The primates’ response to the Windsor Report is key, said Philip Turner of Berkeley Divinity School.
The meeting of 38 primates in Northern Ireland next month could be a turning point for the Anglican Communion, currently threatened by schism over the ordination of a gay bishop in the United States and the blessing of same-sex unions in a diocese in Canada.
Or, it may not.
At the very least, however, conservative and liberal theologians agree that the Feb. 21-26 meeting will be a historic one, as primates deliberate on the Windsor Report’s prescriptions for arresting the possible disintegration of the communion of 70 million Anglicans worldwide. The meeting will take place on the home turf of Robin Eames, primate (national bishop) of All Ireland and head of the Lambeth Commission which wrote the Windsor Report.
“If they don’t agree to talk to one another instead of issuing threats of excommunication against one another, the communion will break up,” said Rev. Stephen Reynolds, professor of systematic theology at Trinity College, Toronto. “Or, it might be no more decisive than the Windsor Report (which) will only delay resolution of the debate.”
Another academic suggested recently that the future of the Anglican Communion of churches hangs in the balance and “will be determined by the primates and the communion as a whole.” Philip Turner, dean emeritus of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, said in a forum held last November at Wycliffe College, Toronto, “If the report is given backing by the primates’ meeting, it might force the far right wing to the centre, and force the middle to the right.” Whatever the outcome, the stage has been set for “a genuine church struggle,” he said.
So far, 16 provinces have issued statements on the Windsor Report, either through their primates, house of bishops, or synods: England, Ireland, Canada, United States, Nigeria, Central Africa, South Africa, Burundi, Tanzania, Southern Cone, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda, Wales, and Scotland.
Six – Congo, Indian Ocean, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and West Africa – joined Nigeria, Central Africa and Uganda in releasing a statement criticizing the report, at the recent African Anglican Bishops Conference.
Sixteen have reserved comment: Bangladesh, Brazil, Central America, Hong Kong, Japan, Jerusalem and the Middle East, Korea, Melanesia, Mexico, Myanmar, North India, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Southeast Asia, and South India.
Statements that have been issued highlight flashpoints that foreshadow a potentially rocky primates’ meeting. With the exception of South Africa, Burundi and Tanzania, nine other African primates, plus the primate of the Southern Cone (of South America), are upset that the report did not recommend discipline of the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) and the diocese of New Westminster and does not call for repentance from them. They are also riled at the suggestion that they “express regret” for having offered episcopal oversight to those opposed to homosexual bishops and same-sex blessings.
Liberal churches, on the other hand, worry about a centralization of authority and loss of independence over suggestions like having a common Anglican covenant and principles of beliefs, greater inter-dependence even on the matter of choosing bishops, and the emphasis on unity at all costs.
“What worries most is a hint at creating a confessional church – where one subscribes to a set of doctrinal articles about Scripture, whereas if anything, the commission’s report indicates that the communion has no single mind about what kind of authority the Scriptures have,” said Mr. Reynolds. “It’s not just scriptural fundamentalism but creedal fundamentalism, which is inherently un-Anglican.”
Both ECUSA and New Westminster also object to the report’s indictment that they did consult with the wider Anglican Communion, or for that matter that the ordination of women had set a precedent for consultations.
Mr. Reynolds agreed. “The report was looking backwards and forgot how traumatic the ordination of women was years ago. It said there was consultation on this. No, there wasn’t. Hong Kong did not consult anybody (before ordaining the Anglican Communion’s first woman priest) in 1943. The United States and Canada said, ‘we’re going to do this.’ There was no consultation really.”
Alan Hayes, professor of church history at Wycliffe College, said that having something akin to an Anglican common law “may not solve the current crisis but (might) prepare the communion” for possible upheavals that could arise in the future.
He also said that expanding the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as recommended by the report, could work if the incumbent is given “more of a conciliatory and mediatory role” but not the authority to, say, overrule decisions. The Archbishop of Canterbury “could be a symbol of authority but less than a pope,” he said.
Could the primates’ meeting achieve the impossible – an agreement on how to walk together, instead of apart?
“Asking people to hold back,” on their views may no longer work, said Mr. Hayes. “I think it’s too late to expect forbearance and apologies.”
Neither liberal and conservative segments of the communion is not going to back down, said Mr. Turner, adding that churches in the Global South, including Africa, “have already placed the honour of their church on the line.”