The Archbishop of Canterbury today expressed confidence that the Anglican Communion is not headed for a schism, saying that while the difficult debate about homosexuality is far from over, a “spiritual cohesion” has been achieved by the three-day retreat prior to the official business at the Lambeth Conference.
“Are we heading for schism? Well, let’s see, if this is the end of the Anglican Communion I don’t think anyone has told the rest of the people here,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in response to a question at a press conference.
Archbishop Williams also explained that the option he had offered as a way of addressing deep divisions in the communion did not mean granting more powers either to the Lambeth Conference or some other body.
“I deliberately used the word (council) with a lower case rather than an upper case. I don’t think I want to see the Lambeth Conference becoming a governing council but among the covenant proposals along with the other documents there are suggestions for some further international bodies that could act as clearing houses for debate and resources that could give clear advice to myself or the primates,” he said.
In his plenary address Sunday night, Archbishop Williams had said that the communion could address its problems through “consent, not coercion.”
Responding to charges earlier made by a group of conservative Anglicans who have boycotted the conference to express their opposition to what they regard as the church’s growing liberal view on homosexuality that the proposed Anglican Covenant was “colonialist,” Archbishop Williams said, “Well, I think, we argue. That’s to say, we continue to make the case and see whether what emerges in terms of the covenant discussions in the next couple of weeks will help at all. We’re not at the end of the process yet.”
Archbishop Williams also said he did not think that the fact that some provinces ordain women as priests and bishops and some don’t would not be “an absolute deal-breaker” for the proposed covenant. He said that while some members of the Church of England “still have questions about the nature of priestly exercise by women,” the fact is that “they still recognize that ministry is being exercised… we have some kind of low level recognition.”
Archbishop Williams also defended his decision not to invite Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire by saying that his participation at the conference would have been regarded as “questionable” since attendees include those opposed to his consecration.
“The problem we faced within the Anglican matter is that bishops that gather at Lambeth represent not just their dioceses but their participation is part of the fellowship of worldwide Anglican Christians,” he said, in response to a question as to why ecumenical participants from other Christian traditions were present at the conference but not Bishop Robinson. “Where there are bishops whose participation in that worldwide fellowship for one reason or another is questionable that’s the reason for questioning their participation.”
He also said that bishops who had participated in the consecration of Bishop Robinson were invited despite a recommendation made by the Windsor Report that he might consider not inviting them because some of them had later expressed that “they wished they hadn’t” participated in the consecration, others had retired, and that the American house of bishops, as a corporate body, had “asked for forgiveness for the hurt” that it had caused. This apology, he said, had been deemed acceptable by various Anglican standing committees and some provinces. “That was my basis for saying I don’t think I want to go down the list of consecrators and say ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘possibly’,” he said.
In response to a question as to why he decided to invite Bishop Robinson’s consecrators despite a threat of boycott made by some bishops and primates whose Anglican membership is larger than most provinces if this was done, Archbishop Williams said it had been “a difficult judgment” but that he did not see any logic that “if you’re more than seven million in your province, your voice ought to matter more.”
Archbishop Williams said he remains committed to the position of the Anglican Communion “made corporately clear through the Lambeth Conference (of 1998) and through all things we’ve been going through in recent years.” The 1998 Lambeth Conference had passed a resolution “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture” and rejecting the “legitimizing or blessing of same-sex union” with 526 bishops voting in favour, 70 against, and 45 abstentions This was passed despite the conclusion of the subsection on human sexuality that bishops were unable to reach a common mind on the matter.
Archbishop Williams said that while running the conference has been “a huge challenge”, it “is never just dependent on an archbishop; the conference is dependent on participants.” He added that the conference has gone along quite well because of the “millions of prayers” by Anglicans worldwide. “Whatever has happened is because of their support and the goodwill of people here.”
Archbishop Williams said that the retreat, parts of which took place at the historic Canterbury Cathedral – known as the mother church of the Anglican Communion – was “an important building block for anything that happens.” He added: “I think it (the retreat) has done what I had hoped, to give people a common base. Simply being in the cathedral mattered quite a bit. I think the cathedral did most of the work.”
Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, spokesperson for the conference, said the view “unanimously” among bishops, including those who “who take a different view or take on issues” has been that they are “extraordinarily grateful” for the retreat. He said that the 657 bishops present at the conference, which is being held in the University of Kent campus, had given Archbishop Williams a standing ovation before his presidential address.