Primates push U.S. on sexuality

Published April 1, 2007

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (right), arrives on Zanzibar with the Archbishop of Tanzania, Donald Mtetemela. They joined their fellow primates at a eucharist at the former site of the slave trade.

Primates of the Anglican Communion have given the U.S. Episcopal Church until Sept. 30 to “make an unequivocal common covenant” that its bishops will bar same-sex blessings in their churches and that it would not consecrate another gay bishop “unless some new consensus on this matter emerges” across the Anglican world.

Failure to comply would mean that “the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remain damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the church in the life of the Communion,” warned a communique issued by primates at the end of a tense meeting held Feb. 15-19 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In a press conference, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams indicated that failure to comply with the demand would not mean downright expulsion from the Communion, but perhaps a diminished role in the Communion, including the exclusion of U.S. bishops to the Lambeth Conference. (The next Lambeth Conference, the decennial meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops, will be held in Canterbury, England, from July 16 to Aug. 4, 2008.) “The response of the Episcopal Church to the requests made at (the 2005 primates’ meeting in) Dromantine (Northern Ireland) has not persuaded this meeting that we are yet in a position to recognize that the Episcopal Church has mended its broken relationship,” the primates’ communique said.

The primates said that while the American church has “taken seriously” the recommendations of the Windsor Report (a report produced in 2004 by a worldwide commission examining how the church could remain in communion amid strong disagreements) “there remains a lack of clarity about the stance of the Episcopal Church, especially its position on the authorization of the Rites of Blessing for persons living in same-sex unions.” It noted “there appears to be an inconsistency between the position of the General Convention and local pastoral provision.”

The primates also said they would establish a “pastoral council” that would “negotiate the necessary structures for pastoral care” to American bishops, dioceses and congregations that have moved to disassociate from the Episcopal Church following disputes over the place of homosexuals in the church. The council would also liaise with conservative primates of the communion who have assumed oversight of parishes in the U.S., a move that has been criticized as an invasion of the American province’s jurisdiction.

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the primates’ ultimatum to the U.S. church was something that the Canadian church “will have to look at seriously.” He said that the Canadian church could face the same consequences “if it were to follow the same path” as the Episcopal Church. The U.S. church’s decision in 2003 to consecrate Gene Robinson, the openly-gay bishop of New Hampshire, has triggered near-schism in the Anglican Communion. “The

American church is in a different position than we are,” Archbishop Hutchison said in an interview. “It’s the ordination of Bishop Robinson that was the main issue that triggered all of these and we’re not in that situation in Canada. “Furthermore, in the United States, same-sex blessings is something that has happened in a number of dioceses across the country, In Canada, there’s only one diocese where that’s happened and we’re still in the middle of a conversation. So it’s hard to say what the implications might be.”

But he added, “I suppose that if Canada were to follow the same path, which would be a radical move in the same direction as the United States, then we might look forward to a similar kind of response.”

In a briefing, Archbishop Hutchison told national church staff that he had been “profoundly discouraged” by the communique and had found it “tempting” not to sign it. The communique had “virtually not one encouraging word for gay and lesbian people who have felt so far on the margins,” he said. But he said he agreed with U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that not signing the communique would send a message to the church and to the world “that at great expense and effort, we have accomplished nothing and we have nothing to say.”

The primates’ message demonstrated “a great struggle to try and preserve some kind of unity within the Anglican family, but the question is, at what price?” said Archbishop Hutchison. He said this was something that Canadian Anglicans would have to consider when they decide on issues around sexuality at their General Synod, or national convention, in Winnipeg this June. He added that the Canadian church was not discussed at the meeting because it has yet to respond to the Windsor Report’s call for a moratorium on same-sex blessings.

Bishop Jefferts Schori called for patience saying that while the primates’ recommendations are “a hard and bitter pill for many of us to talk about swallowing,” attitudes about gays and lesbians are changing around the world. “I don’t expect that to end,” she said. “We’re being asked to pause in the journey. We are not being asked to go back. Time and history are with this church.”

During a live Web cast from New York Feb. 28, she was asked if the U.S. church could “go it alone.” She replied: “I don’t think this church is ever alone. We have many partners around the church and partners in mission. The body of Christ is never intended to be divided into pieces.”

The U.S. house of bishops was to discuss the primates’ ultimatum at its meeting in March; Bishop Jefferts Schori has said that the decision on whether to comply with the primates’ demands was neither hers nor the house of bishops alone to make (see related story).

Speaking at the Church of England synod held a week after the meeting in Tanzania, Archbishop Williams lamented that Anglican leaders had spent more time discussing sexuality than the pressing issues of poverty and injustice.

“The public perception, as we’ve been reminded by several commentators in the last week or so, is that we are a church obsessed with sex,” he said.

That perception was also bemoaned by a group of Anglican women who gathered in March at the 51st session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (see related story). They released a statement that read, in part, “we do not accept that there is any one issue of difference or contention which can, or indeed would, ever cause us to break the unity as represented by our common baptism.”


  • 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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