Backward Christian soldiers

A meeting of Anglican primates at Lambeth last week sought to avoid a schism over the appointment of a gay bishop in America. Yet despite the conciliatory tone, the threadbare fabric of unity is unravelling, reports Elizabeth Day

The Archbishop of Canada is walking, with slumped shoulders, along the grey pavement outside the Church of England headquarters, his froth of white hair dancing in the howling wind, his clerical silver cross a pendulum swinging from his neck.

His progress is brought to an abrupt stop as a tape recorder is thrust in his face: “Are you happy with the statement, Archbishop?” someone shouts at him out of the darkness. The Archbishop sighs as he wheels his suitcase to a standstill. “We’ve all agreed to it,” he says. “After any major controversy, some people are happy, some are not.”

Last week 37 Anglican primates produced a statement on homosexuality that sought to avoid a schism. The primates, reacting to the election of an active homosexual as bishop in America and the blessing of same-sex couples in a Canadian diocese, insisted after two days of intense negotiation that they would “listen to the experience of homosexual persons, and. . . assure them that they are loved by God”.

Yet they also declared that if the consecration of a homosexual bishop in New Hampshire went ahead “the future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy” (/news/main.jhtml;$sessionid$0AV5OI3KYV1PXQFIQMGCFGGAVCBQUIV0?xml=/news/2003/10/17/nbish17.xml). The primates then did what any organisation does when desperate for breathing space and unsure of how future events will unfold: they set up a commission.

With a neat symmetry, both the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and Anglican Mainstream, the traditionalist evangelical organisation, issued statements welcoming the outcome of the meeting, with extensive caveats outlining why the primates did not go far enough.

The threadbare fabric of unity is rapidly unravelling. Canon Gene Robinson, the homosexual clergyman due to be consecrated as bishop on November 2 in New Hampshire, has issued a statement insisting that he will not stand down.

The tenuous hope that the American Episcopalian Archbishop, the Most Rev Frank Griswold, would ask Canon Robinson to withdraw was swiftly extinguished.

The American Archbishop demonstrated where his loyalties lay as soon as the emergency meeting closed its doors on Thursday evening. His first action after signing a declaration condemning the election of a homosexual as bishop in his own diocese was to call Canon Gene Robinson in America to let him know the outcome and reiterate his support.

At the post-meeting press conference, Archbishop Griswold refused point blank to be pinned down on whether he would boycott the consecration. “I might do many things,” he said flippantly. “The second coming might occur.”

Archbishop Griswold, determined to make public his position, had even organised his own rival press conference at St Matthew’s Church in Westminster on Thursday night. “Luckily he agreed not to do that,” confided Canon James Rosenthal, the rotundly cheerful director of communications for the Anglican Communion.

For all the conciliatory tones of the final statement, then, it has made precious little real difference.

The evangelical primates are already joining forces in preparation for November 2. One of them, the Primate of the Southern American Cone, the Most Rev Gregory Venables, conceded that schism already existed. “The commission is not going to say: ‘Do we make a break or not?’ The break is there. It is going to examine what does that mean.”

With conservative primates talking openly of schism and the liberal faction urging Gene Robinson to stand fast, the Archbishop of Canterbury may well have his hand forced sooner than he likes.

The evangelical wing of the church is set to declare itself “out of communion” with the Episcopalian Church of the USA (ECUSA).

Pressure will then be put on the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, to make a declaration on behalf of the Church of England on whether it will explicitly condemn ECUSA or tacitly support the ordination of homosexuals by remaining silent.

Without a condemnatory statement, the fastest-growing churches in the Anglican Communion – the southern American and African countries, which are the most conservative – will refuse to acknowledge Canterbury’s jurisdiction. As Archbishop, Dr Williams is the head of the church, but not a Pope. He cannot decree a position.

Nor is schism the cataclysmic end-game it is made out to be. The autonomy of each individual province means that the Anglican Church has been out of communion with itself since 1989, when the American church appointed Barbara Harris as its first woman bishop.

The opponents of women priests attended the 1998 Lambeth Conference alongside her, but did not acknowledge her as a priest and refused to dress in clerical garb in group photographs with her.

On this issue, however, the conservative primates do not want a compromise solution.

“The homosexuality issue is of massive importance because it makes mission incredibly difficult when the Anglican Church is presented in terms of Western decadence and lax morality in largely Muslim countries,” said Bishop David Evans, the retired general secretary of the South American Missionary Society. ” The southern primates are very angry about this. They have got a strategy planned for November 2.”

There is a growing feeling, however, that the traditionalist wing of the church is losing momentum in the face of America’s bullishness. An indication of the increasing isolation of the conservatives was evidenced by the circulation of a letter at the emergency meeting asking primates to sign up in condemnation of ECUSA. The letter failed to get the expected majority of signatories.

“It happened over the ordination of women, just as it happened over the marrying of divorced people,” said an adviser to one prominent liberal primate. “America pushed the envelope and everyone else followed suit. America is embracing change and modernity which the rest of the Anglican Church must do to survive.”

That the southern primates will refuse to recognise the authority of any openly homosexual bishop is clear, but the question remains: will it make any real difference? The Anglican Church is practised at compromise. It is also very good at riding out controversies.

“You’ve got to put things in perspective,” says the Archbishop of Southern Africa, the Most Rev Njongonkulu Ndungane, the only African primate to have spoken out in favour of homosexual ordination. “We’ve been there before as a church not so long ago when the first woman bishop was elected, there was a big hype in the communion. And we survived. It’s in the nature of the church to live in this creative tension.”

For now, the primates’ statement has delayed any real decision until a fortnight’s time. Even then, it is likely that the Archbishop of Canterbury will react to a conservative schism simply by asking the church to wait for the outcome of the 12-month commission. The preliminary findings are due to be discussed at the General Synod in February. “That’s when we will see the real battle begin,” said Bishop David Evans.

For all this fighting talk, one can’t help feeling that the guns will go off with a whimper rather than a bang. The Christian soldiers of the Anglican Communion are masters of stalling, compromising and, in the end, accepting that moving forward is inevitable.

“November 2 will not be a day of blood-red skies and catastrophe,” says Rev Colin Jones, the personal secretary of the Archbishop of Southern Africa.

“The Anglican Communion will carry on as normal, just as it did after the ordination of women, but it will take time. There is a satirical version of the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers that goes: ‘Like a mighty tortoise/Moves the church of God. Brothers we are treading/Where we’ve often trod.’ That sums it all up really.”

In good time, the mighty tortoise may well carry on marching but, for the moment, it is hiding in its shell.

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