The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who is spiritual head of the fractious 78-million strong worldwide Anglican Communion, has described the decisions taken by the recent Primates (heads of provinces) meeting in Tanzania as a trust-building exercise to preserve unity in the face of disagreement.
He has also affirmed the need to listen to lesbians and gays, and has described interventions from outside in the workings of the Episcopal Church USA as having “destructive effects”.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph Newspaper today (23 December 2007), the Archbishop acknowledged that some would see the often vituperative in-fighting within global Anglicanism as akin to “the life of a dysfunctional or abusive marriage”. But he urged the plaintiffs not to head for the divorce courts.
Dr Williams said that the reason for the dispute was that a majority of Anglicans regarded sexual ethics, including the permissibility or otherwise of gay relationships, as part of the non-negotiable core of church teaching which they were not free to give up at will.
But other Anglican scholars and leaders strongly disagree with this. They point out, for example, that the ordinal says nothing about orientation, that the few biblical texts on abusive same-sex acts do not address modern faithful partnerships, and that none of the central Christian doctrines is at stake.
Dr Williams characterised the dispute with the Episcopal Church in the USA, which has been given seven months to clarify its position on the issue of recognising same-sex related bishops and partnerships, as one of proper procedure.
He wrote today: “When Anglicans in America decided, in 2003, to appoint as a bishop someone in an openly gay partnership [Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire], the widespread reaction was that there hadn't yet been the kind of discussion in the worldwide setting that might convince others of the rightness, in principle, of blessing same-sex relationships - and that this discussion needed to happen before anyone decided whether an active gay person might be a candidate for being a bishop. Not too surprisingly, most in the Communion felt that the conclusion had come before the argument.”
However, those backing Bishop Robinson say that the local diocese elected him with due process and in consonance with Anglican formularies.
They also point out that the majority of those opposing recognition of lesbian and gay people in the church refuse discussion of alternative views and wish to suppress those who hold a contrary understanding on traditional and biblical grounds – the view Dr Williams subscribed to before taking up his position as 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, since when he has refused to discuss his personal views and has described his role as upholding the majority tradition.
The Archbishop also lauded the “listening process” within Anglicanism. And he sought to draw a distinction between the church’s willingness to bless gay relationships and “the absolute moral imperative of combating bigotry and violence against gay people, and the need to secure appropriate civic and legal protection for couples who have chosen to share their lives.”
But Anglicans in Nigeria and elsewhere have reacted with fury to civil and legal recognition of lesbian and gay partnerships, have backed legislation which criminalises gay relationships and organisations, and have refused to meet with or recognise gay Christians, point out critics.
However, those open to change and development within the church will take comfort from the fact that the Archbishop’s article emphasised “the continuing work on finding means for homosexual men and women in the Communion to speak about their experience in a safe environment.”
He also acknowledged “that interventions from overseas in the American Church also have destructive effects in some ways” and that “a [shared pastoral] structure in America to care for the [conservative] minority tries to remove any need for external intervention.”
Concluded Dr Williams: “What happened in Tanzania in the last week or so represents an effort to define what could restore trust… The outline of a "covenant" document for local Anglican Churches suggests ways in which we could commit ourselves to a future process where consultation was fully built in.”
He added: “The requests to the American Church for further clarification and a moratorium on certain actions while the covenant process is going forward are essentially requests to show that their desire to stay with the Communion is strong enough to cope with a halt for the sake of continuing to move and work together.”
This appears to be a very different understanding to those who have claimed that the upshot of the Primates request was that the American church should mend its ways or face being booted out of the Anglican Communion.
Bishop of Durham Dr Tom Wright, a conservative on sexuality who is nonetheless identified with the “evangelical centre” gathered around the group Fulcrum in the Church of England, has welcomed the Tanzania meeting as a step away from further division, and has appealed for calm reflection.
But the Rev Richard Kirker, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, warned in the Daily Telegraph: “Stalling for more time, equivocating, appeasing, and colluding with homophobia will not stand the test of time or close scrutiny.”
He added: “At a time when we are celebrating the end of slavery, the Anglican Primates, perversely, [still] seem willing to enslave and scapegoat gays.”