A sorry state of affairs

Published December 1, 2004

Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word.

In the weeks following the release of the Windsor Report, which bemoaned the sad state of affairs in the Anglican Communion, the church has heard a number of variations on the theme of apology. Or should that be the theme of regret? A heavily nuanced document, the Windsor Report placated only segments of the church, which had anticipated a bleak future for the Communion — perhaps even dissolution. Prior to the report’s release, “leaked” information anticipated the sanctioning of both the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA), (for consecrating a non-celibate gay man as bishop of New Hampshire), and the Canadian diocese of New Westminster (for approving a same-sex blessing liturgy). This proved to be wishful thinking. Nor was any recommendation made to take disciplinary action against the bishops and primates of the Global South, who have also caused disruption in the church by overstepping provincial and diocesan boundaries to minister to disaffected Anglicans in North America. Many observers (media included) inferred from the Windsor Report that apologies were recommended right across the board. However, members of the Lambeth Commission (which wrote the report) pointed out the specific wording: “We call upon those bishops who believe it is their conscientious duty to intervene in provinces, dioceses and parishes other than their own to express regret for the consequences of their actions. ” [Italics inserted throughout.] The report also recommends that “the Episcopal Church (USA) be invited to express its regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached in the events surrounding the election and consecration of a bishop for the See of New Hampshire and for the consequences which followed.” And again, the wording is significant: that bishops who have authorized public rites of blessing of same-sex unions “in the United States and Canada be invited to express regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached by such authorization. ” Two men who have become lightning rods for the current controversy, Michael Ingham, diocesan bishop of New Westminster, and Frank Griswold, presiding bishop (primate) of ECUSA, quickly did what was asked of them: they expressed regret for the consequence of their actions, but not the actions themselves. “It was not our intention to cause dismay, but affirm the relationships of gay and lesbian people,” said Bishop Ingham. Similarly, Bishop Griswold added, “We regret how difficult and painful actions of our church have been in many provinces of our communion, and the negative repercussions that have been felt by brother and sister Anglicans.” The fact that Bishops Ingham and Griswold did not go further than they were asked has infuriated many who live their faith at the conservative end of the spectrum. They did not ask for forgiveness, they did not say they would repent. So, in the end, some ask, what is an “expression of regret” worth? The question of apologizing for the consequence of one’s actions, yet not for the actions themselves, is a tricky one. Just ask some of the former employees of the residential schools system — many of them (though not all) would not dream of apologizing for bringing both Christ and formal education into the lives of native children, many of whom previously had neither. Yet, many (not all) would also agree that removing children from their families and culture damaged those same children for generations still to come. Both Bishop Griswold and Bishop Ingham, it is clear, felt they had nothing for which to apologize. The bishops, backed by much of the church in their jurisdictions, felt they were doing the right thing when they acted on decisions made in the course of due process at the diocesan synod or General Convention (synod) levels. It is futile to ask them to apologize for something they continue to believe was right, even though they could not have anticipated the fallout that has resulted. But churches in the West could, if they chose, now heed the Windsor Report recommendation to back away from any actions that might cause further strife, at least while the wounds to the communion are still so raw and until there is more understanding on both sides. Foreign bishops, too, could, if they chose, back away from situations that are already inflamed and let the provinces deal with the episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities in their own way. The Canadian bishops’ recent agreement on a plan of shared ministry (see story, p. 1) goes a long way toward protecting those minorities. At press time, it appeared that no member of the Global South had yet expressed regret for the consequences of offering episcopal oversight to Anglicans who dissent from their church or diocese on issues of sexuality. Rather, in the case of a group of African primates, they rejected outright the report’s “moral equivalence”, which equated the offence of liberal actions in New Westminster and ECUSA with the actions of those who offered oversight to conservative congregations. The next challenge will be faced in the upcoming meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion in Northern Ireland next February, where the recommendations of the Windsor Report are to be discussed. Perhaps with some time for reflection and prayer over the report, more Anglicans will find something they can agree on within it. Lambeth Commission chair Robin Eames, primate of All Ireland, points out that the report “is not a judgment. It is part of a process. It is part of a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation.” There were large numbers of Anglicans (and non-Anglicans as well) who hoped to hear recommendations made for disciplinary action against those they perceive as rogue dioceses, provinces and even individuals. There was also a segment of the church that had hoped to hear stronger language used regarding church leaders who cross provincial boundaries without permission and foment discord and disobedience to local (or even national) church structures. The process needs time and thoughtful, prayerful engagement.


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