflict resolution pioneered by the Zulus.

Curiously, the Vatican sent its largest delegation ever to Lambeth –13 in all. Their assignment was to “help impose discipline and unity.” A Dominican friar, an Italian monk, and a Catholic cardinal acted as sort of personal support trio for the Archbishop of Canterbury. As one religion reporter quipped, Rowan Williams knew he was facing a family feud, so he called in some distant relatives from Italy to keep things under control. The Catholics were also on hand in case things blew up, ready to welcome any Anglicans who wanted to return to the Mother Church. Indeed, 100 Anglican parishes in the UK have already begun exploring a way to transfer their churches to Team Rome. Alas, Ivan Dias, the attending cardinal, put the wind up a few purple vestments when he said that the Anglican Church is “suffering from spiritual Alzheimer’s and ecclesial Parkinson’s.”

The Vatican presence is credited with influencing the most unexpected decision to come out of Lambeth. A Faith and Order Commission, along the lines of the Vatican’s own Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has been created. Anglican bishops will now begin to write down a code of common law for their church, similar to the Roman Catholic Code of Canon. This action was met with deep concern and nervousness. The Bishop of New York observed that the genius of Anglicanism is that is hasn’t codified too many things, to which the Bishop of Lincoln added: “People complain that we do not know who we are but part of what it means to be Anglican is not being able to say precisely who we are.”

Confusing? Yes, and that is the Lambeth legacy in a nutshell. Rowan Williams got his study time extension, but chances are he’ll be gone in ten years anyway when the next Bishop’s conference convenes. He dodged the schism, but the church-within-a-church Communion truce is unlikely to heal or hold. And now he has bishops worried that Anglicans are going to be forced to write down precisely who they are and what they stand for. In a post-Lambeth survey, 75% of participants reported being satisfied with the current Archbishop of Canterbury, but a third indicated the Anglican Church has never been in worse shape.

For those who wish to see an end to organized religion, this must come as good news.