Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at a news conference in New Orleans Sept. 21.
The second day of meetings on Sept. 21 between American Episcopal bishops, the Archbishop of Canterbury and international Anglican representatives produced some heated exchanges over the contentious issue of homosexuality.
However, Archbishop Rowan Williams sought to tame the rhetoric by saying that the Sept. 30 deadline given by Anglican leaders for a response from the U.S. church is not an ultimatum and that he gained a greater understanding of the bishops’ viewpoints.
“Despite what has been claimed, there is no ‘ultimatum’ involved. The primates asked for a response by 30 September simply because we were aware that this was the meeting of the house likely to be formulating such a response.” Archbishop Williams told a news conference.
Last February, the primates, or national bishops, asked in a communique that the U.S. bishops “make an unequivocal common covenant that (they) will not authorize any rite of blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses;” they also asked that the American church refrain from confirming a bishop living in a same-sex union “unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the communion.”
Archbishop Williams said the communique has “been presented as a set of demands. I don’t think that’s what was in the primates’ minds. It needs to be thought about. It is a mistake to see the three or four proposals as questions that need to be answered so strictly that there is no room for maneuver at all.”
The primates’ statement also said that if such reassurances can’t be given, the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the communion “remains damaged at best and this has consequences for the full participation of the (U.S.) church in the life of the communion.”
The approximately 150 bishops meeting here for six days are wrestling with differing interpretations of the Bible concerning gay relationships and reconciling North American’s more-accepting view of homosexuality with that of other countries where it can be a criminal offense.
Archbishop Williams said he and the international Anglican Consultative Council and the primates’ joint standing committee will be digesting what the bishops will have to say when their meeting reconvenes next Monday and Tuesday “and will let me know their thoughts on it early next week. After this I shall be sharing what they say, along with my own assessments, with the primates and others, inviting their advice in the next couple of weeks. I hope these days will result in a constructive and fresh way forward for all of us.”
He added that he had a “much clearer understanding of issues around the polity of the Episcopal Church and also some of the assumptions made on a theological basis, such as the baptismal covenant. I’ve got a richer sense of how that works.”
The U.S. presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, noted that the U.S. bishops would be “framing a response” next week after a “stimulating and provocative conversation” this week.
A number of “mind of the house” resolutions have been written for consideration next week.
According to sources, one draft motion would acknowledge that there is “room for respectful disagreement within our church” and affirm that the “General Convention … is authoritative for our province.” The bishops have said in the past that it is the triennial General Convention, not their group alone, that makes legislation for the Episcopal Church.
Another draft motion states that the 2006 General Convention did respond to the concerns of the communion by urging restraint around the election of episcopal candidates whose lifestyle presents a challenge to the wider church. That motion notes that the General Convention did not authorize public rites of same-sex blessings, but that the bishops recognize that there will be differing pastoral responses to gay couples. It also says continuing interventions by outside bishops are “damaging to our godly fellowship in the Anglican Communion and we ask that they cease.”
A group of conservative bishops, meanwhile, used stronger language in a draft resolution that seeks to commit the house of bishops to not permitting same-sex blessing rites and not approving the election of a bishop “living in a sexual relationship outside of Christian marriage.”
In the closed-door morning session, Bishop Mouneer Anis, primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, said the Episcopal Church’s more-liberal stance on homosexuality causes it to be seen as “a different church … even a different religion.”
At least one American bishop protested that he had heeded requests from the Anglican Communion not to authorize rites of blessing for same-sex couples or consent to the election of a gay candidate to the episcopate but was still subject to interventions from foreign bishops.
Archbishop Williams said recent consecrations of conservative American priests as bishops in African Anglican churches who will care for disaffected American churches presents difficulties for the communion. “There is a very long history of unease over bishops wandering over other jurisdictions. I would prefer to hope and work for a local solution. Canonically, this is a muddle and it is getting worse. It makes it harder to find a constructive solution here,” he said.
However, he added that he was “struck by the sheer will to continue to engage with one another. I don’t despair of unity.” Responding to a question about why the Anglican Communion matters, Archbishop Williams said it is “for the glory of God. It is a particular cluster of churches within the body of Christ. We can demonstrate that it is possible to be a global communion without a central authority. If we get this right we will have done something for the entire Christian family.”