Unity plea as church seeks way forward

Gay issue could cause split, report warns

The report by the commission headed by Ireland’s Archbishop Robin Eames – now called the Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission – strives across 76 pages of text and 50 more of appendices to persuade men and women of goodwill in the 78 million strong worldwide Anglican communion to find ways of living together in unity and charity.

It acknowledges the depths of division created by the gay issue – “a degree of harshness … which is new to Anglicanism … not all the opinions voiced have been expressed in ways which are conducive to dialogue or the encouragement of communion,” in the archbishop’s words – but urges a restitution of bonds of affection.

It insists that the report is not a judgment, but part of a process – “a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation.”

The report is in four sections. The first sets out the nature of the Anglican communion and how it can work when it is operating well, before turning to a description of its current difficulties and tensions following the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in the United States and the authorisation of same-sex blessings in New Westminster, Canada.

The second section examines the principles by which the churches of the Anglican communion run their affairs: the place of Scripture and the role of bishops.

The meat of the report lies in the third and fourth sections, which recommend possible ways for the church to operate in future, with greater collaboration and the setting up of a non-binding covenant of shared principles. Finally it recommends means of dealing with the current crisis.

The report suggests that the longstanding “instruments of unity” by which the church operates – the Archbishop of Canterbury at the head of the church; meetings every 10 years of all the communion’s bishops; the Anglican Consultative Council; and the regular meetings of the 38 primates who lead the church’s provinces – should be clarified so that national churches understand them better. It insists however that what it does not want is a centralised power structure like the Curia in the Vatican.

The report reinforces the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as head of the communion but recommends that he should be given a council of advice which “would considerably enhance the foundations of any authority on which [he] might feel truly enabled to act.” It also suggests bringing the various national churches’ canon laws into a basic agreed framework “to sustain the minimal conditions which allow the churches of the communion to live together in harmony and unity.”

To help this process, it puts forward the idea of a common Anglican covenant to make more explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection governing the relationships between churches. In theory, once adopted – and there is no idea how long that might take – churches which transgressed against agreed practices could be sanctioned in some way. It argues that a covenant would however carry the weight of an international obligation and prevent churches pressing ahead with unilateral innovations.

But, crucially, the report says the covenant would have no binding authority and could be altered: “Some provisions … will be susceptible to development through interpretation and practice … designed to allow the parties to it to adjust the relationship and resolve disputes in the light of changing circumstances.”

On the current crisis, the report calls on the Canadian and American churches to recognise that their actions have not sufficiently acknowledged the impact of their decisions on the rest of the world community. But it says bishops who have intervened to assist traditionalist parishes have also gone outside Anglican traditions: “We cannot avoid the conclusion that all have acted in ways incompatible with the communion principle of interdependence and our fellowship together has suffered immensely as a result.”

The report does not blame those who voted for Gene Robinson’s consecration, and acknowledges that the Episcopal Church was at liberty to appoint a gay bishop. But it criticises those bishops who took part in his consecration service, despite warnings of the damage it would do, saying this raises questions of their commitment to the church as a whole.

It invites the church to express its regret that the action breached the bonds of affection and suggests the errant bishops should consider whether “in conscience” they should withdraw from representative functions in the communion, ie pull out of joint committees and meetings.

It says any council of advice should keep the matter of Gene Robinson’s acceptability under close review, and suggests “very considerable caution” should be exercised in inviting him to communion-wide meetings. So, it looks as though he will not be invited to the next meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops in 2008.

The report calls on the American church to introduce a moratorium on the election or consecration of any further bishops living in a same-gender partnership. But it criticises bishops who have intervened from outside in the activities of the US church and urges them to express regret.

In a final plea, the report says: “There remains a very real danger that we will not choose to walk together. Should the call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion not be heeded, then we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart.”

Special Report: Religion in the UK

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