Primates see threat to unity

Published November 1, 2003

From left, Archbishop Remi Joseph Rabenirina, Church of the Indian Ocean; Archbishop Samuel Ndayisenga, Episcopal Church of Burundi; Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

While declaring “a deeper commitment to work together,” leaders of the worldwide Anglican church at an emergency meeting in October warned that liberalizing attitudes toward homosexuality “jeopardize our sacramental fellowship with each other.”

Talk of disciplining or expelling churches did not materialize, nor did the primates commit themselves to creation of a new, conservative province, as requested by American traditionalists. A statement from the gathering, however, said that if the consecration of a gay bishop went ahead in the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) this month, then the future of the Anglican Communion was at stake.

“This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level,” the statement read, “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.

“Similar considerations apply to the situation pertaining in the diocese of New Westminster ,” the statement continued.

Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said “dark days” lie ahead for the communion because “people are threatening to break communion.”

The primates also asked Archbishop Williams to establish a commission on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role when difficulties arise between provinces and to report within 12 months.

The primates’ statement was released at the conclusion of a two-day meeting, held Oct. 15-16 at Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Referring to the election of openly-gay priest Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire and the approval by the Canadian diocese of New Westminster of a blessing ceremony for gay couples, the primates’ statement expressed “regret” at the actions.

However, Archbishop Peers said later that he has “formally expressed neither regret nor affirmation of those events.” In a written statement, he added, “Gay and lesbian persons may continue to expect to be welcomed and received in our churches, and to have their contribution to our common life honoured.”

The primates, meanwhile, warned that if Bishop-elect Robinson’s consecration proceeded, “we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the communion itself will be put in jeopardy.” Bishop-elect Robinson’s consecration was scheduled for Nov. 2 in Durham , N.H. , and the diocese of New Hampshire confirmed it will proceed.

The primates said that Canon Robinson’s ministry as bishop “will not be recognized by most of the Anglican world, and many provinces are likely to consider themselves to be out of communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).” A province in the Anglican Communion consists of one or more countries. ECUSA is one province, as is the Anglican Church of Canada.

Referring to conservative Anglicans who contend that the Bible condemns homosexuality, the primates said, “we have a particular concern for those who in all conscience feel bound to dissent from the teaching and practice of their province in such matters.”

The leaders said they support the territorial integrity of dioceses, but they called on provinces concerned “to make adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities within their own area of pastoral care in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the primates.”

Conservative primates and bishops have visited Canada and the U.S. , “consecrating” and “commissioning” clergy to minister to churches that maintain a traditional stance on homosexuality.

The primates also reaffirmed resolutions made by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1998, which declared that homosexuality was a practice “incompatible with Scripture.” The primates said the Lambeth statement had moral force” but also emphasized part of the Lambeth resolution that urged the church to “listen to the experience of homosexual persons and to assure them that they are loved by God and … full members of the body of Christ.”

Reaction to the primates’ statement varied widely.

Bishop Michael Ingham, of the diocese of New Westminster , welcomed the primates’ statement and wrote that their reference to dissenting minorities “must mean that gay and lesbian Christians may now expect to be given the episcopal pastoral care they have not been receiving.”

He also said that “efforts to seek legitimation for schismatic attacks on the fundamental structures of the church, by such bishops as Terrence Buckle of the Yukon , have received no support whatsoever.”

Bishop Ingham added his view that “discrimination against homosexuals, not inclusivity, is dividing the church.”

Conservative groups such as the Anglican Communion in New Westminster (ACiNW) and the American Anglican Council also welcomed the primates’ stand, with the AAC interpreting it as a “stern rebuke” to the U.S. church.

A coalition of 11 churches in New Westminster , ACiNW said that the primates’ mention of “adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities” supports their call for an alternate bishop for conservatives in their diocese. Rather than an alternative bishop with full authority, Bishop Ingham has offered dissenters an “episcopal visitor.”

ACiNW said the meeting “yielded a good deal of what (the ACiNW) have been hoping for: protection and pastoral care to continue to live out their ministries, while still remaining conencted to the traditional teaching of the Anglican church.”

Three well-known conservative primates, Peter Akinola of Nigeria , Yong Ping Chung of Southeast Asia and Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda , issued a short statement saying they are “grateful to God for hearing the prayers and cries of his praying people to preserve both the truth and the unity of the Anglican Communion.”

At a news conference, another conservative archbishop, Drexel Gomez of the West Indies , said he expected his fellow traditionalists to “hold the line” and avoid precipaitate action while the special commission was at work.

Archbishop Williams said that the members of the communion would “keep talking and working together,” a task that makes “talk of winners and losers irrelevant.”

With files from ENS, ENI, ACNS


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