The Lambeth Walk
The Times of London Editorial
No one could accuse Rowan Williams of not saying that extra prayer or going the extra mile along the rocky road. He has wrestled with the tensions, arguments and conflict over homosexual clergy for more than three years in an attempt to hold together a Church of England more rent with division than at any time for the past two centuries. The effort has cost the office of archbishop dear and has brought the Church to the brink of schism. Now he has decided that the time for emollience is over.
Exasperated by the repeated failure of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America to heed the pleas for restraint from other members of the Anglican Communion, he has drafted plans to expel the Americans from the worldwide Anglican Church, and offer it only “associate” membership. It is schism in all but name.
Under the proposals, widely canvassed and discussed in detail with theologians and fellow clergy, all 38 provinces of the Church will be invited to sign a “covenant”, setting out the traditional biblical standards on which Anglicans around the world can agree. Those who refuse to do so will forfeit the right to full communion and will either have to cut their links with Canterbury altogether or be offered a looser arrangement similar to the status agreed with the Methodists three years ago. The three provinces that are almost certain to break away are the American Church, the Anglican Churches in Canada and New Zealand that have also supported gay ordination, and possibly also the liberal Scottish Episcopal Church, from which the American Church was born.
Many in the Anglican Communion, especially the populous churches in Africa and the evangelical conservatives in Britain, will applaud Dr Williams for a move that they argue is overdue. They will have no difficulty at the next Lambeth Conference in 2008 in signing the covenant, which they will see as a victory for traditional views and a decisive rebuff to moves to liberalise that have so infuriated churches in the southern hemisphere.
The repercussions within the American Church will be profound. It is already deeply split between liberals who supported the ordination of Gene Robinson and conservatives who saw the nomination of an openly gay bishop as anathema. The liberals are eager to show that they are not iso- lated, however, and have changed their name to the Episcopal Church to cement links with some 16 other Anglican communities worldwide. They will, if they leave the orbit of Canterbury, be seen as a rival Anglican communion — and at bitter odds with conservatives in America, who will side with Canterbury.
A question that arises, but has rightly played little part in the theological debate, is money. The US Church is rich, and underwrites much of the budget of Anglicans in Africa and the developing world. That, and ownership of American church buildings, is a matter now for lawyers to settle.
Dr Williams has not ended the agonising over homosexuality, an issue that has become an emotive yardstick of all “liberal” attitudes that still divide Anglicans. But he has shown the leadership essential for any primate. This has come at some cost to his own liberal instincts. But he understands that his office must come first. There may yet still be time for reconciliation. If not, at least he has given the Church clarity and genuine leadership.