Bishops end conference with ‘wide agreement’ on moratoria

Published September 2, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reminds bishops gathered for a retreat at historic Canterbury Cathedral that the Lambeth Conference has traditionally been “a place where bishops come to pray together.”

Canterbury, England
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on Aug. 3 said that the world’s Anglican bishops ended their conference with a desire to remain together despite differences over sexuality and with “wide agreement” on moratoria for same-sex blessings, the ordination of persons living in same-sex unions to the episcopate, and cross-border interventions.

There was also “wide support” for a proposed Anglican Covenant intended to heal relationships broken by deep conflicts over the place of homosexuals in the life of the church, he said.

“We may not have put an end to our problems but the pieces are on the board,” said Archbishop Williams in a presidential address at the conclusion of the Lambeth Conference, held at the University of Kent here, July 16 to Aug. 3.

The bishops began their conference with a cloud of uncertainty over the fate of the nearly 80-million strong Anglican Communion but emerged at the end “with some quite surprising results,” noted Archbishop Williams. The conference “has been a time when everyone has taken responsibility for everyone else” and that sense of responsibility “is only one expression of what person after person has said to me: ‘There is no desire to separate.'”

There was “a surprising level of shared willingness to stay together, a surprising level of agreement about what might be necessary to make that happen,” he said. “The covenant still needs a good deal of clarification, nonetheless, there is a following wind for that. There is also wide agreement for a moratorium on both sides where divisive actions are concerned.”

He also said there was “wide support” for a pastoral forum intended to create a “safe space” for conservative Anglicans who have left their churches, and that he intended to form it within the next two months.

In his address, Archbishop Williams said the pleas for moratoria “found wide support across the range of views represented in the indaba groups.” He said that “the church in its wider life can’t be committed definitively by the judgment of some; but when a new thing is enshrined, in whatever way, in public order and ministry, it will look like a definitive commitment.” He said that the theological ground for the call for moratoria on same-sex blessings and the ordination of gay bishops and priests “is the need to avoid this confusion so that discernment continues together.”

The call to end interventions across provinces also belongs in the same theological framework, he said. “Such interventions often imply that nothing within a province, no provision made or pastoral care offered, can be recognizably and adequately Christian, and this is a claim not lightly to be made by any Christian community regarding any other without grave breach of charity.”

The “widespread support” for moratoria was contained in a section on The Windsor Process of “Reflections”, a 42-page document issued by bishops at the end of the conference. Interestingly, the document’s section on sexuality and “possible ways ahead” to resolve the conflict said there were “competing visions on how the Communion should responsibly handle” the matter.

While acknowledging that the Reflections are “just that, reflections” that “represents the distillation of what the indaba groups have been saying, and saying what they would like to happen,” Archbishop Williams said that non-acceptance of the moratoria would signify that “we are no further forward,” that the idea of a covenant “becomes more fragile,” and as a result, the Communion continues to be “in grave peril.”

In their Reflections document, the bishops acknowledged that moratoria “will be difficult to uphold, although there is a desire to do so from all quarters.” They added that the moratoria could be seen as “a season of gracious restraint.” There were also questions around the moratoria on the blessing of same-sex unions; in particular, what exactly is being prescribed. “Many differentiate between authorized public rites, rather than pastoral support,” they said.

Archbishop Williams said the conference “hasn’t evaded the difficult questions” around the crisis over homosexuality, which resulted in more than 200 bishops and primates boycotting the conference. But he acknowledged that the conference may not have answered them “in the way that some people would have liked to answer them.” But, he added, “that doesn’t cause me to lose too much sleep because the conference has never been an executive body that can simply make those thoughts of quick fix decisions.”

Asked how he would explain what happened at the conference to the average Anglican on the pew, he said, “I’d say the process of the conference rested on a particular assumption – that bishops needed to speak to each other in a safe space and were capable of doing it respectfully and prayerfully.” He said that the Anglican Communion “needed to know how deep the commitment was on people’s part to staying together. I think we’ve got a bit of an answer to that.”

Archbishop Williams said that he intends to get in touch with bishops who have boycotted the conference to seek their thoughts about what the conference has achieved and whether this provides a basis for rebuilding relationships. The bishops, in their Reflections, said they have been “diminished” by the absence of the boycotting bishops, and said they would “seek ways in which they may be drawn into our deliberations and held in communion.”

He said that the proposed Covenant, now on its second draft (with the third draft to be worked out in September), will be presented for discussion to primates when they meet early next year, and to the Anglican Consultative Council which meets in Jamaica in May 2009.

In the Reflections document, the bishops said that there is agreement among them that it should be “pastoral and not legal and should be able to respond quickly.” It was also underscored that the forum “should always be moving towards reconciliation,” and could operate in a province “only with the consent of that province and, in particular, with the consent of the primate or the appropriate body.”

In their reflections on the issue of sexuality, the bishops said, among others, that:

  • “The whole issue of homosexual relations is also highly sensitive because there are very strong affirmations and denials in different cultures across the world which are reflected in contrasting civil provisions, ranging from legal provisions for same-sex marriage to criminal action against homosexuals. In some parts of the Communion, homosexual relations are a taboo while in others they have become a human rights issue.
  • “In the framework of the bishop in mission, it is agreed that the ordination of a bishop living in a same-gender union has compromised mission in many parts of the Communion and has had a profoundly disruptive effect on the Communion by detracting from other aspects of mission.
  • “Partnership in mission is lost and damaged as we are diverted from our primary focus. In some places the church is ridiculed as the ‘gay church,’ so membership is lost.
  • “There have been positive effects in parts of Canada, the United States, the U.K. and Central America and in other parts of the world when homosexual people are accepted as God’s children, are treated with dignity and choose to give their lives to Christ and to live in the community of faith as disciples of Jesus Christ with fidelity and commitment.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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