Bishop Colin Johnson of the diocese of Toronto speaks at a Lambeth press conference as Archbishop Ian Earnest, primate of the Indian Ocean and chair of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA).
The world’s Anglican bishops today said they have not “reached a consensus” on what to do about the controversial issue of human sexuality that has bitterly divided them, but “a very significant step forward” has been made in terms of “listening” and “trying to understand” each other’s diverse opinions.
“Where we go from here remains to be seen… but there are good signs at this stage,” said Archbishop Philip Aspinall, primate of the Anglican Church of Australia and official spokesperson of the Lambeth Conference. He noted that bishops have yet to discuss other issues related to human sexuality that are equally divisive, such as proposals for a common Anglican Covenant.
“You might be surprised to hear that we haven’t suddenly reached consensus. The problems haven’t been solved,” said Archbishop Aspinall. However, he said, there has been a different “tone of engagement” with the issue compared to the last conference in 1998. “Ten years ago, people were distressed at some of the reactions to some of the things that were said. There were occasions when bishops actually booed and hissed what other bishops said in the gathering; 2008 is dramatically different.” He said that in his own indaba group “bishops from both ends of the spectrum on this issues actually embraced each other and thanked each other for helping them understand better what was at stake in the issues.”
A conservative primate, who chairs the Council of the Provinces in Africa (CAPA), meanwhile, said that he has promised to be “a bridge” to bishops and primates who have boycotted this once-a-decade conference to dramatize their opposition to more liberal views on homosexuality.
“We’ve been given a process to have a voice… I have to say that we’ve been able, from all sides of the spectrum, to do it,” said Archbishop Ian Earnest, who is primate of the Indian Ocean. He is also an active participant of the so-called Global South movement that has strongly opposed the ordination of a gay bishop in The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. and the blessing of same-sex unions in the Vancouver-based province of New Westminster. “My experience has been exciting and challenging. I and bishops of the Global South have expressed our convictions clearly but with generosity…with respect to the other. We have listened intently and carefully to the challenges of our bishops within their own context.”
The diocesan bishop, Colin Johnson, who was also asked to speak at the press conference, characterized the discussions around human sexuality as one of “respect, mutual generosity and trust.” He added: “We felt in the conversations that we’ve had that we’re engaged in a common mission, and that it’s more important than the things that separate us, and things do continue to separate us.”
All three – Archbishops Aspinall and Earnest, and Bishop Johnson – rejected the idea that the conference was sidestepping having to address the divisions over sexuality by merely engaging in discussions.
“(Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams made it clear that he didn’t feel any useful purpose would be made by trying to revisit Lambeth 110 (the resolution rejecting homosexual practice as contrary to scripture),” said Archbishop Aspinall. “The process that the church used the last time didn’t help the church move forward, so a very different process is being used.”
Archbishop Earnest said, “We’re not stepping aside. We are engaging it with respect.”
Bishop Johnson said “it would have been unreasonable to expect a full resolution to an issue that is continuing conversation within the life of our whole world.” He added: “The commitment that we continue to make is that we’re continuing to engage in indaba. Some came with some anxiety about the process; no one expressed that we are now in indaba. We are really, truly talking to one another.”
Asked whether any bishops had changed their views about the place of gays and lesbians in the church, Archbishop Aspinall said, “I’m not aware of bishops that have changed their minds. I am aware of bishops who have thanked other bishops with a different view for helping them understand issues and what’s at stake better.”
Bishop Johnson said that some people have probably “nuanced their position,” but whether they changed their mind, “we didn’t take a vote at the end of it.”
The three designated spokespersons for today’s session also debunked suggestions that the conservative voice was absent from the conference with the boycott of more than 200 of the more than 800 invitees.
“The conservative voice isn’t absent from here. They were very strongly in my indaba groups as were liberal voices, as well as those who would not identify themselves as I do,” said Bishop Johnson.
“We regret that our brothers aren’t here,” said Archbishop Earnest, adding that he would be meeting with bishops and primates who have boycotted the conference in a gathering in Kenya scheduled Sept. 2-3.
“The whole conference is poorer because some bishops have chosen to not attend and those bishops themselves are poorer because they are not here to engage with their brothers and sisters,” said Archbishop Aspinall. He pointed out that Archbishop Earnest was also a member of the Lambeth Design Group that organized the conference.
In today’s session, which focused on the theme, Living Under Scripture: The Bishop and the Bible in Mission, bishops were asked to respond to the following questions in their Bible study and indaba groups: “How has the Communion’s engagement with same-sex issues impacted my diocese’s participation in God’s mission? What do I need from my fellow bishops to enable me to be true to my role as a leader in God’s mission? What am I prepared to offer my fellow bishops to help them?
Bishop Johnson said he was left with two images that characterized his indaba group, one from an aboriginal context “where they sit on the ground, stir up the dust, (and when) the dust settles, they go into the house.” The other is that the household “is more than just a bedroom – it has many rooms” and outside the land is either flooded or parched, producing food or not producing food. He said it meant putting the discussion in a “wider context,” and not just on homosexuality, but also the question of “how do we live
faithful lives proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ?”
Bishop Johnson also pointed out that the diversity of voices on human sexuality was found not just among provinces of the Anglican Communion, but even in his own diocese, which has both a large gay and lesbian population as well as congregations with more traditional beliefs.