Primates of the Anglican Communion have given the U.S. Episcopal Church until September 30 to “make an unequivocal common covenant” that its bishops will not allow same-sex blessings in their churches and that it would not consent to the election and consecration of a bishop living in a same-sex union “unless some new consensus on this matter emerges” across the Anglican world.
Failure to do so would mean that “the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remain damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion,” the communique warned. It did not specify what those “consequences” would be.
“The response of the Episcopal Church to the requests made at (the 2005 primates’ meeting in) Dromantine has not persuaded this meeting that we are yet in a position to recognize that the Episcopal Church has mended its broken relationship,” said the communique, released at the end of a tense meeting held Feb. 15-19 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The primates said that while the American church has “taken seriously” the recommendations of the Windsor Report, “there remains a lack of clarity about the stance of The Episcopal Church, especially its position on the authorization of the Rites of Blessing for persons living in same-sex unions.” It noted that “there appears to be an inconsistency between the position of the General Convention and local pastoral provision.”
The primates also said they would establish a “Pastoral Council” that would “negotiate the necessary structures for pastoral care” to American bishops, dioceses and congregations that have moved to disassociate from the Episcopal Church following disputes over the place of homosexuals in the church. The Council would also liaise with conservative primates of the communion who have exercised Episcopal oversight over parishes in the U.S., a move that has been criticized as an invasion of the American province’s jurisdiction.
The council would consist of up to five members: two to be nominated by the primates, two by the presiding bishop of the U.S., and a primate to be nominated by the Archbishop of Canterbury as chair.
“We believe that such a scheme is robust enough to function and provide sufficient space for those who are unable to accept the direct ministry of their bishop or the Presiding Bishop to have a secure place within The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion until such as time as the covenant process is complete,” the primates said. The primates urged U.S. conservative groups that have been lobbying the Archbishop of Canterbury for a “commissary” to lead them, to negotiate with the Council “to find a place for them within these provisions.”
In explaining why it offered these prescriptions to the American church, the primates said, “We believe that it would be a tragedy if The Episcopal Church was to fracture, and we are committed to doing what we can to preserve and uphold its life.” The communique also welcomed the decision by U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to consent to the appointment of a “primatial vicar” for dioceses that do not wish to accept her leadership. Some congregations in the U.S. refuse to ordain women, while others disagree with Bishop Jefferts Schori’s more-liberal stance on homosexuality.
The drafting and release of the communique took longer than expected, with news reports saying that during the last day of their meeting, the primates were still locked in debate past midnight. A scheduled press conference was canceled and the question of whether a communique would be released at all was raised by some primates, reported the British newspaper The Telegraph. “It was believed that the primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, is leading a rearguard action by a rump of hardline conservatives,” reported The Telegraph. “They were deeply unhappy with early drafts of the communique because it fails to rebuke the liberal American Episcopal church for bringing Anglicanism to the brink of schism by consecrating its first openly gay bishop in 2003.”
Meanwhile, the draft of a proposed covenant intended to heal bitter divisions over human sexuality in the global Anglican Communion was presented to the primates during their meeting. The covenant includes a potentially controversial section that calls on member churches of the Communion to commit themselves to six things, including submitting before primates “matters in serious dispute among churches that cannot be resolved by mutual admonition and counsel.”It adds that, “If the primates believe that the matter is not one for which a common mind has been articulated, they will seek it with the other instruments (of unity) and their councils.” (The other “instruments of unity” in the Communion include the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference of bishops, and the international Anglican Consultative Council.) Earlier, some members of the Anglican Consultative Council had asked what authority the primates’ meeting had to request that the Canadian and American churches “voluntarily withdraw” from a meeting of the council in June 2005. Concerns had been expressed that the primates’ meeting is being granted more authority than what it was traditionally intended to be: nothing more than a collegial body for heads of Anglican provinces.
The draft covenant also commits churches “to heed the counsel of our instruments of communion in matters which threaten the unity of the communion and the effectiveness of our mission.” While it notes that the instruments of communion “have no juridical or executive authority in our provinces,” they are nonetheless “bodies by which our common life in Christ is articulated and sustained, and which therefore carry a moral authority which commands our respect.”
If churches choose not to abide by the covenant “we will consider that such churches will have relinquished for themselves the force and meaning of the covenant’s purpose, and a process of restoration and renewal will be required to re-establish their covenant relationship with other member churches,” it added.
Archbishop Drexel Gomez, primate of the Church in the West Indies, who headed the group that assembled the covenant, described the draft proposal as “a statement of classical Anglicanism, but it is not one size fits all.”
In a press briefing, Archbishop Gomez said the covenant aims “to provide the Anglican Communion with a mechanism of mutual accountability of holding one another together. We believe that when it is finally approved we will have a means of holding each other in check and dealing with difficulties from time to time.”
The primates have made some suggestions to the covenant and have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to send a letter asking all Anglican provinces to study and respond to the document within the next year.
“The proposal is that a revised draft will be discussed at the Lambeth Conference, so that the bishops may offer further reflections and contributions,” the primates’ communique said. (The next Lambeth Conference, the decennial meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops, will be held in Canterbury, England, from July 16 to Aug.4, 2008.)After presentation to the bishops, the final text of the covenant will be presented to the Anglican Consultative Council for approval, after which it would be offered to the 38 provinces of the communion for ratification. While the communique noted that the Windsor Report of 2004 identified as “threats to our common life,” the election in 2003 of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, and the decision by the diocese of New Westminster to allow same-sex blessings in 2002 it nonetheless said that the American church’s more liberal views on homosexuality was “at the heart of our tensions.” The communique made no further reference to the Canadian church. Earlier, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said in an interview with the Anglican Journal that the Canadian church was not the focus of the meeting since it has yet to respond to the Windsor Report. The Canadian church is expected to offer its formal response to the report during its General Synod in Winnipeg this June. Also on the agenda is a resolution that would allow individual dioceses to decide whether to consent to the blessing of same-sex unions. The communique also:
- Stated that the work of the Pastoral Council could be applied in other provinces. While it did not cite the Anglican Church of Canada, it has similarly been divided over homosexuality and some congregations have already been receiving Episcopal oversight from conservative primates without the consent of Canadian bishops. “The primates recognize that such pastoral needs as those considered here are not limited to The Episcopal Church alone,” the communique said. “Nor do such pastoral needs arise only in relation to issues of human sexuality.”
- Expressed hope that the pastoral schemes they specified “will mean that no further interventions will be necessary since bishops within The Episcopal Church will themselves provide the extended episcopal ministry required.” The primates said that “the interventions by some of our number and by bishops of some provinces, against the explicit recommendations of the Windsor Report, however well-intentioned, have exacerbated” tensions within the Communion.
- Stated that the opinions expressed by some U.S. dioceses and bishops that “they cannot in conscience” accept the primacy of Bishop Jefferts Schori and have requested an alternative primatial ministry further complicated the situation. Nonetheless, the primates said, “we recognize that the Presiding Bishop has been duly elected in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, which must be respected.”
- Stated that while the proposed covenant is not yet in place, healing within the Communion would be facilitated by adhering to the recommendations of the Windsor Report.
Full text of the Primates’ Communique is available at www.anglican.ca (The story, first published Feb. 19, has been revised. The last six paragraphs have been added to provide more detail.)