New beginnings for a sometimes-divided church

Published November 1, 2003

While last month heralded some new beginnings for indigenous Anglicans in Canada, recent events elsewhere might well be remembered as the beginning of the end for the Anglican Communion as we now know it. First, the good news. Despite some initial apprehension on both sides, last month’s meeting of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and non-native church leaders seems to have, against the odds, smoothed over many of the jagged edges of their recently-damaged relationship. After months of tension arising from General Synod’s signing an agreement with the federal government, against ACIP’s wishes, that ended years of litigation over responsibility for Indian residential schools, all those gathered shared their feelings of hurt and disappointment. All those interviewed – from the primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, and the General Secretary, Archdeacon Jim Boyles, to the ACIP leaders and spokespersons – seem happy with the resulting statement, which pledges all sides to work toward a self-determining indigenous Anglican church, together with a indigenous bishop who would minister to native Anglicans wherever they are. Never mind the awkwardness of the Canadian church agreeing to a non-geographical bishop for aboriginal Anglicans, while fiercely resisting the same idea for orthodox, conservative Anglicans who object to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Anglicans – this may ultimately be a success story, both for the General Synod and for aboriginal Anglicans. If ACIP members truly want to realize the goals of their 1994 covenant and if the church has the will and the energy to help them, now that it is free of the burden of fighting the government over who was responsible for the disastrous legacy of native residential schools, then this is truly a good thing. Providing both sides move ahead with a commitment to honesty and real consultation and with realistic expectations, it could happen. There will likely be a bump or two down the road, though, and the route toward independence is unknown. Then, there was the primates’ meeting. Only days after the ACIP and Canadian church members boarded their planes for home, swelled with hope for the future, 37 leaders of the churches that make up the Anglican Communion met under very similar conditions – mistrust and tension – though for very different reasons and with more at stake, globally at least. Meeting under the roof of the stately Lambeth Palace, the 37 men – called together only two months earlier by their leader, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury – participated in a process not unlike an aboriginal healing circle. Each primate, in turn, took the time he needed to tell those gathered how the recent events around the acceptance of homosexuals by North American churches had affected their respective churches back home, whether in Canada, the United States, Africa, Asia, South America or Australia. Primates’ meetings are private gatherings. Outsiders are not permitted to observe. So we will never know exactly what members said. But many of these leaders have not kept their positions a secret. For months, since churches in the diocese of New Westminster began blessing the unions of same-gender couples and since the U.S. diocese of New Hampshire elected a non-celibate gay man as its bishop, various foreign primates have written about and written off the church in the West. Many wasted no time in declaring themselves ‘out of communion’ with the diocese of New Westminster, then the diocese of New Hampshire, then, the entire Episcopal Church in the United States, for its tacit approval in August of same-sex blessings and its confirmation of the choice of Canon Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. The primates’ message said their meeting had led to a “deeper commitment to work together” and affirmed their desire “to remain part of a Communion, where what we hold in common is much greater than that which divides us in proclaiming Good News to the world.” But the statement also acknowledged that the church’s acceptance of homosexuality caused problems not only within Anglican churches inside and outside North America, but also in its relationship with other faiths, as evidenced by a meeting last month of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope John Paul II. Each group that had a vested interest in the primates’ meeting teased out its own meaning from the statement, which held a little something for everyone. Within hours of the statement’s release from Lambeth, the responses came flowing in. Conservatives crowed that the statement a) affirmed traditionalist teachings on sexuality and b) seemed to recommend some form of episcopal oversight of “dissenting minorities within their own area of pastoral care,” while liberals, including the diocese of New Westminster, put their own spin on the message. Bishop Michael Ingham of the diocese of New Westminster commended the primates’ wisdom and suggested, “In many places, this must mean that gay and lesbian Christians may now expect to be given the episcopal pastoral care they have not been receiving.” (Bishop Ingham has offered an episcopal visitor to those who do not support same-sex blessings, but many dissenters held out for another bishop with full jurisdiction.) The communion may have dodged a bullet in the short term, but it is not out of the line of fire. The primates warned in their statement that if New Hampshire went ahead with its consecration of Bishop-elect Robinson (which the diocese has said it will, on Nov. 2), it would “tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues, as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).” After the meeting, the Canadian primate and others warned of dark days in the coming weeks and months. Dark days indeed.


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